Once one of Italy’s most deprived cities crippled by chronic poverty, Matera was so lacking in hope that it was said that even God kept away. Now it is one of the coolest places to visit in Italy and has been named the European Capital of Culture 2019. Rosie Meleady reports.
Matera is the perfect rags to riches story. Sitting on a rocky outcrop in the region of Basilicata in the middle of the foot of the boot shape of Italy, you could say Matera is the sole of Italy.
The Sassi area of Matera is a complex of cave-style dwellings carved into the mountainside, steeped in history and local culture. In recent years, these rustic dwellings have undergone a series of miraculous transformations and now offer unique five-star accommodation, spas, restaurants and museums. While Matera is enjoying a Hollywood-style fairy-tale ending, its history is not so idyllic.
Less than 70 years ago some 15,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were still living in these grottoes, carved out of the soft limestone, which date back to the city’s prehistoric era. These small dank caves with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity were cramped living quarters for large families and their coveted farm animals. Evacuated in 1952 due to poor living conditions, the residents were moved to newly built homes in the outer areas of the Sassi.
In the sixties, the dormant cave dwellings became an attractive haven to hippy artists and film producers, which led Matera to be recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993.
The impoverished cave dwellings of the Sassi, which literally means “the stones”, have thankfully now evolved into Airbnbs, bars, restaurants and luxury tourist accommodation (25% of Matera’s housing stock is now available to rent on Airbnb, which is more than anywhere else in Italy). The area is now attracting 600,000 visitors per year, providing an economic platform for a prosperous future for Italy’s enchanting Cinderella town.
The city has a full programme of cultural events during 2019. To see details go to:
Where to Stay
Sant’Angelo Luxury Resort
In 1999 the owners decided to buy some caves in the historic centre of Matera with the idea of opening a hotel. Over time the resort has grown to occupy an entire district of the historic centre. The suites and rooms are located in a complex of buildings, including the eighteenth century royal court building, old cave houses and the cave church of Sant’Angelo.
L’Hotel In Pietra
The Hotel in Pietra is a boutique hotel in building which was originally 13th century church. The seven rooms and two suites, are carved into the rock, integrating harmoniously into the common areas of the hotel: reading room, and the large hall.
Palazzo Gattini Luxury Hotel
A 5-star hotel consisting of 20 rooms, each unique in its own way. The Roof Garden is available to host exclusive events. In the lower floor among cisterns and caves carved into the stone is the hotel’s spa and wellness. The largest cistern houses the swimming pool with hydromassage jets.
Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita
This is a complex of 18 caves which have been turned into romantic boutique bedrooms, simply furnished, candlelit and calming. This has been classed as one of the most unique and beautiful hotels in the world. Dining is possible upon request at a deconsecrated church, lit solely by candles, with background classical music and a lit fireplace.
Palazzo Del Duca Luxury Hotel
What today is luxury hotel in the centre of Matera, was once a noble palace. The hotel has four suites, including two with private heated pool, waterfall and whirlpool and a suite with private terrace overlooking the Sassi, a cave suite and five deluxe and standard rooms.
Built in 1892 in Bernalda by the Margherita family, is a true nineteenth century palazzo. The town was the birthplace and home to Agostino Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather and Francis purchased the Palazzo in 2004 and transformed it into a small, luxurious Italian boutique hotel with nine beautiful suites.
Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & SPA
A new 5-star hotel opened in 2018 located in the centre of the Sassi. It has 35 rooms and suites, set in the tuff walls, a SPA with a swimming pool carved into the rock and a restaurant with outdoor courtyard.