Basilicata is one of the most remote and least visited parts of Italy, but during a recent road trip, we discovered a fascinating and stunningly beautiful region that will remain long in the memory. The sere southern Italian landscape is marked by dramatic cocoa-colored ravines, rolling fields of golden wheat and white villages perched on hilltops that look like low clouds from afar.
Although one of Italy’s smallest regions, Basilicata can boast a sandy coastline on the Ionian Sea, a distinctive cooking style and some excellent little-known wines. Its true gem is the town of Matera. Continuously inhabited for more than 9,000 years, Matera has both a modern town, where most of its inhabitants live today, and an old town, which was originally a troglodyte settlement, with caves bored into the soft vanilla-colored limestone of a bluff.
It is the recent emergence of Matera as an intriguingly offbeat destination that has put Basilicata on the map. And now is the time to go, since its eerie beauty and timeless atmosphere will doubtless be discovered by many more travelers when the city becomes one of Europe’s two Capitals of Culture in 2019 (the other is Plovdiv in Bulgaria).
Basilicata has no major airport of its own, and its gateway is the city of Bari in the neighboring province of Puglia. In the early 20th century, Basilicata lost much of its population through emigration, as mechanization decreased the need for farmworkers. Lacking a significant port and poorly served by rail, it became so isolated that Mussolini sent political prisoners to live there under house arrest during World War II. One of them was Carlo Levi, an Italian-Jewish painter, writer, doctor and anti-fascist activist from Turin. The book that Levi wrote about the extreme poverty he witnessed, “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” caused such a scandal when it was published in 1945 that the Italian government undertook a massive program to remove the Materans from their cave homes and settle them into new housing.
During the past 10 years, Matera’s old town has attracted artists and writers, along with farsighted expatriates who turned several of the abandoned cave dwellings into hotels. I began my visit at the 20-room Palazzo Gattini, an 18th-century palace overlooking the cathedral. This property is the best choice for anyone who prefers traditional luxury over anything more adventurous or rustic.
Reaching the hotel proved to be a challenge, since the district in which it’s located is mostly pedestrian and difficult to navigate by car. It would have been helpful if we had been told this in advance, but eventually we found a parking garage and telephoned the hotel, which sent someone to collect us.
Although a little rattled, I was immediately impressed by the beauty of the property and the graciousness of the staff. Our attractive, well-lit junior suite had a vaulted frescoed ceiling, cream-painted walls and limestone floors. The bath came with a separate tub, two vanities and a stone counter. The best feature of these accommodations, however, was the view over the Sasso Caveoso neighborhood — an astonishing settlement of houses built one on top of the other — and the austere but majestic countryside surrounding the town. (It is imperative to request a room with this view, since some overlook courtyards and streets.) One suite has a private outdoor plunge pool.
The hotel has a good restaurant, Le Bubbole; a café; and a breakfast room, where an excellent buffet is set up each morning. (Don’t miss the superb local cheeses and charcuterie.) A spa is located in vaulted stone cellars that date to the 14th century. As well as an indoor pool with a Jacuzzi, it offers a “floating room” in one of the original cisterns. (Magnesium sulfate is added to the water, which helps to create a zero-gravity effect.)
A visit to Matera requires a lot of walking, and many of its steep lanes have long flights of steps. There is a lot to see, including some magnificent rupestrian (rock-hewn) churches and MUSMA, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture Matera. You should plan to stay at least two days, preferably three. A good guide is advisable, since so many of the most interesting things here, like the huge underground cisterns that once contained the town’s water supply, are easily overlooked. So, after a day of exploring on our own, we spent an intriguing afternoon with a native Materan, who made his town come alive with a mixture of history, anecdote and insight.
Polished service, comfortable rooms, first-rate spa and an excellent restaurant.
The center of town is mostly pedestrian, so you have to park at the hotel’s recommended garage and call for a transfer.
When booking, request a room with a view of the Sasso Caveoso, the atmospheric old town.
“It’s like finding yourself living in the middle of the Old Testament”
From the Palazzo Gattini, we moved to the 18-room Le Grotte della Civita, the dramatic cave hotel that first captured the imaginations of adventurous travelers when it opened in 2009. A labor of love for Swedish-Italian architect Daniele Kihlgren, the property includes an ancient church, the Cripta della Civita, now a public area. Its renovated rooms retain their original features, including stone mangers — many families in Matera used to live with their animals — niches, wells and basins. A friendly staff member showed us to our grotto, Cave 4, which came with stone walls, a vaulted ceiling and terra-cotta tile floors. A spacious front room was furnished with a long antique farm table set with a vintage linen runner, on which stood a pitcher of filtered water, a bowl of fruit and a vase of wildflowers. The bedroom provided a large comfortable bed with an antique coverlet and an old-fashioned chestnut armoire. The bath was equipped with a huge open shower and, in another grotto, an egg-shaped soaking tub. Aside from a single window, light came from pillar candles. The intention has been to preserve the rusticity of the cave dwellings while providing modern amenities such as air-conditioning and Wi-Fi. (There are no televisions or telephones.)
On our first evening, we enjoyed an excellent dinner of pasta with mushrooms, and rabbit roasted with herbs. (Reservations to dine at the hotel must be made in advance.) Afterward, we joined the other guests outside on the terrace for a nightcap. There seemed to be a consensus that Le Grotte della Civita is a powerful and unique place, although a little disorientating at first. “It’s like finding yourself living in the middle of the Old Testament,” one woman remarked.
The hotel provides an intimate experience of what life was like in Matera before World War II.
Rooms can be dim, service is often more well-intended than professional and the hotel’s location means that a lot of walking is necessary when exploring the town.
This is not a property for anyone with mobility issues.
The new 10-room Il Palazzotto stands at a point midway between the conventional comfort of the Palazzo Gattini and the monastic quarters at Le Grotte della Civita. Owned by a family from Matera who now resides in Luxembourg, it occupies a 16th-century palace, along with the caves, where the owners’ servants and animals once lived. Its location is a short walk from most of the town’s attractions. The clean, contemporary look of the property is the handiwork of architect, designer and owner Katia Vitale. While respecting the beauty of the honey-colored stone walls and vaulted ceilings, she has added hardwood floors, sensitive lighting and ebony-painted contemporary furniture.
We had booked the hotel’s Suite, since it is reasonably priced. It proved to be brighter and more spacious than the other rooms, but it lacked the private balconies that come with Double Deluxes. The bedroom was furnished with a desk, a pair of armchairs and a large, freestanding egg-shaped tub. In contrast to rooms at the candlelit Sextantio, it had excellent lighting. The bathroom came with an open stall shower and a large sink fitted into a rectangular stone basin that appeared to have been a manger in the past. Overall, our accommodations seemed soothing, stylish and comfortable.
Il Palazzotto is more an upmarket bed-and-breakfast than a hotel. There is no restaurant, although there is a large tasting room, where guests can sample the excellent Aglianico and Chardonnay wines that the Vitale family makes at the base of the Monte Vulture volcano, 75 miles northwest of Matera. There is also a spacious lounge and a small courtyard terrace. This property is suitable for those who would like an experience of Matera’s troglodyte past without forsaking the comforts of modernity.
Great location and attractively furnished rooms. The owner’s wines are also excellent, especially the white Fiano.
The lack of a restaurant.
The family’s winery beneath the Monte Vulture volcano is open to the public.
From Matera, we drove for 50 minutes south through farm country to the small town of Bernalda. There the nine-room Palazzo Margherita stands at one end of the small town’s main street. The 19th-century mansion belongs to Francis Ford Coppola, whose paternal grandfather lived in Bernalda before he emigrated to the United States. When it opened in 2012, the hotel immediately put this unheralded area on the map. As befits a property created by the director of “The Godfather,” it is a place of such beauty that it seems sometimes more like a film set than a place intended for paying guests. It provides a perfect base from which to explore the attractions of eastern Basilicata, including the sandy beaches that line the Ionian Sea, the ancient Greek ruins at Metaponto and Policoro, and the haunting town of Craco, which was finally abandoned after a major earthquake in 1980.
On arrival, a valet took our car. Behind the big wooden door, chambermaids in gray dresses and white aprons darted across the courtyard. After a welcome drink, we were taken on a tour of the property to familiarize us with the swimming pool, the café with its long zinc-topped bar and the gorgeous walled garden with its spattering fountain. Upstairs, we were shown a sitting room that converts into a screening room, where guests can avail themselves of the hotel’s impressive movie library.
Each room is decorated individually, but all come with the same array of high-tech entertainment equipment. Since the rates are stiff, I’d booked a Garden Room, but we were upgraded to Suite Four, which Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, decorated in collaboration with French interior designer Jacques Grange. It proved to be a refined and comfortable room, with a vaulted ceiling, frescoed walls, a chevron tile floor, a sitting area with rattan chairs and a damask-upholstered sofa. There was also a large white painted armoire and a writing desk. Doors led to a small private terrace. The bath came with a big claw-foot soaking tub, a marble-lined steam shower and Florentine Santa Maria Novella toiletries.
The hotel offers complimentary bicycles for exploring Bernalda, as well as a free shuttle to its private beach, which is 15 minutes from the hotel in good traffic. Yoga and Pilates instructors, as well as in-room massages, are available upon request. After a pleasant bike ride around Bernalda, where the defunct cinema made me think of this gentle place as an Italian version of “The Last Picture Show,” we had a quick dip in the pool, followed by aperitifs in the garden before dinner. Alas, the meal was underwhelming as well as expensive. We ate out for the remainder of our stay. In many ways the Palazzo Margherita is idyllic, but the service can be a bit stiff, and the rates are head-spinning for a small Italian town.
Exquisitely decorated rooms; gorgeous private garden; complimentary bicycles.
The service can be too formal and self-conscious; the food in the two restaurants is ordinary; room rates are vertiginous for a small Italian town.
Book hotel-organized day trips in advance to avoid disappointment; the tour of the ghost town of Craco is especially recommended.
Our next stop was the 13-room Hotel Torre Fiore near Pisticci, a relaxed property in a 16th-century former fortified farm complex. It was created by a Canadian family, the Giannones, who have roots in Basilicata. Pleasantly low-key and extremely friendly, the place charmed us immediately. Our suite in the former caretaker’s cottage had four turrets, as well as two terraces from which to watch the sunset. Inside our light, spacious and peaceful quarters, we found terra-cotta tile floors, whitewashed walls, vaulted masonry and beamed ceilings. Artemide lamps and simple modern furniture were mixed with antique pieces. Our white-marble bath came with persimmon-colored tile accents, a soaking tub and a separate shower.
The hotel’s Patio della Torre restaurant is one of the best in the region, and we enjoyed a superb meal of tapparelle (an ear-shaped local pasta) with tomatoes and wild mushrooms, and roast pork stuffed with pancetta, pecorino, chile and nutmeg. We also treated ourselves to an excellent bottle of Aglianico wine, made with a variety of grapes brought to the region by the ancient Greeks. After dinner, we sampled some Amaro Lucano (a locally made bitter) on the terrace and relished the wildflower-scented air.
The following day, a 75-minute drive to the southwest brought us to chef Federico Valicenti’s wood-paneled restaurant, La Luna Rossa, deep in Basilicata’s Pollino National Park. Valicenti proudly preserves the region’s culinary traditions, and we enjoyed an excellent lunch of hearty mischiglio della Contea di Chiaromonte (pasta made with a mix of chickpea, barley, oat flour and bran), followed by a grilled lamb steak with wild herbs, and a light custard with baked figs.
Beautiful country setting, spacious and comfortable rooms, infinity pool, excellent restaurant
The lack of a spa.
Some rooms have working fireplaces.
Afterward, we headed to Maratea, a tiny resort town on Basilicata’s short Mediterranean coastline, approximately 110 miles south of Amalfi. The Italians have kept the region pretty much for themselves, and with forested hills dropping directly into the sea, it is peaceful and very beautiful.
Our destination was the 40-room Santavenere, a hotel with a dolce vita atmosphere — it was built in 1956 and was a celebrity favorite throughout the ’60s — set in a lush, well-groomed park. I had chosen this property as a place to relax at the end of our Basilicata journey. (It is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Naples airport along the autostrada.) On arrival, a porter in a golf cart collected us from the parking lot and transferred us to the low-slung, whitewashed hotel. Inside, we discovered tiled floors, chintz-covered armchairs and sliding doors that opened onto a terrace overlooking the sea.
Our spacious suite came with terra-cotta floors, wrought-iron light fixtures, framed lithographs and a lounge and bedroom that both offered access to a long private terrace. The bath was equipped with a Jacuzzi, a separate shower and double vanities. As we unpacked, a waiter arrived with glasses of sparkling wine and a dish of cruschi, the dried sweet red peppers that in Basilicata are frequently offered as a snack.
After a casual lunch of pizza, we enjoyed a quiet afternoon reading in the shade of the pine trees by the pool and taking an occasional dip in the sea. The hotel has no fewer than four restaurants (and three bars), plus an excellent spa, tennis courts and a fitness center.
Well-run, friendly and offering excellent value for the money, the Santavenere proved an ideal place to relax and reflect on our journey. Basilicata had exceeded all expectations. But it is unlikely to remain a secret for very much longer.
Genteel and slightly retro atmosphere; beautiful views of the sea; friendly staff; excellent spa.
Lanterna Rossa, the area’s best restaurant, is a short walk from the hotel.
Rainfall generally occurs in January and February, but it is unreliable and can happen later. If the river reaches the floodplain, the road to the Skeleton Coast becomes impassable for two months and the journey can only be made by air.