Troglodyte Lodgings: Hotel Sant’Angelo in Matera, Italy
I'm not one to skip breakfast, especially in Italy, where thoughts of cappuccino, pastries, and local ham tend to rouse me early from slumber. But on my first morning at the Hotel Sant’Angelo, in the old quarter of Matera, I was having a hard time dragging myself from the creature comforts of my cave.
Staying in a cave, it turns out, can be surprisingly pleasant. There was just one small window high overhead, but the room and adjoining bath were in no way dank—a testament to the natural ventilation that keeps the caves cool and comfortable. The wavy contours of the white tufa-rock walls conjured a feeling of being enveloped in some primordial womb. Yet there were modern amenities: luxurious linens, Internet service, a telephone. Fred Flintstone never had it this good.
I might have snoozed until noon, were it not for an impatient mate eager to see the sights.
We had arrived in the village the previous night after a long drive across the treeless plains of the Basilicata region, located at the instep of Italy’s boot. Matera is an enchanted world of Stone Age splendor. Known as the sassi (Italian for stones), the bisque-colored hilltop cave homes comprise one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, according to UNESCO.
The caves have provided shelter for more than 7,000 years. A millennium ago, shepherds inhabited them and carved churches into the rock; during the Renaissance, the area prospered and elaborate buildings were carved out, the excess tufa sculpted into ornate facades.
By the early 1900s, the sassi had fallen into neglect. Families and their animals crowded into the caves for warmth, and disease was rampant. When writer Carlo Levi brought this tragic state of affairs to light with his 1945 book Christ Stopped At Eboli, the Italian authorities moved residents en masse to modern housing—leaving the sassi abandoned, save for the occasional crew brought by film makers (Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson among them) in search of a biblical-looking backdrop.
It was only in the 1990s that the Italian government encouraged people to move back. Residents revamped the cave dwellings as homes, restaurants, and inns. When the Sant’Angelo opened in 2004, it was the area’s first luxury hotel. The 19 cave rooms are sparsely but tastefully appointed with rustic wooden furniture. Some carved decorations—crosses, hearts, an owl—date back hundreds of years. Fossilized shells embedded in the walls reveal that the region once lay underwater.
Eventually, my fiancé and I did emerge from our cave to wander the town’s ancient alleys. A local guide named Dora Cappiello took us into some of the 150 chiese rupestri (rock churches), where she pointed out wine troughs and frescoes of San Nicola, the patron saint of local shepherds. We also visited a cave dwelling that had been restored to resemble its state when the caves were equal parts manger and living space.
Simple, delicious meals punctuated our explorations. The curvy walls of Baccanti, a cave restaurant, created a private nook where we feasted on silky pappardelle pasta with a cinghiale (wild boar) ragu, accompanied by a dry, fruity red aglianico from the nearby Vulture wine region.
Tired and sated after a full day, we headed back to our cave—on moonless nights, a flashlight or trail of bread crumbs is advised for the stumble back to the hotel—where the promise of a deep, sound night’s sleep awaited. —Amy Cortese
Hotel Sant’Angelo, 39/0835-314010, from $211 for a double. Photo courtesy of Hotel Sant’Angelo. This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.