Matera may not be on most travelers lists, but that's about to change. Located in Southern Italy, bordering Basilicata and Puglia it was once one of Italy's poorest towns. Now due to its wonderful Greek and Roman ruins, it's famous sassi's (cave dwellings), nice beaches, and unbelievable food Matera is transforming into a luxury destination. Our friend, Andrea Raisfeld...powerhouse location scout, mother of three, world traveler...just got back from Italy where she was traveling with her photographer husband William Abranowicz. Matera was a special spot and we were lucky she shared her experience of an undiscovered, for now, part of Italy.
Combine Matera with a few days in nearby Puglia, famous for it’s truilli houses, white washed villages, and miles of beautiful beaches. First time must see villages include: Otsuni, Lecce and Alberobello Have more time visit the smaller towns of Cisternino, Martina Franca and Locorotondo.
Stay in a Masseria, many of the ancient fortified farmhouses have been charmingly restored and are now lovely B and B’s. Just outside Otsuni, Andrea and Bill stayed at La Rascina. She describes it, “we enjoyed it most for the hosts, Paola and Leonie, he’s Italian, she’s Australian and a very sophisticated couple. It’s not the most exotic lodging, but a simple, lovely country home situated around a large, grassy courtyard with a pool. They gave us great advice on where to go in the area, day trips and the best restaurants to dine in." Right in Otsuni, another option is the boutique hotel La Sommita.
Andrea stayed at Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, a converted 15th century convent now a small bed and breakfast, 30 minutes outside of Lecce.
Traveling with kids try-- the larger, luxurious 5 star Borgo Egnazia Resort offers 2 beach clubs, pools, golf, and a huge spa outside the ancient city of Egnazia.
How to get there? Fly into Rome or Milan, and then catch a flight to Bari. There are several flights a day from Rome, and limited flights from Milan, so Rome is a better option.
Go: You approach the ancient hilltop city of Matera through landscape that is hardly inspiring. There are olive groves aplenty, and some beautiful and strange stone tagine-shaped structures you’ll later learn are a traditional farm outbuilding of the area called “trullis,” but mostly you see factories, giant warehouses, and other sad blights on former agricultural regions. You’ll think: “Why didn’t we go to Tuscany?” But when you finally make your way through the busy outskirts of Matera into its central historical neighborhood, called Sassi (“stones”), you’ll be so very glad you did.
Stay: Matera is the second oldest continuously inhabited settlement in human history—and looks the part, which is why it was a location for Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and other older biblical feature films. The word “fairytale” is often overused to describe a charming foreign city or village, but I can’t think of a more apt description for this fortress-like maze of stone buildings growing out of the mountaintop on which it sits. And when you arrive at the base of a stone staircase bearing the subtle red sign Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, and are handed a large iron skeleton key to your room, you become a character in that fairytale.
Design: The rooms of Sextantio are an elegantly spruced up version of the cave dwellings dug out of limestone that once were the indigenous housing of the former residents. With sturdy wooden tables and chairs, luxuriously hand-woven sheets, thick candles lighting up every nook and a ceramic bowl filled with fruit, you get a sense of what it might have been like to be a prince or princess in a castle, albeit one with bidet, electricity, a/c, hot running water, and a sleek bathtub that fills to steaming in minutes. You move slower at Sextantio, both to savor the details of the room with all its irregularities, and because of those irregularities. The narrow arched opening for the bedroom we stayed in has tricky footing; move too fast, and you might knock your head or twist an ankle on unforgiving block of limestone.
Dinner: take the recommendations of the front desk—all are lovely. We went to one nearby, an easy walk from the hotel, and sat outside on a spacious patio which afforded us a view of passersby, refreshingly, none speaking English. Starting with a plate of crudo, grilled or pickled eggplant, cippolini onions, peppers and zucchini, and a selection of cheeses including a sheep cheese, and a fried mozzarella (not to be confused with the kind you’d get at TGI Fridays), you can move on to pasta—al dente, always al dente. How the Italians can then fit a secondi is a mystery; we rarely could.
Wander: In a quiet village it is easy to find your way to the main piazza. Use your ears. Along the way, you’ll hear the clinking of silverware from inside one house, music seeping from another. Clusters of teen girls sit on walls or at the top of a flight of steps studying their cell phones, while at a flatter spot, a group of neighborhood kids of varying ages bat around a soccer ball. Saints look down at you from every street corner and pigeons quietly coo from perches above. Like Paris or Rome, every turn presents a postcard perfect scene, street lights reflecting softly in the polished stone-paved streets, stones worn smooth from the footsteps of so many generations.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived at the Piazza d. Ridola from the sociable murmur of people enjoying this public space together. Cafes, restaurants, gelaterias are filled with locals and tourists. Try Mo Sto, a popular osteria along one side. A must is Vizi Degli Angeli, Gelateria Artigianale. How will you choose among such flavors as Fig, Red Wine, Pinenut, Milk and Lavender, or Licorice (brown and salty?)
Admire: Look at the doors of the church along the Via Domenici Ridola on the piazza, adorned with enough skulls to please the darkest of teen Goths. One wears a crown, another one a bishop’s mitre, another a simple peasant’s cap. No matter what you are on earth, explains the guide, death makes us all equal. Around the plaza and throughout the village, there are plenty of other churches and museums (one for modern art, one for photography). But these things are for daytime. You’ll want to return to the square the next morning for such touristic pleasures.
Eat: Try not to eat too much in the Sextantio’s breakfast room (not an easy task with the array of locally cured meats, cheeses, pies, and olives) because the biggest treat of lays just around the corner from the Piazza d. Ridola, at La Latteria. For 11 Euro/person, the host will lay before you a feast of bread, cheeses, crudo, fresh figs, grilled vegetables, and looking like a huge ice cream sundae, a mound of milky white straciatella (the cheese not the gelato) sprinkled with local black berries.
Shop: You’ll want to carry something away from Matera, and that something might easily be found in Feelosophy. You’ll want to touch the linens they sell. Rough and soft at the same time, they are hand printed with wooden carved stamps in a geometric pattern dyed with a natural rust color derived from wheat and vinegar and iron.
Visit: Make sure you visit Massimo Casiello, the workshop and store of the talented woodworker smack in the middle of the Piazza d. Ridola. A hand-carved shaving brush with boar bristles or bread stamp (to impress your initials into every loaf you bake) make sweet souvenirs and gifts. You’ll find your own shops and stops along the way in Matera, but go soon. If the city has its way, and is selected to be the European Capital of Culture 2019, you’ll have a much longer line to stand on to get your Milk and Lavender gelato.