Matera is a picturesque Italian city that is filled with ancient cave dwellings which are remarkably well-preserved. These rock-cut settlements, known as the Sassi, are perched on the edge of a canyon overlooking the Murgia Materana Park (Parco della Murgia Materana).
The Park is filled with amazing things to see, including the spectacular Belvedere Murgia Timone overlook and 100+ ancient Rupestrian churches. These rock churches are carved into the hillside and provide a fascinating look at life during the Early Middle Ages.
The Sassi of Matera and Park of Rupestrian Churches (Parco delle Chiese Rupestri di Matera) are so incredible, in fact, that they were designated as a UNESCO Heritage site in 1993.
The easiest way to reach Murgia Materana Park is by means of the Belvedere Murgia Timone Hiking Trail. One of the best hikes in Matera, the trail begins at Porta Pistola on the edge of Matera and descends into the Gravina River Canyon. It then climbs to the Park of Rupestrian Churches on the opposite side.
The hike also crosses the Ponte Tibetano della Gravina, a Tibetan-style suspension bridge. This swaying pedestrian bridge was constructed in 2015 and is now one of the city’s best-loved tourist attractions in its own right.
For more details on how to hike the trail from Matera to Belvedere Murgia Timone, as well as tips on finding the Rupestrian churches, read on!
Table of Contents
Belvedere Murgia Timone Map and Directions
- Distance: 2.66 miles roundtrip
- Elevation Gain: 738 feet
- Trailhead: Porta Pistola
- Official Trail Name: Murgia Materana Park Trail #406 (Parco della Murgia Materana Sentiero #406)
The trail begins at Porta Pistola in the Sasso Caveoso neighborhood of Matera. It is only a 3 minute’s walk from the Church of Saint Peter ‘Caveoso’ (Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso) – one of the most important tourist attractions in Matera.
There is a parking lot near the trailhead called “Parcheggio via Madonna delle Virtu”. A public restroom is located across the street as well (which costs â‚¬.50).
Preparing for Hiking in Matera
Before setting out on this or any hike, make sure you are prepared with snacks, sturdy walking shoes and any other gear you may need for the dayâ€™s weather (be sure to check the weather forecast!).
Use the public restroom before starting as there are no facilities at Belvedere Murgia Timone. Learn how to pee outside in case the urge strikes on the trail and be sure to leave no trace (don’t leave toilet paper behind!).
Avoid hiking during the middle of the day in summer months when temperatures soar. Pack plenty of water with you as there is none available on the other side of the canyon.
Bring sun protection and take care to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion. The trail is exposed without much shade (except for the caves which, unfortunately, are filled with toilet paper since people tend to use them as bathrooms.
Be warned that the trail is steep and uneven with loose rocks that are slippery. Take extra care when hiking after it rains as conditions will be even more challenging.
Here is a list of some of my favorite gear for day hiking.
- Hiking ShoesÂ â€“ Sturdy hiking or walking shoes are a must. Personally, Iâ€™m a big fan ofÂ Altra Timp Trail Running Shoes – but any good sneakers will do.
- SocksÂ â€“ Good thick socks are also important. I usually wear a pair of double-walledÂ Wrightsock Coolmesh II socksÂ with my Altras. For longer hikes, I switch toÂ Injinji Midweight socksÂ to prevent toe blisters.
- Sun HatÂ â€“ Protect your face (and scalp) with a broad sun hat.Â This sun hatÂ is great because it has a wide brim and no back so it doesnâ€™t bump into my backpack.
- Sun ShirtÂ â€“ Protect your neck and arms from the sun with a long-sleeved sun shirt. TheÂ Columbia Tamiami IIÂ is highly rated and comes with built-in UPF 40 sun protection.
- Sun Screen â€“ I like theseÂ Banana Boat 1-oz tubes of sunscreenÂ because they are super tiny and hardly take up any room in my bag.
- BackpackÂ â€“ A backpack is essential so you can carry water, layers, and snacks. I love Ospreys and use theÂ Osprey Manta packÂ which is technically a menâ€™s pack (because I have a longer torso than most women). The womenâ€™s equivalent is theÂ Osprey Mira pack.
- Hiking PolesÂ â€“ Hiking poles reduce pressure on your joints and help maintain your balance if you trip. My current favorites are theÂ LEKI Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles because they are super lightweight and easy to transport.
- ElectronicsÂ â€“ if you are using your phone for navigation, bring a portable battery such as theÂ Anker portable battery charger.
- CameraÂ â€“ I love taking photos and always bring a camera along on my hiking trips. I use theÂ Canon PowerShot G7X Mark IIIÂ because it is lightweight yet has many advanced features.
My Experience Hiking the Belvedere Murgia Timone Trail
I hiked the Belvedere Murgia Timone trail the Monday after Easter. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is a holiday and many people apparently have the day off. The entire city of Matera was packed with Italian families who were on vacation.
The trail was just as crowdedÂ – especially at the suspension bridge. I had to wait 15 minutes for my turn to go across it.
Two days later I hiked the trail again and this time hardly anyone was there. So, it is a good reminder to avoid holidays and weekends if you can!
Note: access to the interior of the Rupestrian churches described in this guide was blocked off when I visited them in April 2022. Each church entrance was sealed with a gate made of metal slats so that you could still see the frescoes inside.
Descending into Gravina River Canyon
The trail begins at Porta Pistola and immediately begins heading downhill into the canyon. The path is a bit rocky and uneven so proper footwear is a must (and hiking poles are very helpful!).
After 500 feet (160 m), the trail reaches an informal junction.Â At this point, most hikers take the right path which heads steeply downhill because it is the shortest path to the bottom.
I highly recommend continuing straight here, however. This is technically the official route for Path #406. Not only is it easier to hike because of a more gradual grade, but it is less crowded and has nicer views.
Once reaching the bottom, take a right to walk along the canyon floor towards the suspension bridge.
Before doing so, however, I recommend taking a left to peek around the corner. There are some really lovely views of the Gravina River canyon here with the Sasso Barisano neighborhood of Matera up above.
It’s also a great place to escape the crowds if you visit on a busy day.
Crossing the Ponte Tibetano della Gravina Suspension Bridge
The next major landmark is one of the trail’s highlights – the Tibetan suspension bridge. Unfortunately, it can get quite crowded if you visit on a busy day since it’s a major attraction.
That being said, many people turn around after visiting the bridge so you may experience less crowds on the other side.
For those who are afraid of heights, be aware that the bridge does sway as you walk across it.
After crossing the bridge, it’s time to ascend the opposite side of the canyon via some switchbacks. As you near the top, the trails began branching off to various caves that are found just under the lip of the canyon.
It can be hard to know which path to take here. I recommend sticking with the official trail #406 because it goes by some interesting caves and also the first Rupestrian church – Chiesa Sant’Agnese.
Chiesa Rupestre Sant’Agnese
The first Rupestrian church in this hiking itinerary is the Rock Church of St. Agnes (Chiesa Rupestre Sant’Agnese). The church is located near the end of Trail #406 just before it reaches the top of the canyon wall.
If you did not take Trail #406 all the way to the top, look for the rocky outcropping at the very point of the overlook area. This is where the trail reaches the top of the canyon. The church is located just below this spot along the trail.
When peeking through the gate into the chapel, you can see frescoes dating to the 7th century.
Chiesa Rupestre Madonna delle Tre Porte
Rock Church of Madonna of the Three Doors (Chiese Rupestre Madonna delle Tre Porte) is located next to the Belvedere Murgia Timone parking lot and is the easiest to access for those who arrive by car.
One of the chapel’s distinctive characteristics is that it has three entrances – so it’s easy to see how the church got its name.
The chapel has some great frescoes near the entrance which are easy to see through the slats of the locked gate. In fact, I think it has some of the best frescoes of all the churches in the Belvedere Murgia Timone area of the park.
Fun fact: the flat area near the church overlooking the Gravina River Valley was used as a shooting location in the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. The crucifixion scene was shot in this exact spot.
Matera Panorama Viewpoint
After leaving the Church of Madonna of the Three Doors, make your way back to the edge of the canyon overlooking the suspension bridge. There are some seats and informational signs here with more details about the park.
This is also one of the most popular spots for photos of Matera.
Chiesa Rupestre di San Vito
The Rock Church of St. Vito (Chiesa Rupestre di San Vito) is located north of the Matera Panorama Viewpoint area just under the edge of the canyon wall.
I looked around for a while on my first visit to Murgia Materana Park and couldn’t find it. I was determined, however, and found it on my next visit thanks to GPS coordinates that I added on my map.
Chiesa Rupestre di San Falcione
The last chapel in this itinerary is the Rock Church of St. Falcione (Chiesa Rupestre di San Falcione). This is a bit further away from the others and is easily accessible by the main road.
The outer wall around the chapel was constructed in the 19th century to turn the structure into a sheepfold. Between the wall and the locked door, it is the most difficult of the four churches to see inside.
Extending Your Hike
After visiting the Church of St. Falcione, the path makes a loop back to Trail #406. From there, you retrace your steps over the suspension bridge back to the trailhead on the other side of the canyon.
If you wish to extend your visit to the park, there are plenty of other trails and Rupestrian churches to explore.
Trail #408 leads from the Belevedere Murgia Timone parking area to the Chiesa Madonna delle Croce.Â Other trails lead back to the park entrance where you can visit the Chiesa San Pietro in Principibus.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, it is possible to hike all the way to the Chiesa Rupestre della Madonna delle Vergini on the other side of the canyon. But it involves leaving the park and walking along the road for a short while in order to cross a bridge.
Whatever you choose to do, I hope you enjoy exploring the Rupestrian churches in the Matera Murgia Park!
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