Matera in Basilicata is a town in southern Italy that, unlike the hugely popular Cinque Terre, is trying to increase tourism.
Its ancient town, the Sassi di Matera (stones of Matera), is a unique limestone city carved into a steep hill. Matera has been the location for many films, including the "The Passion of the Christ." The area where Matera is now has been inhabited for an estimated 7,000 years, making it one of the oldest places in the world.
Sassi are what's known as "inhabited rock districts,” houses stacked atop one another and linked by tiny, narrow streets, some of which also serve as roofs for other homes. These houses are entirely dug into rock walls with only the facades visible, like caves. Built in the Middle Ages, Matera is in a hilly area that contains the Sassi, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993.
Recently the town has been chosen as a "2019 European Capital of Culture" by an international panel. (In 2016, the cities chosen were Wroclaw, Poland and San Sebastián in Spain.)
Matera's hope is to increase tourism from an annual 200,000 to 600,000, which it believes is environmentally sustainable. The town has already built museums and hotels for its modest tourist population, dwarfed by other places in Italy that are more accessible.
Many churches are also dug into the rocks as well. The small province of Basilicata overlooks the Ionian Sea to the east and borders with the Apulia region to the north, the province of Potenza to the west, and Calabria to the south. A well-known pasta made by locals is orecchiette.
Two wildlife national parks are available to explore: the San Giuliano National Park and the Pantano of Policoro Woods, named a World Wildlife Fund Oasis.
Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era, but the Sassi were built in the late 5th century. They represent a way of life and a unique urban settlement in a hilly region where the climate is unusual for southern Italy--often snowy in winter.
In the 1950s, the poorest residents lived in the old city with no heat or running water, until a relocation plan was created. Today it is relatively undiscovered by tourists, and makes an enchanting destination along with nearby Puglia, although its location in Italy's boot makes it somewhat difficult to get to.
But worth it.