Matera: Don’t Sleep on This Stunning Italian City

Behold the captivating panorama of Italy’s hidden gem, where caves weave tales of bygone eras
– Photo: Luca Micheli | Unsplash

When most people think about a trip to Italy, they think of popular destinations like Venice and Rome. There are plenty of other hidden gems throughout the country, though, including Matera, located in the Basilicata region of southern Italy.

Matera is well-known for its amazing architecture and intriguing history, but there’s much more than meets the eye. Discover 12 fascinating facts below.

1. Residents Lived in Cave Houses Until the 1960s

Sunset Splendor in Matera: A mesmerizing tapestry of colors paints the sky as the sun bids a breathtaking farewell to this enchanting Italian town – Photo: Daniele Levis Pelusi | Unsplash

One of Matera’s most exciting sites is its ancient cave houses.

Residents had to get creative with their temperature control because of how hot Matera gets during the summer. Windows in Matera are created by carving openings into the soft limestone rock of the Sassi, allowing vertical light to enter without overheating the home. In the winter, the light comes in at a deeper angle, creating more warmth.

The cave houses were also born out of necessity. Matera was one of the poorest towns in Italy for a long time, meaning people had to make do and build homes out of what they had available.

2. The City Dates Back to Paleolithic Times

People have long called the canyon surrounding the Murgia plateau, where Matera is located, home. Archaeologists have even found traces of people from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods in the city’s caves.

3. An Ancient Tribe Called the Lucani Lived Here

An ancient Italian tribe, the Lucani, lived in Matera long before the Greeks and Romans arrived on the scene. The Lucani were known for their penchant for violence and frequently fought with neighboring tribes and served as mercenaries for the Macedonian people.

4. No One Knows Who Founded the City

To this day, the founder of Matera is unknown, even to the most skilled historians.

Records show that the Romans inhabited the city as far back as 111 BC. However, some argue that the ancient Greeks actually founded it because an old coat of arms features symbols that also appeared on ancient Greek coins. The modern coat of arms also displays some of the same imagery.

5. No One Knows Where the City’s Name Comes From

Wander through the enchanting streets of Matera’s historic neighborhood, where ancient cave dwellings and centuries-old architecture blend harmoniously – Photo: chatst2 | Pixabay

Similar to the mystery surrounding the city’s origins, there’s also much confusion regarding the origins of its name.

Some suggest that the name “Matera” is derived from the word “Mata,” meaning “pile of stones,” or “Meteoron,” meaning “starry sky” (since the stars lit the caves at night through the windows on the ceiling).

Other potential origins include “Madre terra,” meaning “mother Earth,” and “Matterah,” meaning “Prison.”

6. The Town Center is a UNESCO Heritage Site

Although it’s not as popular as some other Italian cities, Matera is famous in its own right. The town center, Sassi (which translates to “Stones”), and the ancient stone temples and frescoes built there became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

7. Its Residents Were Among the First to Fight Against Fascism

Matera has always been home to strong people with even stronger convictions. During World War II, its residents were among the first people in Southern Italy to openly resist German and Italian Fascism. The city even received a Military Valor silver medal for its citizens’ “exceptional self-devotion.”

8. The Cemeteries Are Built Above the Houses

Visitors to Matera are often awed by its beautiful gardens, which sit directly above the caves many residents once called home. What’s interesting, though, is that during the Renaissance period, these gardens were graveyards. Even though the townspeople lived underground, they buried their dead overhead.

9. The City Hosts a Fascinating Annual Summer Festival

Every year on the second of July, Matera’s residents host Festa della Bruna, also known as “Festa di Maria Santissima della Bruna” and “Festa della Madonna della Bruna.”

This week-long festival celebrates the Madonna della Bruna, who is said to protect the city. It involves multicolored lights, a variety of market stalls, musical performances, and processions—including the Shepherd Procession (or Sagra della Madonna della Bruna), which starts at 5 am.

At noon, locals also march through the streets with a statue of the Madonna carried on a mule-drawn papier-mâché wagon. When the march ends, the residents leave the wagon in the town square. Locals then tear it apart and take pieces home for good luck.

10. It’s Been Featured in Many Movies

If Matera looks familiar, it might be because you’ve seen it in several films, including the following:

Because the city resembles Jerusalem, it’s often showcased in religious films. However, it serves as a stunning setting for all kinds of movies.

11. It’s Home to a Torture Museum

Matera’s Museum of Torture and Martyrdom displays various instruments of torture. It has a vast collection of over 100 original torture instruments developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

12. Visitors Can Explore an Unfinished Castle

For those who want to see more of the city’s architecture, a trip to the unfinished Castello Tramontano is a must.

This castle belonged to Count Tramontano, a 15th-century tyrant who was hated by Matera’s residents. He was lynched before his castle could be completed, and it still remains unfinished.

Explore the Wonders of Matera Today

Matera is the perfect Italian destination for history buffs, architecture fanatics, and those who love to immerse themselves in local culture. Add it to your travel bucket list, and start planning your trip today!