Italy inarguably contains some of Europe’s greatest hits – Rome, Florence, Venice, etc. Traveling to these places never gets old and I’ll do it over and over again while we’re here. But these cities only cover a diagonal slice of the boot. And I’m greedy. I want the heel, the toe, the arch, the top, the zipper, and all the islands before we head back home. So, a few weeks ago, we went to the southern region of Puglia. (pronounced Poo-Lee-Ah)
Puglia takes up the heel of the boot and borders the Adriatic Sea to the east, and the Ionian Gulf to the west. The five hour drive from Rome is stunning with villages pouring off the sides of mountains, and countless vineyards marching across hills and valleys. The landscape went from mountains to hills, stucco turned to stone, and the horizon now featured a blue ribbon of ocean.
Our first impression of Puglia was that it didn’t feel like the classic Italy we were used to. Unique white stone houses with rocky cone-shaped roofs called “Trulli” dotted the countryside, vibrantly green fields criss-crossed by white stone walls rippled across hills, the air was clean and smelled of firewood and bay leaves, and it was near silent except for the rustle of the wind through the olive groves. It felt apart from Italy, definitely Mediterranean, but the look of it had more in common with Greece, and the green fields and white stone fences almost gave it an Irish feel. This was something completely different.
We checked into our hotel, which was a small and adorable Trulli complex called Truddhi Casa, about a five minute drive outside of the local town of Locorotondo. The owners greeted us, spoke perfect English, and even gave us a bottle of their wine that they make in the vineyard behind the property. Because our January visit is the height of off-season we were the only guests, which we didn’t mind at all. We opened our complimentary wine – which was quite good – sat on the stone wall outback overlooking the vineyard and listened to the lack of sirens and motors.
Puglia has no shortage of adorable white hilltop towns, unique sites, and sandy beaches. But for this trip we decided to take it slow and keep it simple, and limited our travel radius to Central Puglia. Our base of operations was Locorotondo, and from there we would take short drives to Ostuni, Alberobello, and we hoped to see Martina Franca and Cisternino as well if we could. Mother nature had her own plans though, and a January style gale pushed through the mountains on the first night drowned a lot of our day one plans. We’re getting used to it.
Our first full day we made a reservation for a tasting and tour at Masseria Brancati, an ancient olive grove and classic Puglian farmhouse outside of Ostuni. Corrado, the owner (who looks a little like he should be doing Dos Equis commercials), and his daughter made us feel very welcome and gave us the full tour despite the rain. It began with a huge olive tree beside the house which had a base at least five feet wide. Corrado asked us to guess its age. We guessed five hundred years, he smiled and pointed up, we raised our numbers until finally he told us that carbon dating says the tree is over two thousand years old! In other words, the ancient Romans, and maybe even Greeks planted these trees. We looked around and could tell that there were at least a dozen within eyesight that looked as wide as this one, and many more in the distance.
Another group joined us and we went inside for the tasting, where Corrado explained his views of which olive oil to use when, and we sampled the three intensities, and a lovely lemon infused olive oil. All were rich and delicious, the kind you would expect from trees that have been producing for thousands of years, and we ended up buying one of each.
Afterwards they took us on a tour of the farm itself, which has been in continuous operation since antiquity.
Olive oil isn’t exactly cheap today, but in ancient times it was so valuable you had to hide production to avoid theft, which is why the oldest part of Masseria Brancati was carved underground. The old roman olive press is still there. As are the wooden cork-screw like presses also from Roman times, and the added rooms and vaults from medieval times. Everything is so well preserved and intact it looks like it was abandoned in recent memory. In the eighteen hundreds Corrado’s ancestors built a newer press above ground that remained in operation for a hundred years until it was abandoned for the modern and tastier extraction techniques of today.
If you are in the area, call or email ahead and make this a must-see. It’s an excellent insight into the history, culture, and hospitality of the region.
Afterwards we drove up the hill to Ostuni. (The picture was taken on day 3.) By now it was raining so hard we debated scrapping the town all-together and driving back to the hotel. But we were hungry, so we jogged a hundred feet to the nearest restaurant that felt like running through a waterfall. We tried to wait out the storm and had a pretty good, way too big lunch that was served by a very nice husband and wife team that were eager to show us the regional specialties. We mourned Ostuni when it became clear we weren’t going to see more than this, but the hospitality of the locals made it nearly okay.
Too much lunch and damp clothes call for one thing: a nap. So our next destination was our cozy Trullo, where we passed out listening to the storm pound our pretty cone roof.
Day two was far more promising. By the time we left our room, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle with a promise of clearing up all together. We began in Locorotondo.
Locorotondo probably deserves its own post. It’s a surprisingly quirky town painted bright white with limestone streets, lace curtains, delicate iron balconies, stairways upon stairways, and colorful doorways swagged in beads. There’s an obvious pride in residence with a clear lack of graffiti, and where locals vigorously scrub the limestone in the rain to keep them at their shiniest. Because of this, I took too many pictures and then couldn’t decide which ones to post, so I’m bombarding you with too many:
I debated posting the next picture so I wouldn’t offend anyone… but it’s funny, and this is Europe afterall. Hopefully facebook won’t make it my feature image when I post links.
Our hotel recommended the tastefully appointed U Curdunn for lunch in Locorotondo. Excellent advice.
Because we’re Americans we got there at 12:30 and were the first to arrive. The chef greeted us from the open kitchen and showed us his fresh vegetables from his garden. After finding out what our likes and dislikes were he set about making a first course just for us. While we waited we were served a beautiful bruschetta with winter tomatoes that actually had flavor, a local red wine that will forever be near to our hearts, and a regional array of local meats and cheeses with honey and fig jam that literally melted in our mouths.
The chef arrived with a masterful chickpea vegetable soup for my husband and Orecchiette Cime di Rape for me, which is an ear-shaped pasta topped with a local type of broccoli. It’s also one of the dishes the region is famous for. I didn’t want to tell him, but I had been served the same dish the day before in Ostuni and it was mushy and not that great, but when I tried this version I changed my mind and became a Cime di Rape fan. Like most Italian food, it must be prepared by someone that knows what they’re doing or else it’s just a bland waste.
We had equally wonderful second courses and summoned the power of espresso to get out of our chairs and moving again. The winter daylight was running out, so we bid farewell to Locorotondo and drove fifteen minutes to the next town, Alberobello.
In central Puglia, Alberobello is the postcard superstar, with its over one thousand Trulli houses set mostly along the hillside. No other place on earth looks exactly like this. The origins of the Trullo are a little mysterious. The most popular explanation is that the original Trulli were made without mortar so they could be easily dismantled when the tax collector came, and therefore not taxed for their dwelling. There’s debate about how accurate that is, so take it with a grain a salt. Either way, the Trulli of Alberobello date back as far as the 17th century, and as recently as the 20th century. Living in these wasn’t the most glamorous and many were abandoned in the mid 1900s. It wasn’t until about fifteen years ago, when a local entrepreneur bought a row of Trulli, fitted them modern amenities, painted them with good luck signs, and rented them out to tourists that the area started getting some recognition.
The trulli of Alberobello are definitely worth a visit, but unfortunately there isn’t much else to do there unless you’re in the mood for souvenir shopping. Most houses have been converted into shops that sell everything from magnets and t-shirts to pottery and limoncello. The shopkeepers beckon you inside as you pass so you find yourself guiltily refusing one after the other as you walk down the street. I get it though, this is off season and their livelihood, we just don’t need a ceramic model of a trullo. I’m not trying to give them a bad rap, they were all gracious and smiling when we politely declined, and their town feels like a live smurf village.
After only about an hour in Alberobello, we declared ourselves finished for the day, and snapped sunny carside photos of the countryside. Most were a blurry waste of memory, but a few turned out okay and illustrate the simple beauty of the region.
We canceled our Martina Franca plans, and made Day 3 a last minute make-up day for the storms of Day 1. We didn’t have time to see Cisternino like we were supposed to originally after Ostuni, but neither of us felt right leaving without having seen the ocean up close. The teal waters and sandy shores of the Adriatic are the main attraction to this region, and considered some of the best in Italy. January isn’t a fair representation of how beautiful and popular this region is. But then you won’t see a lot sun drenched ocean scenes from me in the first place because I burn in the shade, and hot crowded beaches are not my thing. With no plan except to see water we headed towards Ostuni then turned directly towards the ocean hoping it would lead us somewhere.
We drove through a small port called Villanova, and pulled up to a pier, walked past a boat yard and a three legged dog, and were rewarded with this.
It wasn’t a beach, but the rhythmic pull of the water on the rocks and the clear teal waters made it so worth the detour, we even stayed when it started to sprinkle, then called it quits when the sky opened up.
Just when I think I’ve figured out Italy it shows me something like Puglia that is completely original, a little off-beat, yet still completely Italian. Now I want to see what else is outside the slice.
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