Sleeping in a Cave: Day 1

I remember the start of the week after this weekend trip and I was already searching for another adventure for the following weekend. Isn’t that how it always goes? You’re basically planning another trip while on a trip or as soon you get home from one? Yeah… I had to press pause and rewind to recap a big weekend of fun we had. We drove down to the southern region of Basilicata to explore the Sassi area, a complex of cave dwellings carved into the mountainside in the city of Matera (the 3rd oldest city in the world)!!

  • stayed in a (renovated) CAVE dug into tufa that once served as a home/stable for at least 12 residents plus animals after WWII
  • hiked around a 200 foot gorge that’s covered with abandoned caves
  • visited the nearby town of Altamura, in the region of Puglia, to learn more about the famous Matera bread and visit a bakery; also ate “tits of nuns,” made by nuns at a pastry shop that was a converted monastery
  • swung through the town of Gravina, also just over the border of the region of Puglia, to see the bridge that was used in the last James Bond movie because… why not?!!

Rolling green hills, fields of poppies, and constant sunshine. Here’s a recap of our weekend in Matera:

From the first decade of the XVII century until 1952, Matera experienced a long period of decadence both due to the reiterated agricultural economical crisis and the loss of a political-administrative role. The degradation became so dramatic that the poorest started to use the caves as houses, set to host both people and animals. The demographic pressure and the misery soon turned every room in the house and every cave-stable into a house-cave-stable. The “casa-grotta” (house-cave) were rural houses made of a unique room. The only access was a wide opening at the entrance, from where the sunlight used to enter (apart from a small window on the top of the door). Beneath the walking floor there was usually a cistern and a complex system for collection and conveyance of rain water. The “casa-grotta” were used like a house for the family and like a stable for every kind of animal- donkeys, horses, chicken, rabbits, goats and other farm animals, that shared the space with elders, adults, and children. A maize-leaves mattress served as a bed, where the patriarch of the family, his wife and their large progeny used to rest at nighttime. Next to the bed there was a big dresser with many drawers, used to store items and tools, and when necessary, as a cradle for babies. The table, put in another corner of the casa-grotta, was the main leader during the meagre meals. In the middle they used to place a single, big bowl from where the entire family drew his portion of food. The casa-grotta acted as a night shelter. Everyday men lead grazing and pack animals to the fields, where they spent most of their daylight hours. Women, children, and elders, instead, spent their daily life in the courtyard, so-called “vicinato.” All families whose houses faced on the same courtyard, used to forge deep relations of friendship. The most internal spaces of the casa-grotta were used as a stable, dunghill, or stock. The casa-grotta had a dynamic structure: when necessary, it could be expanded simply by digging the internal part, which was often used as a small pit too, from which were extracted also the materials to decorate the entrance and the humble facade.

There is a company called Sextantio that has purchased a few preserved historical villages, some of them built in the Middle Ages, located on top of the Apennine Mountains, or in other rural areas. Sextantio believes that there should be a policy for safeguarding these places of “marginality”- like in the Apennine Mountains in the south of Italy where abandonment, poverty, and emigration without return, allowed the preservation of past civilizations. These places were caves hewn for human habitation, with a strong ancestral call, and were once a national shame. But now they are a human heritage needing to be passed on to the next generation. Sextantio realized a unique project preserving the primeval stones and caves’ essence with extreme accuracy while conserving the original site. The Grotte della Civita includes 18 cave rooms, a reception, and the Rock Church “Cripta della Civita” (breakfast room), located in the most ancient Sassi area facing the Murgia National Park. The project aimed to preserve the integral conservation of the original site and its hybrid use, from religious rituals to the daily agricultural and pastoral subsistence.

A late night check-in added all the more ambiance to sleeping in a cave and when we woke, the view of the ravine directly outside was breathtaking!


We arrived late on a Friday night, driving the 3 hours down after our son got out of school for the weekend. On Saturday morning we drove 15 minutes to the nearby town of Altamura for a bakery tour, but also got more than we bargained for when our guide also pointed out parts of the town and its history. The very famous fossil finds of the “Man of Altamura” are testimony of the human presence in this territory already 40,000 years before Christ! In a much more recent time, around 500 BC, the megalithic walls were built that gave the city its name (Alte-Mura). This period was followed by many denominations and conquests, which saw a conclusion only with the arrival, in 1232, of Frederick II, whose reign gave way to the rebirth of the city, which was repopulated by Arab, Greek, and Jewish people and endowed itself with its famous cathedral. It is in this historical period that the city takes on its characteristic aspect with the “cloister,” small squares surrounded by alleys. We viewed the religious and historical symbol of the city, its Romanesque-style cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption and built in 1232. Much of the original church collapsed during the earthquake of 1316 and was rebuilt during the reign of Roberto D’Angiò. The portal is rich in decorations and sculptures, and its arches depict 22 scenes with carvings of the life of Christ.

The sweet and rich territory has favored, over time, the development of a flourishing agriculture, in particularly dedication to the cultivation of cereals, alongside which the wheat processing industry has developed, with the production of different types of semolina and flours. The most famous typical product of Altamura is the PDO bread, which received the protected designation of origin in 2005. This particular wheat bread is obtained by mixing the re-milled durum wheat semolina with water and mother yeast, to then be baked in wood-fire ovens. The story of this bread tells that during the post-war years it was prepared by the women of the house and delivered to the bakers who, passing from house to house, collected different forms. Each loaf, being cooked, was marked with the brand of the family that had prepared the dough, and once cooked, it was returned to the family to which it belonged. As we were guided around the town, we came to a bread museum that had just reopened due to the pandemic, and they let us in! It was a small museum but really neat to see the recreation, ingredients, and use of tools that the people have used for years in making their bread here. Afterwards, it was time to head to a local bakery and sample some local breads and goods! We were even given a baggie of the “mother yeast” used for Altamura’s PDO bread! Unfortunately, given the way it needed to be conserved and the fact that we were on vacation, it did not keep properly.

And of course, nothing is complete unless it ends with a sweet stop! We ended our time in Altamura visiting a delicious pasticceria known as Monastero di S. Chiara.

The foundation of the monastery of the Poor Clares dates back to 15 November 1682 with the solemn entry of the new monastery of Sister Battista Costantini and Brigida Viti from the monastery of S. Maria del Soccorso already established in the city of Altamura, seventeen novices and two converses…

His birth certificate was set by a certain Antonio Cobuzio (Magnificus dominus jacobutio or De Cubutiis) with a will drawn up in 1519 which established the universal heir of all his real estate, the monastery being built for the Nuns of S. Chiara dell’Osservanza. of S. Francesco, next to the homonymous church, already existing there. With the presence of the Friars Minor (Conventuals) in Altamura, since 1470 the aforementioned Monastery of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Help was built almost in the vicinity of the convent of S. ”For which they were called in the local toponymy: the Big Nuns.

The archive of the Monastery possesses some volumes and some loose papers of considerable interest, from which, and not otherwise, it was possible to know that the testamentary execution, in favor of the existing Monastery of S. Chiara, from that distant 1519, it was taken to heart exclusively by the city council in 1664, because another monastery of pious virgins was erected in Altamura, in addition to those of the Poor Clares of perpetual aid.

On March 16, 1680, Mons. Cavalieri asked the Holy See for the canonical erection of the Monastery. Another time had elapsed to reach 1682, when two Poor Clares of the great Monastery of Perpetual Help, Sr. Battista Costantini and Sr. Brigida Viti, followed by 17 chorister novices and two converses, solemnly entered the new Monastery on 15 November.

The names of the other nuns are known with the two founders, some were of noble lineage, such as: Miglionico, Cagnazzi, de Cutolo, de Calia, de Mastromarino, de Notarijs, de Sabinis. Soon the new institution also dealt with the education and training of girls, which will be considered a beneficially social activity and compatible with the rigor of the cloistered discipline. These and other merits, especially in the making of liturgical garments and in the difficult art of embroidery, made the new center of intense active and contemplative life in all times, inside and outside the fertile and industrious Apulian region very well known.

It is known that the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora:” Pray and work “, has become the binomial of the cloisters of the various orders of the West, as considered in the perspective of their founder S, Francesco d’Assisi, who conceived work as a grace of the Lord with these words of His: “Those friars, to whom the Lord has given the grace to work, work faithfully and devotedly”, contained in the minority rule in the chapter on work. This chapter on work and the identical phrase could not be missing from the rule of St. Clare. Bread had to be earned through honest work. The Altamura community, at least from what we learn from the news and from what the Elderly Sisters have handed down, especially the meritorious Mother M. Francesca Manicone, has always had the grace to work in various activities. First, among these, was that of gold and silk embroidery, mainly for sacred furnishings, work that the Nuns performed on commission.

After an already jammed packed morning, we drove back to our cave in Matera and took off for a hike around the Muguria Preserve while we still had daylight. It was quite an insane and slightly dangerous walk- loose rocks, steep slopes, hot sun. I distinctly remember seeing a woman wearing leather pants that we past while hiking one of the trails and thinking, “that’s dedication!” I could not imagine wearing leather pants on a hot and difficult climb!

The Murgia Materana Park covers an area of approximately 8.000 hectares between the towns of Matera and Montescaglioso. From a geological point of view, the Murgia is made up of limestone; limestone from Altamura and tuff from Gravina. A blend of history and nature can be found within the protected area: ravines, woods with Mediterranean bush, steps, and archaeological finds dating back to Paleolithic and Neolithic times, tuff quarries, ancient farms, folds and shooting lodges. The park contains 923 species of flowers, approximately one sixth of the nation’s entire flora. There are numerous oak species, small birds of prey, and extremely rare species of botanical interest.

We barely had enough energy to go back into town at night to get some dinner, before immediately passing out from exhaustion! We enjoyed a mix selection of cheese and salumi from Basilicata, soup of the day, and scialatielli pasta with cordoncelli mushroom, caciocavallo cheese, and sweet peppers.


Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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