I rubbed my eyes in the morning feeling full still from my pizzas (plural) the day before and feeling a little unsure of whether I had dreamt up the town of Alberobello or if it was indeed a real memory! I quickly realised it was Gianni who must have bumped his head and was dreaming, because he told me we had to get moving as we were 'going to stay in a cave for a night'. For those who know me, they would know I am not a cave kind of girl... But off we went regardless heading for the medieval town of Matera perched high on a mountain around 2 hours drive inland from Bari.
Driving into the old town, passed the dreaded 'ZTL - Zona Traffica Limitato' signs (these are restricted areas for residents only during certain hours so be careful), it seemed like a very beautiful, charming town much like many others I had seen in the last few days. Gianni told me that the old town was actually where they filmed the movies 'The Passion of the Christ' and 'Ben-Hur' as its antiquity is reminiscent of ancient sites around Jerusalem. But this wasn't the towns real claim to fame; as we navigated our car down the tiny cobble streets (our hotel gave us access to the ZTL) on the lower outskirts of the town it became clear that there was much more to this place than I had first thought.
The site is actually suspected to be among the first human settlements in Italy with evidence that people were living here as early as the year 7000 BC (that is prehistoric time!). Humans for thousands of years took shelter in natural and hand-dug caves and resided in them often alongside their farm animals. The ancient town of Matera grew atop these caves on one side of a small ravine, now a river known as the 'Gravina'. Until as recently as the 1950's the poorest villagers were still living in these caves which were riddled with malaria until they were forcibly removed by the then president of Italy, Alcide De Gasperi, and so they remained abandoned for some time. The entire town of Matera is spotted with these caves and with museums showcasing how the people used to live but there was no need for us to visit such museums because Gianni literally took me to sleep in one!
Our hotel known as the 'Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita' is an Albergo Diffuso which translates to a 'diffused hotel', a new idea of tourism in Italy which insists that modern urban planning in certain historical sites should not bend to their final will, but should respect the history among which it is built. Whilst I agree and think that preservation and respect for this rich history is essential, I was still hesitant at the idea of sleeping in a cave; that is, until I saw the suite...
The big heavy iron key clicked and pushing open the old, creaky wooden doors revealed a truly unbelievable image. Picture a comfy, plush, king-size bed adorned with candles in a limestone cave with a 3 metre ceiling in parts and uneven rock floors that lead down into an adjoining cave with an open shower, toilet, bidet, rock basin. Then gasp at the further adjoining cave below with a beautiful oval bathtub sitting proudly in its centre flickering with candlelight! This hotel is truly one of a kind. We had stayed in a luxury white cave in Santorini (see here) but this was much more raw; still luxurious with plush linen, slippers and handmade olive soaps from the village above, but with such a rich and intriguing history, the feeling was surreal.
Being a germaphobe and generally a bit of a princess (yes I can admit it) I was sceptical as to the hygiene of it all, but knowing the owners spent over 10 years painstakingly restoring these rooms and not having a single bug or spiderweb in sight put my fears at bay. Slipping into my hot tub with the beautifully scented soaps in the peaceful serenity and privacy of a candle-lit cave; I was in a heaven that I didn't know existed!
After a short afternoon nap we woke feeling a little like Barney and Wilma of the Flinstones. Keen to explore the town and learn a little more about the history we ventured up one of the many tourist trails. Again we saw people taking photos of our hotel rooms and grounds as they really are an attraction in themselves! We made our way at night down the main street which much to my surprise and pleasure was bustling with life and featured some luxury boutiques!
We came to a restaurant that had been recommended by our concierge (and by many Italians on tripadvisor which is always a good sign) called 'Il Mare Nei Sassi' which translates to 'the sea in the caves'. No prizes here for guessing what their specialty is! The restaurant was filled with locals and it was clear from the warm welcome of the lovely owner Giovanna that this was going to be an authentic home-cooked meal. She personally served us up some delicious fare starting with a casareccie pasta with dried peppers which we were told is a local speciality that of course paired very well with our glass of local red wine! For main we dove into a pot roast of beef cheek with roasted vegetables and (my favourite of the night) a whole sea bream, roasted to absolute perfection. Finally for dessert we were treated to another local favourite recipe, a ricotta and pear cheesecake to finish off our very authentic and very delicious dining experience amongst the caves.
The next morning after a beautiful nights sleep we headed to the main common room for breakfast, which was an even larger cave which served as an ancient rock hewn church, complete with an altar and even a smaller cave for confession! You would be forgiven for gorging on the delicious breakfast buffet on offer including daily homemade cakes and cheeses. Silly me only realised they offered a-la-carte eggs and other specialties after I had devoured the buffet. The perfect end to an experience that I will certainly never forget; an authentic immersion, or should I say 'diffusion', into the history of another one of southern Italy's marvels that you simply must add to your itinerary. Now we have a 3 hour drive ahead of us to Amalfi on the west coast of Italy today (although Gianni will somehow make it in 2)!
Special Thanks to: