Matera, Italy

Perched atop a rocky outcrop deep within the relatively uncharted southern Italian region of Basilicata lies Matera. The oldest town in Italy, Matera will be the European Capital of Culture 2019, so better visit before the crowds descend. On the cusp of Puglia, this hilltop sanctuary was once extremely impoverished; only now is it making its mark on the travel scene thanks to a renewed life force. A place that is as romantic as it is historic, crumbling limestone facades will make you feel like you've stepped into the set of Gladiator as you clamber between sandy buildings that are dug into the hillside itself.

Don't miss

The Sassi caves are the primary reason for which Matera is known, formerly inhabited by the third oldest continuous civilisation (after Aleppo and Jericho) in the world, who lived here until the 1950s when their poverty escalated to such a point that they were deemed the "shame of Italy". Today, the caves have been revived and are attracting travellers for a quick day trip or overnight stay. The two sections of the cave, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, are both worth a look in - this is seriously impressive stuff.

Rent a room in one of the ancient cave dwellings, where chic hotels have started to set up shop. While there are many incredibly luxurious snooze-and-spa lodgings in the maze of the Sassi, we're obsessed with the sultry Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita. Flickering candles illuminate the curved walls, lending the space an intimate, golden glow. Unwind after a dusty day of exploring in your room's freestanding oval bathtub before diving into bed.

Who to bring with you

Someone whose eyes you want to gaze into over flickering candlelight before retreating to your cavernous room for the night. They should probably like red wine too.

When to go

Summer is great for consistent sunshine and a seaside pitstop in Bari before heading back to the airport, though we're quite keen on an autumnal visit for slightly less brutal heat.

Most likely to bump into

Young couples making a detour on their Pugliese road trip.

Essentials to bring with you

Factor 50 sun cream - the sun is absolutely roasting in the hillsides this far south.

How to get there

Fly into Bari and rent a car to tackle the hills leading to Matera, a 40-mile drive from the airport.

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A City Reborn: The New Dawn of Matera, the "Shame of Italy"