Matera - My Happy Heart Sings To Be In This Ancient City

You probably think Italy is well discovered and all its roads are well-travelled by tourists. Let me take you to an ancient city where evening walks after dinner are quiet, though maybe for not much longer, now that the new James Bond movie is out.

Italy is often described as looking like a boot. To get to Matera I’m going to take you to Puglia, which is just above the ankle of the boot; where a cowboy might have his spurs. Puglia is largely an agricultural region and you’ll find rows of olive trees that are hundreds of years old, restaurants set in cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea and peculiar cone shaped stone huts that can only be found in this region where there are still more locals than tourists.

Matera is within the region of Basilicata but very close to the Puglia border and any good travel description of Puglia inevitably includes Matera as a must-see destination. Matera is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world and in 2019 was recognised as a European Capital of Culture.

Matera, if it’s good enough for James Bond in an Aston Martin, it’s good enough for me in some strong walking shoes.  Just like the secret agent I have an appetite for adventure but unlike James Bond, my appetite for gelato is stronger than his.  He can keep his Walther PPK, I’m armed with a pistachio gelato in my right hand!

Before the gelato I must do some walking. This is an ancient city best explored by foot, including the surrounding countryside. I stand on a clifftop, looking across a ravine at Matera on the other side.  I’m standing where the crucifixion scene in the 2004 movie, The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson, was filmed. In 2003 the European comedy, Tulipani, was also filmed in Matera. Even Wonder Woman used footage of Matera as the fictional city of Themyscira.  Add the latest Bond movie to the mix and you can see it’s only a matter of time before tourist buses start queuing up on the road to Matera!

The funny thing is, when I went to Matera I didn’t know its popularity with the movie industry. What I came to see was the way many people live and work in Matera.  It is renowned for its caves and even the hotel I’m staying in, The Hotel Sassi, has many rooms and a dining room that are caves built into the ravine. Many of the caves throughout Matera have been restored from more primitive dwellings into art galleries, restaurants and hotels.

Surrounding Matera are amazing opportunities for hiking across fields of olive groves. Or you might find yourself sitting in a vineyard with a farmer, drizzling some olive oil on a piece of bread with a slice of fresh tomato. Somehow in the fields surrounding Matera a simple piece of bread, tomato and olive oil feels like a three-course meal. 

There are ravines to climb in and out of and hills to climb and look beyond the beauty of Matera at the wide expanse of Puglia. Out there in the distance are towns with names that are so beautiful to say.  There’s Polignano A Mare on the coast, Ostuni with its white washed buildings and Locorotondo with its circular streets that spiral inwards towards an ancient heart and also out there just a few hills away is Alberobello, famous for its trulli, which are cone roofed stone huts.

When you visit Matera it is important that you stay there. This is a destination that demands you experience through the day and in the evening. Actually, much of Italy is like that but in Matera it is like having a picnic with your girlfriend and going to a gala ball in the evening. Both are enjoyable experiences and she is beautiful no matter what the occasion but Matera by night is seeing her at her absolute best.

The lighting of Matera is sedate and calming. It is soft and yellow, with no harsh white streetlights mounted on high steel poles.  If you look at Matera from afar, it’s like a medieval village by the candlelight. Walking in Matera by night is about shadows flickering up the walls and the warmth of that soft, yellow light that illuminates little doorways with maybe just a small sign indicating a restaurant within. 

When I write my travel stories, I often have my photos close by to remind me of what I have seen and what I have done.  Matera is very different.  Like a significant moment in your life, whether it be the birth of a child or the passing of a loved one or a great moment to celebrate like a wedding, Matera occupies a place in my heart that carries with it a certain level of significance. There is wonderful food in quiet spaces to discover and there are little shops with genuine arts and crafts made by locals, that are symbolic of the passion they have for their ancient city, including small stone representations of Matera, even smaller ceramic huts painted with colour extracted from the soil in the nearby ravine and little bronze donkeys with names on them, representing the real donkeys that carried many of the old residents up and down the steep streets and steps of Matera. As I finish this story and take a final look at my photos, I notice a video file from the view of my room at the Hotel Sassi. It is taken looking across at the Matera Cathedral, located at the highest point in Matera. It was built in the 13th Century and dedicated to Virgin Mary and it loves to sing. Its bells often ring out and my video file captures the moment as I’m filming it.

I’m immediately transported back to my time in Matera, wishing I was on an evening walk that begun with some cured meats seasoned with fennel, followed by a local herb infused bread like strazzata, and washed down afterwards with espresso and limoncello and then to complete the indulgence experience, rolling into one gelato bar after another on my way back to my little cave.

Matera is a city that you can allow yourself to get lost inside and explore outside. Its narrow cobblestone alleyways may lead you away from where you’re going but don’t worry, in Italy all roads lead to Rome but in Matera all roads lead to gelato.