Adventure in Matera: A Most Unusual City

Matera is a haunting city nestled among the rolling hills of Basilicata in southern Italy. Four hundred metres above sea level, it is bisected by a ravine through which the River Gravina flows. On the cliffs along this deep gorge are cave dwellings in which families lived in poverty from Palaeolithic times until the 1950s when they were rehoused by the Italian government.

These caves are known as ‘sassi’ and several of them have been converted into hotels, restaurants and, indeed, many reconstructed homes which have been inhabited since the 1980s.

You will hear the word ‘rupestrian’ mentioned often in Matera. This refers to the cave churches, of which there are several, and the religious art which accompanies them.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Matera will be the European Capital of Culture for 2019.

Basilicata is a land so rugged and remote that in 1935 the famous artist and doctor Carlo Levi was sent to the town of Aliano, just 85kms away from Matera, to spend a year in exile because of his anti-Fascist views. I am sure many of you will have read his remarkable book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ which recounts his experiences there, living remotely and in great poverty among the locals. If not, I implore you to read it, as it is one of the great Italian classics which has translated well into English.

While in Matera, I made sure to visit Palazzo Lanfranchi to see the exhibition of his works, both photographs and paintings.

Matera plays host annually to the Women’s Fiction Festival (WFF). This conference is an opportunity for aspiring writers to pitch their work to agents and publishers and to listen to lectures informing them about the difficult process of bringing one’s book to publication.

I have just finished my first work of fiction and was keen to see what possibilities were available on my road to finding an agent and to get to know a bit about the general procedure involved in getting one’s book published.

Having been writing for many years for both magazines and newspapers on travel and interior design, (plus a handbook on home renovation), I have long wanted to write a work of romantic fiction. I began this book back in 2014 and it was progressing well. Then real life intervened and I found myself far better placed to write about romance after meeting and marrying fellow blogger Tom.  However, I was obliged to put the book aside while organising our wedding and the building of our new home in Ostuni and only returned to it this spring. So, it was with a complete manuscript and a heart filled with optimism that I left for the writers’ conference.

As we headed to Matera on a grey Wednesday afternoon in late September, Tom and I drove the one hour and forty minutes from Ostuni, greatly looking forward to our four days away and found our hotel – the lovely Hotel Palazzotto – deep among the sassi and overlooked by the Duomo high above.

Unfortunately, the skies then opened and it rained solidly for the rest of the afternoon. We were absolutely soaked and I had to purchase both an umbrella and a plastic poncho from a street vendor in order to keep the chills at bay.

Next morning, bright and early, I was at Le Monacelle, the venue for the WFF, where I spent all day Thursday and all day Friday at the conference, gleaning as much information as possible about the book publishing process. Lunchtime and early evening saw several impatient men marching up and down outside the front door of Le Monacelle, waiting for their wives and girlfriends, as though pacing outside a maternity ward waiting for news.

Just to note, my manuscript is currently being edited and I now know that this is just step one on a long road to publication and, as I will not go down the route of self-publication, I have quite a process to undergo before it reaches the shelves.

We found a very nice casual eatery for lunch called Hemingway’s Bistrot, where we ate delicious Matera bread (crisp on the outside, feather-light and white on the inside) topped with smoked salmon or prosciutto cotta, accompanied by a glass of the local Moscato Secco.

Evenings were spent at a variety of restaurants, one of which bears mentioning: the excellent Ristorante Baccanti.

During my sojourn at Le Monacelle surrounded by anxious writers and apparently relaxed publishers, Tom was exploring Matera and its surrounding area. Wearing his ‘Fitbit’ he was easily clocking off 20,000 steps per day while I was sitting indoors. However, on Saturday at lunchtime school was out, so to speak, and I was finally able to join Tom and to do some exploring myself. He was a great guide!

First of all, we arranged with a tour operator by the name of Ines to drive us around Matera in her little tuk-tuk taxi. Now, the last time I was in a tuk-tuk was many years ago in Bangkok, so I was quite unfamiliar with this mode of transport, though they also use them around the tiny, hilly streets of Ostuni. In the front were two incredibly well-behaved little dogs, one was named Kiss. Here’s Ines having a ‘who’s a good doggie’ moment!

Having arranged our tuk-tuk tour at 5 o’clock, we had a couple of hours to spare, so we took a walk around the old city and admired the many beautiful churches, municipal buildings and squares. Being a Saturday, it was busy with families and visitors, all obviously intrigued by this unusual city.

First of all, there is the magnificent Romanesque style Duomo…..

…..while outside lies sprawling Piazza del Duomo.

We then saw the Purgatory Church……

and the Palazzo Sedile which houses the Conservatoire….

Other sights included the following….just run your cursor over the photos for information, or click on them for full size.

Our tuk-tuk driver was full of useful information and made me anxious to revisit. She made me realise that I had not had the opportunity to visit nearly enough of this fascinating city. .

Sunday morning dawned bright blue and beautiful. I dashed off to see the Carlo Levi exhibition at Palazzo Lanfranchi before we went to breakfast deep in the cave that comprised most of our hotel. After checking out and recovering our car, we became hopelessly lost on the way home to Ostuni despite Sat-Nav assistance, due to a religious procession in one small town where the main street was closed off. Eventually, after a most interesting mystery tour of the hills of Basilicata, we arrived home, determined to return soon to visit Matera, a most unusual city.

Orna O’Reilly

Ostuni, Puglia

18 thoughts on “Adventure in Matera: A Most Unusual City

  1. Beautiful photos. I want a tuk tuk here outside my house for me to take everytime I want to go somewhere. I was hooked on them recently in Vietnam and Cambodia. On the tv this morning Matera has been named in the top 10 cities in the world as great tourist destination. Just hope it doesn’t ruin it like so many cities in Italy which we shall not name.

    • Yes Lyn. I couldn’t agree more. Right now, though there were plenty of visitors, it was all quite manageable. But we experienced very bad and indifferent service and food in the restaurants we visited, apart from the ones I mentioned. And you know how pride in food quality, prices and attention to detail falls by the wayside when there is a large influx of tourists.

  2. Love this post, Orna.
    I recognize so many of the sites, and love the little vehicle you had for your tour. I also ate a delicious lunch at Hemingway’s Bistrot when I was in Matera with Susan and Victoria.

    Best of luck with your book!

    • Thanks Margie. I loved the atmosphere at Hemingway’s. When we initially found it on our first late afternoon, we were like drowned rats, dripping water everywhere. The staff were so kind and super friendly, that it became our regular haunt over the rest of our visit. And we loved Matera. Such an atmospheric city.

  3. Loved this! And oh, that “unusual house” – simply gorgeous! I can’t wait to visit this area. Thanks for the article…and good luck with the book!

    • Thanks Wynne. Really glad you enjoyed reading about Matera. It’s well worth visiting when you have the chance. I was intrigued by that house too. Couldn’t resist including it. 😀

  4. Thank you Orna for the wonderful blog. We were there last January and it quickly became one of our favorite cities in Italy due to its uniqueness. I hope that it can keep its special charm.

    • I hope so too. Evidence of new tourism abounds, but I hope the city will absorb it and retain its uniqueness. It’s a haunting place, full of a unique atmosphere. Glad you enjoyed my blog. 😀

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