There have been too many superlatives bandied about when it comes to describing Italy: Rome is the most splendid, Venice the most luminous, Milan the grandest, Tuscany the most beautiful, the Amalfi Coast… well that’s a complete sensory overload.
So how to describe Maratea, a minnow in the world of Italian tourism? It is a town on the south west coast in the Basilicata region, a two hour drive south of Naples, sandwiched between sea and mountain. Yet it goes by the grand description of the “pearl of the Tyrrhenian”.
It’s impossible to argue when there are turquoise seas, sun-kissed beaches, a stylish harbour as well as steep cliffs, wooded hillsides and a medieval old town with narrow streets and small piazzas bursting at the seams with churches. Overlooking it all stands the towering peak of Mount San Biagio and its awesome 21m high marble statue of Christ – similar in scale to that in Rio.
Maratea is like Italy in miniature, the coast, the mountains, the sun, the history… it has it all. What’s missing are the busloads of camera-happy daytrippers of the kind you’ll find in Positano and Amalfi, or indeed any of the more obvious tourist hotspots on people’s bucket lists.
And while those who live and work there would like to keep it that way to some extent, there’s an understanding that increasing tourist numbers – as long as they are not looking for bustling nightlife – can only be a good thing. It is also likely to happen given the focus that will soon be on the Basilicata town of Matera, which is used in the new Ben Hur film out next year, and which will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Certainly the five star boutique Santavenere Hotel is getting prepared. So much so it plans to give helicopter trips between Maratea and Matera so that guests don’t have to make the two hour journey by car.
That’s the kind of added extra on offer at the hotel which is set in nine sprawling acres of olive and lemon trees, where guests are never referred to as clients or customers and are encouraged to think of the place as home.
Originally built in the 1950s, it was bought by new owners 15 years ago who have slowly been restoring the building and its reputation and adding extras expected of 21st century top end accommodation.
The place is packed with antique furniture, while dark oil paintings of long gone Italian aristocrats contrast with large comfortable patterned sofas and curtains with swags and tails. Yet there is wi-fi for those who really can’t do without, an immaculate sea-water pool, Bulgari toiletries in the bathrooms, satellite television in the 34 rooms and suites – each of which is styled differently – and the transfer from Naples airport to the hotel is in a luxurious Mercedes people-carrier with driver, Daniele, at times also lost for words about the wonders of the place.
And then there’s the new Roman-inspired Le Terme Spa which opened in February. While the hotel sparkles with white walls and beautiful floor tiles in shades of green and pink all made in nearby Vietri, the spa feels cave-like with its dark brown walls. It’s as if they’ve been slathered in adobe in the same way as guests’ skin is slathered in the specially-made white clay the spa produces, or even in another speciality – donkey milk and snail slime.
Opting for something a little more conventional I was treated to a cocoa candlewax massage, perhaps the best way to recover from a 6am flight. Certainly, the aim of the cool, dark cocoon-like labyrinth of rooms is to heighten the sensory experience, of which there are many to choose from – from lying on salt beds to having Ayurveda oils poured onto the forehead, immersion in deep pools of water to sound therapy incorporating the deep chime of Tibetan bowls.
It would be so easy to spend all your time at the spa and hotel, exploring its grounds, its different restaurants – the food, as you’d expect from a coastal town is focused on fresh fish, especially cod and sole, and is near Michelin standard – and lying by the pool where you could pretend to spot Anita Ekberg or just gaze upwards at the blue sky and the towering figure of Christ on the hill.
For Santavenere reeks of old school glamour and it’s no surprise to know that it once attracted Italy’s glitterati who looked for an out-of-the-way place, far from the paparazzi, to truly relax. An added bonus for them was that it was built and owned by one of the landed gentry, Count Stefano Rivetti (who also paid for the statue of Christ) and who knew how to relax in style. To speak to head waiter Fortunato, who has worked at the hotel for 52 years, is to get a run-down of Italy’s rich and famous “elegant people who knew how to behave”.
But there is Maratea to explore. The harbour is within walking distance (a word of warning: within the hotel grounds it’s hard to walk anywhere as there’s always a member of staff in a golf cart hoping to give you a lift) but checking out the old town of Maratea means a drive upwards on narrow, circuitous roads – and if you go to the top of the mountain to see the Christ, then the roads are a feat of Italian engineering, built on stilts where the mountainside doesn’t provide enough room.
Maratea is a beautiful, small Italian town and it’s easy to see why Sofia Coppola chose it for her honeymoon. Mondays are not a great day to visit however as nearly everything is closed. The trip to the top of Mount San Biagio is worth it for the breathtaking views inwards across the mountains of Basilicata and outwards to the Tyrhennian Sea, where you can spot ruined watchtowers on outcrops, built to warn of the approach of Saracens.
There is much to do in the area, and Daniele can organise everything from rafting to trekking, paragliding to snorkelling, exploring the coastline by boat and visiting the Grotta delle Meraviglie (the cave of wonders) or the World Heritage Site Certosa di Padula. Then there are the Pertosa Caves.
An hour’s drive away, these caves extend for 3000km, but not all of that is explorable. Part of the tour is by boat on the river which carved out the caves, but there are sections on foot where it’s possible to come nose to stalagtite or stalagmite, the astounding natural wonders of the caves. Poignantly too there are names inscribed on the calcium walls by Jews who were hidden there during the Second World War, while the main cave – which soars upwards creating a cathedral-like space – is enough to make you believe that they prayed for and found their salvation here.
Salvation of a different kind is what Santavenere – or Holy Venus – offers to its guests.
You can get to Maratea by flying from Edinburgh to Naples by easyJet and if staying at the Santavenere, transport to the hotel will be organised. There is also a train from Rome which takes nearly four hours or from Naples which is less than two hours.
The winter rate for the Santavenere is e130/£93 per night, e350/£250 in the summer,www.hotelsantavenere.com