Exploring Italy's magnificent caves
Cave exploration usually entails trekking through dismal crevices lurking with creepy crawlies, but Italy has some remarkable formations that don’t require spelunking gear. In the past, these natural wonders served as shelter for locals, monuments to mythical creatures and inspiration for artists. Today, Italy’s caves attract flocks of travelers in search of something out of the ordinary.
Matera, located in southern Italy’s Basilicata (or Lucania) region, is unlike any place you’ve ever visited.
Then and Now: Matera’s caves were settled during the Paleolithic era. By the early 20th century, thousands of poor people lived in primitive conditions, and illness was rampant. Eventually the government moved the residents to new housing and the city was deserted. In 1993, Matera was named “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” and distinguished as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Though you can still see the remnants of its difficult past, Matera is now an affordable and comfortably exotic destination.
Trip essentials: Shop for local crafts and dine at hip spots in Sasso Barisano, the revamped area of Matera. Stroll the tiny streets of Sasso Caveoso, the older part of town, to catch a glimpse of crumbling homes as well as squares, churches, monasteries and civic structures dating from the 8th to 17th centuries. Take in the scenery from the Matera Cathedral or Il Belvedere hotel.
Delve into Matera’s history at the Archaeological Museum Domenico Ridalo. Exhibits chronicle life in the province, including relics of Neolithic communes, Paleolithic cultures, Bronze Age progression and Roman construction.
Fast forward to the mid-20th century at Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, a preserved rock dwelling that depicts a typical home before the exodus of the ’50s and ’60s. Wander the narrow corridors and cozy rooms to see antique furniture, old photos, traditional cookware and other provisions of the era.
Save time for Matera’s unique cave churches:
• Sta. Lucia alle Malve in the Sasso Caveoso neighborhood was a large church that served as housing from the 1700s onward. Some of the frescoes remain after more than 1,000 years. Also explore Sasso Barisano’s two-story cave network of Chiesa Madonna delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greece.
• A few miles from Matera is the Cripta del Peccato Originale, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of cave churches for its 9th century frescoes of biblical scenes. Pre-booking is required via www.cryptoforiginalsin.it/booking.html.
• In addition to the Cripta del Peccato Originale, the Historical Natural Park of the Churches of Matera (Parco Della Murgia Materana) is the site of 100+ rock churches.
Complete Your Matera Adventure: Experience this way of life by staying at a quaint cave hotel, complete with modern conveniences, such as electricity and plumbing. Choose from apartment-style lodging for families to B&Bs, affordable inns and luxury hotels. Search travel-booking websites to see photos and ensure you find one with rustic cave architecture.
About an hour’s drive southwest of Matera is the eerily empty Craco village. The desolate settlement built into a 1,300-foot-high rock face has been a filming location in several Hollywood blockbusters, including “Quantum of Solace” and “The Passion of the Christ.”
Then and now: Archaeological finds indicate that Craco was established during the 6th century. During the Middle Ages, the population grew to nearly 3,000. The number of residents fluctuated over time, but the villagers relocated to nearby Craco Peschiera in the 1960s due to the harsh farming environment and frequent landslides.
Craco is deserted today, and the buildings have aged drastically from the lack of maintenance and forces of nature. The destruction by time and the elements is both somber and spectacular.
Trip essentials: Visiting Craco is like entering an open-air museum, minus the plaques and audio guides. The 13th century castle ruin affords views of the region and the calanchi, geological formations created by weathering. Also look for the San Nicola Vescovo, or La Chiesa Madre, Craco’s primary place of worship; the religious articles are now at a church in Craco Peschiera. And journey to the Madonna della Stella, located near the spot where the chapel’s statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus was said to have been found submerged in water. While exploring, heed warning signs that forbid climbing on or entering deteriorating structures.
The island of Capri is located off the southwestern coast of Italy, near Sorrento and Naples. The island’s namesake city of Capri is a bustling beach town with many resorts, and the island’s rocky coastline is laden with amazing grottos.
Then and now: Capri has been the home to people since Paleolithic times. Caesar Augustus had a retreat constructed on the island during his rule in ancient Rome. The beauty of Capri also enticed later emperors, including Tiberius, and other nobility until the Saracens captured the island in the 7th century. Capri changed hands many times over the next several hundred years, but by the 18th century, Naples’ prosperity reached the island.
The immense Blue Grotto, or Grotta Azzurra, is considered the most breathtaking of Capri’s caves. Two openings, one at and one below the water line, allow sunlight to filter in, giving the water a vibrant cyan to aquamarine color. The presence of Roman statues suggests that this grotto was a shrine dedicated to the nymph deity.
Trip essentials: Get a tan (but don’t burn!) at Marina Grande beachfront, and savor gelato while looking out for Hollywood’s finest in the Piazzetta. Also witness Roman engineering at what remains of Tiberius’ villas Damecuta and Jovis.
Book a boat excursion to Capri’s fantastic grottos:
• Squeeze through the tiny opening of the Blue Grotto and gaze at the stunning cerulean sea. Go during the early afternoon on a sunny day for the best show; make sure the tide is low and tranquil.
• Sail by other grottos named for their colorful waters, including the Red Grotto, which receives a burgundy hue from plants and coral below the surface.
• Employ your imagination to discern religious “sculptures” produced by waves eroding the rocks in the Saints Grotto.
• Be dazzled by the Marvelous and White grottos, and drift through the archway of the Faraglione di Mezzo.
• Fly to Naples and take public transport to Capri.
• Rent a car in Naples and drive to Matera (three hours away) and Craco.
• Return rental and fly from Bari International Airport, 1.25 hour’s drive from Matera.
• Don’t want to rent a car? Take a bus and train (five hours) or bus line 59 (4.25 hours) from Naples to Matera and hire a driver to Craco. Ride a train or bus to the airport.