An Ancient Corner of Italy Finds the World on Its Doorstep

We had met Ms. De Filippo in the Cinecittà Bar at the Margherita. I have spent time in Puglia, Calabria and Sicily — but Basilicata is different, calmer. I asked Ms. De Filippo, who grew up nearby, why Basilicata is quieter than the surrounding regions.

“We like say that we are so poor that even the mafia isn’t interested in us,” she said, wryly. You can only be in southern Italy for so long before the subject comes up — the oppressiveness that hangs over everything like a low cloud cover that never burns off. Sicily and the Cosa Nostra. Calabria, which shares a border with Basilicata, and the ’ndrangheta, arguably the most violent organized crime group in Italy. But Basilicata, smack in the middle of southern Italy, has no major criminal element.

“The real Lucani are poor, naïve maybe, but they are kind,” said Ms. De Filippo, using the region’s alternate name. “Farmers, shepherds, they are not people that the mafia is interested in. They are simple, but incredibly generous.”

They were prescient words.

When we got back in the Legomobile, we called a man named Daniele Kihlgren, the owner of Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita, easily the most luxurious hotel in Matera. Mr. Kihlgren is largely credited with advancing the albergo diffuso movement in Italy. It champions the idea that disparate structures, as opposed to a single, monolithic building, can comprise a hotel. Albergo diffuso, diffused hotel, has played a big role in preserving ancient towns and structures. By all accounts, Mr. Kihlgren is a conservationist, a man of impeccable taste, and something of a character.

We reached him as he was driving north by motorcycle to his other hotel in Abruzzo. (We had scheduled an interview a few days earlier, but things come up, especially in Italy.) No worries, he would happy to turn around, he said. What about the storm coming in? We asked. He wasn’t worried.

By evening, torrential rain had turned biblical, as Mr. Kihlgren drove his motorcycle to meet us for dinner. Rivers of rainwater coursed down the steps and streets of Matera, power-washing the city, cleansing it of anything that wasn’t millennia-old.

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