I awaken on a high bed plush with pillows and antique linens. Rays of sunlight filter through a grated window, casting a honeyed glow on the room’s curved, rough-hewn walls and high ceiling. An old wood table topped with a white cloth runner is laid with fresh fruit and a bottle of wine. Candles shimmer by an oval bathtub set on a rough stone floor in an adjoining space—a space that looks for all the world like a cave.
Momentarily disoriented, I soon realize that I’m in the hotel in the ancient town of Matera that I’d checked into under cover of darkness the night before. The town, which lies east of Naples in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, is a jumble of small dwellings fashioned out of cream-colored tuff stone. Layered one atop another like small boulders, or sassi, and incorporating natural caves, the dwellings hopscotch the flanks of a butte. The effect when I saw it the preceding evening was of both disarray and harmony, individuality and unity. Then I’d come upon a gate at the foot of this curious little citadel: the entrance to Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, the one-of-a-kind hotel that recast grotto quarters into some of Europe’s more unusual accommodations—and my base for a few days.