Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Caves, Culture and Cuisine: Marvellous Matera

Last Saturday lunchtime, following a morning of absolute CHAOS teaching a group of young children in a local primary school, myself and my wonderful man made a break for it, and headed away from our little town for the weekend. Our destination? One of the oldest towns in Italy: Matera.

Matera is famous for its stone houses, or 'sassi', that are built into the rock face and have been inhabited for thousands of years. While the town has now become a glittering gem of the region of Basilicata, it wasn't always this way. The living conditions in these houses were cramped and dire, as 10 or 11 people (there were around 20,000 in total in the sassi) would usually live a small 'house' (which was more like a cave) and share their living space with animals. They had no heat or sanitation, and if that situation wasn't bad enough, they also used to conserve the animal excrement to use as fuel. Pongy or what??

 You may be thinking that, OK, hundreds of years ago this may have been a rather 'normal' situation for poor and working class citizens, but unbelievably, this was the situation in the 1930s and 1940s. This extreme poverty here was finally brought to light during this period, and Matera and its sassi became a huge embarrassment for Italy. In the 1950s a relocation programme was put into action, with sassi-dwellers being moved to newer, less dirty and disease-ridden parts of town. For a long time the caves remained abandoned, but in the 80s, a revival truly began, as the stone houses were bought, and re-modelled into cool cafes, bars, restaurants and B&Bs. In fact, in 1993 the town of Matera actually became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now if that isn't an impressive turnaround, I don't know what is!

OK, history lesson ends here! Myself and my man were gobsmacked at the former living conditions in the sassi, and paid a few euros to enter one that had been decked out in 1930s style- fake horse and all (Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario). We listened to a guide talk about the dwelling, and made several appalled expressions at some of the animal excrement comments that were mentioned.

See that room at the back? Yep, that was where the smelly stuff was kept...
But what impressed us the most, was the sheer beauty of these sassi; looking out over the rock face at all of these small caves, especially when they were lit up at night, was just incredible. There were plenty of viewpoints to stop at, as we explored the winding streets and passageways of this historic town, so we managed to get plenty of great photos.

Our B&B was called Alle Malve and was located on Via Bruno Buozzi, right in the centre of the sassi. The owner was helpful and accommodating, as she gave us an easy to follow map and, the following day, a lovely breakfast of homemade cake and biscuits, as well as the standard coffee and croissant. Despite being located in an actual stone cave, the bedroom wasn't at all humid; in fact, it was lovely and warm.

On Saturday night we had hoped to eat at local restaurant 'Il Pico', which my lovely friend Ali ( had recommended to me after she and her hubby had dined there during their stay in Matera. However, we couldn't get in as it was full, so instead we headed to 'Soul Kitchen'; a wonderful little place located in one of the sassi, where you can enjoy local dishes and very good service. We tucked into a chef's speciality plate of antipasti, which included local burrata cheese, radish and mushroom salad and a strange (but absolutely delicious) baked ricotta dish. We then followed it with a primo of pasta with sausage and mushrooms. The wine was also local, and of good quality, as we didn't suffer from any form of headache the next day!

Delicious anipasti
On Sunday morning we went for another stroll around the town, and also checked out the Museo d'arte Contemporanea and the Chiesa di San Pietro, before stopping for a very tasty coffee at Kiev Cafe on Via Bruno Buozzi.

Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso
Our trip to Matera, albeit brief, was simply fantastic. What an incredible place, and only about 2 hours from where we are in the province of Foggia. As well as the delicious food, warm hospitality and unbelievable history, this is also the place where Mel Gibson shot his film The Passion of the Christ. If it's good enough for him....


  1. That's so interesting, I wonder what the residents themselves thought when they were taken away from their homes. Would you be sad or just incredibly happy to get away from the excrement? From the photo of the bedroom, it looks quite pleasant - I actually thought that that was where you stayed at first! xxx
    La Lingua : Food, Life, Love, Travel, Friends, Italy

    1. Actually, a lot of them jumped at the chance to be 'taken away'- the government basically funded their move and gave them a new house. Some wanted to stay though- clearly the thought of leaving the excrement behind was just too emotional! :D The bedroom DOES actually look ok doesn't it?? But then you think of the horse standing about 6 feet away, and the fact that 11 people lived in that little space... I think 'cramped' would definitely be an understatement! :D Thanks for dropping by again Lucy! Buona giornata! xxx

  2. I love a good history lesson! Looks like a really wondrous place! I will put it on my list of places to visit, for sure! Thanks for the tips! :D <3

  3. Hey that's a really beautiful and interesting experience! I didn't know all these details about Sassi of Matera! t think I'll take inspiration for a post on my GaddersBlog :)