By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Martin de Lusenet.
It’s the “town Italy forgot,” said National Geographic, referring to a tiny village called Matera that sprouts from the banks of a canyon in Southern Italy.
Matera’s streets sprawl across a steep slope, pale tuff stone buildings rising a few stories into multi-faceted examples of old-world architecture. The tallest are adorned with tiled turrets and balconies, as well as carved and hand-laid staircases twisting around the edges offering views of the surrounding valley. With no other cities for miles and miles, on a clear night thousands of stars light the streets and the village looks like a living Vincent Van Gogh painting.
But its real secret gem lies deep in the city center: the ancient Sassi district, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. The dwellings that make up the district are carved into the valley slope itself, creating an intricate maze of catacombs that spin through the rock with breathtaking care and beauty.
The Sassi is an ancient human settlement and considered one of the first places people settled in Italy. Perhaps because of the shelter of the caves, the district withstood Matera’s various historical occupations, including the citizen’s revolt against German occupation in WWII.
It’s easy to lose yourself in Matera’s gorgeous bell towers and rich Italian culture. Sitting on a breezy terrace while street vendors peddle pasta and wine, you would never guess the city was once sunk in poverty and filth.
During the first half of the 20th century, the caves were reputed as “the shame of Italy” since they were overcrowded slums where families lived in destitution and crime. The situation became so dismal that in the 1950’s the Italian government evacuated the caves and relocated the inhabitants. Anyone still living there did so illegally and in unsanitary conditions. Then, thanks to a team of one brilliant entrepreneur and one hippy runaway, everything changed.
Margareta Berg alit into the caves in 1980 after running away from her German home. Then full of hippies, she must have seen their potential beauty, because she contacted Daniele Kihlgren, a famous Swedish-Italian hotelier, and the two of them set about financing a restorative project in the Sassi–a luxury hotel.
Rather than tear down the ancient architecture of the caves, the pair embraced it. They lined the tunnels with hand crafted candles, strategically placed to romantically illuminate the worn, cream-colored walls. Additionally, the pair kept the original sanded-down floors, fixing them with hidden heaters, and filled each of the 18 rooms with clean, simple decor that pays homage to the region’s Italian roots. After 10 years, the restoration was complete and La Grotta della Civita was born.
The effect is stunning.
In an interview with National Geographic, marketing guru Giancarlo Dall’Ara explained the property’s development is part of a larger movement he began in the 1980s called albergo diffuso, which seeks to save the country’s abandoned villages from decay through the construction of culturally cognizant hotels. “It’s a situation that exists in hundreds of abandoned villages around Italy,” he said.
Literally translated, albergo diffuso means “scattered hotel,” and indeed, rooms of these hotels are sprinkled through various structures within a village, but operated by a single manager, as is the case in Matera.
To be considered a property of albergo diffuso, a hotel has to conform to four principals designed to preserve the history and generate sustainable income for the community. The principles include that the property must be run directly by an individual owner and provide normal hotel services, all rooms must be distributed in existing converted buildings in historic centers, there must be a central reception area with cafe and food available, and the hotel must be part of a genuine community so that guests can be part of local life.
The idea is for guests to experience authentic Italian culture, and with the current global emphasis on “local travel” the movement has seen soaring success. By 2010, there were over 40 alberghi diffusi in Italy, with 100 more in development.
La Grotta della Civita has no stars and is not advertised, even most local tourist offices don’t know about it. Yet its presence has transformed the once forgotten city of Matera into one of Italy’s most prosperous and culturally significant diamonds in the rough.