Friday, April 17, 2015

Puglia: Italian treasure on the east side of the boot

The unique dry-stone huts known as "trulli" in the village of Alberobello in Puglia  (Wikipedia)
PUGLIA, ITALY Just when you thought you had seen all of Italy, a new destination has arisen on the back end of the boot. She is called Puglia.

Situated upon the extensive eastern spine of Italy, Puglia is a region lovingly embraced by two seas with mile upon mile of pristine coastline nestled along serpentine ribbons of golden sand. Here the only interludes are hidden coves and enchanting outcroppings of rock that enhance the surroundings rather than disrupt them.

Ancient streets of Matera  (Wikipedia)
In purely travel time Puglia is a relative newcomer that is only now undergoing its own “renaissance.” Because of its beaches, Puglia has always been a favorite holiday spot for Italians, but it has only come into its own as an international destination within the last ten years. Nada Vergili, owner of Nada’s Italy and a native of Florence describes Puglia as a “place for people who want to go back to Italy to squeeze out the last ounce of treasure.”

To the east lies the Adriatic. To the west is the Ionian Sea. In between is pure magic.

Nada Vergili in the vineyards of Puglia  (Nada's Italy)
Don’t expect masses of infrastructure. Puglia is not a third world port of call mind you, but it is, in its own way, Italy as it used to be.

The region is famous for its olive oil but even that is a relatively new discovery. In the past, the olive oil was used in lamps as fuel until the citizens realized it was more delicious for cooking than lighting. Today, Puglia is known for its underground olive mills.

One popular site for an excursion is a visit to see the dry-stone huts called trulli in the village of Alberobello. The white houses with conical roofs were built either as temporary shelters and storehouses or as permanent homes for the small groups of agricultural workers living in Alberobello. The community thrived in the latter part of the 19th century because of its wine growing industry.
The dazzling "white city" of Ostuni where ancient archways open to awe-inspiring courtyards and narrow streets  (Wikipedia)
The “white city” of Ostuni is one of Vergili’s favorites with its dazzling whitewashed Mediterranean-style houses. “It is a succession of delicate arches, quaint courtyards and noble palaces,” says Vergili with a sigh, “an uneven series of layers and levels filled with staircases, alleyways, narrow streets and arches.”

Cathedral Square in Lecce  (Wikipedia)
Among the newest developments in tourism is something called “albergo diffuse” which is rapidly becoming a popular concept in Puglia. As the Italian words suggest, the “albergo diffuse” offer rooms that are spread throughout a village rather than in a single building. Thus they are “diffused” with perhaps one, two or three rooms in one part of town and other similar combinations in another. The idea allows travelers more opportunities to immerse themselves into the culture.

One of the favorite attractions in the region is technically not in Puglia but close enough for a visit. Matera is one of the oldest human settlements in the world dating back to the Paleolithic Period some 12,000 years ago.
With its ancient troglodyte caves, Matera is a favorite spot to visit near Puglia  (Wikipedia)
Many parts of Matera had no running water until the 1950s. That is no longer the case today, and the troglodyte cave dwellings where people made their homes within the porous rock that provided natural protection from the elements never cease to fascinate visitors.

The harbor in Bari has become a popular port for cruise ships (Wikipedia)
With its abundance of Baroque architectural monuments, the community of Lecce has been nicknamed the “Florence of the South.” In many ways the city feels more Greek than Italian because the original settlers are said to have been from Crete. Not far away, in a small group of villages known as the Grecia Salentina, Greek is still a predominant language.

Seafood is a specialty in Puglia as are the traditional meatballs with tomato sauce and the famous mozzarella known as “burrata” which Nada describes as “decadent.”

Bari, the capital of the region, is situated on the Adriatic Sea and is the second most important economic center in Southern Italy after Naples. As Puglia grows in popularity, Bari is quickly becoming known to travelers because it is now a favorite port city for cruise ships sailing between Venice and the Greek Islands.
Lecce's Cathedral Square is especially dramatic when it is lit up at night  (Wikipedia)
As Nada Vergili sees it, “Puglia is probably not a trip for first, or even second-timers to Italy. There is just too much to see in the rest of the country. But for people seeking something new and different to satisfy their Italian appetite, Puglia is the perfect spot. Puglia is for explorers.”

Vergili couldn’t be more accurate. After all, everyone who has ever been there, always gets a “boot” out of Italy.