Matera is a place like no other. Of all the beautiful towns I visited in Puglia, this one had the biggest effect on me. It is completely and utterly different to any of the Italy I know and am used to.
Matera is town built of ‘sassi’ (caves) built into the rock, which are Italy’s oldest continually inhabited dwellings. Best described in Carlo Levi’s book ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ (a pre-holiday must read), which gives a detailed account of its abject poverty, and of how thousands of peasants (and their livestock) lived in the caves, in terrible conditions. Articles which write about Matera, like in the Telegraph, often quote Carlo Levi’s description (or his sister’s to be more accurate) of Matera:
“In these dark holes I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats and pigs… Children appeared from everywhere, in the dust and heat, stark naked or in rags, eyelids red and swollen… and with the wizened faces of old men, yellow and worn with malaria, their bodies reduced by starvation to skeletons… I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.”
Carlo Levi later visited Matera himself.
It does not make it sound like a tempting destination. But with the wiping out of malaria in the 1950s (staggeringly late) and the cleaning up of a lot of the houses, Matera has certainly changed from these descriptions. But the dark holes still exist, especially across the gorge, and I still found them somewhat eerie to look at.
As the Lonely Planet rightly points out, Matera’s lack of development meant that it preserved its original state. But its recent re-birth of kinds means that many Sassi are now elegant places to live (especially in the more developed Sassi Barisana), some of which have become boutique hotels, restaurants and bars.
For somewhere local, I’d recommend the boutique hotel Corte San Pietro, which has been beautifully done up (room from about £150). The top five star in the town is the Palazzo Gattini, with stunning interiors and a roof top pool with an incredible view (rooms from about £280 per night).
If you’re looking for a real wow place to stay near by then I’d recommend Francis Ford Coppopla’s Palazzo Margherita. It’s a 40 minute drive away, and it’s not a cheap option, but it’s meant to be exceptional. You’re a 15 minute drive from some beautiful beaches and it has a massive digital movie collection specialising in Italian Cinema (as would be expected).