We’ve travelled through most of Italy, from the Veneto and the Emilia Romagna in the north, down through Tuscany and Umbria in the middle and away to the west to the island of Sardinia. However, for this visit, we were heading to Puglia, or Apulia as the Italians know it, situated in the bottom eastern corner of Italy.
Our base was to be Ostuni, about 8km inland and a little over 44km from Brindisi. We rented a small town apartment from Owners Direct. There are so many small apartments for rent in the Old Town, all very typical and many of them owned by the British as second homes.
Ours started with a door than led off the main street. The house was in the local style, curved stone ceilings and rough white-washed walls. We have the same finish on the walls at home. It’s very hard finding a plasterer in the UK who will do an ‘off-the trowel’ finish. Most claim that ‘we’ve been trained’ and ‘we have qualifications’ (not to mention professional pride) and want to do a perfectly smooth finish. Actually, the technique is simple. Paint the wall with a good coat of Unibond and let it dry. Mix the plaster to the consistency of smooth porridge. Now comes the technical bit. You’ll need two very special tools for this. Apply the plaster with your hands; smooth it out and then finish it with a hand brush, a kitchen sponge and a small trowel. Once it’s dry and had a couple of coats of emulsion it’s there for life. Rugged, ancient looking, extremely durable and highly authentic!
But I digress. Back to the apartment. The kitchen, and I use the term loosely, comprised a cupboard, a sink and a single cooking ring. This led to the lounge, downstairs shower and toilet. Up a steep, single-width staircase and you came to the bedroom, sloping floor and a view across to a small set of patio doors. Out and up another set of stairs and you were on the first of two roof terraces. By day these were sun traps; by night they afforded a view across terracotta-tiled roof tops and away to the coast. A steel ladder led to the highest roof terrace which provided an excellent view out to sea by day and took in the illuminated city by night.
We had breakfast on the top terrace on our first morning. The coffee was Italian; rich and strong. The milk,which was also Italian, was unfortunately in the fridge. The fridge was back down the roof ladder, back down the stairs to the bedroom, down the second set of stairs to the lounge and then to the fridge at the back of the apartment. By the time it had returned on its route along and up, up and along, back at the table, the coffee was either drunk or cold. Apricot jam from the local market would have been lovely with the rolls…except that was also in the fridge. You get the idea.
By the second morning we had learned the error of our ways and, not being provided with a tray of any sorts, we choose the easier route and ate downstairs!
Still, it was only a minute’s walk and we were in the main square.
Ostuni Old Town
The town had been destroyed by Hannibal in the Punic Wars (264 – 146 BC) and had been rebuilt by the Greeks. ‘Astu neon’ from where the town derives its modern name means ‘new town’. By 995 AD it had become part of the Norman county of Lecce and by 1539 it was enjoying a stable rule and was very much what we see today. The whole town stands on a hill; a citadel of white-washed houses set against a blue Mediterranean sky.
In Italian it is often referred to as ‘La Citta Bianca’ or ‘The White City’ It’s hard to find an external wall that isn’t a brilliant white. The whole city glares in the brightness of the midday sun. The heat bounces off the walls and reflects off the cobbles. In the evening, the heat radiates back out making stone benches and walls hardly bearable.
The Old Town starts at Ostuni Square which is dominated by a column dedicated to Saint Orontius of Lecce, axed to death back in the 12th century, not three miles from the very same spot.
Ostuni has a population of some 35,000 but this swells to over 100,000 in the height of the summer. Many of the tourists are either British or German and they bring much-needed Euros. Although it isn’t an expensive part of Italy, wages are low in the area and many people can’t afford the prices of pavement restaurants and cafes, the bars and the sprinkling of clubs, which are thankfully few and far between. Consequently, while families regularly indulge and enjoy themselves with the usual evening’s passeggiata, it’s mainly accompanied by a gelato, whereas it’s the tourists who keep the ristorante and trattoria businesses going.
One thing that you do notice is the preponderance of stracotta d’asino on the menu and a lot of asino in the local shops and supermarket. Whether donkey is a delicacy or a cheap staple, I don’t know but it does lead to a touch of ribaldry at mealtimes: “And for you, signor?” “I’ll have the stracotta d’asino”, per favore.” “He…haw….he…haw…he.haways has that when he comes here……” Yes, I know it’s trite and puerile (a good word to use when you’re in Rome) but a couple of ice-cold gins and a bottle of Primitivo helps.
The route from the main square leads upwards through winding roads flanked by tourist shops, all with remarkably good taste. There are numerous street bars and pavement cafes where you can enjoy a glass of wine or a beer as an aperitivo with the usual table snacks of bruschetta, olives, small freshly-fried calamari and almonds.
Eventually, you make your way up the hill and arrive at the citadel, perched on the top and within the original city walls. Here you will find the cathedral and the Bishop’s palace, as well as a number of palazzi belonging to the many local aristocratic families.
The cathedral dates back to 1000 AD although part of its modern look was as a result of work undertaken in 1229 by Frederick the Second of Swabia, an area of south-western Germany. The rest of it dates back to 1456 after a massive earthquake in Brindisi rattled its foundations and its walls.
Most nights in the summer there are various forms of free street entertainment on offer next to the Cathedral and on the road leading up to the citadel. You can pay to listen to classical concerts in the many historic buildings that flank the main square. Or, like us, you can enjoy gypsy music, dancing and impromptu singalongs from various local bands and groups. It helps to create an atmosphere in a small town and keeps the night going long after people’s bed-times.
Away from the square lies a myriad of small, narrow, winding streets that weave their way throughout the old town. After sunset these are atmospheric and safe, if deserted. People go to bed early and on many nights we found ourselves more or less alone in restaurants, being cared for by a whole host of attentive waiters. They filled and re-filled glasses, re-arranged napkins, whisked plates out and away from the table and saw to your every need. Short of chewing your food for you, they left little unattended.
Alberobello and the Trulli
Alberobello (literally ‘beautiful tree’) lies south of Ostuni and towards coastal Bari. Originally a farming village of a mere 11,000 souls, it has become a major tourist attraction and an UNESCO World Heritage site due to its unique collection of trulli buildings.
Trulli are small round houses built in a traditional style from local stone and having conical stone roofs. It’s a mastery of the keystone and something at which the Italians excel , as any visitor to the Pantheon in Rome will tell you. The Pantheon has the first completely spanned roof made of Roman concrete. It has stood the test of time and continues to do so. Add it to your list when considering ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’
A trullo was originally designed as a storehouse or field shelter and then became more permanent housing for agricultural labourers and small proprietors. Most trulli were built during the 19th century and many survive in extremely good condition. They are unique to the Apulia area of Italy and most can be found around Alberobello.
Trulli are a photographer’s dream. However, if it wasn’t for them, I couldn’t see any reason on earth to visit Alberobello. But, because they are there, it has to be a ‘must’ on anyone’s itinerary.
Talking of ‘musts’ on itineraries, Matera is reason enough to come to Italy. It’s situated south west of Ostuni in a valley carved out by the River Gravina.
The town has been a settlement since Paleolithic times and formally founded as a town by the Romans in the 3rd century before Christ. Between then and the Middle Ages, it was populated by Benedictine monks, attacked by the Germans and the Lombards and seemed to be at the centre of most of the royal family and duchy internecine squabbles over the centuries. The old town stands proud, immense, medieval and a warren of streets and tall houses.
However, to one side stands the sassi. This is the ancient town and is a prehistoric troglodyte settlement. All over two hillsides are carved out cave after cave after cave. There are hundreds of them. They were continually populated until the 1980s. In the 1950s, the Italian government started relocating the population to more sanitary and modern developments without any regard for maintaining community links and by the 1980s the job had been done. The population probably found themselves in modern high-rise concrete and glass apartments with indoor plumbing, central heating and double glazing. Many may well have thought they were in Hell and were thoroughly lonely and miserable in their declining years.
Matera was classed as an area of extreme poverty and most of the dwellings were declared uninhabitable. However, and somewhat strangely, (he adds with more than a touch of irony), the Italian government saw a business opportunity in the sassi of Matera and significant sections have undergone regeneration and refurbishment at the hands of government bodies, UNESCO and Hollywood. Hotels, businesses and bars now occupy the dwellings nearest to the main town. One or two have been reconstructed to show what living conditions would have been like in the 1950s. However, wander a little further away and you’ll come across many of the caves that retain much of their original condition.
I mentioned that Hollywood took an interest in Matera. It feels and looks like a film set. Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was filmed here back in 2004, as was Catherine Hardwicke’s ‘The Nativity Story’. It cries out to be a backdrop for biblical narratives.
F C Matera also produced Luigi de Canio of QPR and Udinese fame, amongst many other teams. The club has also produced a number of top Italian players.
The east coast of Puglia is not known for golden sands and limitless beaches. However, there is more than a decent smattering of picturesque villages and towns with footpaths down to rocky coves and headlands with views to die for.
If you’re lucky, and we were, you’ll see festivals and celebrations. Summer is high-time for weddings with many held outside in local parks to take advantage of the breeze and the sun. We also saw an amazing funeral, complete with Italian band and sousaphones. Everyone dressed in black and marching to a collection of funereal dirges.
Lecce lies to the far east of Puglia, on the ‘Achilles heel’ of Italy. It’s one of the most important cities in the region and has almost 100,000 inhabitants. It’s a Baroque city, the ‘Florence of the South’ and, apart from the usual plethora of churches and cathedrals, is also home to one of the finest Roman amphitheaters in Italy. It’s in the main square and, although half of it is covered by later buildings, there’s enough of it to appreciate what it would have been like when it seated 25,000 and was used for all manner of ‘entertainment’.
Puglia is quite different from many areas in Italy. It’s rather like the Vendee is to France. Flat, agricultural and inherently poor. However, the sun shines, the wine flows and the sea is as blue and a sapphire. You’re guaranteed a warm welcome and they need your Euros. Go for it!