What’s Puglia to some and Apulia to others was once just Latin to me. I surprised myself by even knowing that it was in Italy though I had no idea why I knew. In this country of infinite charms, renowned destinations and undisputed attractions, Puglia understandably tends to get sidelined. Yet it richly deserves attention, for the grape here is as tender, the olive as luscious, the oil as virgin, the masseria as solid, the trullo’s roof as conical, the sea as blue as the sky is enduring. And you won’t have to share it with as many people. A trip to Puglia is not quite plunging into mysterious, uncharted territory but it’s unhampered by expectations — other than the anticipation of superlative food and wine — this is Italy, after all! I was not disappointed.
Puglia encompasses all of Bari and parts of three other provinces of Italy. It is the heel of the figurative boot that is Italy, a heel polished and buffeted by the Adriatic on one side and the Ionian Sea on the other, with long stretches of sandy beaches and balmy waters, or rocky outcrops of cliffs. It was both the springboard for many seafaring crusaders venturing out to the unknown world and it was Italy’s Achilles heel in invasions to seize the mainland. It has clearly seen a lot of traffic, the vestiges of which are aplenty.
Mine was a short, skimming trip that got reduced to a mere two days from three after a delayed flight and missed connection, but dazzling still. See Naples and die, they say, but my acquaintance with Naples was fleeting — a dash from airport to bus station can hardly count. Here, in the month of October, a six-hour bus journey went from drizzling rain to blue skies and a late, lingering sunset along coastal roads before finally depositing me at Lecce in time for dinner. Since I had missed the introduction to the wonders of this city, famed for the Baroque architecture of its Piazza del Duomo and the Basilica of Santa Croce, my brush with Lecce was confined to my first fine meal in Puglia.
But we weren’t done yet with Lecce province. The morning took us to the south-easternmost coast of Italy, starting with Otranto and its rather chequered history. It may have started out as a Greek town but passed through many hands afterwards, from the Romans to the Byzantines, Normans, Ottoman Turks and even the Napoleonic French. The Castello Aragonese, fully surrounded by a moat, dates back to the end of the 15th century but even older is the cathedral, where the remains of 800 Catholic martyrs, beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam under the Ottoman rule in 1480, were gathered and consecrated. In a slightly gruesome display, their skulls are now arrayed behind glass at the altar. The cathedral itself dates back to the 12th century, with columns meant to have come from a temple to Minerva, and a most elaborate mosaic floor. The intricate designs clearly had multiple inspirations, not all of them biblical — while mammoth elephants guard the Tree of Life that commences with Adam and Eve, several pagan, mythological and historical stories, as well as Islamic calligraphy, are part of that much-trodden floor.
A short drive away is the tip of the heel — the town of Santa Maria di Leuca and its Basilica Santuario Santa Maria De Finibus Terrae — the end of the (civilised) earth, at least as far as the Roman civilisation was concerned. While the Basilica was erected in the 18th century to commemorate St Peter’s passage to Italy (in the 1st century), the most dominant feature on this promontory is the octagonal lighthouse from 1864 that still functions, rising well over a hundred meters above the seabed, staving seafarers off the rocky shores.
The beaches in the neighbourhood as well as the many historical and religious monuments hold an attraction I may have accidentally downplayed in my initial description of Puglia, when I considered it relatively neglected by tourists. While the population of Otranto town is a mere 6,000, the summer of August of 2013 apparently saw footfalls of about two hundred thousand!
On the road, between destinations, our local guide Francesca would earnestly but humorously try to educate us on this sea-bound land of sun and calcareous stone. Puglia’s wine, always foremost, is so fertile and high in tannin (80-100% alcoholic content) that it has long been a primary constituent for Tuscan and French blends of wines. A garden lunch of course included olives and wine and brought the story to our palates. And where we have wine, women and song can’t be far behind.
While the music most typical to the region is pichiko, a complicated but rigorous form of plucking on the guitar accompanied by the violin and a little drum, it is best known for the tarantella, variously adapted by many famous composers. The exact origins of this music and dance are a little obscure. Some legends would have it that, in the Greek side to the Salento province, spiders would attack women, who would then go into hysterical fits of laughter or moroseness, apparently reflecting the mood of the offending spider. Then, to processional music that accompanied the mood, she would dance with abandon until she collapsed in a faint, dispensing with the venom that had poisoned her. That’s more like a story of venom, women and dance.
Ostuni is a fortified, white-washed town sitting pretty atop a hill. It comes as no surprise that it’s steeped in history and has a magnificent cathedral embellished in many styles, from the Dalmation and Croatian to Gothic, with some fake Baroque thrown into its fake-marble interiors. A short distance away is the Seminary bridge, with outstanding panoramic views of a countryside suffused in the saffron of the setting sun. Dinner is splendid fine dining in the Candina de Seppe Tise, master chefs plying us with the choicest and best — antipasta of scamorza (smoked mozzarella), bean-shaped cavatelli, and the region’s favourite orecchiette (little ears) pasta, winding up with artisanal pastries and coffee.
Our hotel is a curious little place itself — a converted mini-palace, it extends from a deep cellar to higher floors that let on to Gothic back alleys with languorous cats and dim streetlights, and modern conveniences tucked into the ancient nooks and crannies of arched stone rooms.
We leave Ostuni early, skimming past a Latin admonition over a feudal lord’s entrance door (‘Don’t spend more than you earn’) and head down to the dusty, warm plains — to olive country. Legend has it that when Zeus first founded the city of Attica in Greece, he asked Athena and Poseidon to give it gifts. Poseidon gifted flashy and fast black horses and Athena, in her wisdom, gifted the almost immortal olive tree — fruit for nourishment, shade on hot days, oil for the lamps, warmth from the firewood. As to the 60 million trees in the region, they say that when the men were away at war, wives who committed indiscretions were told by the local priests to do penance by planting an olive tree as a reminder of their sin. Clearly, there were indiscretions aplenty.
Armando, owner of Il Frantoio, where they grow and press olives for virgin oil, has an understated flamboyance that lends a Zorba-the-Greek kind of feel to our education at the masseria farmhouse. He has 4,200 organic trees that are 1,000-2,000 years old but he also grows multiple fruits, including Christ oranges (that ripen over Easter and Christmas), and several herbs. In olives, he has 15 of the 500 varieties — five consumed as fruits, while the remaining ten are for oil, in varying grades from sweet to strong. There used to be a pecking order for olive oil depending on the manner of collection of the fruit — those that fell to the ground were good for the slaves, the ones that were plucked were fit for kings. The oil of the gods, though, is made from pitted olives where only the flesh is pressed.
Olive tasting is a serious business with a piece of bread and slices of apple to clean the palate between courses. We are also sternly told that we would be doing ourselves a disservice to ever consume anything less than an extra virgin.
These millennial olive trees may be grown and tended on private property but they are a closely guarded regional treasure. Each of the trees is monitored and it’s forbidden to burn or sell them.
Short of the sacred lunch hour, we arrive at the Unesco heritage site of Alberobello with its magnificent huddle of fairytale-like trulli — conical whitewashed structures dating back to around 1000CE, which were first constructed as habitations of expediency but in time became homes for tax evasion homes since they weren’t considered permanent. No mortar or cement was used to build these structures. Boulders were placed in a circular formation and gravel was filled to bridge the gaps. A dash of limestone whitewash, a little cistern for water harvesting and a multi-tiered domed or pyramid-like roof in slate rounded off the perfect con job.
Another copious and fine lunch of local delicacies washed down with regional wine was served in a refurbished trullo. So it was a fairly soporific and languorous drive to our last stop in Puglia. Bari, capital of the province of Bari as well as the Puglia region, is a curious and rather delightful amalgam of the old and new — busy roads and glitzy shops with branded goods alongside magnificent theatres like the Piccinini to honour their son-of-the-soil composer, and the even grander Teatro Petruzzelli, which first opened in 1903 and was rebuilt and reopened in 2009 after a fire destroyed it in 1991. In the centre of the old and bustling city too is the Strada Arco Basso, where rows of women sit outside their homes in the narrow street, doing what generations have done before them, but now for commercial purposes — deftly kneading, clipping and shaping large amounts of fresh pasta dough into little and big pellets, clams and shells.
A large port town, whose harbour got a mention as early at 181BCE, one of Bari’s principal monuments in the northern, old part of the city is the immense Basilica of Saint Nicholas, built in a combination of Arab, Byzantine and Lombard styles. The remains of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of unmarried and pregnant women, children, sailors and thieves, were shifted here from Turkey in 1087 for a devout, mainly Russian following.
The Cathedral of San Sabino is another architectural wonder here as is the Swabian Castle facing the Adriatic Sea, built for Roman Emperor Frederick II, with two of its Aragon fortress walls meeting in a V-shaped point like the stern of a ship. Surrounded by a moat, it can be accessed by a bridge, and having passed through many royal hands over the centuries, it’s now used as an exhibition space.
As another magnificent sun sets on urban Bari, like it did on many empires that thrived on its shores, lights shine along the seafront and over the imposing buildings that were Mussolini’s trademark legacy, signalling the start of another busy Bari night out on town.
Luftansa, Turkish Airlines and a couple of other carriers have daily flights from Indian metros that connect to Naples after a short stopover at Frankfurt, Istanbul and so forth (round trip economy class from approximately `54,000). Barring delays, this is a convenient way to connect to Puglia — Lecce is about 410km away from Naples, a distance covered by road or train (raileurope.co.in; about `5,000 one way by second class) in 5-6hrs, trains being faster. Ostuni is about 80km from Lecce and Bari about the same from Ostuni (both towns are connected by rail). Alternatively, most major European capitals and other airports in Italy have regular flights or charters into Bari.
I applied for an Italian Schengen visa (`5,090; vfs-italy.co.in) as it’s the only country I visited in Europe on this trip and thus my first port of entry in the Schengen region (also the longest stay).
€1 = Rs 84
Where To Stay
Accommodation can be found to suit all budgets and preferences, and ranges from camping grounds and youth hostels to villas, masserias, castles and palaces. In Lecce, Signore Luigi Rizzo’s Hotel Leone di Messapia (from €75; leonedimessapia.it) would be a good choice, also for its lovely Arcu Te Pratu restaurant. At Santa Maria di Leuca, I would go with Hotel Montecallini (from €105; hotelmontecallini.com). Ostuni has the beautifully restored Hotel La Terra (from €96; laterrahotel.it) and the more expensive and very lovely Il Frantoio di Ostuni Farm (from €175; http://www.laterrahotel.it/).
Hiring a carwould is probably the best option for freedom of routes and itinerary in the region. Buses and trains are not that frequent though they’re cheaper.
What To See & Do
Puglia’s tumultuous history and its numerous chapels, cathedrals and palaces from different periods ensures that the region is dotted with a large number of significant architectural monuments, each a testament to a slice or several slices of history and art. And then there is just leisure — a number of tourists are increasingly flocking to Puglia for the pleasures of its beaches in the summer months and with the entire region flanked by the Adriatic and the Ionian seas, there are long stretches of coast on offer. Up and down the coast and further inland, there is the assurance of good food, drizzled over with extra virgin olive oil and washed down with excellent wine. The wine and olive culture of this region extends through various, exceedingly different landscapes, from the vineyards in Salento to the olive farms in the Itria valley and tasting sessions are available at many of them. Puglia is also known for its chocolate, and it puts up a good cheese plate so there are many delicacies to stock up on. Salento is famous for its soft leather items so the temptation to pick up a pair of shoes or a bag from here would not be misplaced. If you are in the market for a wedding dress, Putignano is apparently the place to go, famed for its exquisite, unique, hand-stitched (and expensive) bridalwear.
Where To Eat
The meals also have a large palette of vegetarian offerings with fresh local produce, like roast artichokes and eggplant, dried tomatoes, stuffed or fried zucchini flowers, and sauces of fresh broad beans and tomatoes, to go with the orecchiette and other pastas, as well as an excellent spread of breads and cheeses, particularly ricotta and mozzarella. The Ristorante L’Aratro (ristorantearatro.it) on Via Monte S.Michele in Alberobello and the Oriente (orientehotelbari.com) at Corso Cavour in Bari are especially good.