A Weekend Stop At The Matera Sassi
Matera was not on our original travel plans for our 10 weeks in Italy but several people had suggested it as a stop enroute to Sorrento to see this town known for the Sassi. The Matera Sassi (meaning “stones of Matera”) are ancient cave dwellings found throughout the town and in the surrounding gorge.
We had wanted a cave hotel for our weekend in Matera but Saturday night showed no availability. Deciding not to switch hotels after one night, we picked a highly rated hotel on the outskirts of Matera. We would learn when we got to the Matera Sassi why the hotels were all so busy this weekend. The crowds were here for the Matera balloon festival. Great luck on our part!
We plotted the less direct route from Lecce to the Matera Sassi to take us on regional routes rather than back up through Bari, winding our way towards Taranto and then into Matera. As we went west, we found the arid desert like soil faded to rich farming land and saw a much higher concentration of windmills and some solar fields on the higher plains. We hoped that this would mean a broader choice of fresh fruits for breakfast than we had seen in Lecce. We had by now become used to finding churches in the oddest place but we couldn’t help but pull over at the little Madonna Della Casa Rosa church (or sanctuary?) sitting alone in the middle of a field.
With only one slight wrong turn we found the hotel the Cave Del Sole (but no caves). Our junior suite was a strange room with almost dangerous looking stairs to an upper bed. The crawl for the mid-night bathroom visit would be a real challenge.
While roomy, the space was not laid out well to relax. It was a good thing we were there for only two nights. The room was warm when we arrived but we figured it had been closed up and was on the sunny side. We were assured that we just needed to put the air conditioning on. When we returned later that night to find the upstairs over 30 degrees C and the air conditioner blowing hot air, we knew we had a problem. But with no vacancies, we were stuck in the hot room. The only thing we could do was put a mattress on the lower level. Not a great start! The next day they moved us to a new junior suite that was all on one level and when we commented on the heat, it was acknowledged that the a/c was off for the season. Opening all doors and windows we got some breeze and figured we were stuck for one more night.
We headed into town for lunch and finally sat down at almost 3pm in a packed local restaurant. We thought we had again picked the same spot as the bus tour groups but later it would dawn on us that this was just the crowd from the balloon festival. Apparently the crowds had surprised the restaurant staff as well and when our waiter came he told us that lasagna was the only choice. Luckily it was an ok choice for a lunch way past due.
Matera Sassi At Sunset
We headed out before dusk trying to find the balloons. While the launching and festival site was restricted to cars, with only a shuttle bus service, we figured we might find some high ground to see the balloons. We set out with directions from the hotel concierge but one wrong turn brought good luck. We saw a dirt road leading up a long hill to a church and thought that might get us a vantage point.
It soon became obvious as we climbed that this was the road that would get us an awesome unfettered view of the Matera Sassi from across the gorge – the exact view that David had wanted for pics. We were not the only ones on the road or at the final observation point. The sun set over Matera and then the lights slowly began to twinkle on. The church bells were chiming and we could even hear music from the town. We could not have found a better spot!
Our original plan to head back into town for dinner was scuttled when we hit continuous streams of cars heading in. There was no chance we would find parking. Doubling back we stopped at a supermarket and satisfied my craving for comfort food. It would be peanut butter sandwiches for dinner! We had been searching all over Italy for peanut butter and even at 6€ we snatched it up when we found it.
Matera – Churches and The Sassi
Getting up early, cranky, hot and stiff from sleeping on a cot, we headed into town to beat the crowds and catch the sun just right. Being more familiar with the town this time, we managed to find a small side street with local free parking a short distance from the entrance to the Sassi.
We started our path high at the Church of Sant’ Agostino. Mass was ending at this church and it was clear when we entered that this was a working church. This church stood proud from multiple vantage points as we explored the Sassi.
From this spot outside of the church, we could see both over the Sassi and into the gorge. Off we went, up and down, looking at the very old structures in town.
We continued to marvel at the number of churches in one small town (154 apparently, although we lost count over a dozen). Many were totally closed up and others appeared to be open as tourist sites. We did remember being told that less than 10% of the population were practicing Catholics and that many of the churches were kept up only through corporate donations.
The most unusual church we stopped to look at was the Church of Purgatory. One glance at the outside quickly showed that this was not a typical church. Everywhere we looked we saw skulls and bones in the outside ornamentation. With a little trepidation we opened the door to find a beautiful church inside, albeit still decorated with skulls in strategic points.
We followed the panoramic road along the top of the gorge across from where we had been the night before. It was interesting to see what had been down the steep cliffs we walked on – caves, carvings and churches carved into the rock.
Our coffee break at the Altereno Cafe d’Antonio gave us a chance to cool down from the blazing sun and look out over the gorge. We spent a little time exploring the remaining parts of this past monastery. We were told this would be a great place to come at sunset as the cliffs on the other side shined red.
Fortified, we began the uphill climb to the cathedral. Not surprisingly, within 200 feet of this great promontory spot we found the 5 star hotels in town, with no parking issues at all. We suspected these were not cave rooms, at least not ancient ones!
The duomo itself was under renovation and we could only wander around the outside and admire the view over the town and the gorge.
It was a meandering path back to the car. With each block the crowds got thicker and noisier. We had beat them out but they had now caught up. While some of the crowd were formal tour groups and some were small groups with private tours, the vast majority of the crowd seemed to be Italian families. It was uncertain to us how many were locals out for a Sunday stroll and how many were visiting Italians. This was our signal to head to the car. It would be a lazy afternoon for us with our heavy walking behind us.
Matera Ballon Festival
Having not yet seen balloons in the sky, we were on the lookout as dusk approached, prepared to jump in the car and chase the balloons like looney storm chasers. Just as we had given up, we saw our first few balloons and off we went. While a few landed off in the distance, we were able to get close to where two were manoeuvring in for a landing. The first one down didn’t do such a great job, getting caught up first on the edge of a building and then in the trees. It appeared that the balloon finally got free but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that balloon. The second one managed to clear the trees and land in the field.
Early the next morning we saw another group of balloons but it was the same corporate balloons from the day before. We watched from our hotel room but didn’t feel compelled to chase them this time. With only about 6 or so balloons, none very interesting, we would not put this on a “must do” list – not like the balloon festival in Albuquerque.
We left the hotel early for our trip to Sorrento. This would definitely not be a hotel to return to although Matera was an interesting town and we might return for a day tour of the Sassi. We later found out that Matera had won the competition for the cultural city for 2019.