Lee Osborne explores one of the oldest cities in the world, made famous by the opening scene of No Time To Die
Matera is quite unlike anywhere else I have ever been. Some say its ancient network of cave dwellings is reminiscent of Jerusalem or Palestine, making it well-suited to serve as the location for biblical motion pictures such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It had never had a modern high-speed car chase shot here though… that was until the James Bond film crew descended upon the troglodyte town in 2019 and made its symphony of beige skyline a key location for No Time to Die.
‘Matera was incredibly generous and allowed us to close down all the streets,’ says James Bond’s sixth incarnation, Daniel Craig. Unlike previous occasions, where local residents were understandably up in arms having their town totally overrun by film crew, locals were handsomely compensated for the disruption.
Something otherworldly pervades the air in this quaint corner of Basilicata, a spiritual energy that I’ve only ever witnessed on the Nile in Egypt. It’s as though when God sprinkled this unique corner of the Earth with magic dust, he installed MC Escher as town planner – such is its meticulous realism with enigmatic optical illusions chiselled out of soft tufa limestone. Situated in a canyon that has been eroded away over the centuries by La Gravina, a meandering river that’s now a small stream, the Unesco World Heritage site of Matera is affectionately known as “la Città Sotterranea” (the Subterranean City). You’ll hear the term “Sassi” bandied about wherever you go – basically two districts named Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, comprising a complex of houses, churches, monasteries and hermitages built out of the natural caves of the Murgia, which cover an area of some 1,016 hectares. It’s home to over a thousand dwellings and a large number of shops and galleries.
It’s hard to believe given its recent meteoric rise, including being named European Capital of Culture in 2019, that only 80 years ago Matera was languishing, labelled “the disgrace of the nation” by Italian artist and author Carlo Levi, who was held under political exile in Basilicata under the then Fascist regime. He penned his highly controversial memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli – a title that refers to the town of Eboli near Naples, implying that Christianity and civilisation had never made it as far as Italy’s deep south, rendering it a pagan, lawless land, riddled with ancient superstitions. Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi was so appalled by what he witnessed during his visit to the Sassi in 1950 that he set in motion a draconian plan to relocate the entirety of the Sassi’s population to a series of new housing developments. Investment started filtering through from the late 1980s, largely from the US and, although the families that had been forced to leave never returned, many of their descendants felt the pull of nature enough to open hotels and restaurants.
The owner of La Nocelleria cafe even has a couple of empty bullet cartridges – one is even blood-stained – as lasting souvenirs which he’ll happily show you as you sip on an espresso overlooking the scene.
Besides heading up her own marketing company, Matera native Dora Cappiello has cleverly devised a dedicated No Time to Die private tour, which, if you happen to be staying three nights at Palazzo Gattini, is included in the price – otherwise it’s bookable to non-residents for €160. Cappiello personally escorted me on her 90-minute guided tour, which takes in the majority of the 18 locations between Matera’s historic centre and the Park of the Rock Churches. The tour begins in the town’s main square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, before heading up to Piazza San Giovanni, where, in the film, we get up close and personal with Bond’s fabled Aston Martin DB5. Equipped with twin M134 Miniguns behind each of its headlights it swivels on a succession of handbrake turns, showering bullets in all directions. The owner of Nocelleria cafe even has a couple of empty bullet cartridges – one is even blood-stained – as lasting souvenirs, which he’ll happily show you as you sip on an espresso overlooking the scene.
As we stroll down past the Church of Madonna delle Virtù, Cappiello traces the route of the epic car chase where the inimitable DB5’s engine noise vividly reverberated the airwaves as it navigated the labyrinth of lanes at breakneck speed. From here, it was on to the mediaeval Civita Castellana on Piazza Duomo, where one of the most spectacular scenes of the movie was shot: in an Evel Knievel type manoeuvre, a Triumph Tiger 900 motorbike driven by Craig acrobatically scales a city wall, narrowly avoiding a passing religious procession. The tour continues along the staircase of Via Muro where the two leading actors, Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux, shot intimate scenes with the breathtaking backdrop of the Sasso Caveoso featuring prominently as they strolled romantically back to their “hotel”*.
Cappiello regales you with various tales as you navigate a street plan reminiscent of a Snakes-and-Ladders board, such as Craig’s penchant for the delicious local crusco pepper, and the one about the flock of sheep hired from a local farmer being sent scattering in all directions due to the intense gunfire of a scene they were due to feature in – as well as playing movie clips and behind-the-scenes footage on her iPad, which really help bring the scenes to life. A little word of caution though to avoid any disappointment: the incredible bridge that features in one of the opening scenes is not actually in Matera – it’s located in Gravina, some 35-minutes’ drive away. So determined was he to use the bridge as the setting for one of the film’s main action scenes, director Cary Joji Fukunaga commissioned his special effects team to digitally superimpose the bridge onto a Materan townscape. It is all very believable.
How to get there
Because of the pint-sized nature of the place, Matera is doable in two to three days, but tag on a few extra days and explore the delights of neighbouring Puglia. Bari international airport is 65km (40 miles) away and is served by both Ryanair and EasyJet from London.
Where to stay
La Casa di Gio
A plethora of Airbnbs and house rentals have seized on the success of Bond fans descending on the city to hunt down the exact movie locations of No Time to Die. What La Casa di Gio lacks in size it more than makes up for with the most incredible views of the Sassi (see my panoramic photo), and is a mere 10-minute walk to the main square.
La Casa di Gio, Colle San Massimo, 8A, 64021, Giulianova, Italy; Rentable viabooking.com
Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
You could be forgiven for thinking that the epic cave suite that appears in the beginning of the movie featuring Craig and Léa Seydoux (Madeleine Swann) was filmed here, but in fact it was shot on a specially built temporary gantry chosen to frame the ultimate backdrop. There’s no doubt Sextantio’s sumptuous suites, replete with high-thread-count bedding, freestanding baths and scented candles are the closest you’ll get to recreating “that” balcony scene, where Seydoux sets fire to a paper note.
Pretty fancy for Matera, Dimora Ulmo is a gourmet partnership between three good friends, Michele Castelli, Francesco Russo and Nicola Andrisani, housed in the prestigious Palazzo Torraca once owned by the Ulmo family, one of the city’s most famous and wealthiest aristocratic families in the 18th century. Opt for the three-course tasting menu featuring highlights such as marinated tenderloin, ponzu sauce and roasted peppers and buffalo mortadella ravioli with tomato and cucumber gel, with world-class wine pairings, and make the most of it not yet being awarded a Michelin star. Dimora Ulmo, Via Pennino, 28-75100, Matera; dimoraulmo.it
If you prefer something slightly less formal, then La Latteria, run by a guy named Emanuele, who’s turned his family’s old cheese-making facility into a fully-fledged restaurant, is a good bet. Dine on delights such as Podolica beef steak or aviglianese cod and, whatever you do, don’t leave without trying the heavenly bruschetta. Wash it all down with a bottle of local red Monacello Matera from Tenuta Parco dei Monaco.
La Latteria, Via Emanuele Duni, 2, 75100, Matera
WHERE TO DRINK
Matera’s very own microbrewery tap room dispenses an array of craft ales alongside hearty fare to soak up the excesses of the likes of Monstrum Italian Grape Ale and the cheekily named, pink-labelled Golden Milf.
By Lee Osborne, Creative Director, Secret Trips. Osborne spent a decade as Creative Director of Condé Nast Traveler before setting up his own luxury content studio specialising in travel, fashion and lifestyle. Follow him @sartorialee
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