The golden days of the Sassi came to a close when the 18th century ushered in an era of agricultural crisis and overpopulation. Those who lived in the cave dwellings often were extremely poor and suffered ill health, thanks in part to the fact that animals and humans lived there side-by-side. The publication of Carlo Levi’s novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, in 1945 brought the abject poverty of Matera into the national limelight. Seven years later, legislation transferred the struggling peasants of the Sassi to a new housing development, leaving the cave structures abandoned.
Today the caves of the civita–the ancient town center–provide luxury hospitality with a twist. At Le Grotte Della Civita, travelers have to make due without television, in-room fridges and plush décor. Instead, rooms are filled with furniture crafted from antique wood by local artisans, and beds are outfitted with linens from centuries-old wedding chests. Period terracotta tiles and stone cover the floors. In creating a hotel at the site of the Sassi, entrepreneurs Margareta Berg and Daniele Kihlgren wanted to let the authenticity of the setting shine through. Their hope was to “not betray the ‘soul’ of the building.”
Furniture is built into the walls of the grottoes to maintain a sense of congruity with the caves’ natural layout. Iron rings for livestock are still in place. External walls remain unpainted, and internal walls have been minimally altered, using original nails and artisanal techniques.
Sleep in an Italian Cave Hotel