Sassi of Matera

The Sassi of Matera (Sassi di Matera) is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, dating from the Palaeolithic era. It is the best example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region. The houses are carved into the rock of a hillside in a river valley. There are two parts: Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso. The Caveoso part is the oldest, and least developed. In the 1950s the Italian government relocated many people to the modern part of town, but some remained and people still live there today.

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Practical

Location: Italy - Basilicata - Matera - Matera

Category: Prehistoric

Tags: Settlement, UNESCO World Heritage Site

A car is the easiest way to get here. Matera is the only provincial capital in Italy without a train station! There are buses from Bari, Potenza and Naples, but schedules aren’t very convenient.

The Sassi is the ancient district, while the city center is perched on the plain above. There is only one road that allows traffic in the Sassi. There is no way to really see this area without a lot of walking. The best way to really appreciate the hidden gems and history of the Sassi is with a local guide. My Bella Basilicata can arrange an excellent English-speaking guide for you.

Website: UNESCO World Heritage - The Sassi of Matera

Day trip contributed by My Bella Basilicata

More Information

Walking Tour of Matera and the Sassi

Matera, a captivating city in the southern region of Basilicata, oozes antiquity. More than a "cave city" as most articles like to say, Matera is an architecturally intricate place that is fascinating to wander. The ancient streets, worn shiny from the centuries, feel almost mystical. The old city gleams in the sunlight and turns magical in the moonlight.

Start in the Piazza Ridola, where the Palazzo Lanfranchi Museum has a cache of paintings by Carlo Levi, who was a political exile in Basilicata during the Fascist era. The author of Christ Stopped at Eboli was a talented artist. There are other works of regional art worth seeing and at only €2 entrance fee, it’s a bargain. A secret tip: You can also ask one of the docents to open the terrace for a nice view.

Next to the museum is a great overlook onto the Sassi to feast your eyes on the rock city below. Walk along Via Ridola and you’ll come to the somewhat macabre Church of Purgatory, adorned with lots of skulls and crossbones. If you want to exit purgatory, there are some great gelaterias around here that would make the angels sing!

Continue Via del Corso, lined with shops, to the buzzing hub of Matera, Piazza Veneto. This is where you should be for the evening passeggiata, where you’ll see Matera is vibrant and alive with people. Off the piazza is an underground Roman ruin, while above it is a covered arcade overlook. Continuing from the piazza, tree-lined Via XX Settembre has some upscale shops.

Down in the Sassi, explore the lanes and marvel at the intricacy of this ancient city, hewn into the cliff, and constructed with blocks of tufa rock. It is more than a series of caves, as you’ll see there are elegant palaces and homes built out from the caves here. You'll walk down, then up, and down ... well, a lot of walking. The Sassi are much more extensive than you think, built over the hill and into the folds of the landscape. Walk the lower road, Via Madonna della Virtu', to see the ravine on both sides - the built-up Sassi and the natural state of the other side. Visit the two churches built right into the rock, Santa Maria di Idris and San Giovanni. Amazing!

If you like to hike, take the Gravina trail that leads from the parking lot on this road; it goes down the ravine to the stream, and back up the other side on old mule paths. (There is a sign at the parking lot.)

But mostly, get yourself lost in the maze and notice all the details, from the chimneys poking through the streets to carvings to hidden courtyards. This is one fascinating city!

Drive to the "other side" to see the incredible sight of Matera in its entirety from the Parco della Murgia overlook. Along the way, stop at the lovely sculpture garden placed in the old tufa quarry, La Palomba. It's a quiet place for a picnic among open-air art.

The ravine at the Parco della Murgia is awash in Byzantine chapels colorfully frescoed by monks of old. Reserve to see them, especially the gorgeous Crypt of Original Sin. Reservation Website

Then return to the land of the living for a drink in Piazza Veneto while watching modern Matera at its best.

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2 comments

Pauline | Archaeology Travel

Pauline (3 comments)

May 28, 2015

We spent one night in Matera on a recent trip to the area. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this city. The Sassi part of Matera is beautiful, as is the town center on top of the valley. We followed Valerie's recommended walking tour (see above) and then we walked as many lanes in the Sassi as we could.

There were a lot of tourists when we were there (April) and many groups of school children, but you still felt alone when walking the lanes in the Sassi.

There was a great selection of restaurants (vegetarians eat well here), caffes and shops. The bread in this area is fantastic. On Via Lucana where it meets Via Domenico Ridola there is a small supermarket (Superemme S.R.L), then a bakery and across the street, the vegetable shop.

We stayed at the San Giorgio Hotel in an apartment in the Sassi area. I recommend this hotel.

If we had more time, we could have walked out of the town on trails in the valley. We did not get to see the Crypt of Original Sin (reserve ahead). I highly recommend a visit to Matera and it would be a good idea to spend more than one night.

Valerie | Archaeology Travel

Valerie (3 comments)

July 23, 2015

I should have advised that July and August are HOT. I mean, HOT! Those rocks heat up and radiate it to toast you.

There is a beautiful fresh market daily (not Sunday), basically "behind" Piazza Veneto. From the fountain/monument in the back part of the piazza, go to the right down the street and the mercato is on the left.