With Apulia and Sicily already wowing international property buyers, the latest southerly region turning heads is Basilicata. Is it time to look for a property in Basilicata? Matera is a great place to start looking. EU Capital of Culture 2019, the city has been attracting buyers from around the world. We give you the lowdown on the city and wider region, and speak to Greg from Manchester, one of the first foreigners to fall in love with the authentic Italian lifestyle. He didn’t only fall in love with the region…
Are you looking for the real Italy, a place unspoilt by mass tourism? A region with great food, beautiful countryside and lots of history? Ideally you want to discover it before other foreign buyers snap up all the best properties. The region of Basilicata might just tick all those boxes. I went to visit the town of Matera, one of the most popular towns in Basilicata.
Matera’s chequered history
You certainly won’t be the first to live here. Considered one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world and among the first ever human settlements in Italy, the area was inhabited right back in the Palaeolithic period. The city was founded by the Roman Lucius Caecilius Metellus in 251 BC, but the occupation of the natural caves increased from the 8th century, when the city started to expand past the boundaries of the defensive Roman walls, outside the part of the city called “Civita”.
The “Sassi di Matera” consists of two areas called Barisano and Caveoso, described by UNESCO as “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region’. You can still see the caves and many have facades built from local stone, which blend harmoniously into the rocky cliffs of the ravine. Churches were built in the same way and visitors can wonder at the ancient frescoes on their walls.
Generation after generation of residents of the Sassi lived in poverty. A book written by Carlo Levi in 1935 and then published in 1945 described the terrible conditions, with families and animals living together in small caves. Other journalists and politicians then visited and Matera became known as the “shame of Italy”. In 1952 the Italian State began constructing new residential districts and forced two thirds of the inhabitants (about 17,000 people) to abandon their homes and move to modern housing. However, people living in the newer part of the historic centre (via San Biagio, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, via del Corso, etc) were allowed to stay.
More than just caves
There is so much more to Matera beside cave dwellings. The Duomo (cathedral) which was built in 1268 in the Romanesque style sits proudly at the top of the hill. From a view point in front the cathedral you get an amazing view of the Sasso Barisano spread out before you. From many points in the city there are great views of the Sassi and the rocky ravine.
Matera’s historic centre also includes the 15th century Casalnuovo district and the 17th-18th century “Piano” district. Beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto you can even visit a large water cistern. With a vault height of over 15 metres and pillars carved from the rock it is like an underground cathedral. You may also be surprised to discover that Matera has a castle, or at least part of one. In the early 16th century Giovan Carlo Tramontano, Count of Matera ordered the construction of Tramontano Castle. However, its construction was not finished, because in 1514 the count was killed by some citizens of Matera who rebelled against his high taxes. Today, the castle has three large towers.
Matera as a film location
Walking around the Sassi today feels like a trip back in time. The simple buildings and narrow streets are reminiscent of ancient sites in and around Jerusalem. A resemblance that has caught the attention of film producers who have used the location in many Christian-themed films, including The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964), The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004), The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke, 2006) and Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov, 2016).
Also, this spring the area was used as a film location for part of the next James Bond film, with the 007 crew also filming in nearby Gravina di Puglia in the months of August and September. Another Matera screen star is the local cuisine with top TV chefs including Matera on their travels around Italy. Gino D’ Acampo saw how to make bread, Jamie Oliver was shown how to make pasta by an 85-year-old Nonna, and Giorgio Locatelli learnt how to make cheese by hand in the series Italy Unpacked.
Matera’s on the up
Looking at the haunting photos of the Sassi you may get the impression that Matera is an abandoned ghost town. But when I visited, I was amazed to find that behind that amazing panorama is a large, thriving city. Until the late 1980s the Sassi district was considered uninhabitable, but then the local administration began to realise its tourism potential. They are now encouraging the regeneration of the area. With the help of the Italian government, UNESCO, and film coverage, Matera is now one of the fastest growing cities in southern Italy. The population has grown from around 30,000 in the early 1950s to over 60,000 today and there are many thriving businesses, restaurants, bars and hotels.
Among Italian tourists searching for a unique holiday experience, a stay in cave hotel has become quite a fashionable thing to experience. Tour groups from Apulia are also adding day trips to Matera into their itineraries. The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera have been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1993 and Matera was made European Capital of Culture for 2019. Throughout the year many cultural events and exhibitions have been organised, drawing in extra visitors.
Buying a property in Matera
Initially only local residents were allowed to live in the Sassi. However, since 2005 outsiders have been allowed to buy property here. Anyone purchasing a home to renovate must respect regulations put in place to safeguard the architectural, urban, environmental and economic recovery of the Sassi districts. There is also a designated buffer zone around the World Heritage area to protect the immediate surroundings of Sassi from insensitive development.
Gradually people are investing in the renovation of the town and some properties have been converted into hotel accommodation. A small selection of homes in the historic centre can be found on property portals, but I’d recommend a trip to Matera to see the full extent of what properties are for sale and to assess their locations. Not all properties are in caves. Some of the most attractive homes are those with a terrace or balcony with an incredible view of the Sassi or ravine.
Property prices: Prices vary depending on the condition of the property, location and views. As a guide, a 50m2 cave apartment needing renovation costs about €70,000. A two-bedroom apartment with views of Sassi €250,000.
“We live in Matera!”
I spoke to Greg (aged 36), who has been living in Matera for the past four and half years. Greg and his girlfriend Silvia, offer English speaking experience tours, called La Lucana. Based out of Silvia’s family’s farmhouse, holiday guests get to stay with an Italian family and experience being taken on an authentic journey through the food, culture, history and people of Matera and Basilicata.
How did you come to be in Matera?
I was living in Manchester when I came to Matera for the first time. It was for an urban games project called ‘Basilicata Border Games’. During that first week I completely fell in love with the place. It was just so unique and felt special. A few years later, and after having met my girlfriend (from Matera) I started living here.
How has being in Matera changed your life?
My lifestyle is completely different here. For example, lunch has never been so important to me! I care much more about the food I eat. I feel healthier here than ever before. In fact, all of my eating habits have changed completely from the foods that I now eat to when I eat them. Everything.
What do you love about living in Matera?
I’ve grown to love the way that people here are just comfortable with each other. It’s like ‘being human’ comes first and then the other things. Yes, things are disorganised, yes people are late and yes things can be frustrating sometimes. But if you can get past that, you’ll appreciate a lot more of the important things of life.
Is it difficult being a British person living among Italians?
One big challenge about living here as a Brit is the language. I can’t put it any simpler than this: If you don’t learn the language, you won’t be able to integrate. It really is a must and it will obviously help you with practical things as well. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do need to learn and improve. In my view, if you don’t do that, you’ll just be a permanent tourist here. Although you’ll still have a great time here, you’ll miss out on so much and meet a lot more frustration.
Where are your favourite places?
The Sassi di Matera (obviously and it’s where I currently live!. Also Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa. I love Agriturismo L’Assiolo, which is the agriturismo owned by my girlfriend’s family, near the San Giuliano Lake. Also Maratea, which is one of the loveliest seaside places ever. To be honest though, anywhere you go in Southern Italy is simply stunning and amazing, so don’t make the mistake of thinking of these places as ‘one-offs’ – I’d challenge anyone to not find virtually any of the little towns and villages in Basilicata utterly charming and beautiful.
Has being European Capital of Culture 2019 brought in the tourists?
Yes absolutely, although the majority are still Italian tourists for the moment. I think after this Bond film we’ll see a real explosion of foreign tourists here. They are already increasing every day!
Does Matera offer potential for rental to tourists?
As far as tourism is concerned, Basilicata is not there… yet. At the moment, the tourism market here is very much being explored by Italians. In fact, you can’t put Italian TV on these days without seeing a mention of Matera at some point. It’s only a matter of time before the region does eventually become as famous as Tuscany and other regions.
The crazy thing is that honestly, Basilicata has just as much to offer as Tuscany – if not more! The key areas to consider at the moment for tourist business ventures (guests houses etc.) are Matera, Maratea and even some of the mountain towns like Castelmezzano. In the future though, I reckon the seaside towns of Metaponto, Policoro etc. will finally get some redevelopment and could become famous seaside destinations.
Getting to Matera
The nearest airport to Matera is Bari Palese, in the neighbouring region of Apulia. Bari Airport receives flights from the Italian cities of Milan, Rome, Verona, Turin, Venice, Trapani, Bergamo and Bologna. International flights arrive from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, Cologne, Bucharest, Tirana, Stuttgart and Munich. Alternative airports are Brindisi (140 km) and Naples (250 km).
There are coach services that run between Bari and Matera and car hire is also available at the airport. From Bari airport you can drive to Matera in less than an hour. I drove from the Brindisi area in less than two hours, passing Taranto, then following the SS106 around the coast before turning inland to Matera. The countryside as I approached Matera was amazing with gently rolling hills.
Drive time from Matera to:
Bari airport – 1 hour
The sea – 55 minutes
Gravina in Puglia – 30 minutes
Alberobello – 1 hr 10 mins
Altamura – 25 minutes
Italy has many unique cities that make you go “Wow” when you see them. No photo or film can recreate the wonder you feel when you turn a corner and are confronted by an amazing view that conjures up images in your mind of the people that walked those streets thousands of years ago. Rome, Venice, Pompeii, Florence the list goes on… but Matera definitely deserves to be near the top of your bucket list.