Why the Oldest City in Italy Blew My Mind

Two churches in Matera Italy, one made of sandstone blocks and the other carved into the rock

What is the oldest city in Italy, the oldest city in Europe, and the third oldest city in the world after Aleppo and Jericho? Most people have never even heard of it, but here’s why Matera Italy blew my mind.

The first humans settled here in Paleolithic times – the Stone Age. The cave homes carved into the cliffs have sheltered people for at least 9000 years. At first our ancestors inhabited naturally formed caves, but eventually they began to carve their own out of the soft sandstone. The last residents of these dwellings were forcibly moved out of the caves in the 1970s by the Italian authorities. At that time, Matera bore the name “the shame of Italy” because of the squalor, unsanitary living conditions, and disease. Malaria and typhoid ran rampant, and the child mortality rate topped 57%. That is not a typo. However, today Matera wows visitors with history, beauty, and a healthy dose of Italian magic.

Matera, the oldest city in Italy, glows golden at dusk.

Definitely Book a Walking Tour

We went through Viator to book this walking tour of the city in English. To really learn about this unusual place, the oldest city in Italy, so full of history, we thought a good tour would help. We were not disappointed. The tour ran a little over $60 for 2 people, and it was the best money we could have spent. Our guide, Gaetano, grew up in Matera, and his love for the city was obvious. He had many amazing stories from those who used to live in the old cave houses that really added a whole new dimension to the tour. Biggest piece of advice? Don’t skip the tour!

Life in the Caves

Families lived in two-room dwellings, sometimes with up to twelve chlidren, no running water, no electricity and no heat. Animals lived in the homes as well. Donkeys and sheep slept next to the bed as a heat source. Residents mixed sheep and donkey feces with straw and left it to ferment in bags – also a heat source for the home. Plastered on the interior walls of the caves, it also keep humidity down and acted as an insulator.

Two photos of a woman, and a man with a donkey living in the cave homes of Matera Italy
Old photos of the cave residents in their homes in the mid 20th century

There are several mini-museums in the city where you can see what living in the caves would have been like. This one had audio playing with memories of one of the residents who said he remembered sleeping next to the sheep who would keep him warm with their breath. The bed in the photo was tall so that chickens could live underneath it.

The Oldest City in Italy Moves into Modern Life

But after World War II, the government became determined that Italy’s oldest city should modernize, and so they moved the cave residents into homes with utilities. The caves lay abandoned after millennia.

This was a “neighborhood.” These four families would have been very close to each other and traded food and wool, and helped each other to survive. “We learn lessons here,” said Gaetano. “If you only try to live on sheep and wool it is very hard. But if you trade wool for vegetables, or eggs for meat, and everyone helps each other, then it is easier. Together is how we survive. We cannot alone.” When families were relocated these groups were split in order to destroy these tribal bonds and force people into modern ways of thinking.

The people didn’t want to leave their homes, our guide Gaetano explained. “There was a big war in Matera over this.” The authorities had to drag people from their homes and their neighbors, and relocate them three kilometers outside of town. They installed bars over the doors and locked them so no one could return. Residents took their animals with them, and kept them in the new apartments, or in the parking spaces that they didn’t use because they didn’t have cars. They grew herbs in the bidets because they had no idea of their purpose. It was a harsh transition to modern life.

After five or six years, they adapted and grew accustomed to a more modern lifestyle and no longer wanted to return. Their children began to survive into adulthood, and people no longer got sick so often. Clean, potable water and light were available on demand. Heat didn’t involve excrement. And they became happy.

The removal of the cave dwellers began in the 1950s and ended in the early 1970s. Unfathomable.

The Oldest City in Italy – From Shame to Fame

In the 1990s Matera became a UNESCO World Heritage site – not for the caves, not for being Italy’s oldest city, but largely because of an elaborate system of underground cisterns and water management that kept water available in this incredibly arid area. But, our guide explained, it wasn’t the UNESCO designation that brought tourists, finally, to Matera. It was Mel Gibson and the movie the Last Temptation of Christ which filmed in Matera “because it looks more like Jerusalem than Jerusalem.” And then the tourists started coming. And then Wonder Woman filmed here, and then James Bond came with No Time to Die. The first hotel opened in 2001 and the tourist industry has taken off like wildfire.

Caves fill the streets and walkways. Eventually in the Middle Ages caves got a second or third level because there was no more room to build. So today, want pizza? It’s in a cave. The bank? In a cave. Restaurants and bars? Cave. Museums and souvenir shops? Cave. Our hotel room? ALSO A CAVE!!!

You can see the layers of evolution from the caves below, to the second and third levels of caves, and finally to post-war and modern architecture on top.

The caves have transformed into hotels, B&Bs, cafés, shops, restaurants and bars. The Italian government owns them all and leases them for about $300-400 a year for a maximum of 99 years. Businesses have invested huge sums to renovate and equip the ancient spaces with electricity and water and heat. Every business must preserve the character of the city, and maintain a discreet profile. No billboards or golden arches in the Sassi (the two ancient neighborhoods that make up the old town).

A wine bar in a cave in Matera
A wine lounge in a cave

A Bright Future

After the residents were forced out, an order came down to destroy the entire city. Ultimately, Matera was spared because of the expense it would have taken to level it. I gasped when I heard that, to think of all the beauty and rich history here that would have been lost.

Crowds seem almost absent, which almost shocked me considering all Matera has to offer. Its location between the Amalfi coast to the west, and the city of Bari to the east means no other tourist areas nearby. And the first hotel sprung up here only in 2001! So, I suppose it gets overlooked for now, but it won’t for long. I predict Matera’s trajectory will make it the new must-do destination in Italy. Today, the “shame of Italy” is anything but. Proud to show off its new face, amazing places, and thousands of years of history and culture, Matera stands tall.

It felt like stepping back to a land that time forgot – while at the same time watching an evolving, inviting city that keeps its memories alive, even the bad ones, and embraces its suddenly bright future.

Across the River – a New Perspective

We bid farewell to Matera with a hike across the river to the cliffs that contained the caves that had sheltered shepherds and sheep during grazing times. There were obvious paths, but sometimes we took an optional little scramble. We could have spent many more hours there, but the day was hot, and humans and dog were ready for some A/C and a good lunch before heading to Puglia, our next destination.

As we drove on, we remembered Gaetano talking about the huge migration of Southern Italians to the United States. Desperate people seeking a better life. Matera as a relatively big city, got attention, but people lived in poverty all over the countryside. “And now they are DeNiro, DiCaprio, Stallone… these are all names from the South,” he said. He also reminded us that people all over Europe were living like this before the industrial revolution. So Matera’s story is the story of anyone who has ancestors of European descent. Matera just happened to be isolated politically and geographically, and time and advancement passed it by.

Across the river are shelters used by the shepherds who took the sheep there to graze. They would yell across the ravine to communicate with people in the town. Those who grew up here remembered that it was always very loud with lots of yelling.

Matera Travel Tips

⭐️Take a walking tour first thing. Then explore the city at your leisure with a good understanding of what you will see. I recommend this tour highly.

👟Wear comfortable shoes with no-slip treads.

🚨If you have a serious respiratory condition, don’t stay in a cave hotel since the air tends to be high in particulates.

🏃‍♀️Prepare for your trip by getting in a lot of stairs!

📍Pin your hotel on Google Maps so you can find it later, but also know that cell reception is very fickle in a city of alleys and caves! Take a visual note of landmarks nearby.

🗺Don’t leave without taking a look at Matera from the other side of the river gorge! You can hike across a bridge and up to the caves or park your car almost right on top and take a quick walk down to explore. We didn’t realize how close the parking was and parked at a campground about half a mile away. We’ll know better for next time!

How to get to Matera

We traveled by car, but there are many ways to get to Matera, despite its location off the beaten path. This link HERE will give you the details of train, bus, and air from the most popular spots in Italy.

How long should I stay in Matera?

There are day trips from Bari, and if that’s all you can fit in your schedule, don’t miss it. Ostuni is also nearby and worth a visit. But if you can spend a night or two (we spent 2) in Matera, you’ll really be able to settle in and soak in the atmosphere, discover hidden shops, and have some excellent meals. This is a one-of-a-kind place you may only see once in your life, so give it some time! Relax and enjoy the ancient, moody, dramatic vibe.