October 26, 2016
It is a region of Italy that reveals itself slowly but not grudgingly. Puglia and Basilicata are hardscrabble neighbors, sandwiched between two seas, anchored in sandstone and limestone, used and abused as a gateway to and from other lands.
Perhaps it is because they have needed to keep a low profile, to concentrate on keeping body and soul together, that they have eschewed the snobbery, the flash, the pretension, even, of other more northerly regions. And, because necessity is the mother of invention, these life-hardened agriculturalists have developed cultural life ways that make them special: their cooking, their architecture, their desire for privacy reflect centuries of making life work.
Today, this region of Italy is on the cusp of becoming the darling of travelers who bemoan the trafficked towns and country roads of Tuscany. “This is the new Tuscany, ” they say, but they are wrong. This is not Tuscany at all. This is something – a place and a people – that is completely different.
I have come to this lovely country that runs along the back of Italy’s boot and down its heel, a coastal plain of russet earth planted with ancient olives that reaches west into a hilly hinterland of vineyards and fruit trees and on to the Mediterranean. It is a land shaped, in large part, by its geography. For millenia Puglia has been a gateway to Greece and the Orient as well as a gateway for those foreigners to enter her territory. Invaders came to trade and to pillage, launching their incursions from the coastal ports of Bari, Egnazia and Brindisi, and then moving northwards on ancient roads like the Via Appia and Traiana.
Conditioned by this vulnerability, the Pugliese defended themselves, and thus we have a coastline dotted every 15 miles or so with towers, port cities guarded by castle forts, sea and land caves used for hiding of self and goods, and masseria, those iconic walled farmhouses with towers and encircling walls where olive oil, the region’s liquid gold, was pressed and stored in underground caves.
It is all here to be enjoyed: The hilltop towns with narrow lanes, ceramic shops, cathedrals, piazzas, outdoor cafes and wonderful, unsung restaurants like Casa San Giacomo in Ostuni; The coastal plain with mile upon mile of millenarian olive trees, some planted by the ancient Greeks and others, spaced 18 meters apart, by the Romans, all of which astound with their longevity, their history, their inner story; lovely long walks along ancient pilgrimage pathways and bike rides down country lanes lined with dry limestone walls; the Adriatic with its coastline of caves, cliffs, pocket sized beaches and seaside fish restaurants; Cities with history, elegant palaces, Baroque facades and embellishments, pavements of satin smooth marbled stone.