International Writers Magazine: European Travel
Puglia Italy's Best Kept Secret
hand reaches up and selects an enormous, knobbly lemon. The hand
embraces this yellow beauty. It is sniffed by an Italian nose
and given to me with the words bellissimo, bellissimo.
I carefully secrete another lemon into my already bulging rucksack.
I have met yet another example of Pulgian generosity. The friendliness
of the people has made house hunting such a pleasure in this enchanting
part of Italy. In five days, I have visited twenty-five houses!
Christina, a lively
woman in her late seventies is giving me a guided tour around the house
and land she wishes to sell. "Here is the pizza oven, here is the
vineyard, here are the olive trees". "You will be the benefactor
of two to three litres of wine a day and all the olives you can consume".
Christina entices me with offers like, "I have a brother who will
prune your olive trees, till your land, press your grapes and I will
show you how to use your pizza oven". Nothing is a problem; life
is one long sensual experience.
Puglia; imagine the heel of Italy and you are there. The Adriatic is
nearly always on the horizon and on either side of the country roads
are plantations of olive trees, uniformly spaced, sitting in newly turned
soil. Puglia produces eighty percent of Italys olive oil. Some
of the trees are hundreds of years old. These ancient trees are magnificent;
their stubby knarled trunks often knotted together in a woody timeless
embrace. Their squat trunks are topped with a compact bouffant of silvery-grey
foliage. There is something mystical about them. They seem to possess
an eternal wisdom. To experience them in all their beauty, a visit to
the reserve of Torre Guaceto, near Serranova is a must.
had envisaged Puglia to be populated by poor rural families and
the landscape arid. To the contrary the land is verdant and the
houses I visited were often second homes. It was explained to me
that the owners were not rich, that these dwellings were handed
down from generation to generation. These are used in the summer
months and in the winter a warm apartment in the town is preferable.
The weather can be variable from November to May, but never particularly
The estate agents
who took me around these properties were an assorted bunch. However,
one lot were particularly memorable. I was staying in a converted Masseria
(a large farm) and had arranged to meet the estate agents at nine in
the morning. At ten to nine I noticed two dark-suited men standing either
side of an equally dark car. One was small, dapper with a studious expression
and the other in contrast, was a bear of a man; red faced with slick-backed
hair. I was greeted with serious formality. Climbing into the back seat
of the car, I sat clutching property details and wondering if I was
in the presence of a Mafia godfather and his minder? My fears were unjustified
as these two turned out to be real gems. Paulo the larger of the two
also ran a construction company specialising in the renovation of trulli.
I actually visited the trullo where Angelo took his first breath. Their
origins are obscure, but the name is traditionally used to describe
ancient round tombs found in the Roman countryside. Trulli are white
or grey conical roof dwellings built from local limestone stacked without
using mortar. Their distinctive roofs are frequently adorned with pagan
or Christian iconography. In the past trulli were often dismantled when
taxes were due.
Alberobello is renowned for its trullo and has become a tourist attraction.
Here there are trulli restaurants and shops and even a trulli cathedral.
The houses I visited
tended to be white, square fincas, villas or trulli and most were surrounded
by large amounts of land, between four hundred and nine hundred square
metres. They often boasted a vineyard besides numerous fruit trees and
a neat vegetable plot. Whilst I was there I saw artichokes, asparagus,
broad beans, peas, figs, almonds, medlar and citrus fruits.
It is customary for Italians in this area to eat al fresco and many
of the houses have an outside pizza oven, trestle table (often stone)
and a shaded pergola. Inside the houses I saw metre high urns in dark
cellars just waiting to be filled with Primitivo, the local
vino rosso. Imagine yourself one warm summers day relaxing after
a delicious lunch under the gentle shade of a pergola listening to cicadas.
During my stay I was given a guided tour of Céglie Messápica
with Paulo and Angelo, who knew it intimately, having spent most of
their lives there. We roamed around deserted streets in the middle of
the afternoon, where I envisaged everyone was enjoying a siesta. I tried
to imagine life here in this ancient town many years ago. I was shown
the remains of the huge gates that were once used to blockade the town
against unwanted intruders. The gates were hauled into position at ten
oclock each night, when women were allowed back into the town,
but men-folk found themselves excluded.
We were here for lunch but everything seemed to be closed. Angelo stopped
at what appeared to be a town house, but was in fact a restaurant. Despite
the fact that the owner and his son were in the throes of clearing up,
they greeted us warmly. Our table was situated in part of the restaurant
that was once a chapel the first in Céglie Messápica.
There was evidence of a fresco on the wall, faded, but still retaining
a sense of spirituality.
We shared dishes of gnocchi and pasta, followed by aubergine and courgette
(cortoni), with grilled lamb (rosti agnello), accompanied, of course
by a jug of Primitivo.
Puglia produces eighty percent of Italys pasta, which is an essential
part of most meals in southern Italy. It is estimated that there are
more than six hundred different shapes of pasta. The traditional pasta
of the region is orechiette, or little ears.
I was grateful to be chauffeured around by Paulo and Angelo as driving
around Puglia is quite an experience. In towns one-way systems become
a bewildering maze. You need quick reactions plus a laid back
attitude anything goes. Pedestrians amble across the road in
front of your car. Cars are parked haphazardly at any angle and the
car horn is used frequently. Cars are driven at speed or snails pace,
but not once did I see any evidence of road rage.
In fact, I think what I most liked about Puglia were its people. Their
generosity, kindness and warmth will be my fondest memory of this very
special place. I plan to return in the very near future.
© Polly Barraclough
paulinebarraclough at hotmail.co.uk
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