The Towns Italy Forgot

From the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

I awaken on a high bed plush with pillows and antique linens. Rays of sunlight filter through a grated window, casting a honeyed glow on the room’s curved, rough-hewn walls and high ceiling. An old wood table topped with a white cloth runner is laid with fresh fruit and a bottle of wine. Candles shimmer by an oval bathtub set on a rough stone floor in an adjoining space—a space that looks for all the world like a cave.

Momentarily disoriented, I soon realize that I’m in the hotel in the ancient town of Matera that I’d checked into under cover of darkness the night before. The town, which lies east of Naples in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, is a jumble of small dwellings fashioned out of cream-colored tuff stone. Layered one atop another like small boulders, or sassi, and incorporating natural caves, the dwellings hopscotch the flanks of a butte. The effect when I saw it the preceding evening was of both disarray and harmony, individuality and unity. Then I’d come upon a gate at the foot of this curious little citadel: the entrance to Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, the one-of-a-kind hotel that recast grotto quarters into some of Europe’s more unusual accommodations—and my base for a few days.

I’d been hearing about these troglodyte habitations in the mysterious land nicknamed “Sassi” (for its rock formations) since I moved to Rome more than three decades ago. Prehistoric settlers created these half-cave, half-hovel dwellings, thought to represent some of the earliest housing in Italy, out of the soft volcanic stone that forms many of southern Italy’s hill towns. Inhabited for millennia, the caves required little in the way of upkeep, were cool in summer, and could accommodate livestock, making them expedient as basic shelter. It was only after author Carlo Levi—exiled to this remote land in the 1930s by the Fascists—wrote about the unhygienic living conditions in his scathing 1945 exposé, Christ Stopped at Eboli, that the dwellings became a national scandal. “Christ never came this far,” Levi wrote, “nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope….” To address the humiliation, the Italian government began evacuating the caves in the 1950s, moving almost 20,000 people to public housing in the newer section of Matera.

The honeycomb of forsaken homes sat empty (with the exception of the occasional squatter) until a new vision for this extraordinary townscape, and similarly faltering hill towns, began to take hold in the 1980s, followed by the emergence of the albergo diffuso, or dispersed hotel, movement, a trend toward authentic, locally sourced lodging that has breathed new life into, and sometimes even resuscitated, old villages. “The albergo diffuso is an Italian model for development born to save uninhabited houses in the rising numbers of small Italian borghi, or villages, vacated as people moved to cities,” said Giancarlo Dall’Ara, the visionary behind the concept, when we’d talked before my visit to Matera. “It’s a situation that exists in hundreds of abandoned villages around Italy.”

Dall’Ara’s innovation: Remake the villages into a sort of rambling guest lodge with a central management that offers hotel amenities like maid service, a restaurant, and concierges. Visitors become part of the community—even, at times, the community. “For people who don’t really like to stay in hotels, this is an ideal alternative,” he noted. Also key: Retain as many authentically local touches as possible for a strong sense of place.

It would be difficult to get more authentic than the Grotte della Civita (Caves of the Town) hotel. As I survey my room in the morning sun, it becomes clear that the work here was more conservation than restoration. White linens from antique trousseaux have been repurposed as bedcovers and runners; side tables were fashioned from centuries-old grain chests. The chair is a milking stool, the bathroom sink an animal trough. Antique washboards serve as soap dishes, a carpenter bench as a toilette table. A brazier once heaped with coal to warm the cave now holds bath accessories, including antique liqueur decanters filled with shampoo and soap gel, and a cluster of candles. Huge copper pots for heating milk in the fireplace now serve as wastebaskets or containers for yet more candles.

“I scoured flea markets and bric-a-brac dealers for original pieces used by laborers and farmers,” says Margareta Berg, the blond, fresh-faced co-owner of the hotel, when we meet for a morning cappuccino. And the glass for the few windows and doors, rippled as though antique? “It wasn’t easy to find someone who knew the old glassblowing techniques,” she admits.

Berg tells me that the renovations purposefully preserved the shapes of the grottoes and the absence of decoration. The simple, sculptural presence of the stone walls provides visual drama, enhanced only by recessed lights and banks of flickering candles that create an almost church-like glow. Floors, which were mostly dirt, were paved with antique tiles and rock from the nearby Murgia River gorge. Any remaining stone floors were left uneven; lifted briefly to install under-floor heating, air-conditioning, and plumbing, they were replaced stone by stone. One original detail that was altered: musty residual cave air, which Berg remedied with a fragrance that she engineered from the oils of wild myrtle, rosemary, and thyme she found growing in abundance in the nearby gorge.

I ask Berg, who spent childhood years in Germany, how she found her way to Matera. “I discovered it as an art student in the 1980s and fell in love with the caves.” She spent afternoons depicting the ancient dwellings on canvas. “There is a magic conjured by these abandoned places. They evoke the friends, families, and lovers whose lives unfolded in them over centuries.” She found herself captivated by their reality—and potential. Then she read about Daniele Kihlgren, a young half-Swedish, half-Italian entrepreneur who transformed the abandoned medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the Abruzzo region, into a hotel that won international attention and rekindled the local economy. She contacted him about her dream of doing the same in the Sassi, and Kihlgren traveled to Matera to scout the site. Upon seeing the algae-covered caves, says Berg, he assumed the challenge. “We envisioned a luxury hospitality that broke with the usual concept of very luxurious settings,” she adds. It took four years of daily struggle to renovate the caves into a hotel, with Berg, passionate about authenticity (she is currently traveling the world to work on similar restoration projects), insisting no materials alien to the former cave inhabitants be introduced. “I tried to retain the gestalt and the sorrow I sensed when I found the grottoes. There is nothing of the hotelier here,” she observes.

Setting out from my suite to explore Matera, I pass a French family with three girls arranging a picnic on a table on a terrace fashioned from the tuff. Cheese, fruit, small cakes, and a bottle of Aglianico del Vulture, one of Basilicata’s most acclaimed wines, sit on the handwoven tablecloth salvaged from some long-ago bride’s hope chest. The girls, delighted by this adventure in a land of grottoes, wave “Salut!” as I walk by. “Bon appétit,” I call back, but find myself wondering about the dreams in that chest—and what the bride would make of the
luxe accommodation crafted from the modest dwelling.

I pause to look at the town and see no streets, only staircases that weave or bound from one level to the next. The higgledy-piggledy layout soon has me tramping up sloped paths and ancient stairs, passing lace-curtained windows and doors wafting out the scent of simmering tomato sauce. After reaching a few dead ends and having to retrace my steps, I forgo these old ways for the road along the craggy ravine that faces my suite. Here a tang of wild herbs fills my head. I stop a kind-looking local signora to ask what the scent is. “Fiori di campo—wildflowers,” she answers. “Deve ritornare in primavera—you must return in spring,” she adds, explaining the ravine then blooms into a colorful riot of flora.

Matera is making a deep impression on me with its centuries of civilization compressed into one small settlement. I pass various churches—here Romanesque, there baroque—as I ascend to the town’s summit, with its crowning duomo, or cathedral, a medieval landmark whose elegant bell tower dominates the skyline. Eager to know more about these and other landmarks, I find a local guide, Raffaele Stifano, who suggests a walking tour of Matera old and new. On his business card, under “authorized tour guide,” he has added “cinematography locations,” reminding me that Matera was a setting for director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s classic 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Forty years later, much of the modern world first glimpsed this unusual town in another film: Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ. Both films set scenes in some of the 150-plus churches hewn out of the rock here.

Sensing my curiosity about daily life in the Sassi, Stifano steers me to the Cave House of Vico Solita-rio, a reconstruction of a typical 20th-century cave dwelling complete with furniture, wall decorations, household implements (including a loom), and a life-size plastic mule in the chamber that traditionally housed the inhabitants’ animals. I note a grain chest similar to those Margareta Berg fashioned into tables, a soap dish akin to the one in my room, and a faded mirror just like that in my bathroom alcove. “This is real,” says Stifano. “This is exactly the way it was.”

Stifano was born in the Sassi and spent his first seven years here, until his family was allotted public housing in 1963. “It took the government two decades to build enough public housing for all the cave dwellers,” he tells me. Were most Sassi dwellers glad to leave their cave homes, I ask. “They were more than happy!” he assures me. “They wanted Formica.”

He returned to the empty, bricked-up caves in 1977 to live as a squatter with his hippie friends. Little did they imagine the area would be declared a World Heritage site 16 years later—a recognition by the international community that prompted the local government to stimulate funding for restorations. Few takers stepped forward, however, because the caves could only be leased, not bought—which turned out to be a boon for squatters like Stifano, who had been trying to salvage the cave dwellings with scarce resources. Now the squatters were seen as an asset.

“We were hooked up to the electricity grid and water system and given legal status as residents,” he says. Slowly, other enterprises moved into the area, including upmarket restaurants—Baccanti, Le Bubbole—that offered lighter interpretations of rustic local specialties. The Sassi became chic: Architects, artists, foreigners, and filmmakers leased caves from the government to renovate as homes. “Gentrification took over,” says Stifano, “and Matera found itself being reborn.”

I dine that evening on the terrace of Le Botteghe, a trattoria specializing in the regional cucina povera, or “poor cooking.” Munching on toasted fava beans and sipping a glass of wine from the region, I watch a village festival ramp up in the street. Locals and visitors from surrounding towns are getting in line for free wine and servings of crapiata, a flavorful blend of beans, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes prepared after all the planting and harvesting is done. When, later, I stroll back to my room, the old town of Matera sits incandescent in the night, the rock-hewn churches transformed by theatrically choreographed lighting.

TRANSFORMATION—careful, locally driven transformation—distinguishes the 53 properties that belong to the Alberghi Diffusi Association. Matera remains a high-profile example, but “a model for the albergo diffuso concept was Due Campanili Relais, in the Marche region in central Italy,” Dall’Ara, who founded the group, had told me. Now hooked on this concept, I reserve a room at Due Campanili and hop on a northbound train.

The Marche [MAR-keh], lying between Umbria and the Adriatic Sea, has it all—art, architecture, vineyards, mountains, beach resorts, culinary and musical traditions—and yet is, so far, relatively undiscovered by tourists. Tour buses are rare, except perhaps in the walled, Renaissance-era city of Urbino, a World Heritage site known for its art-filled—Raphael, Titian—Palazzo Ducale.

A car from the Due Campanili hotel picks me up at the train station in the little town of Fano, and we thread inland through vineyards and along hills blanketed in varied shades of green to the hamlet of Montemaggiore al Metauro. This sleepy cluster of stone homes dating to before the 16th century, when it was a noted regional producer of wool, perches atop a small hill overlooking the meadow-quilted Metauro River valley.

As the industrial revolution began to make over Europe, Montemaggiore al Metauro—like so many hill towns in rural Italy—was passed by. Residents trickled away for better opportunities, a process hastened by World War II. By the 1950s, the walled hamlet—with its two bell towers, or campanili, for which the hotel is named—was essentially abandoned.

Enter, in the 1980s, Irene Mangiarotti and her architect brother Gianfranco, whose specialty is reimagining old hotels (Rome’s Hotel Art, Sicily’s Grand Hotel Monte Tauro). Presented, by a friend, with 35 buildings to play with, they rolled up their sleeves and reproposed the lot as a “horizontal” hotel. Furnishings would be period pieces from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, the final decade the town was inhabited. “Much of it we found in the area,” Gianfranco, mid-forties and wearing dark-rimmed glasses, tells me of their hunt for original pieces. “The problem was finding enough for so many accommodations. We searched antiques fairs and markets until we found authentic items.”

I’m shown to my two-bedroom apartment, which I’m happy to see comes with expansive views of the Metauro Valley. A quick rest and back out I go to become acquainted with what today will be my village. I wander the 15 or so cobblestone lanes, only five of which are named. Birdsong and the peal of church bells fill the air. Two women playing cards on a stone table nod cordially as I pass. Other neighbors have parked kitchen chairs outside their doors to enjoy, for another day, the countryside views. As I approach, they wish me a buon giorno.

“A good day comes naturally here, in your relaxing village,” I answer in Italian, and catch their proud smiles. Each lane I follow eventually brings me to a view of the valley. It doesn’t take me long to fall in love.

The next morning, wanting to see more of the hotel, I join a hotel staffer on his rounds of the eight refurbished buildings—including a spa—that make up the hotel. Guest units range from single rooms to an apartment that sleeps six and includes a garden. The faithful-in-every-detail period décor conveys a feeling of living in a less complicated time and place.

This sense of ease has been luring descendants of villagers who forsook Montemaggiore al Metauro; they’re returning here for summer vacations or even to retire. “We are really seeing an increase in people fleeing the city for a more livable place,” Giancarlo Bruschini, who plans cultural activities in the area, says as we sip prosecco and sample formaggio di fossa—a local cheese that ages for a year in earthen pits, where it takes on the flavors of wood, moss, and truffles—at the hotel’s restaurant. A fairly new eatery that specializes in traditional dishes, the restaurant has been drawing patrons, as have stargazing parties, theater workshops, and other activities. Additional attractions include the surrounding Metauro Valley and its network of museums that showcase disappearing regional crafts and customs. I make my way to the pottery museum and soon find myself throwing a pot on the wheel; at a weaving museum I slide a shuttle to-and-fro on an old-fashioned loom; I watch local masons demonstrate their craft at the stonemasonry museum; and I finger a variety of ropes and handmade bricks in a small museum that is dedicated to, well, making ropes and bricks.

Then I recollect a comment Dall’Ara had made. “I think of an albergo diffuso as a novel that tells the story of a culture. Guests are brought into the story temporarily so they can better understand the way of life.” I think back to my tastefully tricked-out cave in Matera, then to my traditional village lodging here in the Marche countryside, and understand just what he means.

On my final night at Due Campanili, settling into my antique Marchigiana bed, I meditate on something D. H. Lawrence once wrote: “For us to…penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery—back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.”

I am there, down the old ways of time, tranquilla.

Veteran journalist Mimi Murphy has covered Italy for Gourmet, Life, Time, Departures, and other publications. Italian photographer Massimo Bassano shot Ischia for our September 2010 issue.
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