I hadn’t heard of Matera and its incredible history until I chanced upon a review of it while looking for somewhere to stay on our recent trip to southern Italy. The ancient town and its caves were for many years inhabited by people who often shared their living space with their livestock in quite appalling conditions – until the 1950′s, when in what became known as “the shame of Italy”, the government forcefully relocated most of the population to the newer developing city. The area left behind, known as the “Sassi”, remained uninhabited until the late 1980′s, since when it has been the subject of some considerable re-generation, not least with the help of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and its location providing the backdrop for Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”.
Nowadays, around 3,000 people have returned to live and work in the Sassi (compared to the 17,000 people who were previously crammed in), along with shops, restaurants and hotels. Indeed, the government has provided inhabitants with rent-free 30 year leases in return for their commitment to undertake renovations on their properties.
Of course, tourism now plays its part in helping the city to re-generate itself – and as a destination it is both beautiful and fascinating. We took a 2 hour private tour with Antonio, who runs Matera Tourist Guide with his girlfriend, and he really helped to bring the story of Matera and its people alive – from describing and showing us how the cave-dwellers managed such everyday challenges as water drainage, heating and living with their livestock to how a church built from a cave was converted to produce and store wine!
But the memories that will linger the longest are those of our overnight stay in the fabulous Sextantio le Grotte della Civita hotel, which consists of 18 rooms , or to be more precise luxuriously renovated caves. Running alongside the cliff face, it’s an architectural triumph – indeed it would be quite easy to miss it altogether, so seamlessly does it blend in with its natural surroundings. Having booked one of their “superior” rooms we received a free upgrade upon arrival to a “cave suite” (room number 14). Opening the door to the suite was one of those “wow” moments that almost took our breath away. We entered a room which was quite simply stunning, with its centrepiece – a gorgeous king sized bed furnished with hand made linens – illuminated by a wealth of candles dotted throughout the rest of the cave. Antonio told us that, before he became a tour guide, he and his dad produced a lot of the reclaimed furniture for the hotel, including those in our room.
Our one night at the hotel was more of an “experience” than an overnight stay – the natural smells of the bare limestone combined with the scented candles, the general ambience of the place (our suite had no windows but the room was so spacious that it didn’t matter at all) and its overall setting overlooking the beautiful “Gravina” (ravine). Incredibly, the room also had underfloor heating and wi-fi!
Certainly this is an excellent example of how the regeneration of Matera is attracting tourists in increasing numbers. At the moment, the amount of development appears to be well controlled and can only benefit the local community. However, our guide Antonio, who is a native of the town, expressed his worry about where the development will ultimately stop – having arrived in Matera from Puglia and witnessed what has happened to the re-develeopment of another UNESCO World heritage site, Alberobello, I understand where he is coming from.
But for now, if you get the opportunity I urge you to go and immerse yourself in a truly unique place.