Matera, Italy

Photo: Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
Photo: Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita

You’ve been to Italy more times than you can count, but the bottom part of the country remains a bit of a mystery. Naples is the farthest south you’ve ventured, not including the islands. The toe and the heel, otherwise known as Calabria and Puglia, have never fit into your plans. While Basilicata, the instep along the Tyrrhenian Sea, wasn’t even on your radar. Until now.

All it took was a design hotel to change your mind. In Matera, nine abandoned and decaying buildings were completely rehabilitated and turned into Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, a charming place to stay. But these aren’t just any rooms. They’re old—like from the Middle Ages old. Plus they’re in caves—actual caves—that were carved out of soft volcanic rock. You’re intrigued.

You arrive in Matera, in the Apennine Mountains, to find that the entire city, not just the hotel, has been built into this canyon that was formed by the Gravina river. Everyone from the Normans and the Germans to the Byzantines and the Lombards claimed these caves at one point. The Romans first settled them in the 3rd century BC. While they may even be the spot of the first human settlement in Italy—all of Italy. How have you missed this on all those previous trips?

Photo: Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
Photo: Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita

But back to Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita. Pigs used to be raised in what is now the reception area. The rustic rooms are cool and dark with stone walls, wooden doors, and small windows. Egg-shaped bathtubs and flickering candles enhance the romantic atmosphere. While breakfast—including focaccia, mozzarella, and salumi—is served in a former church cave from the 18th century.

Set out to explore Sassi di Matera, the historical center of the town that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Flat sandals will help you navigate the hills and the narrow staircases. Visit the churches, including the Church of Sant’Agostino and the Matera Cathedral, that were carved into the volcanic rocks. See the canal-like cisterns where rainwater used to be collected. Then stop at small cafes and sweet shops in the pretty piazzas.

Back at the hotel, sit on the terrace, which overlooks Alta Murgia National Park, with a glass of Aglianico del Vulture before dinner. The full-bodied red wine is produced from grapes that originated in Greece. Move to the Tasting Room, where more candles create shadows of the wooden tables, the fireplace, and the water jugs. Eat ricotta with lemon, melon with prosciutto di Parma, and pork with caciocavallo cheese. And end the day by soaking in the tub back in your room. It’s time to figure out what else you’ve missed in southern Italy.

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