Matera will move you to tears. And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you. In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know about this remote, otherworldly village in the mountains of Basilicata in Southern Italy. (Scroll down for the photos.)
The old part of town is called the Sassi, which translates to “stones” and refers to the sandstone caves that have been carved into the mountainside. Some caves in this village (technically just across the valley) date back to the Stone Age. All the houses in this part of town began as cave dwellings. Around the time of the Renaissance, the inhabitants began extending the size of their caves by adding exterior façades, which is what you see today. The insides of most homes (now also galleries, restaurants, hotels, B&B’s) still look like caves.
In the early 20th century, Matera was considered the shame of Italy. Disease was rampant. Poverty was extreme. Education was nonexistent. Life was hopeless. During World War II, the fascist regime sent their political prisoners here to live because it was worse than any prison. After the war, the new government eventually relocated everyone.
The Sassi of Matera became UNESCO’s first protected “landscape” in Western Europe. Thus the hauntingly beautiful skyline and exterior façades of the Sassi can never be altered. Wealthy Romans, Neapolitans and Milanese are now buying up the old cave dwellings and restoring them as vacation homes.
The food here is fantastic. Slow food. Locavore. The bread is considered by many to be the best in Italy. The five most important things to sample here are the bread, the pizza, the grilled lamb (a mixed plate consisting of several different cuts and offal), the dried red chillies and the orrechietti. As for wine, the prized local specialty is a beautiful, powerful, earthy red called aglianico, most of which never leaves Basilicata.
Where to Eat:
1. Ristorante Francesca
This is one of the nicest, most elegant restaurants in town specializing in strictly local Lucanian cuisine (Basilicata was formerly known as Lucania) in a beautifully restored split-level cave on the back side of the Sassi. What to order: Outstanding hand-rolled pasta with dried local red chillies. Mixed grill of lamb.
2. Il Terrazzino (Vico San Giuseppe, 7)
Nevermind the outrageously gruff old waiters with zero patience for English. The views of the Sassi are astonishing, and the wood-fired pizzas are excellent. What to order: Margherita pizza, local melon and prosciutto.
3. Pizzeria Sant’Agostino (Via D’Addozio 6/8)
Possibly the best pizza in town. Located in a multi-level cave on the main street running through the center of the lower Sassi. What to order: Pizza with local red chillies, tomatoes and mozzarella.
4. Il Cantuccio (via delle Beccherie, 33)
This tiny, ultra-cramped trattoria is located on top of the hill in the part of town that was once part of the walled city during the Renaissance. Fantastic local wines. Handmade pastas. There are only 10 tables. Reserve several days in advance. What to order: Orrechiette, the best in town, hands down. Also, braised rabbit.
5. Baccanti (via Sant’Angelo 58/61)
This is the town’s most avant-garde restaurant with the biggest, deepest wine cellar (which occupies an entire cave of its own). Expect a few molecular tricks and surprises. You’ll want to get dressed up for this one. What to order: Chef’s tasting menu paired with wines; foie gras with wild raspberry mostarda; salt-crusted branzino.
Where to Stay:
1. Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
Far and away the best cave hotel in Matera. Nobody else comes close to offering the chilling authenticity of the Sassi. Ultra-luxurious, yet starkly, shockingly rustic. Sublime breakfast. Impeccable service. Fewer than 20 rooms.
2. Hotel Sant’Angelo
This is the most contemporary restoration of Matera’s luxury cave dwellings, yet its 23 rooms still feel decidedly rustic. Located in the heart of the Sassi’s bustling center.
3. Corte San Pietro
An incredibly private option on the backside of the Sassi, this 5-room micro hotel is chic and exclusive.
4. Locanda di San Martino
A comfortable mix of ancient and contemporary. Thirty-three rooms. Not quite luxurious, but comfortable and perfectly located in the heart of the Sassi.
5. Palazzo Gattini
If you prefer to experience Matera from the perspective of former nobility instead of the peasants, the best hotel in town is the 20-room former palazzo of the House of Gattini.
More Luxury Travel on Food Republic: