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
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