There are a staggering 17,000 abandoned historic towns across Italy with approximately 2,000 that are partially populated. At a time where the global trend has deprived unique places of their identity, in favour of urban lifestyles escaping poverty and unemployment, it is extremely comforting to see a group like Sextantio committed to the preservation of past civilisations and the cultures that have survived until very recently. For them, the restoration and preservation of these historical sites are not a cost but an added value. It has been more than a business; a moral and ethical responsability they have taken upon themselves. Welcome to the town of Matera, home to the famous Grottos which have been lovingly restored by the Sextantio group.
Known as la città sotterranea (subterranean city), Matera is one of the oldest inhabited settlements in the world, well known for its historical center, the Sassi, which joined UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993. The town lies in a small canyon which, over the years, has been gradually eroded by a small stream. As I was celebrating my 30th Birthday, I wanted a special place for the occasion and therefore booked a couple of nights in December 2012.
The town was located only an hours drive from the airport of Bari. Our welcome at the hotel was very warm and Danilo wasted no time in installing us into our rooms. I had requested room 13 based on some research I had done and Danilo gave a cheeky smile when he saw my face light up as we were lead up the stairs to that exact room. It’s difficult to imagine without being there but, despite the barren exposed stone floors and walls, the room was cozy, warm and most of all very romantic with candles scattered thoughout the room, shining out from every nook and cranny, bathing the room in a comforting glow. Despite this aparent step back in time, there was even wifi for those who couldn’t cope with complete isolation from the world.
Our bedroom was located through a narrow archway off the living room with a stunning view over the canyon. You can probably just about make out the white foldable bed through the arches which catered for private in-room massages for those who wished to indulge in a bit of luxury. Perhaps the one issue was the lack of a door to the toilet area which may be a bit discerning for those who prefer a bit more privacy when doing your business, although I have noted that this seems to be a bit of a trend in hotels in europe. The room however was big enough to give the other party space.
It wasn’t long before curiosity got the better of us and we decided to venture outside the room and hotel. But before heading down to the town centre, we stopped by the 13th century church within the hotel compound which now served as the dining area for the hotel guests. We followed Danilo’s suggestion and opted for a local red, the Matera Primitivo, accompanied by a couple of plates of cheese and fennel seed taralli. In hindsight, we should have stayed with the nibbles in the hotel as the recommended restaurant (as the hotel didn’t serve dinner when we were there a year ago) was quite disappointing. We were not after any fine dining but this was Italy after all and we could not forgive the a poorly executed pasta and dry / tough meat. In comparison, the wine and nibbles in the church was divine, especially given we were the only ones there all night. So much so that we decided to order a second bottle after returning from dinner.
Personal touches again by the superb team at the hotel. There was a fire going in the bathroom when we got back late to our room with all the candles lit around the bathtub. We took our turn to soak in the modern bathtub. The smell of burning wood in winter and the dancing shadows were enchanting and ever so inviting. Suffice to say I struggled to get out of the water.
Breakfast (included in the fee) served in the 13th century church could not have been more different from our dinner the night before. A feast was laid out on each table where everything was fresh and sourced locally. We felt it was wrong to leave anything so we had a good go at polishing the plates. There was ricotta, fresh fruit salad, sweet almond cake, home made marmalade…
… mozzarella buffalo with tomatoes and pecorino, salumi, freshly squeezed orange juice and plenty of coffee to go around, and a varied choice of artisanal bread (my favourite was the focaccia). And for those who wanted a bit more privacy, the hotel can also cater for breakfast in your own room at a tiny cost. Admittedly, if you only had one night here I would advise going to the church. It’s pretty spectacular.There’s not a huge amount of things to do in Matera but enough to occupy for you for a day or so. If you get bored of staring out of your room over the canyon, you could take to the streets and get lost in the old part of town soaking in the historic site. If you prefered to do something more hands on, the hotel can also organise a gastronomic tour of the town or cooking lessons.
And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy you can always head out to the Archaeological Park of Natural Rock Hewn Churches which holds one of the most fascinating rock landscapes in the world. Walking along the park paths you can find traces of man’s presence since the ancient times. Heck, the hotel can even organise a guided night tour through the canyon for those who find it irresistable to probe into the areas history. Whatever you decide doing, I guaranty you will leave this place enchanted with a lasting memory.