The settlement goes back to palaeolithic times and occupies a picturesque location on rocks above a deep gorge.
The town has featured in several biblical films - King David with Richard Gere, Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ, Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story, Timur Bekmambetov's Ben Hur - the architecture and dramatic landscape in the gorge create the perfect backdrop.
Matera declined in influence under the Greeks, and was destroyed by the Franks in 867, but it was rebuilt in the early c11th under the rule of Byzantium. An interesting fact for us was that during the c6th followers of Saint Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea and Cappadocia arrived in Matera fleeing from iconoclastic persecutions. They bought with them Greek religious rites and a community life that revolved around living in underground caves in a very similar manner to their previous existence in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, now Turkey.
The town consists of an attractive upper district and the silent lower Sassi (cave) district where people once occupied dwellings scooped out of the soft rock. Some of 130 rock churches were eventually occupied during the c15th by local people. Even up until the 1960s families of 8 or 10 together with their animals were still living in cave homes without any sanitation.
In his memoire 'Christ stopped at Eboli', Carlo Levi drew attention to the living conditions of the people of Matera, comparing the Sassi (cave) district to Dante's Inferno.
Four hundred years ago everyone in Matera, rich and poor, peasants and aristocrats, all lived in caves.
The rich had grand facades, fashionable porticos, and ornate doorways which led into cavernous rooms hollowed out from the rocks.
By the 18th century, the middle classes were moving out to build a new “upper” town of elegant palaces and piazzas.
The façade of one of Matera's churches, San Francesca, pays understated homage to 'Lecce Baroque'.
The city of Lecce - the Florence of the south, gives its name to what is called 'Barocco leccese'. It is unlike baroque seen anywhere else being exhuberant, fun, covered in putti, flowers, symbols and lots of hiddden messages - a visit to Lecce will be forthcoming
As the day draws to a close, and we drive onwards to our next destination, we take a final look back from the far side of the gorge to Matera's cathedral - a splendid c13th Apulian Romanesque style building dedicated to the Madonna della Bruna and St. Eustace.