When you dream of visiting Italy, you probably don’t think about spending the night in a prehistoric cave hotel in Matera. But maybe you should.
Matera is a city located in the southern region of Basilicata. The city is home to the ancient Sassi di Matera. The settlement was first inhabited during the Paleolithic period 2.5 million years ago! Here, dwellings were carved into the mountain rock to create homes, churches, and monasteries. This resulted in one of the most unique natural landscapes in Europe. Additionally, the city was considered the “shame of Italy” until recently. It was an area of deep poverty, and many of its inhabitants and their livestock lived together–often in the same cave dwelling. During the 1950s, the Italian government helped to relocate the people of the Sassi to a new public housing project. But revitalization of the area did not begin until the late 1980s.
Rise to Fame
In just a few decades, however, that has all changed. The city has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was even named the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera has become a popular filming location for several box office hits such as Wonder Woman and No Time to Die. It is also one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Italy. Although Matera may not be as well-known as Venice or Milan, it was on my radar for years. And it was the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, an albergo diffuso, that finally lured me to visit this summer.
The Albergo Diffuso
The idea behind an albergo diffuso, or “dispersed hotel,” is to promote sustainable tourism. This is achieved by converting a cluster of historic buildings into hotel rooms scattered throughout a town. In this way, guests can take part in local life. Additionally, the albergo diffuso helps to preserve the authenticity of the town by investing in its cultural heritage. By creating a revenue stream for local talents, they can offer a singular cultural experience for visitors.
This may seem like a novel concept, but it’s actually not. Professor Giancarlo dall’Ara conceived the first albergo diffuso in the 1980s. Daniele Kihlgren, a Swedish-Italian entrepreneur and hotelier, subsequently popularized the concept. He founded two hotels under the Sextantio name: Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo and Le Grotte della Civita in Matera.
Stay in a Cave
In Matera, the Sextantio le Grotte della Civita has cave rooms scattered within the most ancient part of Sassi. The hotel faces the Murgia National Park and consists of 18 caves that have been converted into romantic suites. An ancient deconsecrated rock church currently houses the breakfast room and common area. The bedrooms vary in size, but some are as large as 1,700 square feet!
All the areas and features of the albergo diffuso have been meticulously restored to keep everything as original as possible. The furnishings and bedding are minimalist in style. They include antique linens, wool mattresses, and upcycled wooden chairs and tables to keep as close to the local cultural heritage as possible. During the restoration period, every brick on the floor was removed, numbered, and replaced in exactly the same order. And each guest receives an oversized wrought-iron key at check-in. The hotel is authentic, with freestanding bathtubs, a high-end design, and a plethora of candles fully lit upon arrival. It’s a perfect luxurious and romantic couple’s getaway. Waking up in a cave is surreal in the best kind of way! Especially when you consider the ancient heritage all around you.
Sextantio le Grotte della Civita features a delectable organic breakfast that includes a variety of locally-sourced products. This includes strazzata, typical focaccia from Basilicata, fresh mozzarella, eggs, yogurt, pastries, and seasonal produce. Guests can also enjoy a candlelit dinner in this unique space or opt for a cooking class to learn how to make the region’s specialties. For those looking to unwind, you can book an Ayurvedic massage in your own room, accompanied by scented oils and candlelight.
The Italy Edit’s Recommendations For Matera
- Hop in a hot air balloon with Mongolfiera al Sud to admire the city’s Sassi from up above. Prices start at €194 per person and the ride guarantees to be an unforgettable experience.
- Dine at La Gattabuia, Ristorante Baccus, or Radino Wine Bar and order anything with pepperone crusco (the sweet dried peppers are famous across Basilicata).
- Put on your comfortable hiking shoes and join local guide Renato Favilli for a walking tour of the Sassi by day or night, or opt for a drive through town in the back of a quaint three-wheeled Ape Calessino buggy.
- Shop for artisan souvenirs at Geppetto to pick up the city’s famous “cuccù” rooster whistles. Go to Artelier Ceramiche Matera for ceramic art and home decor, and Mancini Timbri Del Pane for traditional wooden bread stamps.