Magical, spectacular and breathtaking are words often used to describe Italy's 'City of Stone'. You'll understand why if you take a visit to Matera, which is the European Capital of Culture for 2019 along with Plovdiv, an ancient city in southern Bulgaria. Each year, two cities in two different EU countries or candidate countries are selected as Capitals of Culture, in order to help people discover and celebrate the diverse and rich cultures of Europe.
In the 1950s, Matera was considered "the shame of Italy" due to the extreme poverty and disease of this ancient district. When famous writer Carlo Levi was exiled to a nearby town during Mussolini's dictatorship, he wrote that he had never seen "such a picture of poverty". In 1952, the living conditions were so poor that the city had to be evacuated and it was left empty for the first time in 10,000 years. So how, only 50 years later, has this city become one of Europe's most precious gems? It's a modern day story of rebirth! Although this city is still rarely visited by foreigners compared to other Italian cities such as Rome, Florence and Venice, it is famous for its vast cave dwellings known as the sassi. The two Cittą dei Sassi are some of the most unique places on earth; built within the rocks are caves which have been excavated and extended over the last 10,000 years. Built on top of the rocks are many churches, monasteries, palaces and houses, which look breathtaking perched on the edge of a ravine.
Inside the caves of Matera
Matera was put on the map in 1993 when it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its status was given another boost after it featured as Jerusalem in Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ in 2004. Tourism is sure to skyrocket in Matera in the coming years, not only due to its recent accolade, but also because the ancient city is set to be the location of next year's Bond movie, No Time To Die.
Receiving the title of European Capital Of Culture is far more than just a title. For an entire year, the city upon which this title is bestowed will host a series of cultural events, as well as receiving social and economic benefits. "Matera 2019 Open Future" is the slogan that the city adopted after being named one of 2019's Capitals of Culture. The city's focus for the 50 weeks of events was making culture accessible to everybody. However, in classic southern Italian style, the required infrastructure wasn't ready on time despite the 48 million EUR invested by Rome and the EU, on top of many private investments!
Why not head to Matera for your next trip?
Matera's time as one of Europe's Cities of Culture may be coming to an end, but that doesn't mean you can't visit. A trip to the Cittą dei Sassi is sure to leave you in awe and with memories unlike any others.