Puglia: A Quiet Visit in the South of Italy
After traveling around Italy for the past three weeks amongst crowds of tourists in nearly every corner of Rome, Florence, Venice, and Positano, I finally rested in the beautiful region of Puglia in the south of Italy. Flying into Bari from Rome provided gorgeous scenery of massive farmland, vineyards and olive groves that seemed endless. Puglia provides more olive oil than any other region in Italy, and I'm told they provide 30 percent of the world's olive oil. There is no shortage of beautiful beaches and coastal views since Puglia is a narrow land mass surrounded by two seas, the Adriatic and Ionian. The region has been inhabited as far back as 1000 B.C., and has plenty of architectural structures that have been discovered and restored.
My companion, Kathryn (my daughter-in-law) and I spent only a few hours in Bari walking along the coastal wall where fishermen were cleaning their fish. We strolled around the old city observing everyday life in the winding streets. We found the Basilica of St. Nicholas, dedicated to the 4th century saint who was known for secretly giving gifts, now the model for Santa Claus.
I arranged for a driver to take us south of Bari through the city of Alberobello, known for the unique trulli buildings which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The buildings are dry stone with conical roofs and were constructed as temporary shelters for field workers or storehouses in the 19th century. Today many of the trulli have been converted into private homes, shops, and small hotels. Walking through the streets of the old town amongst the trulli neighborhoods was incredibly interesting. After a delicious pasta lunch of the region's famous orecchiette pasta, meaning "little ear" because of its shape, we rode on to the coastal city of Ostuni. It is known for its typical white-painted buildings, and the Ostuni Cathedral is the old town's largest structure.
We walked around the square and looked over the wall to the panoramic view of olive groves and the Adriatic Sea before taking a train to Lecce where we spent three nights in a splendid bed and breakfast, Palazzo Dei Dondoli. It is located just outside the old city walls, and the rooms were spectacular. Our breakfast each morning consisted of abundant fruits, cheeses, ham, tomatoes, breads and cakes served with cappuccino, of course.
We spent a 10-hour day with Green Italy Tours and got to visit the city of Otranto, filled with history from the Greeks, Romans and Turks. The cathedral has the most incredible mosaic floor which was laid in 1163 by a group artists, and thankfully left untouched when the Turks invaded the city and took over the church in the 15th century. During the siege, the Turks beheaded 800 Christians who would not convert to Islam, and the martyr's bones are stored and exhibited in floor to ceiling glass cases in the cathedral. After strolling around the town with our guides John and Anthony, they encouraged us to sit down for some traditional coffee from Lecce, which is espresso over ice with almond milk. In addition, we ate pasticciotto, which are pastries filled with cream. We drove on to the coastal city of Gallipoli where the old city is encased within the enormous limestone walls which provided protection for centuries. The views of the sea, and the fishing boats was so picturesque, and the beaches were clear of people on the day we visited. I'm told they're filled with sun worshipers during warmer days when tourists fill the town. We had a delicious lunch at Puritate where plates of fish dishes were delivered to our table in a constant flow. I appreciated the simplicity of every dish as the fish was prepared only with olive oil, herbs, lemons, and occasionally some garlic.
At the end of our day we visited a local winery where we tasted the local Primitivo, Negroamaro, and Verdeca wines.
The last two days in Puglia were spent in Lecce where we never tired of walking the streets of the old city within the ancient walls. The streets are filled with restaurants serving local traditional foods, including orecchiette pasta, fresh fish, potato and cod croquettes, fava beans and chicory greens, grilled meats, and frisella, the traditional crunchy bread. The Baroque architecture in Lecce, using local limestone, was nearly overwhelming as the ornate buildings and churches loomed heavily over the narrow streets and city squares. The city is known for it's artistic paper mache' figures and boxes which are sold in many shops. With the help of our friend at the bed and breakfast we were able to hire a taxi to take us to a local olive oil producer where we were greeted by the De Vitis family where two brothers make delicious olive oil on their farm. Only the wife spoke English, and we were able to visit about their production and purchase many bottles to take home. It soon became a concern as to how we would transport it, but after a lot of shuffling luggage, we managed.
Our entire experience in Puglia was absolutely delightful, and I highly recommend a visit to the area, especially in autumn near the olive harvest time. Although the people don't speak as much as English as more tourist-driven areas, they are generous, friendly, and so willing to assist with the help of an Italian dictionary. It's a much slower pace than the bigger cities which are more visited in Italy. Hotels are less expensive, and the streets are much less filled with tourists. Now that I've got the "lay of the land", I hope to return and experience more of the tasty food, oil, wine, coastal views, and wonderful people in this region less traveled.