My Best Friends Forever and I have decided that for every milestone birthday, we’ll take the birthday girl on a little discovery trip. No children allowed. No partners either. Last year, we spent a long week end in Tangiers, Morocco, it was wonderful on all accounts. This year I was the lucky one turning the big four zero, and I got surprised with a destination that I had never ever heard of. Not bad given that I am usually the travel guru of the group.
We are back from 2 days in Sassi di Matera, in the province of Basilicata, an hour away from Bari airport. Just above the heel and nearby its more famous neighbour Puglia. It’s a fascinating and surprising place worthwhile visiting with family, with friends, or alone perhaps on a meditative trip…Here’s why:
Sassi means rocks and the town is carved out from the soft tuff rock mountain.
In 1952 the inhabitants were forced to leave the area due to breakdown of the dwellings’ tricky ecosystems and a lack of sanitary systems. They were widely perceived as the shame of Italy, living in poverty together with animals and all sorts of infectuous disease.
But that’s changing now that they have entered Unesco’s World Heritage listing (1993), on the basis of the enormous rainwater collection system and the age of the place – the oldest inhabited parts date from the Palaeolithic period, and are thought to be among the first human settlements in the entire country.
We stayed in a very special place called Le Grotte della Civita, an impressive yet understated restoration project in the oldest part of Civita. The 18 cave rooms, some easily sharable by a family, are inside caves on the cliff facing the river, against the dramatic scenery of the natural parc.
Stunning and very unusual. It’s very bare inside each room, yet you don’t need anything else. Beauty in simplicity, living a monastic life in 21st century. Fresh peaches served in white ceramic dishes. An antique wooden bed, so high up that you climb into it with little steps. A beautiful modern bathtub set directly on the stone floor. And white candles lit day and night to help you see thru (and electricity and wifi too!).
We learnt a thing or two. For example, did you know that Adam and Eve did not share an apple but a fig, yes, a fig (!), when they committed the original sin? It’s all documented in the Crypt of the Original Sin, also called the “Sistin Chapel” of the rupestrian wall painting. Book a tour with the foundation that discovered and maintains the site. We admired the many rocky churches with beautiful wall paintings. We were intrigued by the renditions of how people used to live in their caves, together with their horse, pigs, cheeks and babies (a 50% infant mortality rate back then..).
And of course, we ate well. Starting with breakfast at the hotel, a feast in an old rocky church (notice the dichotomy?): Ricotta on toast, burrata and cucumbers, polenta cake, focaccia with caramelized onions. Our favorite dinner was at Osteria Pico, famous for its homemade pasta and a woman chef who goes from table to table making sure everyone is finishing their plate. Need to reserve.
– Better bring baby in a carrier as there are lots of stairs / paved roads going up and down.
– The road from Bari to Matera is quite desolate, but don’t despair because the trip is worth it.
– Avoid visiting in the hot summer months as there is no shade among these old stones.
– For beach and more travelled road, visit Puglia nearby and its famous trullo houses.
Ps: all photos are ours except the ones showing Le Grotte della Civita, credited to the hotel.