When I tell my beloved that we’re going to stay in a grotto for the weekend, he is less than thrilled. Not just any grotto I enthuse, a super deluxe made into a glorious hotel kind of grotto. ‘Isn’t grotto just another word for cave?’ grumbles my reluctant troglodyte. I deflect the question by suggesting all sorts of naughty Neanderthal-worthy games suitable for playing in a ‘cave’; he brightens considerably. Thus, a few days later, we land at Bari airport, collect our car and we're soon speeding towards Basilicata, the region just above the arch of Italy's foot, and the rocky, hilly neighbour to Puglia, the country's heel.
Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993, the centre of Basilicata is Matera, one of the oldest towns in the world, inhabited since the Neolithic age. The particular area of the Southern Italian town we’re going to is known as the Sassi, a series of dwellings cut into the local tufa rock that rises above the Murgia plateau overlooking La Gravina gorge. The roads are narrow and signposts are few as we zip along past buff- and honey-coloured hillside houses.
A bit more zipping back and forth and we admit we have absolutely no idea where the hotel is. Enquiries elicit enthusiastic pointing in the direction we’ve just come. Unfortunately this charade is repeated several times up and down the same road until finally a young waiter takes pity on us and walks us to the foot of a broad flight of wonky paved steps. No sign. No indication of hotel-ness, but he assures us this is the way. A shortish climb later we chance upon a rickety gate, which opens onto a large courtyard. The heady scent of citronella wafts to greet us and we have found Le Grotte delle Civita.
Walking into the reception is instantly soothing. Once accustomed to the sultry glow of candlelight after the glare of the sun outside, we realise that we’re standing inside a lofty-domed structure hewn from the surrounding rock. The effect is that of being enveloped in a capsule of calm. Classical music ripples over us and we’re presented with a hefty metal key. No impersonal magnetic swipe cards here then.
Our room is immense. Apparently it used to be part of a church. Certainly its soaring six-metre high, pock-marked stone ceilings suggests this is so. The receptionist, now doubling as chambermaid, busies about lighting huge pillar candles in every corner and our luxurious cavern gradually comes into focus. The bed, all draped in indulgent layers of lush natural linens that tumble extravagantly to the floor on one side, and an extremely modern scoop of a bath on the other. Beautiful pieces of aged wooden furniture, chests and benches are dotted around, and the overall aesthetic is authentic rustic natural.
As a self-confessed style absolutist, I happily concede, this is less cave than soothing sanctuary. We even have our own dining table, set with water carafe, pretty glasses and a bowl of fresh, fat cherries. We order a bottle of wine and get settled. Moments later we’re sat outside on our terrace and with swifts and kestrels wheeling silently overhead and to the sound of distant goat bells, we sit back and savour an impromptu welcoming feast of bruschetta, olives and cheese. Watching the blush of early evening sunlight bounce off the hills opposite, it all tastes like nectar, even the somewhat fierce local red wine.
Eventually the compulsion to explore overtakes us and because there’s no bar or lounge in the hotel, we amble off to see what gives beyond our enclave. The choice of direction is straightforward, left or right. Matera is seemingly composed of one main road along which all things must pass. It spirals the city winding up towards a tottering church at its peak, from which the houses, like roughly carved building blocks, tumble down. The effect is that of a cubist painting in shades of taupe, sand and khaki.
An authentic local trattoria is what we’re after and it’s not hard to find. Friendly and unassuming La Talpa is set like all the buildings into the rock. Intoxicating smells waft from its cavernous interior and we’re particularly keen to sample the local speciality, purea di fave con cicorielle di campo (a broad bean puree with chicory), and they don’t disappoint. The beloved is particularly enamoured of his traditional Vitello all’aceto balsamico. But this culinary joy is nothing compared to our hotel breakfast the following morning.
Arranged like a buffet, it is a veritable feast. Everything is locally sourced from the salty Pecorino to the butter, ham, apricots and plums. There are sweet almond cakes, savoury biscuits and bitter chocolate cake. A flan stuffed with squidgy tomatoes, fresh orange juice and steaming pots of jasmine tea. It seems criminal to leave anything, so we devour with gusto. It takes some time but is the perfect start to a leisurely day.
There’s not a lot to do in Matera, which suits us fine. We wander through the deserted Sassi on the old side of town and visit a mini museum that shows a cave furnished as in ancient times and another on Via B Buozzi that highlights the Roman underground system of irrigation so essential to the region on. We wend our way through a former church/monastery turned art gallery, Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci on Via Purgatorio Vecchio and devote ourselves to the pursuit of more fine food. Le Bubbole plays host to our final meal as it has a rooftop terrace with an enchanting view of the city. What’s more, there’s an extraordinary full moon, heightening the sense of Matera as an almost mystical place that has many tales to tell. Tonight though, it’s keeping schtum, and all is well with us, and the world.