Italy Day Trip: Matera

A tiny town near Naples is reborn as a chic and thriving cultural center.

Naples is the springboard to discover the theatrics of the Amalfi Coast, the azure seas of the Puglian coast and the mountains of Abruzzo. But often overlooked are the pleasures of Matera, a tiny town in Basilicata, a three-hour drive from Naples. That, happily, is changing.

Fifty years ago, Matera was synonymous with a poverty that was extreme even by southern Italy’s standards. Its famous ancient cave dwellings, sassi, had become filthy, malaria-ridden slums. But today tourism and the sassis’ cinematic beauty—the caves appear in nearly every film about Christ, from Pier Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004)—have been triumphantly reborn as chic apartments, bijou restaurants, galleries and hotels.

The standout new “cave” hotels (the town has several) are the Basiliani (rooms, from $120; 39-083/319-374;, opened in May 2010, and Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Le Grotte Della Civita, which opened the year before. Each has taken a different approach to the unique challenges of cave-dwelling. While the Basiliani partially obscures its rock-hewn origins beneath a white, contemporary veneer, the Sextantio (rooms, from $310; 39-0835/332-744; has done as little as possible to compromise the remarkable, rustic authenticity of its rock walls, stone floors and labyrinthine grottoes.

One hotel, however, may be destined to overshadow all others in and around Matera. Some 25 miles south of town, reached through the wild, beautiful countryside, is the village of Bernalda, the 19th-century birthplace of Agostino Coppola. Now, Agostino’s grandson, filmmaker and hotelier Francis Ford Coppola, plans to open a hotel in a 19th-century villa, Palazzo Margherita—though, like any storyteller, he’s keeping us in suspense as to exactly when it’ll open (for updates, go to