Matera - An Immersive Journey into the Past

July 15, 2019

With its designation as the European Capital of Culture 2019, Matera is one of Italy’s most exciting destinations. On a trip sponsored by ENIT (Italian National Tourist Board) and the Region of Basilicata, I explored a place where prehistoric cave dwellings teetering on the edge of a canyon have caught the attention of travellers in search of an immersive journey into the past.  

Located in the arch of Italy’s foot, Matera is the third oldest inhabited city in the world, parts of which are a protected UNESCO site. The city is famed for its network of 7,000-year-old Sassi - cave dwellings carved into limestone - that have been transformed into galleries, restaurants, Airbnb, homes, and stylish cave hotels like the newly-opened 35 room Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa. 

“Matera is experiencing a Renaissance,” said Paolo Verri, the Director of Fondazione Matera Basilicata 2019. “Tourism has grown from 99,000 visitors to over 490,000 in only three short years.” This number continues to grow with Matera’s year-long calendar of cultural programs that kicked off on January 19th with 2,019 musicians from all over Europe and dozens of local marching bands that made their way around the city’s ancient candlelit streets.

Over 600 events, 83 projects, more than 50 original cultural productions, and 5 great exhibitions showcasing 800 artists and cultural operators from around the world are planned for Matera 2019, aided by 1,000 ground volunteers to foster an interactive experience between tourists and locals. 

Visitors can partake in social eating events like Mammamiaaa that celebrates food and relationships, as well as watch outdoor theatres and operas. For €19 they can purchase a temporary citizen passport and receive a visitor’s kit, maps and complete access to 365-days of experiences. Visit

“Our project on temporary citizenship is a concept we have fully adopted and that is included in the strategic plan for national tourism,” continued Paolo Verri. “We’d like Matera to not only be a tourist destination, but also a meeting point around which building an ongoing dialogue between its citizens and its visitors to exchange ideas, experiences and traditions.”

The Sassi are divided into two ancient neighbourhoods - the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso - that appear like an open-air museum. Travellers can roam the labyrinth-like narrow alleyways and witness a place so out of time that it has served as the ancient Holy Land in films such as Ben-Hur, The Passion of the Christ, Wonder Woman and most recently, the filming of the yet to be released James Bond movie. Atop the Sassi - literally “the stones” - lay impressive buildings, churches and pretty piazzas where Matera’s wealthy families once lived. 

A precursor to exploring the Sassi themselves should be Casa Noha. This fascinating 25-minute multimedia exhibit provides visitors with a deeper understanding of Matera’s history of grandeur and the dire poverty and squalor of the Sassi dwellers, which in the 1950s were denounced as the ‘Shame of Italy.’ To see what a real peasant dwelling was like, visit Casa Grotta. 

More than 25% of Matera’s housing stock is now available to rent on Airbnb, more than anywhere else in Italy according to the University of Siena. Airbnb recently awarded Matera and its Region, Basilicata, the Airbnb Community Tourism Programme, and has invested €100,000 to work with the region on several initiatives involving local community and travellers to promote sustainable tourism and offer innovative opportunities to the territory. 

“The visitors of the European Capital of Culture will live in Matera homes and for some days (or more) they will become locals, experiencing unexpected activities linked to the history of Matera’s citizens – whose hospitality is well known. Thanks to the funds we’ll invest in promoting Basilicata’s inland too, made of small villages where it is possible to enjoy sustainable tourism through authentic experiences,” concluded Paolo Verri. 

There are many things to see and do in the surrounding region of Basilicata. In the picturesque town of Bernalda is legendary director Francis Ford Coppola’s 19th century Palazzo Margherita. This 7-suite boutique property is one of six hotels that are part of Family Coppola Hideaways. If staying there is not an option, take a cooking class for the day or sip a cocktail at the hotel’s Cinecittà bar lined with images of famed actors. 

Basilicata is also home to many vineyards. At Basilisco and Cantine del Notaio, visit ancient cellars to learn about the region’s winemaking tradition and taste its delicious wines. 

Among the region’s prized towns is the enchanting Castlemezzano. This village resembling a Christmas nativity scene has received a designation from I Borghi più belli d’Italia, the most beautiful towns of Italy. For those with an adventurous spirit, it is also home to a zip-line poetically named Volo dell’Angelo (flight of the angel), that will whisk you from Pietrapertosa (another designated Borgo) on the opposite side of the valley, reaching speeds of up to 70 miles an hour.

With almost one million Canadians (978,000 in 2017) travelling to Italy each year, Matera and the Region of Basilicata are worth getting to know. For more information, visit

Canadian travellers can enjoy seasonal flights to Italy aboard Air Canada, Air Canada Rouge and my personal favourite, Air Transat.

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