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You may not have heard of Matera, a hilltop town in remote southern Italy, but you may recognize it. With its whitewashed tumble of cave dwellings and Jerusalem-like ambiance, Matera has long been the go-to place for filmmakers in search of the perfect Biblical backdrop. At least two dozen movies have been shot there, including Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and last year's The Nativity Story.
Only recently, though, have travelers begun to discover the region's charms. Located in Basilicata, the "instep" of Italy's boot, Matera is fast becoming a hip destination known for its stark beauty, boutique hotels, and Troglodyte Chic. Hey, it's not everywhere you can party in a four-star cave.
To appreciate Matera, you need to understand its often tragic past. The old quarter, known as the Sassi (Italian for stones), is ancient. More than 10,000 years ago, people were using its natural cave formations for shelter. Later they carved bigger cave homes and churches out of the soft tufa stone. Excess stone was fashioned into blocks and used to build facades and towers. The result is a stunning vision, a sort of Cubist fantasy.
In the early 20th century, however, the Sassi fell into poverty and neglect. When political activist Carlo Levi wrote about it in 1945, the Sassi became known as the "Shame of Italy," and Italian authorities relocated its residents en masse to modern housing. For decades thereafter, the Sassi lay abandoned. It was only after its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 that the government encouraged people to move back. Since then they've been renovating homes and opening startlingly good restaurants and luxury hotels in its grottoes.
The area's first four-star hotel, the Hotel Sant'Angelo, opened three years ago. The rooms are tastefully, if minimally, furnished. Undulating stone walls and hushed coolness envelop you in tranquility, and a deep sense of comfort sets in. At $120 for a double, breakfast included, it's hard to beat (www.hotelsantangelosassi.it).
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In the spring the Palazzo Gattinni plans to open its doors in the heart of the Sassi. The renovated 14th century palazzo will have 20 rooms, many with private terraces, and a spa complete with pools built into the old cisterns that used to collect water. The intimate five-room, three-suite L'hotel in Pietra is also scheduled to open soon (www.hotelinpietra.it).
The only way to experience the Sassi is on foot. Its two main neighborhoods, the Sasso Barisano and the more primitive Sasso Caveoso, cling to the sides of steep ravines. To get a good sense of the place (and avoid getting hopelessly lost in its maze of alleys), hire an English-speaking guide. Three hours runs about $50 for two. Dozens of chiese rupestri, or rock churches, mark centuries of Christian history with fading Byzantine and Latin-styled frescoes.
To grasp what Sassi life was like before modern amenities, don't miss the Caveoso cave home, restored to how it looked in the 1930s. A narrated tour explains that parents typically slept in a tall bed, with chickens underneath and the horse or donkey a few feet away. Children slept in the back on feed straw.
A short hike across a dramatic ravine takes you to the site of Jesus' crucifixion, at least as Mel Gibson's film imagined it, overlooking the Sassi. Here are the oldest grottoes, used thousands of years ago by nomads. In the spring the hills bloom with a riot of flowers. If you want to explore farther afield, local tour agencies can arrange bike trips along Basilicata's mostly empty roads (www.bikebasilicata.it).
It is in the evening, though, that Matera is at its most magical. Nightfall seems to release light, as if it had somehow been stored by the stone, giving the Sassi an otherworldly aura. Notes from pianos, oboes, and a lone clarinet (thanks to a local music school) bounce softly off of the stone buildings and down cobbled lanes, the perfect accompaniment for a stroll to dinner.
You may find yourself counting the hours between meals. It seems any hole in the wall (literally) delivers a transporting culinary experience in this town. Matera is in the heart of Italy's bread basket, and the local pasta is sublimely silky. At Ristorante Baccanti, ribbons of homemade pasta were served with a delicate cinghiale (wild boar) sauce that would make Mario Batali weep. The restaurant's amoeba-like interior forms intimate dining grottoes dimly lit by low-hanging lamps.
Other eateries, such as Il Ristorante Le Botteghe, serve rustic local specialities made from delicious sausage, cheese, and hot peppers, along with bread native to the region. The wine of choice is local--Aglianico del Vulture, a voluptuous red that is easily one of Italy's least-noted great wines.
Despite its newfound luster, Matera is unlikely to be overrun with tourists. The nearest airport or stop on the national railway network is an hour's drive away in Bari, itself a remote outpost on the Adriatic Coast. Only the most intrepid travelers will make the journey. For those who have fallen under its spell, that's just fine.
By Amy Cortese