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Matera

Basilicata, Italy

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You’ve probably already visited Matera. Via the medium of 007.

 

In the opening of ‘No Time to Die’, Daniel Craig takes a spin or two around the square in his Aston, is a big hit with the locals, makes 'that leap' on his motorbike and is well and truly blown away by the place.

 

So, I made it my mission to uncover something of the real, un-hyped Matera, arriving, not by DB5, but on the No. 35 bus from Bari airport.

 

After a short trundle through truly unremarkable suburbs, you suddenly arrive at one of the Belvedere, looking out over the Sassi di Matera. The ground drops away dramatically to reveal a natural amphitheatre and townscape that could be Biblical. Your jaw will drop too. 

Beige is the only hue in town

So, it’s all the more remarkable that Matera isn’t a big hitter on the tourist trail. Unlike the classics on the Grand Tour, Matera only just made it onto the map very recently. Which is ironic for somewhere laying claim to be the third oldest continuously occupied city on Earth. There’s evidence of the first Palaeolithic Airbnb tenants checking in to Matera’s caves as long as 12 millennia ago.

It seems for a long time Matera was the shame of Italy. It was declared officially unfit for modern habitation in the 20th Century. Families still lived in the caves with their animals, without power or water, blighted by malaria, typhoid, cholera, illiteracy, child mortality, Fox News, you name it. In 1950, Italy’s Prime Minister made a motivational visit. And promptly closed the whole place down, shipping the inhabitants en masse to faceless modern accommodation in the new town.

 

The Sassi languished; empty, unloved and utterly without direction. Until three decades later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ian Schrager coined the term ‘boutique hotel’. Soon, canny locals figured out all those cold, empty, uninviting caves could be coining it in as atmospheric, minimalist and evocative ‘boutique suites’. In a flurry of whitewash, tea lights and free-standing baths, the city renewed itself.

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A dusting of uncharacteristic colour

And thank Shrager it did, as there’s so much to love here. I got to day 3 of my visit before clocking that ‘Sassi’ was the plural form of ‘Sasso’ (meaning rock, appropriately). I’d spent my time happily uncovering the Sasso Barisano, blissfully unaware that just over the ridge was the Sasso Caveoso. Bond completed his whistle stop tour of both in about 2 minutes. But, as you’ll have gathered, I prefer to stop, look, photograph, paint, rest, look some more and generally soak up the colour.

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It all tessellates like a wonky game of Jenga

Mind you, if it’s colour you’re looking for, you’d better love beige! It’s the only hue in town.

 

‘Tufo’ is an anagram of ‘tofu’, and there’s a strong resemblance. The soft and chalky, calcareous rock was hewn out from the hillside in tofu shaped blocks to form the caves, then used as the principle building material for the outside structures. The result is an intertwined tapestry of undulating natural rock and (relatively) disciplined man-made stonework. It all tessellates on a grand scale, like a wonky, organic game of Jenga. 

 

One pleasing detail illustrates how well Matera’s renaissance has been managed. Every sign for every competing café, hotel, restaurant and restored cave dwelling is the same; rusty corten steel, with lettering cut-out and backlit. It unifies and harmonises so well against the beige backdrop. And the usual garish cacophony of competition is replaced with a discrete ‘trial by typography’.     

This is actually a perfect analogy for the whole visual landscape of the Sassi. A harmony of beige, taupe and rust, punctuated by detail, grain and artfully controlled deterioration.  What the Sassi lack in colour, they more than make up for in texture.

Many of the structures are Tardis like, extending into cavern after cavern, some pokey, some cavernous. You can pay to visit one of the numerous recreations, which are staggering for their authentic portrayal of past living conditions. Definitely no tea lights and free-standing baths back then. But it’s likely many bars, restaurants or hotels you visit will also tunnel back into the tufo. Make a point of going to find the loo, it’s often a bit of an exploration.

 

Many of the churches are similar, existing half in the rock, half out. I’m told they’re all worth a visit, but there are so many, and I prefer to spend my daylight hours actually in daylight.

 

If you’re lucky enough, as I was, to visit Matera when it rains, you’ll appreciate Matera’s plumbing. Tunnelled throughout the tufo, it represents state of the art Neolithic aquatic engineering. The 19th Century Palombaro Lungo, holding five

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What the Sassi lack in colour, they make up for in texture 

million litres, raised the game - and the water table – further still. But the real showstopper is during a cloudburst. Matera basically leaks like a sieve, with projectile geysers cascading out of strategically positioned spouts in every wall. It's one of Matera’s hidden surprises.    

 

After six days hitting the cobbles I felt this remarkable place still had plenty more to hit me with.            

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More Steps, Very Mixed Media

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Skyline. Very Mixed media.

A Few Links and Practicalities

(Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

 

In case it’s not obvious, I’d suggest staying in one of the Sassi, rather than the surrounding town. There may be fewer bars, restaurants and shops, you might struggle to find your accommodation or get your bags there and you might miss some five star trappings. But the atmosphere of being down there amongst the stones more than makes up for it.

 

If you’re staying for more than a night - and I heartily recommend you do – be wary of anything that’s full-on cave. A fine line separates 'atmospheric and romantic' from 'dark and damp'. That stone is like a giant sponge and those caves are sometimes just a dark, damp hole with the only light source being the front door.

   

007's hotel of choice is Sextantio le Grotte della Civita. I fear this breaks my advice above, but it's a no expense spared renovation (which you’re paying handsomely for). It's under-floor heated and Mr Bond and Mr Smith and Mrs Smith recommend it, so…

https://www.sextantio.it/en/legrottedellacivita/matera/

 

Look at L’Hotel in Pietra

 

I stayed in San Giovanni Vecchio Residenza, which is atmospheric (and dry) stone buildings, rather than caves.  It has designer styling and a cute roof terrace.

 

Food wise, I recommend Osteria MateraMì.  

 

Austin Pizza for… their pizza.  And their commodious cavern if it’s a day for dining inside.

 

Also Giù a Sud, which is perhaps a slightly more hip option.

 

If you fancy a light dose of archaeology, this video is entertaining and educational.  And he agrees with me about the beige.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r236Sz7kvEE

 

If you want a quick dose of Bond to set the mood, this shows Matera off quite well. The bridge bit is shot nearby in Gravina in Puglia 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iIO3qG1E_0

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Don’t miss;

Sunset drinks invariably found me at Hotel Sassi.  Great views across the Sasso, as the otherwise beige buildings take on the slight tint of Campari.

 

Palombaro Lungo; about as evocative as underground water storage gets

 

Murgia Materana Park; for views across to Matera from the hills opposite.  A hike!

I Vizi degli Angeli. Claiming to be the best gelateria in the world. An affugato here just might change your life. 

 

Anything with the word Belvedere in the name

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