The town formerly 'Italy's shame' tourists can't keep away from

"We don't want to be occupied by tourists." So far as marketing campaigns go, Matera's mayor Raffaello De Ruggieri's was an exceedingly bold one. Likely to cost him personally and his city financially whenever it was said, the statement was blurted out to The New York Times at the start of this year. Why does that make it worse? Well this year Matera, in southern Italy, is one of the European Capitals of Culture. De Ruggieri effectively putting up a closed sign just as a massive international marketing campaign had got under way seemed to be a wildly suboptimal arrangement.

De Ruggieri later partially walked back his statements, and when I finally got to Matera this spring, it didn't seem particularly unfriendly towards tourists, save for a couple of strange driving arrangements. In the most desirable, scenic parts of town – including close to the Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita where I was staying – outsiders' cars were completely banned. We weren't even technically allowed to drop bags off.

Not knowing this until it was too late, I ended up having to play hide-and-seek with a police car that was in front of me, accidentally tailing it, then hiding behind a delivery truck until it had driven away. Once the coast was clear, I snuck back out of the exclusion zone.

That might sound annoying, but to counter, most hotels offer a valet service from the permitted areas and, in truth, once I'd visited the Sassi – Matera's ancient, rocky heart – I totally understood why cars should be limited. Appropriately, the main reason is tourists, many of whom litter the streets, stepping out into the road with no notion that they may be mashed by oncoming traffic.

The very oldest parts of Matera are troglodyte caves, some of which are thought to have been in use for 8000 years. Much of the historic city centre is 1000 years old and this mix of functional cave dwelling and gauche Christianity gives it the impression of being a living, thriving city. If you've ever been to Jordan's Petra and wondered what it may have looked like when its caves were in use, Matera will perhaps give you an idea.

The Sextantio is a fine example of the careful modernisation that has allowed Matera to keep its sense of self while still encouraging visitors. Spread across three levels of a hillside, it is an entirely cave-based property – the rooms are caves, so is the reception. The dining room was once a church inside a cave.

Sitting at 401 metres elevation, Matera can get surprisingly cold in winter, but ferociously hot in summer – in both situations, the caves offer respite, especially during the chilly months when the hotel's meticulously installed under-floor heating keeps guests warm.

It can be hard to imagine, but things weren't always so polished in Matera. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining the mayor's paranoia about it all being ruined by over-tourism. In the post-war period, Matera was in such disrepair that it was described as "Italy's shame". Many people still lived in biblical conditions, sharing their cave spaces with livestock for warmth. A couple of generations later, the place has Michelin-starred restaurants and hotels that charge more than $1000 per night.

It's taken careful planning and forcing through some unpopular policies to get there and having seen it in all its craggy, subterranean glory, it's understandable that mayor De Ruggieri wants to protect it.

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TRIP NOTES    

FLY

Etihad offer daily flights to Bari from Sydney and Melbourne, via Abu Dhabi and Rome. From Bari to Matera is about 70 minutes by road. See Etihad.com

STAY

Set in a series of centuries-old caves, Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita offers accommodation of a kind you're unlikely to have experienced before. A short walk from the heart of Matera, it has sumptuous views across the Matera Gorge. Call ahead if driving. See legrottedellacivita.sextantio.it

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

matera-basilicata2019.it

Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Sextantio.

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