Matera: From slum to hidden gem

You may have been to Rome, Venice or Amalfi Coast when visiting Italy, but chances are you’ve never visited Matera, let alone heard of it.  

Although it has been inhabited as far back at the Paleolithic era, Matera--in southern Italy's Basilicata region-- was basically unknown to foreign tourists until the last few decades. 

Once home to ancient people, the area became known as Italy's "national shame" after the book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ was published in 1945 exposing the abhorrent conditions in which the people of Matera were living. Ravished by malaria, a high infant mortality rate and malnutrition, large families had nothing but caves to call home. And they shared them with wild animals, such as chickens and donkeys. 

In the mid 1980's, preservation efforts were stepped up and in 1993 Matera’s former slums were named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today those same caves are being developed into stores, restaurants, unique hotels, as well as being restored as rather more comfortable homes with indoor plumbing and electricity.

The ancient cave dwellings of Sassi di Matera is one of the most unusual yet beautiful places I’ve visited. The caves, with their stone facades, blend naturally with the river gorge and the modern buildings that have been built on top of them. 

The city resembles Old Jerusalem, which is why Mel Gibson used it in the production of ‘The Passion of Christ’.

Revitalized over the last several decades, it's now a regular stop on the tourist circuit. The current population is around 3,000, with about half of the dwellings occupied. The area isn't attracting big hotel chains, rather, this hidden gem has become more of a word-of-mouth experience.

Getting lost in the labyrinth of streets and stairways is part of the adventure, but don’t expect Google maps to help you navigate these - hire a local guide for an entertaining, educational tour.

My advice, visit soon before the small streets become even smaller with hoards of tourists and tour buses, inevitable given that Matera was just named European Capital of Culture for 2019.

Reading about this gem of a city doesn't do it nearly enough justice. Check out our slideshow above that represents this picturesque destination.