bout six years ago, I was reading a Maxim magazine at work and came upon an article about their Top Ten “coolest” hotels. I flipped through; the usual supsects were there: Bali, Dubai, but one picture jumped off the page. It was a door, a small wooden table and a single light suspended above. The building was all stone; it looked ancient, completely out of place in the 21st Century. The hotel was called Sextantio, in a town called Matera somewhere in Southern Italy. The short write-up said Matera’s famous “Sassi” were cut right out of the rocks. It was Italy’s own troglodyte dwellings like the more famous Cappadocia in Turkey and Matmata in Tunisia, the latter made famous as the set for Tatooine, from the original Star Wars. I had never heard of Matera before, so I flushed the toilet and slung the magazine under my arm. As soon as I got home I looked up Matera and Sextantio, both looked incredible and I remember telling Julia at the time, that if we ever go to Italy, I wanted to go to Matera. (She denies ever hearing this).
Here we were, six years later, staring at the Sassi from our own cave hotel, Locanda di San Martino. (Sextantio was way too expensive). The view in the fading light was incredible to behold, so we quickly got changed and walked through the village looking for a place to eat. We walked up a small staircase and emerged in a beautiful, modern piazza that was bustling with evening shoppers. Twenty steps up or down the staircase and you pass between 2000 years in time; perhaps we had inadvertently discovered time travel.
We walked around the piazza and the shopping district then returned to the Sassi for dinner. We ate at a restaurant just down the street from our hotel called Nadi and, unlike the faux “Cave” restaurant in Saskatoon, this restaurant was in a real cave. I ate beef, the first time I’d had such a thing since arriving in Italy. You may not believe it, but you do get sick of dough and cheese… eventually. We returned to our hotel, again with bloated bellies and while Julia promptly went to bed, I stayed up a little longer to take some more photographs. I was loving Matera and the next day was all about exploring the Sassi. I could hardly wait.
We awoke the next morning and ventured to the breakfast spread. It was huge, but on closer inspection, I identified eighteen different types of pastry, bread, cake, cookie and pie, to go along with some yogurt, sliced ham, multiple cheeses and a bit of fruit. Julia and I found a spot at the far end of the room near a piano and no sooner had we sat down when a young woman showed up to play the piano ending our morning conversation. No matter, the agenda for the day was to walk around Matera and get a feel for the place. After a cappuccino, we hurried back to our room, got changed and headed out. It was a beautiful day, the warmest yet, the sky was clear and our transportation squabbles were long behind us.
Matera was truly a sight to behold as every corner revealed another interesting building cut out of rock. Around the outside of the town was a deep gorge where you could see evidence of other caves, but these lacked the architectural ingenuity of the buildings inside Matera. Did people live there too? Our feet were not up to the task of getting over there so we continued our circle of the town coming to an old Church that looked as if its DNA was accidentally spliced with a boulder. They call this “negative architecture,” which means hollowing out instead of building. Matera’s other claim to fame was as the set for the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ, and it became pretty obvious why it was chosen. No set designer could possibly recreate a biblical setting this large and this intricate and the numerous little bars were perfect for Gibson’s evening drinking binges.
After walking around the exterior of Matera, we were famished and found a little café in a sunny piazza to stop for a glass of white wine. The wine was delicious and location was absolutely perfect. After about an hour of doing what many Italians do—watching the day pass by—we walked through the piazza and stumbled upon a truly magnificent sight: Turkish Kebab. We were so in the mood for something other than Italian food this dingy little restaurant was the perfect respite and we needed some food before heading back to the Locanda and their Thermae.
It was a glorious day, topped off with a three-hour visit to the spa. I’m sorry I did not pack the camera for the spa, so you’ll just have to let your imaginations run wild, not of me in an army green Borat styled mankini, but of the Thermae itself. Turn one way and it’s a large cave pool with blue accented lights, turn the other way and you see a sauna and a stairwell down to another blue hued relaxation room. Unlike the rest of the hotel, the Thermae is a cave themed room, but it’s still done with aplomb. You enter the thirty degree pool and wade towards a second, smaller cave room before venturing through to a third cave room which has a sitting area and a large red knob for bubbles. I met a family from Belgium in the steam room and we laughed at how places on the Internet rarely meet expectations, but that Locanda di San Martino and Thermea came exactly as advertised, and then some. I told them of my fondness for Belgian beer and they told me of their fondness for Canada.
After walking around all day and spending so much time in the Thermae we were asleep early, but before bed we discussed with the front desk staff about staying another day in Matera. This required us to move to a different room, but it didn’t matter, we really liked this part of Italy as well as the hotel, but we also knew the trip was winding down and we had to decide on a future plan. I still wanted to see Alberobello while Julia wanted to make our way back towards Naples, possibly stopping in Salerno. Once again, we need to ask for help.