In Matera, old cave dwellings are now home to culinary establishments that act as gateways to local delicacies and wine. Our contributor takes a stroll through the 2019 European Capital of Culture. By Aatish Nath

Matera Italy Cave
The Sassi di Matera are cave dwellings inhabited since the Paleolithic period. Courtesy: Rudi1976/Alamy

Jet lag had gotten the better of me. I was up before 6 am and determined to make the most of my first morning in Matera. The city in Italy’s Basilicata region is almost cleanly split into two, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Sassi (cave dwellings) sitting cheek by jowl with the angular facades of the apartment blocks and buildings where their residents were relocated after World War II. I was staying in the new part of the city, with a room overlooking Castello Tramontano. It was still dark when I set off for Piazzetta Pascoli, a short walk from my accommodation, La Suite Matera Hotel & Spa.

Matera Italy Cave
Sasso Barizano as seen from the II Terrazino restaurant. Courtesy: Marka/Contributor/Getty Images

In the violet haze of dawn, sweepers cleaned the city and coffee shops prepared to open their doors as the owners conversed over one last cigarette. Espresso, bread, and cheese are integral to starting the day in Italy, and I looked forward to loading up on carbs after my walk. As I wandered in the streets, I caught sight of photographers and tourists making a beeline for the Piazzetta. Once I reached the spot, it became evident why they had made the effort at that ungodly hour. The Sassi (Italian for ‘stones’) are two districts — Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso — that host cave dwellings dating back to the Paleolithic period. With the Matera Cathedral towering over them, the Sassi are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Once a subterranean town, this place is considered to be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. But unlike other ancient cities, this one has remained intact, with a steady accrual over centuries—stone stairways, cave-like dwellings, and seemingly haphazard architecture have coalesced at the site. Captured at sunrise, it looks akin to a film set, as the purple sky seems painted against a cityscape of orange and pink. The cinematic analogy is no feat of imagination, as the city has been a favourite filming destination, with the upcoming James Bond flick, No Time To Die, joining the list of movies shot here.

Matera Italy Cave
The La Palomba Sculpture Park occupies six hectares of what used to be a tufa-stone quarry. Courtesy: Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

Later in the day, a walk through the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, the central square with an imposing library on one side and the Church of Saint Dominic on the other, makes it clear that the city has taken its split identity and merged the two halves into a masterful whole. The Sassi may have been abandoned by the residents for modern apartments, but in the last two decades, they’ve transformed into a hub of restaurants, hotels, and bars. Meandering through the old city, you’ll find gelaterias, cafes, and wine bars enticing visitors to step in and experience la dolce vita.

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A cafetière at one of the rustic caves. Courtesy: Poppy Hollis/Getty Images

Each corner, courtyard, and cave you stumble upon abounds with restaurants and cafes. On my strolls through the historic district, I made some delightful discoveries. On Via Casale, Osteria al Casale (osterialcasale.it) whips up simple Italian meals high on flavour. Their pasta and pizzas are made with local ingredients that are allowed to shine. The centrally located bakery Casa del Pane (facebook.com/pg/panificiomartino.it) is famous for its pane di Matera, a local bread made of semolina grain with a crust that gives way to a yellow crumb. Their focaccia is more familiar but equally good. For complete immersion into your meal, you must visit La Talpa (latalparistorante.it), where Wi-Fi doesn’t penetrate the stone walls but Italian classics and local wines demand a #latergram. You will struggle to choose one from the many antipasti available, but the friendly owner is always at hand with seasonal recommendations and wine pairings. I relished the spaghetti in lemon sauce topped with truffle shavings.

Matera Italy Cave
Mario Daddiego works on terracotta bas-reliefs in his workshop. Courtesy: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

In 2019, Matera was named the European Capital of Culture, and it hosted events, concerts, and moreover 48 weeks. The plan was to keep the cultural programming going into 2020, but COVID-19 played spoilsport. You can still visit Musma (musma.it), which showcases contemporary sculptures in ancient caves. Walking around, you notice that the artisanal is everywhere, like at Il Bottegaccio Daddiego (artigianato.matera.it), the shop of master craftsman Mario Daddiego, who makes a range of items, from terracotta bas-reliefs to decorated plates and artistic nativity scenes. This artisanal spirit has taken hold in the food and drink industry as well, where a new breed of entrepreneurs is working to create local brands, like the refreshing AB beer (facebook.com/abibirrartigianale) based in nearby Altamura. The hyperlocal brand makes three beers, of which their blond variant is the best for easy drinking. Cheesemakers, meanwhile, are encouraging tourists to go beyond mozzarella and burrata, and there are historic makers of olive oil, which is given the same treatment in Italy as wine—with nuance brought on by terroir, varietals, and growers. The city even has a museum dedicated to olive oil! If you’re itching to take a special bottle back, get your hands on the Maiatica di Ferrandina extra virgin olive oil.

Matera Italy Cave
The pane di Matera has a crunchy brown crust and a straw yellow crumb. Courtesy: Peuceta/Getty Images

Matera overwhelms you with a sense of scale—in time, with its history stretching back to 7000 BC, when it was said to be first inhabited; and in place, at the gaping Parco Scultura La Palomba, which occupies six hectares of an erstwhile tufa-stone quarry. The vertical landscape of the quarry provides a rugged backdrop to a series of metal sculptures that are dwarfed by their setting. Evenings in Matera are best spent with a cup of hot chocolate at any one of the cafes overlooking the Sassi. I ended my day at the Quarry Lounge Terrace (quarryresort.it), a great place to kick back with a glass of wine, or a cup of espresso or hot chocolate. Those looking for something more traditional and healthy should try the crapiata, a soup made with legumes and cereals.

Matera Italy Cave
The Matera Cathedral is a 13th-century Apulian Romanesque style building that sits on the ridge dividing the two Sassi. Courtesy: Lianem/Alamy

On the next day, though, I was back in the old city at dawn—with the tourists and the photographers and the film fanatics— for some traditional pane di Matera, paired with freshly made cheese and charcuterie. It was another transcendental morning in Matera, and I knew the food would take centre stage yet again.

Getting There

Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) has the most connections to Italy via Istanbul, and the closest international airport to Matera is Bari.

Stay

La Suite Matera Hotel & Spa: If you’re seeking a modern hotel, away from the refurbished cave lodgings, this should be your top choice. Doubles from INR 10,500; lasuitematera.com

Le Dimore dell’Idris: Like most of the cave hotels, this is a boutique property with only seven rooms. Each room is unique and requires climbing stairs and uneven ground. As it is family-run, don’t be surprised if you’re invited for a glass of wine with the owners in the evening. Doubles from INR 13,310; dimoredellidris.it

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