Matera is one of the two provinces of Basilicata. Overlooking the Ionian sea to the east, it borders with the Apulia Region to the north (specifically, the Provinces of Bari and Taranto), the Province of Potenza to the west, and Calabria (Province of Cosenza) to the south.
Geographically, it is divided in two parts: a plains area (Metapontino) and a hilly area (Matera), where the climate is colder than on the plain, often snowing during winter.
The Province includes two wildlife national parks: the San Giuliano National Park, including the artificial lake bearing the same name, important area for bird nidification; and the Pantano of Policoro Woods, a WWF Oasis.
Also in this territory are the environmental-monumental zone of the Calanchi (Badlands, clay formation deeply eroded by the water, creating furrows, crevices, pointed crests and small valleys), the Natural Park of Gallipoli Cognato – Small Dolomites of Lucania, and a small portion of the National Park of Pollino. And, saving the best for last, Matera's SassiMatera: The Sassi and Rupestrian Churches are enchanting to all: houses stacked one on top of the other and united by tortuous roads and wide staircases, they are literally built inside the rock and mountain tuff. Such a wonder led to the Sassi's being named an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the "Sassi di Matera" (meaning "stones of Matera"), reason enough for a visit to Basilicata.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, the Sassi are houses stacked one on top of the other (similarly to terraced vineyards, for example) and linked by tiny, narrow streets and wide stairways. Inhabited since Antiquity and up until the last century, they feature brickwork facades, while the interiors are entirely dug into the rock.
The word Sassi refers to, in this case, “inhabited rock districts,” used since the Middle Ages to indicate the two districts that rose up around the original ancient city, the Civita. It occupies the two karstic basins that overlook the precipices of the Gravina Valley: the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso.
Apart from the houses, the architectural landscape spans a number of churches, themselves dug into the rocks as well. The little rupestrian Church of Santa Lucia delle Malve, founded by a Benedictine community around the 8th Century, is worth a visit, as well as the Church of the Madonna of Idris, leading to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterrone, or the four rupestrian churches of the Convicinio of Sant'Antonio. The Sasso Barisano hosts the Church of San Pietro Barisano, one of the principle churches of Matera; the Church of Madonna delle Virtù, part of a very ancient monastery;and the Church of Sant'Agostino, built in 1591 in the Baroque.
Matera's Romanesque Duomo was built in 1268-70. Palazzo Lanfranchi, rather, harks back to the city's 17th-Century architecture, while various museums include the Domenico Ridola National Archaeological Museum, the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture of Matera (MUSMA).
The Archaeological Historical and Natural Park of the Rupestrian Churches of the Materano can be found in Matera's environs, exhibiting more than 160 rupestrian churches, three Neolithic villages (Serra d'Alto, Timmari and Murgia Timone), and many prehistoric tombs.
In the southeastern area of Matera lie many beautiful towns like Montescaglioso, with its wonderful Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo; Miglionico, with its Castle of Malconsiglio; Bernalda, with its 15th-Century castle. Finally, Tricarico, Grassano, Irsina and Ferrandina are all abundant with monuments to see.
Moving further south, we reach the suggestive Calanchi (Badlands) area, with white clay hills, pinnacles, cones and small canyons carved by sun and rain. In this area the, uninhabited village of Craco is quite intriguing, with numerous historical places, including a castle and a group of houses on the rock, with tiny, stairs and small piazzas behind. Continuing on the tour, we find the village of Tursi, with its Rabatana district, the ruins of the Castle and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore of Rabatana, and the Church of Santa Maria d'Anglona nearby.
The coast fronting the Ionic Sea, the only plains area of the Province, is rich in archaeological ruins, given that it was one of the main centers of Magna Graecia. In particular, the archaeological area of Metaponto deserves a visit, with ruins that include the temple in Doric-archaic style, dedicated to the goddess Hera, called Tavole Palatine; the Temple of Apollo in Doric style; the Ionic temple dedicated to Aphrodite, built around 470 B.C,; the ancient agora and theatre; and the National Archaeological Museum of Metaponto, a trove boasting many more archaeological finds.
The last stop is Policoro, with its Castle, Archaeological Park with yet more Greek ruins, and the National Museum of Siritide.
Matera has many wildlife reserves, ideal for excursions in discovery of the lush vegetation and rich local fauna: trekking trips, cycling and horseback riding.
The wildlife reserves of Bosco Pantano and Policoro, for example, are certified paradises for birdwatching and photography lovers. Here one can find numerous bird species, such as the western marsh-harrier, the cormorant, the waterhen, the white heron, the grey heron and the coleopteran. The Natural Park of Gallipoli Cognato-Small Lucanian Dolomites is reportedly one of the best birdwatching spots, and here it is common to see eagles, buzzards, kestrels, peregrine falcons, barn owls, owls and hoot owls, as well as mammals like wild pigs, wolves, foxes, badgers, porcupines, wildcats, hares, hedgehogs, dormouses, squirrels, weasels, stone martens and, in river flows, otters.
Quite rare is the Hermann's Tortoise, a small turtle with a yellow spotted shell that lives very close to the clearing and to the maquis.
Matera is an excellent choice for a vacation by the sea, with its 18.6 mi of coast on the Ionian Sea, made up of ample fields of maquis that line expansive stretches of sand. Policoro, Metaponto and Pisticci are three principal seaside resorts.
The cuisine of Matera has much in common with the neaby Region of Apulia: orecchiette (ear-shaped handmade pasta) prepared with fresh tomato or with turnip tops, broccoli, cauliflower or with breadcrumb and sultana grapes.
In this Province, peperoncino (hot pepper) is widely used (as in Calabria) and goes by at least three different names: diavulicchiu, frangisello, and cerasella.
Another typical dish is the cotto di fichi (cooked figs), a kind of cream made with boiled and dried figs. (The dish changes slightly if using prickly pears instead of figs.) The local Cardoncello mushroom is cooked in different ways or eaten raw with ricotta cheese, lemons and olive oil from Murgia of Matera.
And then the wheat and chickpea soup; the cialled, a type of soup with stale bread, eggs, olives, tomatoes and other vegetables; and other traditional dishes tied to religious events. Typical Easter dishes of Matera are the cardoons with cacio and eggs, the pirc'dduzz (pasta with a mulled wine dressing), and fusilli (particularly in Irsina) with fried breadcrumbs and cooked figs.
In the Metaponto area, fish dishes are very common, e.g. the scapece (fried anchovies marinated with vinegar) and the dried salted cod (baccalà) prepared with peppers. Lamb and sheep are also traditional Provincial dishes. Another typical dish is the gnummaridd, special rolls filled with sheep and kid giblets. One must try the eel as well, with hot peppers, tomatoes, mint and laurel.
Typical cheeses are: ricotta cheese, sheep's milk cheese and burrata (fresh mozzarella and cream cheese). Typical desserts are: figs with honey; pasch'nisch, a September dessert prepared with semolina and mulled must; the cuccìa, a boiled wheat dessert mixed with chocolate, pomegranate, walnuts and mulled wine.
Typical wines are: Val Bradano, Sangiovese, Moscato, Malvasia, and Elixir di noci.