Top Six Tips For First-Time Tourists to Matera, Italy – & More Matera Good-to-Knows about a 2019 European Capital of Culture
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What’s Matera like?
If you travel a lot, expect to be asked that question more frequently than is the norm about one or another destination you’ve been to. Italy may be one of the most touristed countries on the planet. Matera, Italy is not—until now.
Pictures of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Sassi say a lot about what to expect. Then again, you may have seen the Taj Mahal hundreds of times in photos and films, but when you get there…..
You can fly to Bari, the nearest city with an airport, and then rent a car (or driver) to get to Matera, or hop a bus.
If you are the typical American tourist who adores Europe’s comfortable and fast trains you will likely begin your journey to Matera from Rome. The train does not disappoint. One caution is that unlike the intercity trains that connect two large cities you, may find the luggage area to be challenging. Our tip is to make sure you look at both ends of the train car for storage. It may not be the best, but it is manageable, especially if you are a seasoned traveler that knows to always pack light.
Whether you come from Bari or train stop in Salerno, don’t cringe at the thought that you are going to hop a bus, as Greyhound-oriented Americans are wont to do. For this writer/photographer team, the bus leg of our train trip actually proved the most comfortable part. Both had WIFI, but the speeding train and the many tunnels it passes through make online work almost impossible. Bus WIFI, in contrast, was fast and easy. Bus riders also get a complimentary bottle of water.
Driving? If you are staying in the historic Sassi, your rental car will not be with you but in a parking area in the modern part of town. Sassi roads—most more foot path than road—are not built for cars, except for a few perimeter roads that help make business deliveries and that are restricted to a few hours a day.
In Matera, it won’t take long for you to begin to think of your phone GPS (map application) as a mischievous, but fun, trickster.
As anywhere, you input your destination in your map app and you get a walking route. The difference is that your phone is going to insist that you have arrived when there is no door in sight. It seems that GPS technology isn’t able to think in the 3D that Sassi architecture requires. You may have to then follow curving paths up or down a few levels in the Sassi to get to your real destination. Your GPS is giving clues, not routes, you soon realize. As long as you are not in a huge hurry, trying to trick your GPS may become a fun sideline to the tour.
Then if you stop to ask someone for directions—language difficulties notwithstanding (see below)—you too may soon find it comical that no matter where you are ,or where you are going, you will predictably hear that it is “..just ten minutes away..” If you are in a hurry, our tip is to add another ten minutes to the tally. If it’s your first day in Matera and you haven’t yet figured out a basic orientation, double or triple that to twenty or thirty.
If your knees are bad or you have some other challenge walking up steps, Matera is probably not the best place for you. Then again, even Machu Picchu has its share of tourists with walkers and canes.
WIFI AND WORK
WIFI did not seem to be a problem anywhere in Matera.
It doesn’t surprise to read that some of the first businesses that came to the Sassi when it was being re-settled were Internet businesses. If your work depends on a strong signal, you will find Matera an easy place to work in.
As Matera gets more ink and air time now that it is a 2019 European Capital of Culture, it will be interesting to see how long it will take for the world’s Internet nomads to discover it.
FOOD – ALL GREAT, EVEN FOR VEGANS
Of course Materan food is delicious! You are in Italy!
The unexpected treasure is that MOST of the truly delicious recipes in Matera- and especially the region’s traditional soups—are naturally vegetarian or vegan. If you are the latter, you are able to enjoy the same menu items as your more omnivore companions without having to ask for special substitutions of tempeh for turkey.
Materan bread has “I.G.P” designation—which is a trademark of sorts that assures a certain recipe and methodology in making it. We were told that it really cannot be made properly outside of the Basilicata region. In Matera, it’s the bread, not cakes, that is showcased in bakery windows. It is ubiquitous, but for this writer/photographer team the best bread find was the bread meatballs and the many permutations on that theme.
You will find good food in Matera at all price points. Though the burgeoning tourist masses (including you) are sustaining the growth of gourmet options--a few of which are profiled on these pages—there are plenty of easy, good, and relatively cheap food options.
5. ENGLISH IS (NOT SO) EVERYWHERE
In Matera, you will likely need to brush up on your communications skills with the international language of pointing, nods and smiles. Go to a busy and trendy trattoria and you may find your wait at the table longer until the one English speaker in the restaurant comes to your table to assist the waiter. You may then be surprised to go to an inexpensive café serving soup just up the block and find two waitresses totally fluent in English.
As elsewhere on the planet, it seems your odds of finding someone with ESL skills is higher if you seek out a Millennial. They are not in as short supply as perhaps a decade ago, before the stirrings of a tourism-fueled gold rush began in Matera (see below).
English speaking Materans who are keen for you to have a good time in Matera and love their home place as they do are also in no short supply. Ask a question in English and the person who answers predictably will have the kindness and patience of a seasoned kindergarten teacher.
6. It’s 2019. Matera is a European Capital of Culture. Change is EVERYWHERE!
Whether it’s the proprietor of an organic farm, a museum worker, restaurateur, tour guide, hotelier, etc. – ask and you will hear that the uptick in tourists is very noticeable. This was in March, just a few months after the January, 2019 launch of Matera as a European Capital of Culture.
The oft-quoted 50% occupancy rate of the re-building Sassi will likely be out of date in short order, given how many construction cranes dot the landscape. You see new cave hotels and new restaurants in every direction.
In conversations you come to realize locals are being impacted in other ways as well by this boon. The painfully high unemployment rates of Southern Italian youth may be significantly reversing in Matera. You will likely meet a few 20 and 30-somethings who share that many of their friends are working in Milan or other large Northern cities and that they, would be too if it were not for the x, y or z tourist-related business they now work in.
More Matera Tour tips—with a Picture this Post caveat that recognizes one person’s feast is another person’s poison—
TOP PICK FOR YOUR TIME – MUSMA
DON’T MISS LIST – Visit UNESCO World Heritage Site – Murgia National Park (Note: you may need to arrange for transportation if the hiking trail from the Sassi is still closed.)
MOST LIKELY MISSABLE – Peasant Museum, Dali Museum, one of the lesser cistern museums in the Sassi
Exercise while you travel? One option might be to take a yoga class with American-transplant and Divertimento Group member Jennifer Goodman, or with one of her colleagues in a Matera Yoga School.
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