Whilst crowds may swarm on Venice and Florence, Matera, the southern town in the region of Basilicata – the instep of Italy’s ‘boot’ – is still relatively quiet, despite being rapidly recognised as one of Italy’s most enchanting destinations.

In earlier days Matera was famous for being the ‘shame of Italy’. Its desperately poor citizens resided in caves without running water until the 1950s, when they were forced to relocate and abandon their troglodyte homes.

60 years on, the town has been reborn and its notorious cave-dwelling district, the ‘sassi’, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its warren of subterranean houses have been converted into sleek hotels, chic restaurants (both offering fantastic value compared to better-known parts of Italy) and atmospheric galleries.

This summer the spotlight is on Matera, as it’s been crowned European Capital of Culture, and there are art exhibitions and concerts happening throughout the year. Set aside at least two days to explore the sassi’s labyrinthine lanes, underground sights and wholesome Mediterranean diet.

Day One

Start your weekend with a mooch around the market that takes place every day in the square at the heart of the old town, Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Vendors holler their prices as locals stock up on fresh fruit, cold cuts, ricotta and warm loaves of Matera’s bread, which is prized for its thick crust and soft golden crumb.

The yawning hole in the piazza is the mouth of Palombaro Lungo, a giant cistern that used to supply the city’s water. This ingenious feat of engineering was sealed up and forgotten about for decades. Book a place on one of the English-language tours to marvel at its temple-like carved arches and learn about its conception.

Peckish? Forget about pizza; it’s all about the focaccia in Matera and every bakery serves their own version of the springy, olive oil-enriched flatbread topped with zingy tomato sauce and fat olives, or slivers of artichoke and courgette. Join the queue outside Panificio Paolucci, just off the main piazza, and order a slab of their melt-in-the-mouth potato focaccia (22 Via del Corso).

Walk it off with a stroll through the old town to Palazzo Lanfranchi on Piazzetta Pascoli, a grand 17th-century seminary that now houses modern and medieval art. As part of the year-long Capital of Culture programme, there’s a fantastic exhibition on the Renaissance, while the permanent collection includes left-wing artist Carlo Levi’s harrowing portrait of the poverty-stricken residents of the Sassi, Lucania 61. The viewpoint next to the palazzo has superb views over Sasso Caveoso – the southern part of the sassi, which is burrowed into a steep limestone gorge.

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Afterwards, descend Caveoso’s twisting alleys to the bottom of the ravine where a craggy lump of rock with an iron crucifix towers over the little stone houses. If you climb the steps, you’ll find a door that leads to two rock churches: Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni decorated with medieval frescoes. The sassi is honeycombed with over 150 churches and many were used as houses, wine cellars or storerooms in the 1800s.

At 7pm, join the families strolling arm-in-arm through the piazzas and gossiping over aperitifs in cafes. Finish the day by exploring Basilicata’s rustic cuisine at Agristories, a cavernous restaurant on Via Sette Dolori (www.agristories.com). The tasting menu showcases local ingredients and the staff are only too happy to tell you about their provenance. Be sure to try the silken ricotta and ‘cruschi’ – crispy red peppers unique to the region.

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Day Two

On Sunday, start the day by stepping back in time. Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario shows what life would have been like in the 1930s and 40s, when the Sassi was a slum and 16,000 people lived on top of each other. The cave house is sparsely furnished as theirs would have been and has a space for livestock (www.casagrotti.it).

For lunch, book a table at Il Cantuccio: a snug, old-school trattoria tucked away on Via della Beccherie. Try the velvety broadbean and chicory purée – a southern Italian favourite – and a glass of punchy Aglianco del Vulture. Aglianco is Basilicata’s Barolo, and Vulture is a volcano in the north of the region.

No trip to Matera is complete without a pilgrimage to its Romanesque cathedral, which presides over the old town and has been restored to its former glory. The magnificent interior is adorned with a 13th-century Byzantine painting. It’s worth climbing the steep steps up to the cathedral twice: in the daylight and at night, when the old town is mapped out in lights.

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Also worth seeing in Basilicata

Sandwiched between Campania and Puglia to the north and Calabria to the south, Basilicata stretches from the Ionian coast’s powder-soft beaches to the plunging peaks of the Tyrrhenian coastline. Matera is only a 45 minute drive from the former, and an hour and a half from the hilltop villages of the Lucanian Dolomites.

Admire an Ancient Greek Temple

2,600 years ago, the Greeks ruled over Southern Italy, and Basilicata’s Ionian coast is littered with ancient ruins. The most impressive are the towering columns of Tavole Paladine, a temple dedicated to the goddess Hera which stands, rather incongruously next to a busy highway north of the seaside town of Metaponto. Most people come here for the white-sand beaches and azure sea, but Metaponto’s archaeological museum is well worth a visit, too. Its treasures include painted terracotta lions’ heads that would have had water gushing from their lolling tongues when they decorated the temple.

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Dine in Francis Ford Coppola’s palazzo

The US film director has sumptuously revamped a 19th-century palazzo in his grandfather’s sleepy village, Bernalda, which is eight miles from Metaponto. When the Coppolas aren’t staying, it’s a boutique hotel and guests can linger over candlelit dinners in the shady garden, stretch out by the secluded pool and learn how to make pasta in the kitchen (doubles from €250/£223). There’s no need to stay there to enjoy a coffee or dinner in the bar, which is furnished with a 70s jukebox and black and white photos of film stars. (www.palazzomargherita.com)

Fly over the Lucanian Dolomites

Pointy ridges loom menacingly over Castelmezzano, a village that clings to a hillside in the Lucanian Dolomites, Basilicata’s rugged mountain range. Europe’s longest zipline – the aptly named ‘Flight of the Angel’ – hurtles from the village to neighbouring Pietrapertosa, allowing thrill-seekers to soar high above the woods at 70 miles per hour. There are also breathtaking views from the castle ruins that keep guard over both villages. (volodellangelo.com)

Feast on peasant food

The lush countryside that surrounds Matera is dotted with farm restaurants where you can feast on ‘cucina povera’, the peasant cooking of Southern Italy. One of the best ‘agriturismo’ is La Dimora dei Cavalieri, which serves traditional Lucanian dishes fit for a king. The pasta flour, cheese and lamb are all produced on the farm and lovingly crafted into delicious, no-frills meals – locals come from miles around for the creamy chickpea pasta. It’s also a guesthouse with a pool (B&B from €33/£29 per person). (www.dimoracavalieri.it)

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How to get there:
It’s just under three hours to Bari airport from the UK; then around a one-hour drive or 90-minute train to Matera. British Airways flies from London Gatwick from £41 one-way; easyJet from London Gatwick and Manchester from £19.99 one-way; Ryanair from London Stansted, London Luton and Liverpool from £19.99 one-way; and Wizz Air from London Luton £35.99.

Brindisi airport is about a two-hour drive from Matera. easyJet flies there from London Gatwick and Bristol from £20.99; Ryanair from London Stansted and Manchester from £24.99 one-way.

Where to stay:
Hotel Sassi’s rustic rooms are tucked away down quiet cobbled alleys and stone staircases, and there are glorious views of the old quarter from the terraces. Doubles from €98 (£87), B&;B. hotelsassi.it
Corte San Pietro is a boutique hotel with stylish rooms, a romantic courtyard and an eerie art installation in the ancient subterranean cisterns. Doubles from €130 (£116), B&B. cortesanpietro.it
The Rock Hostel is a friendly budget option in a converted limestone farmhouse two minutes’ walk from the sassi. There are single-sex and mixed dormitories and a shared kitchen and common area. Beds from €20 (£18).

How to get around:
Most of the sassi’s vertiginous lanes and piazzas are off-limits to vehicles, but the sights are walkable. If heading further afield, renting a car is advisable, as bus services are limited.

Find out more:
For more information on Matera and the region, go to www.discoverbasilicata.com. You can check out the European Capital of Culture programme at www.matera-basilicata2019.it

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