It has a prime spot on the cultural map but it's off the beaten tourist track, writes Jane Jurgens.

Every year, the EU selects two cities to be named annual Capital of Culture.

The initiative was established in 1985 to highlight Europe's diversity, regenerate cities and raise their international profile, leading to a boost in tourism.

Taking the baton from 2018's recipients Leeuwarden (the Netherlands) and Valletta (Malta), are two destinations possibly not on many Kiwi's radars — Matera in southern Italy and Plovdiv in Bulgaria.

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So why should they be added to a European adventure? This week, five things you should know about Matera. (We'll profile Plovdiv in a coming issue).

1. Aside from Petra in Jordan, it's the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in history

The area in Basilicata has been settled since the Palaeolithic period — the oldest period in human history. Early residents made themselves at home by digging caves into the soft volcanic stone of the landscapes. These dwellings continued to be used by later settlers, from the Greeks and the Romans to the Byzantines. The two neighbourhoods of cave dwellings in the ancient town are known as sassi — today you can stay in hotels and B&Bs created there.

2. It's where The Passion of the Christ and other classic films were made

Unsurprisingly, Matera's ancient beauty has led to it being used as a setting for films. Most famously, it was used for Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.

It's also been used for a number of other biblical films — including Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Beresford's King David (1985), and Hardwicke's The Nativity Story (2006).

3. You can visit by train

The easiest way to get to Matera is to fly to Bari Airport. A private railway line connects Bari and Matera, and in summer a free bus service called Pugliarbus connects Bari Airport to Matera.

4. Now is the time to see its stone churches

Matera's churches are carved into stone, much like the early homes. Dating back to the Middle Ages, many have interiors covered in beautiful frescoes. However, they're not in the best shape and the frescoes are very delicate. Tourists touching them have caused damage, so hands off — but go and see them while you still can.

5. Don't go if you don't like climbing stairs

You're going to be doing a lot of climbing, particularly if you stay in the sassi — and accessibility for those with disabilities isn't really a thing. You'll want to pack your walking shoes and be prepared to work up a sweat — especially if you're visiting during the hot summer.

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GETTING THERE

Emirates flies from Auckland to Rome, via Dubai, with return Economy Class fares from $1769. Connections are available to Bari Airport.

DETAILS
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