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Southern Italy

Southern Italy – Destinations with the promise of architectural curiosities and design and delights from nature to the table: Matera and Alberobello. Two charming cities, with boutique hotels and genuine trattorie where you will be surrounded with tranquility and contentedly wear a permanent smile.

As soon as our eyes met those two photos, our decision was made: we had to see for ourselves the buildings that are so intriguing (Matera) and so cute (Alberobello), which are real signatures, if not icons, of the locations. Nestled in the heel of the Italian boot, the two cities in the Basilicata and Puglia regions, less-known than Sicily, are very welcoming to the traveler, while being, fortunately, still free of mass tourism, and very comfortable thanks to a mild – never torrid - climate. 

The fabulous destination of Matera: when disgrace became national pride

Matera is a city that was not built on a gigantic rock, but rather dug in the rock. Houses, hotels, restaurants and businesses are entirely carved into the stone of ancient troglodytic houses and caves… they are the millennium Sassi, renovated from the inside out for the last 20 years: the entrance might be small, but wait until you see the inside! What magnitude, what ingenuity, and what design! Other more recently built homes have been built with huge bricks made of natural materials displaced by the digging of the caves.

What an incredible change in destiny! After being an affluent city, capital of the Basilicata Province, it went through a slow decline until the beginning of the fifties, inhabited only by peasant families who had been living the same lifestyle for centuries. Goats and donkeys often shared the home, where a space was reserved for a well to get fresh water and another for the production of olive oil. The Government decided it was a disgrace to Italy, and people were moved elsewhere and provided basic, modern comforts. The caves became government property and were simply abandoned.

Then in 1993, UNESCO decided to recognize the Sassi on its World Heritage list. Since then, the Italian Government has been trying to convince families or descendants of families who once lived there to come back and renovate the houses. Those that didn’t find takers were sold to private individuals, hotels or restaurant owners interested in developing a tourism business in this rather unique part of the country. 

As its name indicates, at the Sant’ Angelo, we were ecstatic

A warm welcome was waiting for us at the Sant’ Angelo, a 20-room boutique hotel: design, furniture and ultra modern bathrooms were all nestled in a cave where the original walls and floors have simply been polished. With white and beige décor, it is perfectly comfortable and quiet! You will never feel oppressed in a cave room: it is huge and there is a fresh feeling in the air. The overall ambiance is so special that you almost feel like you are living on another planet … and Wi-Fi is included.

What could be said about the luxurious dining room of the Sant’ Angelo, where three generous meals a day can be served, should we wish so? If you feel like having a cheese plate later in the evening, or a Caprese salad with a glass of Aglianico, a wine from the region, the waiter will gladly walk to the Kiev, a close-by bistro, to get them for you.

Matera’s boutique hotels all have between 5 and 20 rooms, often grouped under one roof or sometimes “diffused” as they say, throughout different neighborhood blocks of stone.

We also visited other smaller hotels as well as luxurious ones, such as the Palazzo Gattini and the Palazzo Viceconte, where large events such as weddings can be celebrated, and others, more modest but still charming, such as the Hotel in Pietra, or the Apart-hotel Residence San Giorgio.

Another worth mentioning is listed in the Lonely Planet guide as “one of the ten beautiful hotels in the world,” La Grotte. Why? Because the renovation was done in the most authentic way, closely respecting the original cave. For example, a trough where animals once ate and drank remains and has become a washbasin… on top of which ultra modern faucets rest.

Also attractive for their reasonable prices are the 4 and 5-star boutique hotels in Matera, which advertise rates ranging from 85 to 200 Euros per night, the majority asking around 100-120 Euros.

Where eating is the main daily activity…

We savored regional typical dishes, such as cialledda soup (a meal in itself, however, it was followed by delicious grilled fish) at the Locanda Di San Martino. At the Antico Trattoria Lucana, the orecchiette di rapa seduced us (pasta in the shape of ear lobes served in an arugula sauce), as well as Mel Gibson’s linguini, named as such by the chef Gigi because it was Gibson’s favorite restaurant and dish when he filmed “The Passion of the Christ” in Matera.

It is useful to know that in this region, like in many others in Italy, breakfast is usually taken standing at the counter, gulping down a ristretto espresso accompanied by a huge croissant filled with custard or jelly. At noon, the “total” is eaten: a copious meal with three to four servings to enjoy over two long hours. At night, a light snack is enjoyed around 9:30 PM. This is the opposite of what North Americans are used to. This is what travel is made of, after all: experiences!

Active tourism

To burn all of those calories and to experience the essence of the region, an active walk is a recommended activity.
You will no doubt want to visit the rock art churches as well as the numerous museums and archeological sites, or wander across 15 km of canyon or through the two valleys circling Matera. A stop at the Parco della Murgia Materana interpretation pavilion will take you through the history and the traditions of the peasants.

Going over the dolomites in a Zip line might also thrill you. In all cases, for nature lovers, a whole range of excursions is offered to discover the region, back and forth and up and down. Trekking is relatively easy here.
A concert at night at the Castel del Monte might prove to be an excellent way to end the day, provided you still have the energy to get there.

Enveloped in images and music

The Parco della Murgia also has an outdoor natural theater, where films are projected at night. Its bleachers are made of dry walls of stone. This very rare regional specialty is taught here to small groups of men interested in continuing the very ancient tradition.

La Palomba, a contemporary sculpture park, spread over 6 hectares, is not only an exhibition site for internationally renowned artists, it is also an open-air concert hall with acoustics that are especially good because of the type of stone surrounding the stage.

Golf in a wine bar?

Another eccentric element in Matera is the 19 a Buca Winery. What is it exactly? It is a wine bar, a coffee-restaurant-lounge… and a 19-hole golf course, all 13 meters deep under the main Matera piazza, the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. More proof that Matera is a city that was “dug” and not built.

Needless to say it is recommended to drink after the round of golf!

A day where anything goes!

For the last 700 years, on July 2nd downtown Matera becomes the theater of a giant and bizarre event to collectively let off steam: a huge 12 meter long, by 15 meter high float entirely covered with religious figures in papier-mâché, arrives back in town, after travelling with the Brown Madonna from one city to another. 60,000 people will be waiting to eagerly tear off those figures, which they will bring home and display as trophies.

May 5 is another important day in Matera: the Maggio is a celebration of the nicest and biggest tree in the region. The tree is carried by strong men and oxes to downtown Matera, where a climbers’ contest follows.

Cultural events of all sorts are numerous in Matera: it is worth checking the annual calendar of events, for jazz, wine and women’s literature festivals.

A wink to Matera’s stars: the famous Natuzzi leather sofas

The 1500 Trulli at Alberobello

In B.C.E., the Trulli were vaults for death. With time, they became small, nice round houses, with whitewashed walls and gray stone roofs, and multiplied to become the Monti in Alberobello, now on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

For a long time, only one family lived in a Trullo. In the last few years, units were joined from the inside, creating bigger homes. Many owners, taking advantage of tourism, opened shops. To this day, however, only one has been converted into a hotel.

The main activity in downtown Alberobello is strolling its steep streets admiring the rows of Trulli, sometimes decorated in flowers, sometimes decorated with geometrical figures at the top, and going from boutique to boutique to buy pasta and handmade lace or local alcoholic beverages, at the Bottega del Tissuto Artigianale and at the Pizzicheria Enoteca.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Olimpo, a huge, contemporary complex, elegant and offering modern comfort.

Generous land, miraculous food

The red soil of Alberobello’s surroundings, made of limestone and clay, rich in iron and salt, is excellent for agriculture. It produces cherry tomatoes, olives, arugula, eggplants, zucchinis, potatoes, figs and huge Ferrovia cherries.

This soil gives a special taste to all of the produce, making a difference in dishes. For example, traditional Bruschetta is served here in a simple and fresher way – a slice of bread brushed with perfumed olive oil, half a cherry tomato naturally salted and two arugula leaves. It has the greatest taste in the world, much better than any elaborate recipe.

At the Terminal restaurant in Alberobello, we overindulged with olives alla calce (cured with lime, which preserves their green color), artichokes fried in a breadcrumb beer coating, with nice fricelli pasta in a veal reduction. As for drinks, we honored the Edonè, a white sparkling wine, and a dark wine, very heavy in alcohol, called the Primitivo di Manduria.

Around Alberobello

85 million olive trees producing up to 70% of the extra virgin olive oil used in Italy comes from this region. Many orchards offer olive oil tasting, served with garlic, thyme, lemon and orange…

There are the four caves of Castellana, accessible through a 60-meter long tunnel, so wide that a river flows through them.

The Safari Zoo, with its 1,500 species of animals.

Putignano is another village built in rock. A must-experience tradition here is the San Manzano creamery, serving rich coffee gelato with liquor. There are also excellent fish and seafood restaurants. Finally, there is the monument paying tribute to Domenico Modugno, who popularized what is probably the most known Italian song in the world: “Volare”.

Monopoli: for its beaches and moreover, its masseria, country houses for affluent landowners of yesteryear, which have since been transformed into boutique hotels.

Otranto: where the Adriatic and the Ionic seas meet and where 850 km of sandy coasts unwind. It is so beautiful that Greeks and Turks gathered there well before Jesus Christ to “see where the sun sets.”

Locorotondo and Cisternino are listed as “the most beautiful villages in Italy”: at Locorotondo, you can taste the renowned winery Bianco Rotondo’s production. Close by is a big tower, which constitutes a real balcony on the valley.

Cisternino: where on the second Saturday of August pottery is celebrated. Eat the delicious orecchiette and keep the pottery plate!

Brindisi: the end of the Appian Way, which linked Rome to Jerusalem. Two columns on the harbor indicate the ideal route to the sea and to Jerusalem. Relax at the beach or visit the vineries: it is the capital of the Puglia wines.

Ostuni: the white city, where the light is magic at the end of the afternoon, and whose main street wraps around the city, overlooking a magnificent sandy and rocky bay. An annual jazz festival, chic hotels and spas in abundance and the Caffè Ricardo, well known by stars, are the main attractions here.

Monticelli: at the Quarto di Luna, at night, we head to the beach where tents, rugs and bolsters wait on the sand to allow us to treat ourselves to cocktails that are as intoxicating as the natural décor!

A wink to the stars of Putignano: the wedding dresses that are made to measure for brides from all over the world.

How do we get to Matera or Alberobello?

Preferably in May and June, or September and October, by train or plane, in Bari. From there, it is up to you: a rented car, taxi, bus or local train. It is a 30 to 60 minute ride.

Sylvie Berthiaume


Our thanks go to the Italian Tourism Office in Toronto, Basilicata and Puglia as well as to Sant’ Angelo, in Matera, and Alberobello Grand Hotel Olimpo. Our professional private guides, Francesco Foschino and Anna Sansipersico,  should also be thanked for this memorable stay.

www.italia.it
www.enit.it
www.sassiweb.com
www.alberobelloonline.it
www.italy-wine-tours.net
www.hotelsantangelosassi.it
www.grandhotelolimpo.it
www.walkbasilicata.it

Guide in Matera :
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Guide in Alberobello :
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Sassi in Matera

A modernized cave as a room

Sant' Angelo boutique hotel

Dining room of the Sant' Angelo

Orecchiette di rapa

Set of "The Passion of the Christ"

Castel del Monte

Natural theater, Parco della Murgia

Wine bar 19 a Buca Winery

Natuzzi leather sofa

Trulli at Alberobello

Trulli at Alberobello

Grand Hotel Olimpo

Giant Ferrovia cherries

Caves at Castellana

Putignano

Beach at Brindisi

Stairway in Brindisi

Ostuni, the white city

Putignano's wedding dress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

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