As his 30th birthday loomed, I was struggling to decide on a destination for my boyfriend’s birthday treat. The Northern Lights were just too cold for me (yes, even in September), and a beach holiday seemed a little too sedate. As we’re both guilty of possessing the attention span of fleas when it comes to beach holidays, I knew that I needed to strike a balance between his sense of adventure and my need for sun and some relaxation. So there I was trawling the discount holiday sites, when I stumbled upon Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita in Southern Italy. A holiday in a cave? At first it sounded a little disconcerting, but the more I looked into it, the more I realised that I had struck gold.
A UNESCO world heritage site, the former Benedictine monastery is located in the caves, or ‘sassi’ of Matera. Not far from Bari airport, Matera is a picturesque town whose beauty has earned it worldwide cinematic fame; perhaps most notably in The Passion of the Christ which was filmed entirely on location here.
Managing to keep the booking almost a total secret, I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled into the sassi of Matera. Welcomed by bright blue skies and thirty degree heat, I just about succeeded in giving sat nav directions without giving away the precise location of our stay. Be warned, it does get a little complicated when you venture into the sassi by car! The quaint but winding and narrow streets were not the easiest of driving conditions, but I like to think that despite the stress, this just added to the suspense. As I finally worked out where we were, we pulled into a parking bay outside one of the many churches of Matera and jumped out of the car to find the cave complex. In an attempt to retain a semblance of mystery I then walked along the path to see if I could find the exact location, whilst a rather hot and bothered 30 year old looked around in bewilderment at the jaw-dropping scenery.
Having found our set of caves and thankfully having packed light (don’t bother with cases, stick to bags), we opened the gate to Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita. ‘A cave?’ he asked. ‘Yes a cave,’ I replied. The staff hastily relieved us of our luggage and we were given a quick tour of our ancient surroundings. When we entered the 10th century rock-hewn Church (serves as a breakfast hall in the morning and a restaurant in the evening), the 30 year old looked a little freaked out. Reassuring myself that he was going to love it, my anxiety melted away when I saw our cave. The owners have preserved lots of the original features of the caves, adding mod cons such as under floor heating and a huge freestanding bath. Our cave was breathtakingly serene, and the candlelight only added to the atmospheric interior. We had indeed struck gold.
As for Matera itself, it is steeped in history and makes a great destination for those of us interested in Italian culture and heritage. The food was of course delicious, but don’t expect to be eating the ‘Italian’ food you may be accustomed to in UK restaurants. As is the case with most nations of the world, regional cuisine can differ enormously. One of the region’s specialities is Orecchiette, an ear-shaped pasta which tastes amazing provided you pick the right accompaniments. Having said that, the food, wine and of course gelato did not fail to disappoint. Oh and remember, ‘fresh fried potatoes’ are what we in the UK call crisps. Rookie error on our part, enough said.
In only 3 days we took in some of the best panoramic views, food, wine and fascinating history of our lives. If you venture as far as TripAdvisor to find out whether or not my recommendation is valid, you’ll notice that many reviews refer to Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita as ‘a place to visit before you die’. This alone speaks volumes.
Words by Sima Janagill
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