Italy is full of cities that seem to exist only in the imagination. Matera, a dusty, alien landscape of a city in the southern region of Basilicata, also fits that description. For this reason and so much more, Matera is a European Capital of Culture for 2019.
Describing Matera simply as a city carved out of rock is only half the story. The former “shame of Italy” has transformed itself from a backwater where, as late as the mid-20th century, residents lived in caves without plumbing and electricity, into a cultural center of renovated cave hotels, slow food restaurants, and a bustling city center.
Matera was a surprise.
We went to Matera over Valentine’s Day and there were couples visiting for the weekend, snapping romantic photos from the city’s overlooks. Streets were clean and brightly lit. Restaurants and hotels were near capacity. Colorful three-wheeled taxis buzzed from site to site, picking up tourists while adding a splash of contrast to the beige-grey buildings.
But the place didn’t feel like Disneyland — at least, not yet. Residents were out and about during the passegiata hour, strolling purposely in the center past austere churches. They were out after dinner, popping in and out of cozy bars. Despite the unusual architecture and complicated, rural history of this southern Italian town, Matera was happening.
Matera as a European Capital of Culture makes sense. Visitors can not only stay in modernized, amenity-rich stone dwellings, but also take tours of the sassi (its caves and grottoes), its rupestrian, frescoed churches, and the many other features that earned the city a UNESCO World Heritage distinction in 1993.
As the world — and Italy — becomes more homogenized with the same stores, foods, and sensibilities, Matera offers something unique. So you should plan on putting this European Capital of Culture on your itinerary, if not in 2019, then in the very near future.