We picked up our rental car at the Bari airport. Bari is the main city of the Apulia region on the Adriatic Sea. Sixt rental car gave us an upgrade. We are driving a new Audi A5 for a week on the Italian Autostradas...and in medieval towns.
We drove for about an hour to the town of Alberobello, famous for its unique trullo buildings. These trulli (whitewashed stone huts with conical roofs) of Alberobello have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These homes are still inhabited. You walk up and down the hills and pass shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s really beautiful and worth the detour.
Afterwards we drove across the countryside towards Matera, a city in the region of Basilicata. The city is known for the Sassi area, a complex of cave dwellings carved into the mountainside. Evacuated in 1952 due to poor living conditions, the Sassi now houses museums, restaurants, hotels and shops. The Sassi are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the course of its history, Matera has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Bourbons.
Our boutique hotel Il Palazzotto Residence and Winery was located in the heart of "Sasso Barisano", a short walk from the historic cathedral and a five-minute walk from the city center. To access the Sassi area by car is a problem as the city recently closed it to tourists. So, you have to reserve a secure parking location before your trip. We parked at the Autoservizi Damasco. They are very nice. One of their drivers took us to our hotels (a ten-minute drive). The only problem with the parking is its access. You have to drive through a very narrow one-way street (walled on both sides) for about three hundred yards to get to the garage. That was a lot of fun with the Audi. The distance between the car and the walls were less than 10 inches on both sides! Now we understand why they filmed some car scenes of the new James Bond movie in the narrow streets of Matera.
If you like walking hills up and down, Matera is your city. We spent a full day visiting the main sites. I would recommend the cathedral, the churches of St. Pietro, St. Cristina, Santa Maria de Idris and San Spirito. We also visited the convent of Santo Agostino.
La Casa Grotta was particularly interesting. It tells the story of the people who lived in the Sassi caves. It’s so small that only a few people can visit it in each tour. You see the small bedroom with its furniture, a stove, a bed with a mattress made out of corn leaves. In front of the bed, in between the cave walls, there is a spot where the mule was tied.
The city and the Sassi have a lot of restaurants with terraces. The cuisine is definitely Southern Italian and you do not have a large choice of pastas and entrees. We had a very good lunch at a downtown family restaurant named Trattoria Lucana. At night we stayed in the Sassi and ate near the hotel. La Talpa Ristorante has a very romantic terrace and good food.
In the vicinity of Matera, we visited the Crypt of the Original Sin, commonly known as “the Sistine Chapel of rupestrian art”. It was discovered in 1963 by a group of local kids who noticed the splendid frescoes in what at the time had become a shelter for sheep. Experts dated the cycle of paintings back to the second half of the 8th century. They have Oriental inspiration. The Virgin Mary is very majestic with her Byzantine clothes.
We enjoyed our two days in Matera and if we came back we would definitely stay at the same hotel, Il Palazzotto Residence and Winery. It only has a few rooms. We had a second-floor room with a balcony (the room was only accessible from the outside). The room and bathroom were beautiful and designed with a lot of attention to details. The owner is an interior architect and she made the place beautiful. The shower is not the most practical. As it is the case in most Italian hotels, there do not have any shower curtains. The manager and the staff were very helpful. We had breakfast in the caves past the hotel's reception. It's so beautiful that you don't feel like you are eating in a cave, more like in an old castle. We sampled their wines, which are grown and produced near Matera.