The International Writers Magazine: European Travel

Introducing Puglia – Italy's Best Kept Secret
Polly Barraclough

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 Italy’s 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.

I 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 cold.

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. Bliss.
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 o’clock 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 Italy’s 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 September 2006
paulinebarraclough at

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