Enjoying the Cultural and Gastronomic Abundance of Apulia (Puglia)

By Jean and Peter Richards

(This article reports on a trip taken in March 2007)

Late winter was the perfect time to visit Italy’s southern Adriatic coast.

“We are expansive,” Angelo said, to explain why some of the most welcoming people in Italy can be found in the South.  Treasures abound as well. Apulia was full of surprises.

Stone walls, almonds in blossom, azure seas, splendid views from a wild indented coast, plains rippling with silvery leafed olive trees and white towns rising in concentric circles on hills define Apulia’s landscape made even more beautiful by the fresh green of spring growth.

Ours was a serendipitous trip. We were going to Spain where it was raining and turned instead toward the sun unprepared for what we would find.

The delights began in Caserta northeast of Naples where we stopped for the night before crossing the mountains to Bari.

“You will be visiting the Palazzo tomorrow?” the hotel manager asked, handing us information. We’d never heard of this gorgeously marbled mini-Versailles that Charles III, the Bourbon, once called a home. It was a treat as was the town.

Palace at Caserta

Italy seems to be refreshing its colors from Liguria all through the south where pastel facades are being revived. Caserta’s are cheerful and just looking at them make one feel good

But white is the color of Puglia, the white of the Greeks whose influence still resonates in this land stretching from the spur of the boot at the Gargano Peninsula  to the tip of the Salento at the heel and from the Apennines to the sea.

Ostuni is one of its prettiest towns. A lovely Romanesque Church perches atop its old  white-washed center rising above narrow, twisting cobbled lanes beyond the plains of olives and a plain newer town.

Ostuni

For a week we had a quirky ottocento villa, its expansive terrace and grounds, mostly to ourselves. The thought had been to relax in the warmth of the south after a wearying winter. The intent was quickly quashed. There was too much to take in.

If the harshness of life propelled Pugliese to leave a century ago, it is subtle beauty which lures the visitor today. This is not a land of great monuments. It is a region which celebrates the polyglot influences of its Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Byzantine, Turkish, North African, Norman, Spanish and Lombardic history in people, architecture, archeological treasure and  good things to eat.

In town after town, the historic center has been restored with panache as an inviting  pedestrian quarter. Lecce is a gem. Grand houses line streets leading to its duomo. Piazzas abound with open air cafes even in winter. Santa Croce is a stunning example of the Italian Baroque fully restrained. The Sigismondo Castromediano Museum was hard to find and worth the effort with its collection of Attic vases, ceramics and early bronze from local excavations.

Mosaic at Otranto

The facade of the Romanesque Church at Otranto is as pleasing as any. The surprise is inside where the 12th century mosaic floor, said to have been made by a priest, is one of the largest extant and a fabulous embodiment of religious, historic  and mythological iconography. Camels race across the desert. Indian elephants bear a Tree of Life. The stunner is a  zodiac in front of the altar. The pavimenti’s preservation rivals the earlier examples at Aquileia. The view across the Adriatic on a sunny day from the belvedere adjacent to the Castella Aragonese is not to be missed.

Such are the joys of travel off season that our view driving to the heel along the serpentine coastal road to the port of Santa Maria di Leuca from Otranto was hardly interrupted by other vehicles at midday when working life is still suspended in this region of scorching summers. In March, it was balmy. We took our lunch as a picnic above the sea and coffee at the cafe in Leuca where Michel said the temperature climbs to well over 100 in summer when Puglia is the destination of many German, English and Northern Italian tourists. Not many Americans come people told us over and over again. That could account for the scant information available in guides.

Americans, however, may recognize Puglia in the surnames of their personal encounters. Matera conjured up one. The town, set far from the sea, curls up one side of a gorge. Caves, lived in until recently, dot the spartan rocky landscape of the other side of the gorge. Enterprising lads and official town guides vie to lead tours. We satisfied ourselves with the stunning, compact cityscape of onion skin colored buildings hugging the hillside, one on top of another. Had the city produced one of those paper puzzle maquettes, I would have had one in an instant and savored the sensational view ever more.

Trullis are the architecture Puglia promotes touristically. They are stone houses, often white-washed, with conical rooves of flat, dry stones precisely laid evoking a North African influence. Each roof denotes a room in the house. In the groves from Ostuni through Martina Franca there are ancient examples, occasionally falling into decay and far more pleasing than at Alberobello, the town truly devoted to this magical architectural anomaly. “Alberobello was first to promote trullis as a tourist attraction,” we were told. It worked and is vastly overdone. Entrepreneurship abounds at nearly each of the dozens of houses on its steep hills, aggressive even off season. The trulli curious can rent a house for a day.

Truly curious are the trulli

The museum and lungomare promenade at Taranto drew us another day, but it is lunch we will remember. Gatto Rosso is a small little place where second and third generation sons prepare Pugliese delicacies as pristine as the restaurant.

We were the first for lunch (there would only be six others that day) and when we asked the waiter a question, a handsome, young man intervened in English. Angelo, an officer in the Italian Navy now transferred to Taranto after service in Iraq, had dropped in to see his father and brother. Angelo has a small olive grove. In recent years we have learned how little we know about oil which can come from the fruit of trees as much as 500 years old. Angelo lets the olives drop and leaves them two or three days to bring out the flavor when the pressing begins. His was fruity, not oily — substantial and with a pleasant after taste. He guided our ordering: the antipasti, the primi of tagliolini verde with gamberini and  a frittura for the secondi.

The antipasti arrived on plate after plate: moscardini (baby octopus) cotti in pietra (cooked on the stone) with ripe olives, oil and a hint of tomato in the broth; mussels, razor clams and sweet, tiny vongole in broth; soute di coze (frittura misto) with fish, calamari and octopus; insalada di pulpo simply dressed with olive oil, celery and what Angelo described as “sweet salt” from the sea; seppi con funghi cardoncelli (cuttlefish with mushrooms) that were fresh, fleshy and delicate; gamberini croccanti con gaspacho di pomadori (brother Ago’s invention) with a superbly sweet shrimp shelled and wrapped in Greek angel hair pasta croccante on a bed of chipped radicchio.

The antipasti for two was 13 euros and would have been enough for lunch by itself. Each course was a joy and the finale was heaven itself: sorbetto limone, homemade, frothy and served in a flute.  The bill was 50 euros  ($66.50) including two bottles of Angelo’s oil we carried away.

Raw antipasto at da Tuccino — the best!

One of the few places in the world where I would eat raw fish is at Da Tuccino in Polignano a Mare. The pick of the Adriatic comes from their boats. Glistening white raw moscardini with olive oil and pepper is almost worth the long trip down through The Boot.

Turnip tops and fava beans are the cohabiting staples of what was once cucina povere. Whether mashed with oil or pureed and served with steamed and chopped greens and slightly piquant green peppers sauteed in oil until their skins began to separate, their taste will linger as a particular memory of Puglia.

But, what will linger most is the welcoming people. Angelo was right. The Italians are even more expansive in the South.

We find those in the North amongst the friendliest people in Europe as well.

Frederick II, the Hohenstauffen may not have been welcomed as an invader but his octagonal castle at Castel del Monte near Barletta is perfection.

Castel di Monte

We stopped en route to Trani, Barletta and the Gargano. The island which became the Gargano Peninsula is  formidable to the driver uncomfortable with hairpin turns and heights. Its landscape is as hard as the route and its views spectacular.

Iconic Italy came into view as we climbed North into the Umbrian hills. Snow is our nemesis at Gubbio. A few years ago it defeated us an attempt to see the ultimate in stone hill towns. No sooner had we begun our visit this time when heavy snow fell again and propelled us back to Perugia, but not without savoring a glimpse of its steep, closely built streets, the soft shades of the stone buildings, the well proportioned palazzo and grand views.

Assisi was a casual place when we visited 35 years ago. It must be madness in season now. We ignored the signs and parked near San Francesco where the basilica superiore is open and still being restored after the devastating earthquake a decade ago. The Giottos did not fare well, but what is there is still worth the journey.

Our journey ended where it began — in Chiavari, the charming arcaded Ligurian spot that one of our favorite eateries calls home. Luchin is so bent on preserving tradition that it doesn’t even have an espresso machine. One comes to eat in its simple tiled rooms — farrinata, homemade soups, pasta with pesto and roasted meats. We also came to buy vegetables in its nearby mercato and thus carry Italy to France.

Copyright © 2007 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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