The road into the Sassi di Matera was built for donkeys, not speeding minivans. But my taxi driver punches the accelerator, and our top-heavy shuttle teeters around another curve. The sun has just set, so it’s hard for me to make out the slanted terrain. The right side of the vehicle squeaks past the edge of a house built into the cliff. I peer out the opposite window and see nothing but a deep, black ravine. The van seems far too big for this road, like when a snake swallows a rabbit. Yet another oncoming car forces us onto the shoulder in an unwelcome game of chicken, then the driver nonchalantly slams the brakes and jumps the curb, landing us in a weed-filled slot barely larger than the van. To the front and left, we face the mountain. To the right, I notice a dusty stairway twice as high as the van, covered in weeds and dust. I look at my driver. “Why are we stopping?”
Exterior courtyard of Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita
“Sextantio hotel,” he replies. “This is it. I will help you with the bag.”
We lumber to the crest of the moonlit stairs, which descend to a narrow landing carved into the ridge where a stone path twinkles with candles. I breathe a sigh of relief that I’mnot being dumped on the side of the road. The driver bids me “Arrivederci!” and I let myself in through a squeaky iron gate. I stop at a heavy wooden table draped with a linen runner that flutters in the breeze.
A door creaks opens and spills warm light onto the landing. Out springs an energetic young woman wearing a flowing white tunic. “Mr. Johnson, I presume? Ciao! How was the drive?”
I knew that SextantioLe Grotte della Civita (rates from $350; Via Civita 28; 800.337.4685) had been converted from caves—the name means “city caves.” But nothing had prepared me for the rawness of the landscape, the primitiveness of place. Matera is a remote town on the road to nowhere in the mountains of the Matera province in the region of Basilicata (originally Lucania), where until last year there was not a single luxury hotel. Now there are two, the latest and more expensive of which is Sextantio. The hotel enjoys a dramatic perch overlooking a ravine in the Alta Murgia National Park but does not offer a view of Matera itself, leaving my imagination to run wild in the dark.
The hotel is in the oldest section of town, a neighborhood known as the Sassi di Matera, which translates literally to “the stones of Matera.” It’s a collection of cave dwellings originally carved into the sandstone mountainside 2,500 years ago by shepherds. There are some caves in this region that were inhabited as far back as the Paleolithic period of the Stone Age—and dinosaur bones have been unearthed a few miles away. But the Sassi—and much of Matera—took on its current shape around the 16th century when the peasants who made these caves their homes began building false fronts over the entrances to extend their living spaces and better shield themselves from the elements. Behind these facades—sometimes two stories high, stacked one on top of the other—the caves’ interiors remained primitive, without plumbing or electricity. And it stayed that way until most of the neighborhood was forcibly evacuated by the government in the 1950s. (But more on that in a moment.)
The entrance to my room at Sextantio
The woman in the linen tunic leads me along the candlelit path around a curve in the cliff’s slope. We climb a narrow flight of stone stairs polished by thousands of years of footsteps. She slides a skeleton key into the clunky lock and turns it, then pushes open the heavy door.
“Do you like your suite?” she asks.
I find myself impotent for language, able only to nod my head in awe. I’m struck by the absolute void of color and sparseness of furnishings. A wooden chest lies next to the door. On it, a vase is stuffed with fistfuls of herbs, lending an invigorating scent to the air. Five steps up from the foyer, the living room stretches long and wide, with a slender bench and wooden table draped in linen at the far end. A thick board protrudes from one wall—a rudimentary sofa of sorts—and next to that, a burlap cushion is slumped into the corner. It is unconventionally luxurious. Beautiful.