Although Nardò retains an undeniably Italian soul, in recent years it’s become popular with foreigners wishing to relocate to southern Italy, notably from northern Europe and the United States. One result is that some of its faded old palazzos are being architect-renovated into boutique- style homes, several of which are available for rent via Airbnb and the more LGBTQ focused Further Afield.
A grand old alternative is Relais Monastero Santa Teresa. Combining a former monastery with two historical palazzos, the result is a smart little boutique hotel that has delicate old frescos and vaulted ceilings as well as contemporary artworks by prominent local artists.
There’s also a wealth of home-cooked local food options. Once a humble family-run butcher’s shop, the son recently revitalized the business as an Italian steakhouse Antica Macelleria Fai. The butcher’s counter remains, so diners may personally select their cut of meat before it’s grilled to perfection. The nearby La Dispensa dei Raccomandati is excellent for local fish and seafood. And should you want fresh-caught fish with a wonderful view of the sea, Ristaurante Art Nouveau in nearby Santa Maria al Bagno (Nardò’s smart beach suburb) is a recommended upscale choice.
Farther north of Salento, Matera is an ancient jewel set amidst the rugged hills of the neighbouring Basilicata region. Built on a rocky outcrop, it’s one of Italy’s most stunning cities. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Matera celebrated in 2019 as the European Capital of Culture. And it’s set to enjoy further recognition, because the eyes of the whole world will soon focus on Matera when it appears as a pivotal location in the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die.
This isn’t the first time that Matera has taken a lead role in a Hollywood movie. Teetering on the edge of a ravine, Matera’s ancient Sassi Quarter comprises many remarkable cave dwellings that are quite literally carved into the rock. It is considered the world’s third-oldest continually inhabited settlement (after Aleppo and Jericho). Due to its unique and timeless appearance, the Sassi di Matera has been cast as ancient Jerusalem in numerous Biblical blockbusters, including Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According To St. Matthew, Mel Gibson’s 2004 epic The Passion Of The Christ, and the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur.
The rags-to-riches story of the Sassi is worthy of its own movie. The Sassi’s cave house dwellers lived in extreme poverty, with no modern plumbing or sanitation. Due to these unhealthy living conditions, the Sassi was declared the ‘shame of Italy’ in the 1950s and its residents were forcibly relocated to modern, purpose-built housing in Matera’s ‘new town’—although some refused to leave the Sassi.
What was once classified as hovels are now incredibly desirable, with some converted into luxury boutique cave hotels such as L’Hotel in Pietra and Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita. Others still remain crumbling and abandoned.
For an insight into what life was once like here, Casa-Grotta di Vico Solitario shows the bleak reality of pre-restoration, when cave-dwellers would most probably share their space with a pig and a donkey (not to mention a heap of manure).
Other must-see attractions within the Sassi include Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtù and Chiesa di San Nicola del Greci, a stunning monastic complex of chambers carved into the rock and decorated with frescos that date back to the 10th-century. Located 7km south of Matera, Cripta del Peccato Originale (Crypt of Original Sin) is decorated with remarkable 8th-century frescos that vividly depict scenes from both the Old and New Testament. All visits here must be booked in advance via their website.
Sometimes what we want from a vacation is the opportunity to wear flip-flops or go barefoot, while at other times only heels will do. So if you’re in the mood for a little of both, let this region of Italy elevate your vacation to a whole new level.