The underground cave churches outside Móttola, Apulia

For thousands of years, the inhabitants of the instep of Italy's boot (insland from the northern gulf of the Ionian sea) burrowed into the soft, tufa sides of ravines and gullies to form la civiltà rupestre, a "cliff civilization." Some of these grew into cities—Matera, just across the border in the Basilicata region, is the most famous. But not all civiltà rupestre towns remained going concerns.

Pirate raids forced the Apulian cave culture of Móttola—25 miles east of Matera—to abandon its ravine in the Dark Ages. The townsfolk retreated a few miles further inland to a more defensible ancient hilltop fortress, famous as the spot where the Romans finally defeated Pyrrus. But the walls of the Gravina di Petruscio valley southeast of town are still pockmarked by the "villagio ipogeo" they left behind, hundreds of cave entrances unencumbered by those squarish façades of the modernized cave-cities.

To visit Mottola's cave churches (S. Nicola, S. Margarita, S. Angelo), call tel. +39-011-39-099-886-6948 to arrange for the required guide. Book a week in advance if possible. €2.60.

You can visit the ravine on your own, but to see the area's cave-churches—pilgrimage sites from the Dark Ages, now tucked away under farmland—you need to call ahead and arrange for a guide. Not only do these local volunteer academics know the fascinating background on the caves' paintings, tombs, and other relics, they're also the only ones with the keys. They only charge around $3 and will spend two to three hours with you, bombing down a maze of back roads, dirt paths, and rough tractor-tracks to find the hidden entrances of the area's three cave-church superstars.

San Nicola is known as the "Sistine Chapel" of cave churches, the wall slathered in twelfth-century frescoes. Look for the two pilgrims who painted tiny portraits of themselves into the thin strip dividing two competing scenes of St. George slaying the dragon.

Nearby Santa Margarita's frescoes showcase its namesakes' miracles and martyrdom—she was fried in a pan, cast on a bed of nails, and finally swallowed by a demon, though she cut herself out of his belly with a knife. To the medieval mindset, the mechanics of this horror-movie act made her the perfect candidate to become the patroness of pregnancy, and one corner of the chapel is fitted with a primitive plumbing system—troughs and cisterns carved from the rock—that was used by midwives to assist in births.

The decorations are nearly vanished from Sant'Angelo, but it is the only two-level cave-church in existence: a space for worship above, a burial crypt beneath full of the graves of pilgrims who died at this famous stopover along the Via Consolare.

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Apulia tourism info: www.viaggiareinpuglia.it

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