Strike up the bands! We’re talking about marching bands drawn from 131 villages in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, joined by 10 bands from elsewhere in Italy and Europe. They filled the squares, alleyways and courtyards citywide for the colorful opening ceremonies on Jan. 19 saluting Matera, 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe (a twin-bill with Polvdiv, Bulgaria).
Basilicata shares the “boot” of Italy with Puglia—the relatively new darling of Italian tourism—and the jewel in its crown is Matera, one of the oldest—at least 9,000 years—continually occupied places in the world. Like Cappadocia in Turkey, Matera is famous for her hundreds of ancient sassi caves, which earned the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Carved into the limestone cliffs that rise up from the Gravina River valley, they served as people’s dwellings until as late as the mid-20th century, when impoverished cave dwellers were moved into new quarters in modern Matera. Then starting in the 1980s, people began to move back in, renovating their former cave quarters, converting many into restaurants, bars and stunning cave hotels, and with a lot of extra tender-loving, cultural-capital care, turning Matera into a unique urban beauty.
There’s no shortage of reasons why this once-obscure corner of Italy has shot to the top of Europe’s must-visit list this year. Let’s share just a few among many treasures discovered during a recent press trip.
- The Sassi of Matera historically multi-tasked as houses, stables, stone churches, terraces, gardens, tunnels and cisterns. The city’s vast labyrinth of caves is divided into two districts: the Sasso Barisano, the largest, now houses shops, restaurants, hotels and major monuments, and the Sasso Caveoso, the oldest neighborhood, which best preserves the appearance of the cave town. All corners of the historic area are connected by a network of steep, stone-paved passageways and meandering staircases, rewarding visitors with remarkable vistas at every turn: good walking shoes are de rigueur footwear.
- Rupestrian (cave) Churches are the architectural standouts. Starting in the sixth century, but dating mostly to the Middle Ages, you’ll find Greek Orthodox and Latin churches side-by-side, forming a broad community of underground mystical places. Dug into the rocks, adjoining chambers are fitted with altars, crypts and chapels, their walls still adorned with luminous frescoes. Opening hours vary by season: in winter, we were early up and out of town to explore Madonna delle Tre Porte, one of 150 cave churches within the Murgia National Park overlooking Matera. Above ground there is no shortage of historic houses of worship. The most commanding is the hilltop Cathedral, dating to the 13th century, with a basilica housing numerous treasures, from a beautifully carved wooden choir to a great high altar and luminous frescoes. Earlier history lies beneath the Cathedral, where excavations have unearthed waves of occupation: 3,000-year-old ceramics, Greek and Byzantine coins, Roman houses and early Christian coffins.
- Museums abound. Essential is the Archaeological Museum of Domenico Ridola, displaying artifacts from the Neolithic era to the Middle Ages, including objects dating back centuries when the region was a Greek colony; most spectacular and housed in the 16th century Palazzo Pomarici is Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, whose works of art share the space with atmospherically illuminated caves. Contemporary also and scattered around public plazas are fancifully sculpted works by Salvador Dali, one of many art happenings on tap during Matera’s cultural-capital year.
Sleeping in the Sassi is an essential experience, as indeed this visitor did, first at very well-located Locanda di San Martino & Thermae Romanae (locandadisanmartino.it), whose 28 unique rooms and suites—with vaulted ceilings and balconies with Old Town views—are set carefully and cozily into restored cave dwellings. Rates here include WiFi and excellent breakfasts daily, charges are extra for use of the spa’s indoor pool with hydro-massage, sauna and Turkish bath. More high-styled—if slightly less traditional—is the Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa (aquatiohotel.com); opened last summer with 35 white-everything, cave guestrooms with all modern amenities, plus a nice restaurant serving traditional dishes, plus spa and pool set into a ninth century subterranean chamber.
- Discover more of Basilicata, taking a wide swing north from Matera en-route back to Puglia. First stop: Two of southern Italy’s most historic and enchanting villages, Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano, spill down craggy mountainsides of the stunning Lucanian Dolomites; connecting both is a highwire zipline called “Flight of the Angel.” Continue to Potenza, basing yourself at the four-star Hotel Grande Albergo (grandealbergopotenza.it) and getting your historical bearings at the Regional Archaeological Museum. Then drive out for a day of vineyard touring and tasting the distinguished Aglianico del Vulture (DOC) wines in the cellars of Barile and Rionero villages. The next day, head for my favorite town, Venosa, once an important Roman settlement, now home to beautiful palaces and churches: the blockbuster attraction is the Abby of the Holy Trinity complex. And from here, it’s a short distance to the Puglia border.
Puglia’s city of Bari is the most convenient air gateway to Matera, an hour’s drive away, and an hour-and-a-half from Potenza. Europe specialists such as Select Italy (selectitaly.com) and Avanti Destinations (avantidestinations.com) offer packages to Matera; Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com) has designed a luxury, 6-day walking tour: Puglia to Matera, with departures on May 14, Sept. 3, Oct. 1.
Get to know Matera and view its year-long Capital of Culture program of special events at matera-basilicata2019.it.