Walking into the sun-bleached heart of Matera is like getting a direct line into southern Italy's past. Without any warning, the city's modern apartment buildings and piazzas give way to the Sassi (or the Stones), a dramatic enclave of Paleolithic cave dwellings and medieval houses dug into the rock. They were inhabited until the 1950s when the government evacuated the last impoverished tenants who still shared cramped, unventilated quarters with farm animals and the Sassi's labyrinthine staircases and alleys fell into decline.
A restoration that began about 10 years ago has been drawing tourists, however, and today museums, restaurants and hotels have started to move in. Among the latter is L'Hotel in Pietra, hotelinpietra.it. When Brazilian owner Cristina Bergamini first stepped inside the abandoned 13th century church that would become the hotel, the white stone of the church's ancient walls was black with soot and its floor was buried under decades of garbage. "I could show you some photos you wouldn't believe," says Bergamini.
Despite being built in a series of caves, L'Hotel in Pietra is an airy boutique property where the rooms, which start at around $160 a night for a double, feel like private archaeological museums. In one suite, glass is embedded in the floor so guests can peer down into the medieval water-storage chamber, and a rain shower is built into the cave walls. Carefully placed lighting and thoughtful details, like the words "Dear Guest" stitched in Portuguese on the bed linen, warm these ancient stone rooms and make the fact that livestock used to have the run of the place all but a distant memory.