An Italian rock star: Once dubbed the shame of Italy, Matera is soon to be named a European Capital of Culture

One glimpse of this golden city perched on the edge of a steep ravine and you wonder why it isn’t a rival to Venice or Florence.

But at least Matera, in Italy’s southern Basilicata region, takes over as European Capital of Culture (jointly with Plovdiv, Bulgaria) in January.

The instep of Italy’s bony foot is used to being overlooked. True, Matera’s troglodyte dwellings, ancient cave churches and underground water cisterns have enjoyed UNESCO World Heritage Site status for 25 years. But it has taken until now for Matera to capture the world’s attention.


Hundreds of dwellings in the city, some natural, some hewn out of the soft, fossil-speckled tufa rock, are known as sassi – literally ‘stones’.

As recently as the Sixties, their inhabitants were so poverty stricken that Matera was best known as ‘the shame of Italy’.

Happily, times have changed.

Some sassi are now bijou homes, artisanal workshops, museums, Airbnbs, restaurants or even elegant hotels.

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