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254km (158 miles) SE of Naples, 73km (44 miles) S of Bari, 136km (82 miles) NE of Brindisi

In Matera, it’s all about caves: A vast honeycomb of thousands of caverns riddling the chalk cliffs above the gorge of the Gravina River. It’s estimated that these caves have been inhabited for at least 9,000 years, making Matera one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. The rugged landscapes appear to have sheltered hunters and gatherers long before then, as well—the remains of a 150,000-year-old hominid have been found in a nearby cave. Excavations around the cathedral have unearthed successive waves of occupation: 3,000-year-old ceramics, Greek and Byzantine coins, Roman houses, and the coffins of early Christians.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, some of Italy’s poorest residents lived in Matera’s caves, with as many as 20,000 troglodytes eking out a miserable existence in what had become a vast, unsanitary underground slum. Man and beast shared the dank, dark caves, a breeding ground for malaria, typhoid, and other diseases. As Carlo Levi observed in his 1945 autobiographical novel Christ Stopped at Eboli, “I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.”

Eventually the Italian government moved the cave dwellers to more sanitary housing on the ridge above the cliffs in modern Matera—and then came the turn-around. By the mid-1980s, the rock-cut settlement was attracting attention for its unique beauty, a delightful warm-hued jumble of steep “streets” and meandering staircases running right over the rooftops of underlying houses. Matera is so richly evocative of ancient Mediterranean civilization that it’s been the location for many biblical films, most famously Pier Paolo Passolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

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More and more travelers flock here every year. Many restaurants have opened in the caves (one even offers Pasta Mel Gibson, a variation of the town’s peasant classic with chili peppers and fried breadcrumbs). Other rock dwellings have been converted to hotels, where guests can enjoy the thrill of sleeping in a cave without having to share quarters with a donkey. This unique cave city is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in 2019 Matera will be in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture.