Behind the scenes of James Bond and Matera

I’d avoided mentioning it for almost an hour, through sobering and shocking tales of what it was like to grow up in a cave in a place once labelled ‘Italy’s shame’, hearing also of the stigma attached to being a troglodyte. I held back questions pushing at my lips to escape while we stood on small rectangular cavities hewn into the rock that had once been graves, and as we reverently admired vibrant frescoes in the temperate depths of a rock church. But as we passed beneath an arched gateway to enter Piazza San Pietro Caveoso, which was instantly familiar even though I’d never set foot in it previously, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I wanted to know about James Bond and Matera, and if this was the square where Bond’s Aston Martin did a 360-degree spin, its twin machine guns spraying villainous cads with bullets.

Our guide, Casimo, visibly sighed when I asked the question. How many times had he been asked about James Bond when he was attempting to share serious insights into life in what was a fascinating and unique city? A lot as it happened.

He might have sighed, but once he started down the Bond road, he was off and running with juicy and amusing snippets that were gold nuggets to a double O seven aficionado such as myself.

James Bond and Matera, Matera at dusk
The first view seen of Matera in No Time to Die.

James Bond and Matera

Matera was no stranger to Hollywood when the Bond circus rolled into town to film No Time to Die, the final instalment of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Britain’s super spy. It played the part of the Amazonian city in Wonder Woman. In that instance, it looked so fantastical it didn’t register as a real city. Now, when I look at images from the movie, I can identify Matera … just.

It was considered suitably Biblical for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. Matera does look Biblical; a rock city carved into bleached limestone cliffs. Cave houses, looking as though they have been constructed on top of each other, make up the Sassi, a troglodyte warren of homes, hotels, apartments, churches, monasteries, and hermitages, mostly accessed via a potentially bewildering network of narrow alleys and uneven cobbled steps, some of which lead to dead-ends. It is a maze of a city. In a way, Matera’s Sassi reminded me of a more robustly constructed version of the tumbledown villages of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.

Despite their fame, or notoriety, neither film had the impact of Bond.

View of Matera
The rock city, built into the limestone.

‘One in three visitors who come to Matera are here because of the Bond movie,’ Cosimo told us, shaking his head, still marvelling at the stats. One in three people. It’s incredible. But I understand why. When I saw the background to No Time to Die’s opening sequence, I wanted to be there, to stand in Bond’s shoes. It looked like one of the most incredible places I’d ever seen. And, as this was Bond and not a world conjured up by DC Comics, it really existed. Or so I believed.

Matera, is it just an illusion?

When we heard we were to visit Matera, I hatched plans for channelling my inner Bond by taking a moody selfie on the old bridge across the ravine that links Matera with the rock cemetery where Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd. However, researching exactly where the bridge was located, I discovered there was no old bridge across the ravine. The one featured in the movie was at Gravina, sixteen miles away. It was grafted onto scenes of Matera by the filmmakers. Amusingly, I’ve since seen a specialist UK holiday company use images of the non-existent Matera bridge to promote trips to the rock city on their website. Their customers might be in for a wee shock when they get there.

Cosimo shattered a few other illusions. The cemetery itself doesn’t exist, at least not the way it looks in the film. The hotel where Bond and Madeleine stayed was also a Hollywood construct.

The bridge over the ravine, Matera
There is a bridge over the ravine at Matera. This is it.

As well as playing fast and loose with architectural reality, the moviemakers caused havoc in Matera, arriving to shoot scenes at the height of the tourist season, shutting down streets for the ubiquitous Bond car chase. Restaurants located on these streets had to close for the duration of filming, not that their owners complained too much; they were paid a hefty sum for every day they couldn’t open. If restaurants in the Sassi look immaculate and freshly decorated, it’s because their owners invested some of the generous ‘compensation’ received from the filmmakers to carry out renovations.

Matera’s ancient streets proved a challenge when it came to filming the car chase, the cobbles were simply too slippery for wheels to gain a traction, resulting in a couple of Aston Martins crashing. The solution? 8,400 gallons of Coca-Cola were sprayed onto the cobbles, the sticky liquid enabling the cars to finally get a grip. Filmmakers say the streets sparkled by the time the soft drink was cleaned off. What they didn’t reveal was that its corrosive qualities also resulted in some erosion.

The Sassi, a maze of alleys and steps,Matera
One of the Sassi districts – a maze of alleys and steps.

Reality versus the cinematic version

You might think learning what went on behind the scenes could remove some of the gloss. It is true parts of Matera don’t look exactly the same as they do on the big screen in No Time to Die. However, having watched the film again, the reality is there’s more to Matera, not less, than viewed in the film. And while No Time to Die has boosted the number of visitors, Matera’s relatively difficult-to-navigate, steepish, and uneven narrow streets keep the masses out of much of the Sassi.

Even without the magic of the movies, Matera is one of those extra special destinations, exceeding expectations and then some. Go visit, unlock the Bond within, but leave the Aston Martin at home.

About Jack 799 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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