Matera, a city in Southern Italy is one of the oldest settlements in the world that is still inhabited today. Most of this deeply fascinating city built into the slop of a rocky ravine is below your feet. Its tangle of streets criss-cross the rooftops of houses, many of them caves dug into the hardened clay walls of gullies.
The area around Matera was immortalised in the book, Christ stopped at Eboli, by Italian writer Carlo Levi who was exiled there in 1945 because of his anti-Fascist beliefs. The description of those times is chilling. “The houses were open on account of the heat and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. In these dark holes with walls cut out of the earth I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lay dogs, sheep, goats and pigs. Most families just have one cave to live in and there they sleep altogether, men women children and animals. This is how twenty thousand people live."
“Of children I saw an infinite number. They appeared from everywhere in the dust and the heat, amid the flies, stark naked or in rags. I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.”
Publication of Levi’s book triggered a reaction from the Government and in the 1950’s the people were moved out of the caves and into modern housing. Today some of the old cave dwellings have been renovated and have become family homes again while others have been given a new lease of life as luxury hotels.
Stay in the ancient Sassi Caves with Albatross
Albatross Tours includes a two-night stay in such a hotel in its 17-day tour of Southern Italy and Sicily. Each guest cave is simple but stylish with wood hewn cupboards, a high bed, wooden benches dressed with a white linen table-cloth, flickering candles in alcoves and a magnificent free-standing bath on the flagstone floor. The only light comes from a high window which you open by pulling on a piece of string. There is no television or other concessions to modern life.
The company likes to book accommodation for its tours which reflects the true character of the city or town. In Alberobello in Puglia, for example, we are all given an individual Trulli in which to sleep. These quaint houses, once built entirely of dry stones, have a conical roof and arched alcoves for sleeping and eating.
The buildings are believed to date back to the 15th century. Without any binding material the huts were easy and quick to disassemble if the King’s property tax collectors were headed their way. Later Trullis were built as permanent homes and the small town of Alberobello is made up almost entirely of these unique white houses, colourfully dressed with window-boxes.
Albatross Tours fully-escorted 17-day Italy, the Deep South and Sicily tour from Rome to Palermo runs from May to October. Two and three-night stays in each place make for a leisurely trip and the average distance travelled each day on outings is only 147 kilometres.