The Cave Churches, and More, of Matera, Italy

Italy matera twilight
Matera at twilight on a drizzly evening. The lights provide the only color, and this was the only view of Matera we got on the first night.

Matera, in the province of Basilicata, is right in the arch of the boot of Italy. And, as such, it was the starting place of our bike tour of a little of Basilicata and most of adjacent Puglia.

We arrived in Matera late in the afternoon after taking a train from Rome to Salerno, then a bus from Salerno to Matera. Because, you see, Matera is in the mountains and fairly remote, so a bus is better. And the bus, because it was a connection from the train, was covered by our Eurail passes.

So, because of our afternoon arrival and time necessary to orient ourselves to the bikes that were going to be next week's transportation, we didn't really have time to explore Matera other than just to walk into the otherworldly mountainous streets, gaze over the rift valley between the newer and older cave dotted slopes, and find a place to eat.

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And since the next day was occupied by sleeping off some jet lag and taking a 30 kilometer test ride on the bikes, we didn't have much time for a Matera exploration that day, either.

Consequently, we resolved to return to Matera after the bike ride to check out the famed sassi–the caves that have been inhabited for more than 2700 years–and especially to see the Rupestrian churches of Matera. That 2700 years, by the way, gives Matera reason to claim to be the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

Italy Basilicata Matera roofs
Under all those rooflines are caves full of restaurants, churches, shops, and homes.

We did make it back to Matera after the bike tour, this time in a rental car from Ostuni, and we did spend two days exploring the town, most of which was climbing around the very hilly town from cave church to cave church.

Italy Basilicata Matera cathedral frescoes
The very few remaining original frescoes at the Cathedral of Matera.
italy matera cathedral
The Matera cathedral, in all its baroque glory. What happens when you don't realize what you've got.

We started at the Cathedral, which has a few frescoes from its Romanesque past, but mostly has been redone in a late Renaissance/Baroque motif. In the cathedral, we bought two tickets for €6 each which gave entry to four of the thousand-year-old cave churches. And, so, from the cathedral down and up, up and down the picturesque streets, following the map, to the holes in the wall that led to the churches.

italy matera santa maria de idris
The fresco at the entry of Santa Maria de Idris in Matera. In poor condition after 800 years, but still lovely.

The first visit was to an large outcropping in the middle of the lower part of the city which contains two contiguous churches. The Monterrone outcrop dominates that part of the city, and, with a large cross on top, is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Inside the rock itself are the churches of Santa Maria de Idris and of San Giovanni, that are connected by an inner passageway. It's hard to tell when you're leaving one church and entering the other.

italy matera san giovanni fresco
And, the best of the remaining frescoes in San Giovanni. I could stand and admire these for hours.

From Santa Maria and San Giovanni we hiked across town to Santa Lucia alla Malve, which had a comparative wealth of remaining frescoes and a few windows to the outside that provided some light so you could get a better look.

Italy Basilicata Matera cave church santa lucia alle malve 2
A couple of frescoes on the arches of the cave church of Santa Lucia Alle Malve in Matera.

The final church on the itinerary was San Pietro Barisano, which was the largest of the four, and retained not only some engaging frescoes, but also some altars. The altars weren't contemporary with the frescoes, but provided some framing for some more ancient sculpture.

(I should note that photography wasn't exactly permitted in the cave churches, so I had to literally shoot from the hip. So, unfortunately these images aren't as good as I'd like.)

Italy Basilicata Matera san pietro barisano cave church altar annunciation
The Altar of the Annunciation at San Pietro Barisano. There is a painting behind the kneeling angel. Sorry it doesn't show better.
Italy Basilicata Matera cave church san pietro barisano 1
San Pietro Barisano fresco.

Matera has dozens of other cave churches in various states of repair, and, if we'd had more time, I would have liked to visit them all. For best advantage if you're a church freak like we are, I'd allow at least three days. If you're are contemplating a visit, I'd advise getting there soon. Matera is a European City of Culture for 2019, which will bring in a lot more tourists. As of now, it's still relatively undiscovered.

Kris wrote about where to eat in Matera in this post, so I won't repeat except to say both L’Abbondanza Lucana and Morgan were outstanding. L'Abbondanza even served us at a set up table outside because they were full inside. Very nice of them.

The caves of Matera make up a Unesco World Heritage site in Italy. Click the link to see a list of all the World Heritage sites in Italy, with links to posts about the ones we've visited.

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8 thoughts on “The Cave Churches, and More, of Matera, Italy”

  1. Are these cave churches in Matera still used as churches? Any idea why they carved out cave churches rather than building churches on the surface? In any case, I’d love to see them too. I love visiting ancient churches and UNESCO is always a good guide to finding them. Last summer we visited the three different groups of UNESCO churches in Romania, and they were stunning.

    • Rachel, they’re not used as churches now as far as I know, except perhaps for the occasional special ceremony. Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world and the caves were the original dwellings. The outside facades were added later. We’ve seen many of those Romanian churches too. They are fascinating.

  2. Yep, I’m a church freak like you are and a 2 week trip to Italy in April only whetted my appetite. I think gobsmacked is probably the right word to describe the look on my face every time we walked into another “amazing” church. (I know “amazing” is overused. I’m using it with intention here.) Your and Kris must have had thigh of steel after your biking adventure and after climbing around Matera for a few days.

    • Doreen, it bears even more time than we had to spend. I’d like to talk to some of the older people about what it was like before Italy and the EU stepped in with its development money. Evidently it was a terrible pocket of poverty and had been for centuries.


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