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Travel
March 14, 2012

Call of the caves

Text by Sheela Raman.

Matera in Italy is a unique holiday destination. Verve experiences some fine living in a cave hotel and explores almost untouched vistas of wild landscapes as she navigates in and around the sassi or cave dwellings, proclaimed an UNESCO World Heritage Site

As I stirred from sleep in my cave, the whisper of a slow river and the tinkle of cowbells met my ears from the ravine below. Yes, I was sleeping in a cave – a luxury cave hotel conceived by a Swedish-Italian entrepreneur and situated in Matera, an enchanting town nestled in the southern Italian state of Basilicata. Le Grotte della Civita is the hotel’s name, and its concept speaks of the ideals of its patron and brainchild, Daniele Kihlgren. He aims to preserve the ancient landscapes of Italy, instead of replacing them with predictable types of resorts and boutiques. The sense of luxury he creates is not ostentatious, but an exercise in living finely while connecting with history and nature.

After waking, I opened the heavy wooden door to the cave and stepped onto a pathway elevated above the ravine. Nothing but an old stone ledge separated me from the wild landscape. Below, a shepherd guided his flock of goats and cows into order. Across the valley, I could see various caves carved into the uninhabited, rocky hillside, spotted with brush and yellow desert flowers. That side of the river was the first to host human beings in Neolithic times. The tufa, or soft sandstone, of these hills allowed those people to carve out their homes there, and later they became dwellings for ascetic monks.

The settlement eventually moved to my end of the valley, where the city of Matera now stands. To my right, the city’s conglomeration of sassi, or cave dwellings, rose up the hill and culminated in a church carved into a craggy piece of rock, its steel cross pointing at the sky. Observing this scene in the silence of early morning, after spending a night in one of the sassi, I felt in dialogue with the ancestors who had inhabited it. There is an exceptional quality to this stretch of land, I realised, and this explains why Matera has been inhabited continuously since prehistoric times. It is likely for this reason – the intangible richness of place – that Matera has now become a magnet for artistes. Gerard Depardieu, Mel Gibson, Monica Bellucci have all spent time in Matera, and a number of other creative spirits have taken up residence in the sassi.

After steeping myself in the quiet scene I returned to the cave. I ran a bath in the Philippe Starck-designed tub that awaited on the rocky floor, which is heated via an underground system. Kilhgren is passionate about restoration, his efforts and resources having also preserved a medieval village, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Bath and toilet fixtures are the only contemporary feature, chosen because their simple white design creates an elegant contrast with the stone surroundings. The white linens in the room are high quality 18th-century Italian designs, and the beds, desks, and stools were all newly made for the hotel using artisanal techniques and antique wood.

An array of bath liquids in beautiful glass bottles sat on the wooden ledge next to the bath. Here was also an unfinished glass of Grappa di Barolo, a form of the Italian liqueur that is aged for two years, and as a result has a warm, straw-like colour and rich, spicy flavour, almost like cognac. I’d savoured this drink in the bath the night before, while my cave was lit with candles. After a quick morning dip, I went in for breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, once a large rock church that served this group of sassi. With fresh pastries and espresso to sustain me, I was ready to explore. It is necessary to climb steep stone stairs, which often substitute for roads, to navigate in and around the sassi, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The effort is rewarding: the stairs are shadowed with flying buttresses that connect various buildings in a pleasantly unpredictable manner, and architectural treasures abound. Close to my hotel is MUSMA, the museum of modern sculpture, which showcases the work of prominent Italian and American contemporary sculptors, and interesting etchings by Giacometti and Henry Moore. It is housed within a 16th-century palazzo and six adjoining sassi. The stone of the caves interacts brilliantly with the metal, wood, and iron of the art.

A walk further up the hill leads to the Piazza Sedile, where the Conservatory of Music, formerly the town hall, stands. The shape of this 16th-century building is arresting and eccentric: niches within its stately archway encircle terracotta statues representing the four virtues, and at the top of the structure are two small Rococo-style towers: the left one embellished with a fine sundial and the right with a clock. Sounds of classical piano spilled into the square as I browsed the antique stores and boutiques. In this square I found L’Abbondanza Lucana, a little store brimming with local gastronomical delights such as biscotti made with a local specialty called vin cotto (cooked wine), and Aglianico del Vulture, a Basilicata wine made out of a black grape said to have been brought to the region by the ancient Greeks.

Walking up from Piazza Sedile you reach the Piazza Duomo, most notable for its sparse but commanding Romanesque façade. From this square, the highest point in the city, another sweeping vista of the sassi beckoned. In the late afternoon, falcons swooped around the caves and down into the ravine, and the atmosphere once again struck me as a conduit to the most important human emotions and events, pain and happiness, death and birth. This evocative quality has been captured in the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who paid homage to Matera in the 1950s, as well as a series of Italian film directors, most notably Pasolini, who shot the Gospel According to St Mathew here.

Wandering the sassi and absorbing its storied past left me famished, and I was lucky enough to be pointed to the restaurant run by the husband of the lady who owns the gastronomy shop. Francesco Abbondanza, like his wife Isabella, is passionate about local cuisine, and their Ristorante Lucanerie is a must while visiting Matera. Their family is from a neighbouring region, Gorgolione, and from there come many of the ingredients in their cuisine. The restaurant is located a bit above the sassi, but the extra 10-minute walk is worth it in order to experience their delicately prepared dishes, which change every day according to what is freshly available. Tourists have yet to invade, although Depardieu has eaten there and hugged the chef (who happens to be Francesco’s cousin) in appreciation. I understood the actor’s impulse after eating an amazing rabbit, stewed to perfection with a special type of red onion called cipolle tropea, found only in Southern Italy. For dessert I savoured little balls of a sweet, nutty goat ricotta cheese, made at the family’s azienda, and drizzled with bits of crushed pistachio.

Walking from La Lucanerie, it is best to take the leisurely route back, along the main street, to watch the locals make their evening passegiata. Old couples stroll along the streets arm in arm, the men in smart wool blazers and the women in skirts and heels, along with the younger artsy set, clad in leggings and skinny jeans. At the town’s bookstore people gathered to listen to local poets read their work. Winding my way down to the hotel, I watched the sassi rise up around me, lit in the warm yellow of streetlamps. The river sounded its music under a sky full of stars. I walked into the reception cave of the hotel and ordered a grappa. I took my skeleton key out and opened the door to my spacious abode. Instead of switching on the soft lamps, I lit candles, positioned in various ledges and nooks used by people from centuries past. An open window let in the warm night wind and the sound of the water. My drink arrived and I settled into my high, comfortable bed, the spell of Matera peaceably intact.

FAR & AWAY

SEE: The sassi, Piazza Duomo, MUSMA (Museum of Contemporary Sculpture).
EAT: Goat ricotta cheese, Orecchiette pasta.
DRINK: Aglianico del Vulture (localwine).
STAY: Le Grotte Della Civita.
FEEL: The city’s raw extravagance that tends to bring out the creative side in you.

How To Get There
Flight from Mumbai or Delhi to Milan – 13 hours

Train or flight from Milan to Bari – Train: 8 hours, Flight: 1.5 hours

Bus or car journey from Bari to Matera – 1.5 hours

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