Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita: Italy's breathtaking hotel inside a cave

It's May in southern Italy and outside the sun is hammering the landscape into submission. The sandy-coloured countryside has a crisp look to it, the grass spiky and sere, the air itself heated to an almost palpable shimmer.

Not here, though. Here in our cave it's cool and penumbral. The front door (heavy and wooden and locked with a large iron key that wouldn't look out of place on a fairy tale jailer's belt) is haloed by light from the midday sun but it doesn't get very far into this series of cave rooms as they burrow further and further into the soft sedimentary limestone beneath the city of Matera.

We are in the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, an 18-room hotel that's been created from some of the many old caves that peasants once carved out of the rock as makeshift homes.

Inside, the rooms have been modernised without losing too much of their original essence. There are grooves and depressions around the walls and the floors that speak to the cave's original purpose but they still manage to throw shade at many modern, above-ground, hotel rooms.

We are in Cave 4 (aka the executive suite), a truly breathtaking 130-square-metre cave with a dining area, a king-size bed and, beyond this, a step or two down to a bathroom area with a shower, toilet and a large stone sink that looks like it should be watering donkeys (and possibly did).

Beyond this there is yet another room, almost subterranean, which contains a stunning stone bathtub. At night, lit by dozens of candles set in niches along the walls, the effect is truly magical – and a far cry from the days when a dozen or more people and their animals might live in one cave.

The cave complex's old church – the Cripta della Civita – is now used as a not-so-common common area where breakfast is served in beautiful surroundings. Outside, from the hotel's open terrace, you can gaze across the steep Gravina gorge to the spectacular frescoed rock churches opposite.

It's quite simply breathtaking. And yet even at this time of the year it's pretty much devoid of tourists. Perhaps it's because we're in an unearthly land of forests, mountain ranges and villages and towns that cling to steep granite outcrops. Or perhaps it's just all about footwear.

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There's not much love for the arch in the world of footwear. The heel, yes. The toe, of course. But the arch tends to get overlooked. It's much the same in the famous boot of Italy, with the Calabrian 'toe' oft lauded and the Puglian 'heel' touted as The Next Best Thing.

So spare a thought, please, for Basilicata, the arch of the Italian boot tucked away between the two and still pretty much off the tourist map.

Not that this egregious disregard has done the region any harm. It may not have the sophisticated, empyrean landscape of Tuscany but what it does have is just as biblical – a mountainous landscape of desolate splendour peppered with golden-hued towns of seemingly ancient provenance. Not for nothing did Mel Gibson film pivotal scenes of his award-winning 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ here.

More recently, the blockbuster DC Comics movie Wonder Woman also used Basilicata as a location, with many of the scenes of the Amazonian island of Themyscira filmed in Matera. Ditto the 2016 Ben-Hur flop. Another fairly well-known filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola, has a palazzo in the Basilicatan hilltop town of Bernalda, where his paternal grandparents came from.

A region of forests and mountains and the slash of deep gorges, Basilicata is sparsely populated; there are some 59 inhabitants per square kilometre here compared with 200 nationally.

Given that Basilicata covers part of the southern Apennine mountains in the north and the Pollino massif in the south this is hardly surprising. Its 9992 square kilometres are 47 per cent mountainous, 45 per cent hilly and just 8 per cent is made up of plains.

Despite that, human beings have gouged out a life here for many thousands of years. Matera, where Gibson shot much of Passion, including the scenes of Christ forced to carry the Cross, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back as far as Paleolithic times.

Today Matera is undergoing something of a renaissance. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and, in 2019, will be one of two European Capitals of Culture (the other being Plovdiv in Bulgaria).

Known also as La Citta Sotterranea (the Subterranean City), Matera is best known for its sassi district, a gorge area around the edges of the city where for many thousands of years people lived in natural caves which they turned into rough-hewn dwellings and, in the cliff faces opposite, more than 100 rock-cut churches.

Today the cave area is renowned. Fodor's called it "one of the most unique landscapes in Europe" while The New York Times ranked Basilicata No. 3 in its list of 52 Places to Go in 2018. It was, it said, Italy's best-kept secret.

It's a huge change from 1950 – timewise, a mere blip in its overall existence – when it was declared "la vergogna nazionale" (national disgrace) by Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi , who was aghast at the squalor he saw.

Gasperi was there after writer Carlo Levi (exiled here by Benito Mussolini) described the slum conditions he encountered there: "I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty."

Eventually the government moved everyone out. Our guide says 15,000 people were moved out in all – the last leaving in 1968. After which, he says, the area turned into a "ghost town, slowly collapsing, plants growing everywhere".

It's a different story today, with many of the old caves owned by the government and rented out to be turned into shops, cafes, restaurants, shops, cultural centres and hotels.

Not far from our hotel, sequestered behind and beneath the thumb-like protuberance of the Madonna de Idris rock church and in stark contrast to our suite, is the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, a historical recreation of what it used to be like to live in the sassi.

This former peasant dwelling is filled with period furniture, tools and tourists – and is an alarming insight into the tatterdemalion and attenuated lives lived in this former slum.

In the evening, as the sun-blasted day softens into twilight we choose to partake of la passeggiata, that peculiarly enduring Italian tradition of the evening stroll. In the air above the Gravina the black darts of swallows are wheeling about in the warm early evening air.

Eventually we meander up and out of the sassi, along wide, winding paths and steep staircases where the steps have been worn smooth, shaped into gentle waves by the passing of many thousands of years of slippered and sandalled feet.

Passing between grand palazzi and Renaissance buildings we find our way into the historic centre on the plateau above. Here, the streets are narrower, the designs richer. At the apex of this golden jumble of centuries of architecture is the 13th-century Romanesque cathedral with its 52-metre campanile.

From the expansive piazza around it we lean over the parapets and gaze down on what looks like an impossible Escher woodcut of ancient houses, all jammed together at different heights, their roofs covered in imbricated ochre tiles, walls honey-coloured in the setting sun.

It's one of those moments, the ones that grab you by the heartstrings and you find yourself promising that, yes, yes, here you will return.

TRIP NOTES

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STAY

The Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita is in the oldest part of the sassi at Via Civita 28 and has 18 rooms and an ancient stone church. The closest airport is Bari Palese (about 45 minutes away by car). See legrottedellacivita.sextantio.it/en for more details and prices.

FLY

Bari Palese airport is in Puglia, about an hour's drive from Matera (though a new road due to open this year will cut transfers down to 40 minutes). There are daily flights from Rome to Bari. Alitalia offers several connecting flights per day from Rome Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa or Linate. Other scheduled carriers include Swiss Air, British Airways, Lufthansa, Easyjet, Ryanair, Volotea, Vueling and German Wings.

TOUR

Southern Visions Travel are experts in creating bespoke travel experiences in southern Italy. They specialise in culinary and active experiences, especially cycling, but will design a holiday around your wants and needs.

In May this year they are partnering with Australian TV personality, author and cook Lyndey Milan, for a week-long journey through the cuisine of Basilicata and neighbouring Puglia. Prices start at $4999 a person, twin share. For more details visit southernvisionstravel.com

Keith Austin was a guest of Southern Visions Travel.

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