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Matera: Welcome to Sassiwood

There’s a film crew in town. A cavalcade of trucks packed with wires, cameras and other bits of kit dwarfs Matera’s Via Madonna della Virtu, a road that runs a halo-like ring around the city’s Gravina Ravine.

Matera: Welcome to Sassiwood
Ancient cave dwellings in Matera. Image by Federica Gentile/Getty Images.

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These vehicles are colossal — comically so next to the wooden ox carts parked incongruously beside them — but they are in turn made miniscule by the biblical backdrop of the plunging ravine, its cave-pock-marked mountains rising like a badly mortared wall, above.

A man dressed in a toga and sandals shivers through a cigarette as the wind whips up the valley. It’s tough being an extra, in winter, in Matera. Even if you can claim to be working on Ben-Hur, the most expensive movie project ever filmed on Italian soil. Life is tough but, let’s face it, it’s still fun to pretend to live in a cave, on a hill where Sheikh Ilderim (aka Morgan Freeman) might cast you a benevolent glance.

Life was less fun when the world had yet to exploit Matera’s wild wonders. This mountain-top city with its cave hamlets — known as sassi — may be one of the planet’s oldest continually inhabited troglodyte settlements, but until a couple of decades ago, Third World levels of deprivation meant malaria-ridden Matera was a source of national embarrassment. Buried deep in Basilicata’s largely unpopulated peaks, La Città Sotterranea (The Underground City) remains off the beaten track but thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage listing, and the directorial attentions of Mel Gibson (who shot The Passion of the Christ here), it’s enjoying it’s time in the spotlight. It’s even been rechristened Sassiwood by the Italian press for the number film shoots featuring its cobbled streets.

The caves that once housed Italy’s poorest are now star-pampering hotels. At the vanguard here is Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, pioneer of the ‘scattered hotel’, a concept that reanimates abandoned mountain hamlets, creating the sort of paired-back, high-end tourist address that looks primitive but costs a packet. Underfloor heating and recessed lighting have been painstakingly secreted beneath centuries-old stones in cave suites formerly home to multi-generation families and their livestock. Stone animal troughs now stand as feature bathroom fittings.

The turning point for this town’s fortunes, Sextanio was the blueprint for myriad cave hotels to follow. It’s an exquisite, perverse and somehow wholly moving experience sleeping amid these stones. “The ombre [shadows] in the caves tell stories,” says Nuncia, a Sextantio staff member whose grandmother grew up in the sassi. Whatever their tales, they’re discreet enough not to reveal their starry guest’s names. Not so, at Area 8. At this hilltop bar-cum-gallery-cum-hipster hangout Jesus is kicking back on the couch (Ben-Hur’s Rodrigo Santoro), and locals still raise a wry eyebrow when asked about ‘Mel’, whose consumption of Matera’s potent negroamaro wine was allegedly proportionate to his inability to navigate back to his hotel each night.

As I find my own way home, Matera’s mountaintops are aglow with midnight shoots; a surreal firmament of floodlights as if several suns and moons are rising simultaneously above the city walls. A group of Japanese tourists bump past in one of Matera’s retro-chic 1950s Ape taxis (Italy’s iconic three-wheeled car), momentarily transforming the city’s switchback streets into a fairground ride prompting the question: how long before Sassiwood becomes troglodyte theme park Sassiworld? And yet for now, beyond the spotlights in the dark of Matera’s mountains, Basilian rock-hewn churches and caves stand in a monk-like silence, just as they have for millennia.

Ben-Hur is released in 2016