One look at Matera, in Italy’s deep south, and you’ll wonder why the historic Puglian towns of Ostuni and Lecce get all the attention. This city of pale gold limestone, just over the border from Puglia in Basilicata, has more layers than a sfogliatella pastry: Its two cave districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, are composed of individual dwellings carved into fossil-stuffed strata and stacked on top of each other like cells in a haphazardly constructed beehive. They were inhabited from prehistory until the 1950s, when — overcrowded, poverty-stricken and disease-ridden — they were evacuated by the state. Dubbed “the shame of Italy,” Matera remained largely abandoned for decades. In the 1990s, the Sassi became playgrounds for Matera’s errant youth.

Recently, though, entrepreneurs have returned home after stints in Rome and Milan and given new life to the city, which will be 2019’s European Capital of Culture. Thankfully, they’ve allowed the place to speak for itself — opening elegant hotels with vaulted cave rooms and restaurants that offer refined takes on local classics, like orecchiette with fennel sausage served with chewy semolina bread. The best way to appreciate the city’s labyrinthine layout is on foot. Wandering the Sasso Caveoso, visitors shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves standing on a ninth-century graveyard, across from an impeccable Baroque palazzo and above an 11th-century church-turned-family home, where 700-year-old…

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