Sleep in an Italian Cave Hotel
Stephanie Ostroff adds another spot to our unending travel wish list: an Italian cave hotel.
Past and present exist in harmony at Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Le Grotte Della Civita, where caves transformed into upscale hotel rooms seem to speak to the peasant enclave that once called them home. Located at i Sassi di Matera, A UNESCO World Heritage Site sandwiched between the heel and the toe of Italy’s boot, the hotel has managed to embrace the possibilities of sustainable tourism by holding onto its heritage.
The 18 guestrooms, open since May 2009, were part of an organized community as early as the Bronze Age. Rooms carved into tufa rock and enclosed by walls formed from excavated blocks were the first living spaces, according to UNESCO. Later, vaulted rooms developed, and home clusters shared courtyards, called vicinati, and facilities such as cisterns. Over time, this village cradled among the rocks expanded, with roofs of some houses serving as streets for the houses above them. The Renaissance brought the addition of more sophisticated architecture, including garden terraces and elegant balustrades.
The golden days of the Sassi came to a close when the 18th century ushered in an era of agricultural crisis and overpopulation. Those who lived in the cave dwellings often were extremely poor and suffered ill health, thanks in part to the fact that animals and humans lived there side-by-side. The publication of Carlo Levi’s novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, in 1945 brought the abject poverty of Matera into the national limelight. Seven years later, legislation transferred the struggling peasants of the Sassi to a new housing development, leaving the cave structures abandoned.
Today the caves of the civita–the ancient town center–provide luxury hospitality with a twist. At Le Grotte Della Civita, travelers have to make due without television, in-room fridges and plush décor. Instead, rooms are filled with furniture crafted from antique wood by local artisans, and beds are outfitted with linens from centuries-old wedding chests. Period terracotta tiles and stone cover the floors. In creating a hotel at the site of the Sassi, entrepreneurs Margareta Berg and Daniele Kihlgren wanted to let the authenticity of the setting shine through. Their hope was to “not betray the ‘soul’ of the building.”
Furniture is built into the walls of the grottoes to maintain a sense of congruity with the caves’ natural layout. Iron rings for livestock are still in place. External walls remain unpainted, and internal walls have been minimally altered, using original nails and artisanal techniques.
Getting There: A one-night stay at Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Le Grotte Della Civita starts at 275 Euros for a classic room and 494 Euros for a suite. For more information visit http://www.legrottedellacivita.com/. Photos courtesy of the hotel.
- Nat Geo Expeditions