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Grotte della Civita – Matera

History of the house

Historic caves of Matera: Southern Italian Stone Age settlement, humble and yet exceptionally moving and fascinating

Historic caves of Matera: the ‘Sassi’ (stone caves) located on the edge of the village of Matera in southern Italy, are amongst the most impressive, best-preserved remains of early age settlement ever dug into a limestone rock-face. Most of these humble dwellings are simple caves, carved into the stone surface and niched along different levels on the cliff side. The site constitutes one of the earliest Neolithic settlements in Italy, with some of the oldest caves dating back to prehistoric times. As building continued during the Bronze Age, more caves were cut dug along the impressive Gravina Gorge, until the site came to resemble what it does today.

Matera_Grotte_della_Civita_Hotel

So many generations have benefited from these millenium old rock shelters … © Grotte della Civita Matera

During the Middle Ages, the Sassi caves were home to several monastic orders and afterwards housed a vibrant agricultural community, whose inhabitants farmed the nearby arable and pasture land over the surrounding hills and valleys.

At the beginning of the 20th century, living had become tougher in what had become the troglodyte district of Matera and the peasants, who occupied the caves, lived here in abject poverty. By the 1950s, as the caves became increasingly unhealthy, the Italian Government took steps to rehouse most of the inhabitants of the Sassi caves by force, allocating them housing in more modern buildings. Nevertheless, the caves continued to offer shelter to the homeless and dropouts on the fringes of society.

grotte della civita matera hotel

In communion with the unspeakable … © Grotte della Civita Matera

It was not until the end of the 1980s that the local authorities took the decision to invest in the neglected heritage of the Sassi di Matera, with a view to developing the area for tourism. The caves were redeveloped, with support from the European Union, the Italian Government, UNESCO and even from Hollywood (several films were filmed on location in this unique setting). They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Margareta Berg and Daniele Elow Kihlgren from the Sextantio Project acquired the ‘Sassi’ in 2005 and turned them into an albergo diffuso, an absolutely unique type of accommodation (see hereunder). Today the site ‘Le Grotte della Civita’ is one of the most prized destinations in the Basilicate region.

Safeguarding the memory of generations of humble peasants

Since its renovation, the Sexantio albergo diffuso (or ‘diffused hotel’) has become a place of healing and wellness that has become much in vogue among the artist crowd and the Italian intelligentsia. Dozens of newspapers have published impassioned articles about the ancient troglodyte town where, as is often the case in a former rural area, there is little evidence left of the humble existence of the thousands of simple farmers who used to live here.

Margareta Berg © Manuel Zublena

Margareta Berg © Manuel Zublena

Here I would like to praise the courage and tenacity of Margareta Berg, who has made a huge contribution to the preservation of this World Heritage Site. Margareta was only fifteen when she discovered the deserted Grotte della Civita, during a fugue when she spent a long time away from home. When she returned to the historic Caves of Matera a few years later as an art student, she found herself just as intrigued by the enchanting atmosphere of the site, its rough walls and the golden light that seemed to cling to its surfaces.

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Mysterious presence of bygone eras … © Grotte della Civita Matera

Margareta settled in the ‘Sassi’, which (unsurprisingly) became the main inspiration for her paintings. Gradually, she began to nurture the idea of protecting these precious historical remains from squatters and illegal traffickers. In 2005, she managed to convince Daniele Elow Kihlgren, the cultural entrepreneur who had just brought the hill-top village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the Abruzzi back to life, to transform the site and its caves into a unique type of hotel. Together with the archaeologist and tour operator Enrico Ducrot, they bought a large part of the area and combined their passion, expertise and energy to restore the soul of the old caves and develop a fabulous historical village-hotel, almost tailor-made for “intoHistory”.

A “hollow” heritage

An almost organic universe © Grotte della Civita Matera

An almost organic universe © Grotte della Civita Matera

The Sextantio albergo diffuso Le Grotte della Civita project is located in one of the oldest parts of Matera. All eighteen “cave-rooms” have been renovated, taking care to respect their authentic character and natural setting. The unique architecture of the Matera stone caves has being the defining feature of this conservation project, with the size of the rooms and materials kept almost as they were.
The rooms have in fact all been hand carved with their rough-edged spaces, divided here and there by separating walls and built as if in air pockets inside the sponge-like rock. The original shape and the rough, natural aspect of each cave have been preserved and original materials used as much as possible.

Monastic simplicity (c) Sextantio albergo diffuso Matera

Monastic simplicity (c) Sextantio albergo diffuso Matera

All the caves hold a unique history that stretches back to prehistory, with Cenobite monastic orders arriving later to live alongside the local rural community. Many people have made their homes here over the centuries, living as subsistence farmers alongside their livestock: the farmers in the ‘Sassi’ were essentially peasant labourers, not smallholders, and their cave homes were just part of this subsistence living.
The interiors of the Sassi are decorated simply, in as basic a style as the living conditions of their previous inhabitants, as described in Carlo Levi’s seminal work Christ Stopped at Eboli). In reality, many of the caves were simply used as sleeping quarters, as the warm climate – or necessity – seems to have encouraged more of an outdoor life. Instead, more attention seems to have been given to the external appearance of the caves.

All these factors meant that the conservation of the interiors at Sextantio required a minimalist approach, letting the cave space ‘express itself’. As such, the lights have been hidden in the walls and, with the irregular surfaces, much of the furniture has been built into the structure so as to maintain a continuity of form and function with the original appearance. Where needed and out of respect to those who once lived in these caves, recycled materials have been used (for the cupboards, chairs and desks). As a result, the simplicity of the shapes seems to fuse with the structure and blend in beautifully with the dramatic setting of the Sassi.

Sextantio albergo diffuso Matera - Philippe Stark's bathtub

© Sextantio albergo diffuso Matera

New elements have of course been added for modern comfort and standards – such as in the bathrooms, but even here a strictly minimalist design has been chosen. Not only does the simple, formal and neutral elegance of the modern design (such as the Philippe Starck bathtubs) blend with the historic context but it enhances the historic setting and underlines its particularities, forming a kind of dialogue with the landscape and its history.

> Discover the other Sextantio albergo diffuso in Santo Stefano di Sessanio

Multisensory stay

Sextantio albergo diffuso Matera

(c) Sextantio albergo diffuso Matera

The Sextantio albergo diffuso Le Grotte della Civita organizes a range of exclusive activities: from wine and tea tasting, cooking lessons, excursions and cultural trips to walks and treks into the wilderness, wellness treatments and even zip-line tours!

Insider Tips

Grotte_della_Civita_Matera_hotel

© Grotte della Civita Matera

Despite their sober character and relatively isolated location, the Matera caves have begun to attract increasing numbers of tourists, keen to experience the history of this special location. You will need to book your room well in advance.
Prices vary according to demand: weekends are more expensive than weekdays. During the low season, suites and superior rooms (some of them more than 160m²) can be reserved at the same price as the regular rooms.
Do indulge the Sextantio restaurant is a must: set in a deconsecrated church, the restaurant has an almost meditative atmosphere, lit exclusively by candlelight, with a fire lit in the fireplace and classical music playing in the background. Its traditional dishes are almost entirely made from local organic produce, including the delicious wines from its own cellar.

Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita

(c) Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita

This part of southern Italy has a beautiful warm climate, which is especially pleasant in autumn and spring when stretches of wild countryside has dazzling displays of colourful wild flowers. The summers are hot and dry but are bearable thanks benefit from a cooling wind.

It may be useful to know that the Sextantio albergo diffuso can arrange transfers to and from the nearest airports of Bari and Brindisi, the nearby train stations, Naples, Salerno, the Amalfi coast and the major tourist destinations in Puglia, as well as the most beautiful beaches on the Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts.

 

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Facilities

  • 18 cave-bedrooms
  • Traditional breakfast
  • Restaurant (on reservation)
  • Wine cellar / wine bar
  • Herb tea corner / terrace
  • Massage
  • Air conditioning / Wifi
  • Meeting room
  • Spoken languages: Italian, English, French
  • Distance from the Bari airport: 60 km
  • Train from Bari railway station: 60-90 min.
  • Accessible by coach from the major Italian cities
  • Access by car from the Adriatic coast, the Tyrrhenian coast or from Calabria
  • Practical instructions to reach the hostel
  • Free public parking (100 m away)
  • Non-smoking rooms and public spaces

In the neighbourhood

Matera_Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte (c) UNESCO

To read, watch or listen to

To soak up the period atmosphere of the historic caves of Matera, might we suggest you add a fourth dimension to your stay by a little reading (there’s nothing better than a good historical novel to bring age-old surroundings to life). And why not let your imagination be captivated by a film, or by listening to some choice pieces of music – all great ways of travelling back in time … A few suggestions:

Learning and understanding

Books to be devoured in situ

  • “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, by Carlo Levi
    Particularly stunning description of the living conditions of the inhabitants of ancient Lucania (including the Sassi of Matera) before the war, told by an anti-fascist doctor who lived there under house arrest between 1935 and 1936. A bestseller in Italy, it was also the subject of a film by Francesco Rossi (1979).

Films to be watched before arriving

  • “The Passion of the Christ”, by Mel Gibson
    The director took advantage of the quasi ancient decor of Matera to shoot his film. The harsh landscapes, steep streets and rough houses are out of time; providing a powerful backcloth to the emotional tension of the work.
  • “The Gospel according to St. Matthew”, by Pietro Pasolini
    Another biblical fiction filmed in Matera, a key production of Italian post-war cinema. This artistic interpretation of the New Testament (by a non believer filmmaker) touches the soul through the choice of its actors, its rich costumes, the variety of its angled shots, capturing teeming village life in great emotional depth.

Period music to be enjoyed on location

  • “Christo e Nato, Lauding the Nativity in Medieval Italy”
    Selection of works of sacred music of the Italian Middle Ages (instrumental and vocal), with pure and timeless lines, such as the cave dwellings of Matera.
  • “Sacred Songs of Medieval Italy”, by Acantus (sample)
    Vocal compositions of the late Middle Ages, in an original interpretation that will take you – meditating – back many centuries.
  • “Dinner in Italy”, by Angelo Petisi (sample)
    The sounds of the mandolin are very familiar, probably because they are heard repeatedly in all Mediterranean taverns. Yet it is a traditional art in the South of Italy that some musicians have developed to a high degree of refinement.

 

Some of the links below will enable you to consult the recommended titles directly on Amazon.com. If you decide to purchase one of these titles via this link, please note that intoHistory will receive a small commission on your transaction, which will help towards covering its running costs.

Guests comments

Évaluation selon 4 avis:

Historical authenticity
Ambiance and settings
Quality of welcome
Degree of comfort

Elodie

28-07-2016

Nous avions l'idée d'aller dans les Pouilles mais ne savions pas où poser nos valises. C'est à ce moment que nous avons découvert intohistory et que nous sommes tombés sur le Grotte della Civita à Matera. Alors, c'est Basilicata plutôt que les Pouilles mais c'était un excellent choix.

Nous avons passé un séjour sublime dans un lieu qui respire l'histoire, avec une vue incroyable sur les grottes et la nature aride. L'hôtel était respectueux de l'histoire de Matera, avec son mobilier simple et rustique, et était en même temps fin et élégant.

Le personnel était en plus très serviable, disponible à toute heure de la journée et toujours de bon conseil. Le petit-déjeuner était copieux, avec du jus d'orange frais et des produits locaux.

En bref, un séjour qui vaut le détour. Merci Intohistory !

Dianne Hofmeyr

26-05-2015

It is a wonderful place. I stayed there last year & HAVE to return. Could not be more atmospheric!

Christine Schuiten, architecte

19-02-2014

Nous avons été chaleureusement accueillis aux "Grotte della Civita" lorsque nous sommes arrivés à la nuit tombée.
Personnel très attentif tout au long de notre séjour, toujours prêt à nous satisfaire.
L’atmosphère conviviale et mystérieuse de la "chambre grotte" était impressionnante. Sa décoration et son équipement était en phase avec la sobriété de l’environnement, parfaitement délicat.
Les repas "bio du cru" sont délicieux. Nous les avons beaucoup appréciés.
Un site ancien qui mérite d’être découvert et une expérience historique hors du commun !

Michel Marijnissen, ir architecte

19-02-2014

Pour les personnes en quête de découvertes, de recherche de lieux insolites, dans un environnement imprégné dans l’histoire, voici une destination décoiffante !
Cet hôtel est situé dans un site d’exception, avons reçu un accueil sympathique et avons séjourné dans un cadre "chambre d’hôtel" (une grotte aménagée avec finesse) qui invite à la détente et même à la méditation.
Un confort dans la simplicité accompagnée d’une restauration de qualité.
Idéal pour s’imprégner du contexte de vie depuis la préhistoire (région habitée depuis l’âge de Bronze) jusqu’à nos jours. Un peuple qui a toujours vécu dans la difficulté, jusqu’à ces dernières décennies.

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Historical authenticity
Ambiance and settings
Quality of welcome
Degree of comfort

Antiquity Village Inn/Hostel 150-220€/room

Especially authentic

Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita
Sasso Barisano – Via Civita 28
I-75100  MATERA (Italy)
Tel. +39 0835 33 27 44
Hostel’s own web site

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