Matera. The name sounds like a place you should know, but you just don’t. Well surprise, surprise, Matera is Italy’s newest, hottest tourist destination. Thanks to being named a European Capital of Culture in 2019, Matera is on the travel radar, but, at least for now, still retains lots of Italian character and charm! Dan and I spent too few days here in September 2019. This is our trip report for those planning a similar trip!
MATERA – AN ANCIENT ITALIAN CITTÀ.
As an initial matter, Matera looks like a city straight out of ancient times. Think a hilly town with white cobblestone streets and buildings built right into caves in its white rock hills. Its honestly gorgeous, and it reminded us a lot of Petra, Jordan! Matera is built into two canyons carved by the Gravina River. People built homes into the canyons and that’s how the town came to be. The two canyons are referred to the Sassi of Matera, and the Sassi are gorgeous! As Matera looks so ancient and is so pretty, a number of films have been made here. The most famous of such movies is Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (which I’ve never seen).
Although Matera is a current hot spot, that has not always been the case; Matera has a tough past. It was evacuated in 1952 due to poverty and disease and totally abandoned thereafter. Luckily people eventually moved back in and it’s now the lovely city it is today. Currently, Matera is known for gorgeous scenery and delicious wine and food, and I’m sure other things that we unfortunately missed. My parting opinion of Matera is that its an old school Southern Italian town, with a really cool influx of young, hip businesses, that I would have loved to have spent more time in.
WHERE IS MATERA?
Matera is in southern Italy. It’s technically in Basilicata, Italy, but it’s right on the border of Puglia, making it an interesting pairing with tourists en route to the coast. Materia is about 5 hours south of Rome and only about 1 hour from Bari and Polignano al Mare (there is a map below).
WHAT TO DO IN MATERA
There’s probably a lot more to do in Matera than we did, but our main activity was touring the Sassi. The Sassi are quite different than any other party of Italy that I’ve seen. One can spend a few hours walking though the Sassi, popping into cafes, grabbing gelato, and taking all of the pictures. Be sure to hit a couple of the view points (designated on town maps) to get the best pictures. Lots of companies also offer tours of the area if you are looking for a more guided experience.
A small Dalí museum, called Dalí Matera – La persistenza degli opposti, was open in Matera during our visit. The museum was located in the Sassi and had a fantastic collection of Dalí art, both indoor and outdoor. We thought it was more than worth the pricey entrance fee, but then again, Dan loves Dalí. There is a Dalí sculpture totally outside of the museum if you don’t have time for the museum.
Aside from the Sassi, the modern part of Matera is true old school Italian. Gorgeous, cool, and filled with lots of shops and restaurants. I actually thought this area looked more fun than the Sassi, but I’m probably alone in that opinion. I wish we had had more time to spend in the modern town. I guess we’ll just have to go back = )
WHERE WE ATE IN MATERA
I had really high hopes for the Matera food scene, but, unfortunately, our meals were in Matera were not the best of our trip. Maybe we went to the wrong restaurants, maybe we just don’t love this style of food compared with other Italian regions? Definitely more than edible, just not our favorite! In any case, for those visiting, here’s a run down on where we ate.
Our first evening our hotel made us a reservation at La Talpa, since our first couple options were “booked.” La Talpa was just across from our hotel, so I’m not sure if everything was indeed booked on a Monday night… La Talpa also gets mediocre reviews on the various websites, so I was not thrilled. Our dinner, however, was pretty good, and I am not totally opposed to returning. I ordered pizza with the local Lucian sausage and Dan went with the Lucian sausage platter. We also started with an eggplant dish. I think the pizza was both our favorite. I would also note that we ate indoors, and this was the only place police came in to check our vaccine cards against our passports. That was kind of wild and took a bit longer than it should have…I guess that’s Southern Italy.
Our second dinner was at Trattoria del Caveoso, my choice. We did not have a reservation, but showed up and waited about 30 minutes on a Tuesday night. At Trattoria del Caveoso, I ordered the local Orecchiette alla Materana, which is orecchiette pasta in a red sauce with mushrooms and local sausage. Dan also went with a local pasta called the Paccheri del Casaro, which was pasta with caciocavallo creme cheese, pistachios and crushed red peppers. We ordered peperoni cruschi, or crunchy local red peppers, on the side. While certainly edible, we both left wondering how this place gets such good reviews online. A fellow diner made the same remarks. Perhaps they were having a bad night or we mis-ordered, but I was not feeling the hype.
We grabbed sandwiches when we first arrived in Matera at a tiny snack and drink shop called Madame Bracco close to our hotel. While basic, the sandwiches were good, but not what I expect of a sandwich in Italy. In sum, I guess we were just not impressed with the Matera food scene. Someone please tell me where to eat when we go back!
WHAT TO DRINK IN MATERA
On the drinks front, we had much better luck! First up, our hotel, The Palazzotto Residence & Winery owns a winery about 75 minutes into Basilicata from the hotel. I was sad that we did not have enough time to visit! On arrival, they generously let us try their two most tannic reds. The wines were quite good! Had we not purchased so much wine in Montefalco, we would have brought some home.
As you will recall, on arrival we stopped for drinks and sandwiches at Madame Bracco. While the sandwiches were ok, my Spritz Aperol was great! No complaints there. Dan ordered a small birra alla spina (on tap!) to compliment his 5 euro sandwich.
Our favorite drink experience was at cocktail bar Area Otto. I read about this place online, so we went for drinks one evening. Luckily they squeezed us in without a reservation, and this was a Tuesday night (make a reservation). Area Otto has really cool and well made cocktails in a quirky environment. My favorite was Dan’s Butterfly Effect, which changed color (its the video below)!
WHERE WE STAYED
One thing I absolutely loved about our visit to Matera, our hotel!! We stayed at the lovely Palazzotto Residence and Winery, which is one of the nicer properties in town. Located in the Sassi, Palazzotto rents individual rooms around its main office in the Sassi, leaving you to actually stay in one of the old dwellings in town and feel like a local. Our room was amazing with great views, and also all the amenities of a nice hotel – great shower, comfortable bed, strong AC and wifi, and even an outdoor area. Highly recommend this hotel.
Palazzotto’s main office was a 3 minute walk from our room. The staff there was super helpful and put our a lovely breakfast spread each morning. The breads and the DIY bruschetta were two of my favorites! Palazzotto also has an impressive bar with their own wine, lots of local liquors, and copper glasses with wings!
HOW TO GET TO MATERA
Materia is kind of located in the middle of nowhere – on the border of Basilicata and Puglia in central Southern Italy. There are no large train stations or international airports close. As such, the easiest way to reach Matera is by car. Given its location, its not out of the way for travelers between Rome or the Amalfi Coast and Puglia. Matera is also just over an hour from Bari and Northern Puglia, so an option is to train or fly into Bari and then drive to Matera.
There is a local train in and around Matera called the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane that apparently goes all the way to Bari. We did not use the train and instead hired a driver to drive us from Matera to Gravina on our day trip. There are also bus services, both long and short haul, serving Matera.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING MATERA
First, the Sassi are hilly and all the streets are cobblestone, and cars cannot drive into the Sassi unless they obtain police approval a few days in advance. As such, be prepared to walk a lot with your luggage unless you have confirmed the car situation perfectly. Along those lines, you do not want to drive in Matera. It’s a nightmare.
To explore the Sassi, many companies offer tours on foot and on little trains. I would definitely recommend the train if you have any mobility issues.
Restaurants book up in the high season, even during the summer of 2021. Make reservations in advance.
There are wine regions around Matera. We say a company offering tours from Matera from the surrounding regions. We did not take the tour, but it looked very fun.
More people spoke English than I expected, but not everyone. A few Italian words will go far.
DAY TRIPS FROM MATERA
We visited Gravina in Puglia from Matera for a day trip. The ride was about 30 minutes via car each way. Gravina is where some of the new James Bond movie was filmed (the big bridge!). We didn’t visit for the bridge though – we visited for the Botromagno winery! We loved their wine and highly recommend a visit and tasting if you are in the area. Winebow imports their wine to the US if you are interested.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Palazzotto Residence & Winery: Via Sette Dolori, 39, Accesso da Via Fiorentini – Rione Sasso Barisano, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
Dalí Matera – La persistenza degli opposti: Via Madonna delle Virtù, 75100 Matera MT, Italy.
La Talpa: Via Fiorentini, 167, 75100 Matera MT, Italy. Reservations recommended and can be made online. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday at lunch. Open otherwise 12:00 – 15:00 and 19:00 – 23:00.
Trattoria del Caveoso: Via Bruno Buozzi, 21, 75100 Matera MT, Italy. Closed Wednesday. Open Thursday – Tuesday 12:30 – 15:00 and 19:30 – 23:00. Reservations recommended.
Madame Bracco: Via Sant’Antonio Abate, 9, 75100 Matera MT, Italy. Open daily until 1:00.
Area Otto: Via Casalnuovo, 15, 75100 Matera MT, Italy. Closed Monday and Thursday. Open otherwise 19:00 – 2:00. Reservations recommended during busy times.
Botromagno Agricultural Society: Via Archimede, 24, 70024 P.i.p.-zona Artigianale BA, Italy. Visits can be booked online.
ON A BUDGET
Matera is a decent budget option, especially if you have the time to take public transportation to and around Matera (private cars are expensive). Stay in the old town and eat at some of the less expensive restaurants, which are everywhere. One pro for Matera on a budget, its best “sites” are the town itself and therefore, free!