When you dream of visiting Italy, you probably don’t think about spending the night in a prehistoric cave dwelling. But maybe you should.
Matera, a city located in the southern region of Basilicata, is home to the ancient Sassi di Matera, a settlement which was first inhabited in the Paleolithic period 2.5 million years ago. Here, dwellings were dug into the mountain rock to create cave homes, churches and monasteries, resulting in one of the most unique natural landscapes in Europe. Up until recently, the city was considered the “shame of Italy” as 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.
In just a few decades, that has all changed. The Sassi di Matera have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city was the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera has become a popular filming location for several box office hits such as Wonder Woman and Quantum of Solace, and is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in Italy. Though Matera may not be as popular or well-known as cities like Venice or Milan, it was on my radar for years. And it was a special hotel, the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita albergo diffuso, that finally lured me to visit this summer.
The idea behind an albergo diffuso, or “dispersed hotel,” is to promote sustainable tourism by converting a cluster of historic buildings into hotel rooms scattered throughout a town or village center so that guests can take part in local life. In this way, the albergo diffuso helps to preserve the authenticity of the town by investing in its cultural heritage, creating a revenue stream for local talent and offering a singular cultural experience for visitors.
Though may seem like a novel concept, the first albergo diffuso was conceived by Professor Giancarlo dall’Ara in the 1980s and subsequently popularized by Swedish-Italian entrepreneur and hotelier Daniele Kihlgren who founded two hotels under the Sextantio name: Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo and Le Grotte della Civita in Matera.
In Matera, the Sextantio le Grotte della Civita albergo diffuso has cave rooms scattered within the most ancient part of Sassi, which face the Murgia National Park. The hotel is made up of 18 caves which have been converted into romantic suites, and an ancient deconsecrated rock church is now used as the breakfast room and common area. The bedrooms varied 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, with antique linens, mattresses made of wool and upcycled wooden chairs and tables to keep with the local cultural heritage as closely as possible. Every brick in the floor was removed, numbered, and replaced in exactly the same order during the restoration period – and each guest receives an oversized wrought-iron key at check in. The hotel is authentic, but with freestanding bathtubs, high-end design and a plethora of candles fully lit upon arrival, it’s a perfect luxurious and romantic couple’s getaway. And 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 including strazzata, a 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, don’t miss booking an Ayurvedic massage in your own room, accompanied by scented oils and candlelight.
The Italy Edit: Our 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 sunrise 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 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, Artelier Ceramiche Matera for ceramic art and home decor, and Mancini Timbri Del Pane for traditional wooden bread stamps.