Touring Matera is like experiencing a forgotten past - you feel as though you are setting foot in a nativity scene when you visit this charming city in Lucania. It’s no coincidence it’s referred to as the second Bethlehem, and was the setting for Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew). In the 1950’s when the inhabitants who lived in the grottos dug out of the mountain were forced to abandon those dwellings to settle in modern districts, no one would have ever thought that those grottos - the Sassi - would have become the symbol of a reborn city. UNESCO added the Sassi of Matera to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1993, as a whole and millennial way of life to be preserved and handed down to our descendents. In fact, it was recognized as a model for living harmoniously with the environment while integrating with it and taking advantage of resources without disturbing the environment.

The People of the Sassi

Geologists call it calcarenite and common folk refer to it as tuff: It’s the rock surrounding Matera that this land’s master craftsmen learned to work with in ancient times. This friable, adaptable material is abundant in the mountain that dominates the city, so it seemed only natural for the people from Matera to go up there and dig out that rock to build a home in it. The material that was extracted was processed to make the façade of the dwelling.

Historical Center. Photo by: ValerioMei /

After the first home, others were built until there was a network of houses, tunnels and alleyways passing over and in each other to become that magic place called Sassi - a gigantic sculpture, a miracle of town planning that has been recognized as a World Heritage Site. Since then, several efforts have been made to restore them. Today a visit of the Sassi is a true journey into the past of these people.

Maria Santissima della Bruna Cathedral. Photo by: Emily Marie Wilson /

However, Matera is not just the Sassi. In fact the city encompasses several areas associated with different eras. The oldest one is in the Civita district, which due to its morphology, can be considered a natural fortress. The area is also home to the Romanesque Duomo or Cathedral, built c. 1268-1270 on the acropolis. It houses many works of art including a Byzantine Madonna from the 13th century called Madonna della Bruna. The Medieval Renaissance section is located along il Piano or plain, on the outskirts of the Sassi. Matera has many churches from the 13th-19th centuries, with a large Baroque group, S. Giovanni, S. Domenico and the duomo being the oldest.

Il Parco della Murgia

Church of Santa Maria De Idris. Photo by: Francesco Bonino /

In some way, Matera is the symbol of a rural civilization that has been able to keep its traditions alive. The most significant expression of rural art developed in the area of Matera is in the many churches dug out of the tuff, which often times are frescoed. They are scattered around the Murgia plateau or encompassed within the urban fabric of the Sassi of Matera.

Food and Wine

Matera bread

The area's enogastronomic traditions vary; well-known items include bread and pasta products made with famous durum wheat from Matera. Bread is also often used to prepare dishes such as cialledda calda, with eggs, bay leaves, garlic and olives on cooked bread, and cialledda fredda, made with bread moistened with tomatoes and garlic. Local wine, Doc Matera, is also good and is made in several areas throughout the region using Aglianico, Sangiovese, Primitivo and Greco varieties, and Malvasia grapes from Basilicata.

Artisan Goods

Statue of artisan

Artisans still create small, unique masterpieces according to ancient secrets, using wood, tuff, papier-mâché and clay. Carpenters and engravers make furniture and objects that are typical of farm civilizations such as chests and wooden spoons. Ceramic artists make jugs, cups and a unique flask called a cuccù, which is made with multi-colored terra-cotta.

Celebration of Madonna della Bruna

This ancient event can’t be missed. It has been uninterruptedly celebrated on July 2 since 1380, when Pope Urban VI, the former bishop of Matera, ordered the event. Celebrations begin with the procession of the shepherds, which accompanies a picture of the Madonna along the town’s main roads. After celebrating Holy Mass in the cathedral, the 18th-century statue of the Madonna della Bruna is hoisted on a cart, which is created each year by a local artist, and is escorted by horsemen in costume. The cart is then attacked and destroyed in a few seconds by a large crowd, when everyone tries in any way possible to get a piece of the cart, which is supposed to bring good luck for an entire year. Celebrations conclude with fireworks that light up the Sassi and the Murgia grottos.

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