48 hours Mat­era An ancient city with con­tem­po­rary ideas

One of the old­est land­scapes on Earth lay derelict and un­in­hab­ited less than 70 years ago. Now, says Fleur Rol­let-Manus, the hon­ey­comb caves are a shin­ing ex­am­ple of hu­man re­silience

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Why go? The rocky out­crop of Mat­era in the south­ern re­gion of Basil­i­cata has risen from the dead to be­come a Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture in 2019. With ev­i­dence of con­tin­u­ous set­tle­ment span­ning over 9,000 years, the labyrinth of rock-hewn homes (known as the Sassi, or ‘Stones’) fell into dis­re­pair in the 1950s. De­spite the in­ge­nious ancient plumbing and cis­tern sys­tems (which se­cured its Unesco World Her­itage sta­tus) many in­hab­i­tants lived in poverty and were re­lo­cated to the mod­ern city. Then, as crafts­men, web de­vel­op­ers and punchy young Ital­ians re­claimed the nat­u­ral fortress, Mat­era has been trans­formed into a hon­ey­pot for cre­atives. What to do Walk down the wind­ing road to the city’s cen­tre to reach the cave dwellings of Sasso Barisano. Best ex­plored on foot, maze-like steps lead to vi­c­i­natis oc­cu­pied by trendy bars, mu­se­ums and bou­tique ho­tels bur­rowed in the rock. Then try a visit to Casa Noha fon­doam­bi­ente.it/lu­oghi/ casa-noha for a 25-minute in­tro­duc­tion to the Sassi (£5.30pp). Spread over five rooms of a 16th-cen­tury fam­ily home, the mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibit fea­tures orig­i­nal video footage of life in the Sassi, along­side an in­for­ma­tive com­men­tary giv­ing you an over­view of its history. Play­ing an im­por­tant part in Mat­era’s re­gen­er­a­tion, just a minute’s walk away is the world’s first con­tem­po­rary cave mu­seum. MUSMA musma.it pro­vides a strik­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween the lat­est mod­ern sculp­tural art and the hy­pogeum it’s housed in. Run­ning par­al­lel to the area, the Unesco-pro­tected Parco delle Chiese Ru­pestri di Mat­era com­prises over 150 churches, her­mitages and set­tle­ments span­ning two mil­len­nia. Hike along the edge of the gorge for sweep­ing vis­tas. Stand on the Belvedere for sun­set views. Af­ter­wards, re­ward your­self at I Vizi degli An­geli ivizideglian­geli.it with an or­ganic ice cream. More akin to a lab­o­ra­tory than a tra­di­tional gela­te­ria, ex­pect re­fresh­ing man­darin and basil, crunchy pine nut and creamy mas­car­pone and mar­rone (ch­est­nut). Where to stay Dif­fer­ing wildly from their hum­ble be­gin­nings, mul­ti­ple grotta have been re­mod­elled into sump­tu­ous bou­tique lodg­ings with all crea­ture com­forts. Le Grotte della Civita 00 39 0835 332 744, legrot­tedel­lacivita.sex­tan­tio.it care­fully pre­served the rock for­ma­tions. Can­dles il­lu­mi­nate the lime­stone, arched door­ways lead out to ravine vis­tas and free­stand­ing bath­tubs oc­cupy spec­tac­u­lar cav­erns. The beau­ti­fully bou­tique con­tem­po­rary ten-room Il Palaz­zotto Res­i­dence & Win­ery 00 39 0835 334 519, il­palaz­zot­to­mat­era.it ex­tends its hospi­tal­ity be­yond some­where to rest your head: freshly baked pies are served at break­fast and in­vi­ta­tions to visit the fam­ily’s win­ery come as stan­dard. Un­suited to cave dwelling? Stay at his­tor­i­cal Palazzo Margherita 00 39 0835 549 060, the­fam­i­ly­cop­po­lahide­aways.com sit­u­ated in nearby Ber­nalda, which makes a good base for ex­plor­ing the rest of the re­gion. Where to eat and drink Sassi fam­i­lies re­lied heav­ily on com­mu­nity spirit. Us­ing a com­mu­nal oven, they would pro­duce pane di Mat­era, a horn-shaped bread that formed a sta­ple part of their diet. Nowa­days it is served up as a sand­wich. Il Forno di Gen­narao 00 39 0835 385656, il­forn­odi­gen­naro.com load theirs with aubergine, cour­gette, cheese and pesto. In­flu­enced by neigh­bour­ing Puglia, you’ll find the same orec­chi­ette pasta and fava bean purée on menus here. Try the an­tipasti at Ris­torante Francesca 00 39 0835 310443: figs stuffed with or­ange ricotta and mint along­side cour­gette flower tortino. Bun­dles of cr­uschi pep­pers dec­o­rate mar­ket stalls and kitchens. The slightly sweet chilli is dried in the sun for a month, be­fore be­ing fried in olive oil. Sam­ple it in La Talpa 00 39 0835 335 086 in their As­sasin spaghetti, which is as hot as it sounds. Area 8 00 39 333 336 9788, area8.it is a the­atre, bar, café and li­brary con­cept space. Or­der a fait u ale – a cock­tail that ar­rives de­pen­dent on the bar­tender’s mood, if you dare.

Time run­ning out? A two-hour guided tour of the Sassi prom­ises all the in­sider low-down (£8.95pp). gety­our­guide.co.uk Trip tip Hand­made ter­ra­cotta rooster whis­tles known lo­cally as cucù are an ex­am­ple of lo­cal craft. Grab one at Gep­petto’s 19 Pi­azza del Sedile for around £10.

Clock­wise from top left: the spec­tac­u­lar set­ting of the Sassi, cre­ated over 9,000years ago; cave liv­ing made cosy at Le Grotte della Civita; a clas­sic Ital­ian Vespa; hand­made pasta; lo­calan­tipasti; an ancient door; Mat­era’s Pi­azzaVit­to­rio Veneto

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