When you approach Matera for the first time, driving from the main road, you might think your Google Map app's gone awry: there’s nothing in sight resembling the most ancient inhabited city in the world — just a handful of post-World War II low-rises scattered around the dusty alleys.
But when you are just about to give up, at the very end of a street, right where some 18th-century buildings stretch out from their palm gardens, you spot something that looks like a huge balcony. And beyond the balustrade, the miracle occurs: Matera blossoms like a bunch of limestone white flowers inside its gravina, a huge cave that was carved from a long-gone river, thousands of years ago.
If the moon had inhabitants, they would probably live in dwellings like Matera's Sassi: small cave houses carved into the stone from the beginning of time, together with pre-Christian churches. Near Matera is La Grotta dei Cento Santi: a cave where the twelve Apostles were painted, together with Adam and Eve, in a Rupestrian fresco that has been dated back to the 9th century AD.
The feeling—enjoying Matera and its captivating tapestry from the 18th century, all-around-town balcony—is that of an incredible jump in the history of humankind. It's not by chance that this city, 30 years ago a symbol for the Southern Italy poverty gap with Europe (and Northern Italy), is now at the top of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, and is going to be the Capital of European Culture in 2019.
Matera has a growing, sophisticated environment when it comes to five-star accommodation like Le Grotte della Civita, for example, where the young, half-Italian, half-Swedish millionaire Daniel Kihlgren has turned a spectacular area of Sassi into a luxurious, out-of-time cave retreat—a unique experience, for sure.
But here in Matera, beauty does not necessarily come with stars. We personally spent a couple of days in a lovely bed and breakfast, La Casa di Ele, in a room with a terrace overlooking the Sassi. In addition to a tasteful and conservative renovation of this 18th century little palazzo, we were shown around the most secret alleys of this magical town by Raffaele and Erasmo, the young sons of the family that own the inn. It is not uncommon here to be surprised by the 20-year-olds who, after earning a bachelor’s degree in, for example, art or music (like our friends here), have decided to stay and support their city's heritage by not only welcoming the travellers but also guiding them through thousands of years of history and archeology in their picturesque neighbourhood.
While Francis Ford Coppola is almost family here (his roots are from Bernalda, a little town near Matera where the Godfather's saga director has also opened his own resort, Palazzo Margherita), Matera was discovered more recently by Mel Gibson, who directed his movie The Passion of Christ here and keeps coming back to "rebalance" every year. Sharon Stone has also followed the Matera Hollywood trend.
Why does Matera become addictive? Besides the unique architecture of its cave dwellings, its most authentic Mediterranean food is its greatest treasure. Just to mention one: don't miss out on the pizza at the Bar Sedile, a small café that delivers fresh, handmade pizza to your table in the middle of one of the most fascinating piazzas in the ancient town, the 16th-century Recinto del Sedile.
Feeling inspired? Ready to embark on a similar trip?