Ancient cave dwellings carved into the rocky mountainside are the defining feature of the city of Matera in south Italy's Basilicata region. Known as la Città Sotterranea ("the Underground City"), this spectacularly scenic spot has been around since the 10th millennium BC, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth. With a somewhat remote location (the nearest airport is in Bari, about 1.5 hours away by car), Matera is the perfect place to visit on an Italy road trip.
Matera is home to the world-famous Sassi di Matera, prehistoric grottoes carved into limestone where some of the first ever human settlements once lived. Unbelievably, until the 1950s these caves were considered areas of abject poverty, many of its inhabitants suffering from malaria and high rates of infant mortality. These days, however, Matera has benefited from tourism and redevelopment, with new hotels and restaurants drawing in visitors from far and wide. In 2014, it was declared one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019, firmly putting it on the map as a must-see travel destination.
One of the best ways to experience Matera is simply by walking through the labyrinth of its ancient streets, letting yourself imagine that you're stepping thousands of years back in time. The old town is split into two parts Sasso Barisano to the northwest and the Sasso Caveoso to the south, which are divided by the Civita - the oldest part of the city. Embark on an organised walking tour or just freestyle it - the photo ops are positively endless.
Matera has quite a few museums, art galleries and points of interest that are worth visiting on your trip, such as the Museo di Palazza lanfranchi's collection of sacred and contemporary art. To get a better feel for the history of Matera, head to the intimate Museo Laboratorio della Civilta Contadina, which contains artefacts of the Sassi people's daily life. The owner is friendly and extremely knowledgeable, so be sure to ask questions if you have any.
Thanks to its primeval appearance, Matera bares a striking resemblance to Jerusalem and has often been used as a substitute for the holy city in films including 2004's The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson. In fact, the photogenic city has served as the backdrop to more than 20 movies, some of the most notable being King David (starring Richard Gere) and More Than a Miracle (starring Omar Sharif and Sophia Loren).