Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: Simple, Delicious Food

DSC00567Known as the vegetable garden of the Italian peninsula, Puglia (Apulia) produces “80 percent of the pasta consumed in Europe, more wine than Germany (about 20 percent of all Italian wine, and more olive oil than all of the other regions of Italy combined (or a third of total Italian production),” according to National Geographic Naples & Southern Italy.

Puglia occupies a narrow strip of land (some 250 miles from end to end and about 7,500 square miles all told) bounded on its northeastern side by the Adriatic Sea and by the Ionian Sea in the arch of the boot. Hotter than blazes in the summer and mild in the winter, Puglia’s farms and gardens benefit from a year-round growing season. Puglia’s markets offer fish caught that morning and fruits, vegetables, and nuts harvested the same or the previous day. You can’t get food any fresher than the food in Puglia, and Puglian chefs know to handle and prepare these fresh ingredients in simple ways to allow the natural flavors to shine.

Ricotta and candied celery

Ricotta and candied celery (photo by A. Coluccia)

Two of my favorite dishes came from Antichi Sapori, a superb restaurant in which we dined on the day we visited Castel del Monte. One dish was the slightly smoky tasting burnt-wheat (grano arso) focaccia. After the wheat harvest was finished, farmers burned their fields. When the fire burned out, peasants scavenged for the leftover, now burned, wheat and used it to make their own flour, beginning a tradition that is still followed today—without burning the fields, of course. My other favorite appetizer at Antichi Sapori was fresh ricotta with candied celery. Yes, celery. I single-handedly polished off the whole plate (after Kate and Angelo claimed to be finished, of course!). Although every bite of food at that wonderful restaurant was superb, the focaccia and the ricotta dish knocked my socks off.

Horsemeat in spicy tomato sauce

Horsemeat in spicy tomato sauce

Although I was somewhat nervous to try it, another favorite dish was the horsemeat that I ate at Cibus in Ceglie Messapica. Stewed for hours in a spicy tomato sauce, the meat was fork tender and delicious. According to Angelo, who encouraged me to try this dish, some horses are specially bred for food in Puglia, so I didn’t eat someone’s pet, which was a relief, of course. Cibus also had a wonderful cheese cellar, and we ate 12-year-old Gorgonzola there, as well as tasting three pecorinos: one aged six months, one aged one year (my least favorite, although it was really good), and one aged two years.

Le Zie (photo by K. McKenna)

Le Zie (photo by K. McKenna)

In Lecce we ate lunch at Le Zie (this place is also listed in various guidebooks as Cucina Casareccia), and if you visit Lecce, you should eat there, too. The neighborhood isn’t great and the restaurant isn’t fancy, but the cucina povera (“cooking of the poor”) cuisine is delicious, and we had a ball there. To begin, Kate had a lovely soup of wheat, beans, and sausage, and I had cicero e tria, a dish of chickpeas with regular and fried tagliatelle (known as tria in Puglia). I love Italian meatballs, and my main course of meatballs stuffed with cheese in a white-wine sauce ranks among my favorites.

Capocollo

Capocollo

Angelo, our trip coordinator and guide from Experience Puglia, made sure we tasted several regional specialties. In Putignano we visited a pasticceria that made the best taralli that I’ve tasted in Italy, as well as beautiful and delicious cookies. In Martina Franca we bought Italy’s best cured pork capocollo in the tiny deli of a grocery store off the beaten path and polished it off as we stood at the corner across the street. In Gioia del Colle we watched a cheese maker prepare a batch of mozzarella, and then we tasted it (mmmmm!). In Galatina we visited the pasticceria that invented pasticciotto, a tasty breakfast treat that looks like a tiny double-crust custard pie.

Thus ends our trip to Puglia. Thank you, Kate and Angelo, for a perfect week and so many wonderful memories, meals, and treats!

Ciao!

Other posts in this series: Matera and Basilicata, Trullo Country, Trani and Castel del Monte, Hill Towns of the Valle d’Itria, Easternmost Spot in Italy, Lecce

Antichi Sapori - burnt-wheat focaccia

Antichi Sapori – burnt-wheat focaccia

Antichi Sapori - amazing carrots! Look at the color!

Antichi Sapori – amazing carrots! Look at the color!

Le Zie - Kate is ready for lunch!

Le Zie – Kate is ready for lunch!

Le Zie - my cicero e tria

Le Zie – my cicero e tria

Le Zie - Kate's soup

Le Zie – Kate’s soup

Le Zie - my meatballs

Le Zie – my meatballs

Le Zie - cabbage with pecorino side dish

Le Zie – cabbage with pecorino side dish

Kate's delicious mushroom pizza at Pizzeria la Vecchia Gioia in Gioia del Colle

Kate’s delicious mushroom pizza from Pizzeria la Vecchia Gioia in Gioia del Colle

Lemon cake with candied lemons at Ristorante Francesca in Matera

Lemon cake with candied lemons at Ristorante Francesca in Matera

Italy's best taralli (from Putignano)

Italy’s best taralli (from Putignano)

 

Making mozzarella in Gioia del Colle (photo by K. McKenna)

Making mozzarella in Gioia del Colle (photo by K. McKenna)

Pasticciotto from Galatina

Pasticciotto from Galatina

Pasticciotto

Pasticciotto

Interior of the pasticceria in Galatina

Interior of the pasticceria in Galatina

Posted in Italy food and restaurants, Italy travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: Lecce

Sunrise view of Chiesa di Santa Chiara from my room (lucky me!)

Sunrise view of Chiesa di Santa Chiara from my room (lucky me!)

Kate and I ended our trip to Puglia (Apulia) in the radiant city of Lecce—and what a delightful conclusion! I don’t know whether it was simply the change of pace from six days of small towns to a large city or spending more than a few hours in one place, but we loved Lecce. We wandered through streets crowded with people—mostly locals, we stepped inside many wildly ornate churches made from the local limestone, we ate delicious food, and we wandered through a lovely cemetery that was a bit off the beaten path (if you’ve read my post on Sabaudia and San Felice Circeo, you know how much I love an interesting cemetery!).

Although Lecce calls itself the Florence of the South, I don’t know why. Both cities are beautiful and lively, but they differ in almost every other way. For example, Florence boasts a tourist-based economy, Lecce’s is agrarian; Florence’s architecture is Renaissance, Lecce’s is the most fun-filled, gleeful Baroque that you’ll ever lay eyes on.

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Baroque balcony supports

And speaking of Baroque, it’s everywhere — without restraint! The facades and chapels of the churches festooned with garlands and joyful creatures tumbling over each other, the playful supports that hold up the balconies of many of the buildings, the intricately carved courtyard decorations, and the pudgy cherubs that reminded me of the Pillsbury Doughboy vied for our attention. There’s so much to see that it’s sometimes difficult to focus! It was impossible to simply walk past a church; we had to stop and study it—inside and out. All of this stone-carved joy made me feel happy, too, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face.

 

DSC00666If you go to Lecce, don’t miss Basilica di Santa Croce, the apotheosis of the Lecce Baroque style. But save it for last, because the other churches, beautiful as they are, pale by comparison. You will spend at least 15 minutes trying to take in the energetic façade with its animals, vegetables, and distorted creatures, and the interior is equally fascinating, with ornate side chapel after ornate side chapel and intricately carved capitals atop the pillars. Many Baroque churches in Puglia sport beautiful but plain wooden ceilings, and Santa Croce is no exception. I guess frescoes on top of all that busy Baroque decoration would be just too much!

Here’s my advice for Lecce. Even if you hate cities, GO! Stay for at least two nights and then walk your feet off both day and night. We stayed at the Santa Chiara Hotel, just steps away from Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and I would stay there again.

Ciao!

Other posts in this series: Matera and Basilicata, Trullo Country, Trani and Castel del Monte, Hill Towns of the Valle d’Itria, Easternmost Spot in Italy, Simple and Delicious Food

Basilica di Santa Croce - facade

Basilica di Santa Croce – facade

Basilica di Santa Croce - facade

Basilica di Santa Croce – facade

Basilica di Santa Croce - facade

Basilica di Santa Croce – facade

Basilica di Santa Croce - side chapel

Basilica di Santa Croce – side chapel

Piazza del Duomo at night (photo by K. McKenna)

Piazza del Duomo at night (photo by K. McKenna)

Duomo - façade detail

Duomo – facade detail (photo by K. McKenna)

Duomo - the gorgeous (and huge) door created for the Jubilee of 2000

Duomo – the gorgeous (and huge) door created for the Jubilee of 2000

Baroque balcony supports

Baroque balcony supports

The front of a house

The front of a house

Detail of the façade of the Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Detail of the facade of the Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Altar in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Altar in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Detail from an altar in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Detail from an altar in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Loved this street sign (Tobacco Factory Street). Lecce's snuff was so famous that Napoleon wouldn't use anything else.

Loved this street sign (Tobacco Factory Street). Lecce’s snuff was so famous that Napoleon wouldn’t use any other kind.

Remains of a Roman amphitheater (2nd century) on the main square (photo by K. McKenna)

Remains of a Roman amphitheater (2nd century) on the main square (photo by K. McKenna)

Alrat in the Chiesa di Sant’Irene

Altar in the Chiesa di Sant’Irene

Detail of an altar in Chiesa di Sant’Irene

Detail of an altar in the Chiesa di Sant’Irene

Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo - the cemetery is next to this church

Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo – the cemetery is next to this church (photo by K. McKenna)

Detail around the door of the Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo

Detail around the door of the Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo

Detail above the door to the Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo

Detail above the door to the Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo

This and the following photos are from the cemetery next to the Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo

This and the following photos are from the cemetery next to the Chiesa dei Santi Niccolo e Cataldo

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Posted in Italy travel | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: The Easternmost Spot in Italy

Otranto, the Italy's easternmost city in Italy. If we'd had a clear day, we could have seen Albania.

View from Otranto, Italy’s easternmost city

When Kate and I began planning our trip to Puglia (Apulia), the first tour book that I opened said that the easternmost part of Italy is in the Salento area in the southern tip of the boot’s heel. I couldn’t believe it, so I got out a map of Italy that showed the longitudinal lines. Well, not only is the easternmost tip of Italy in Salento—it’s there by miles (well, kilometers)! Although I used to think that the Italian boot ran north and south, it actually tilts from the northwest to the southeast. The eastern half of Sicily, which is just west of the toe of the Italian boot, is even farther east than any part of the top of the Italian boot. Imagine that! But enough geography.

Carving over the door of Chiesa Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina

Carving over the door of Chiesa Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina

Saturday, our last day with Angelo, our guide from Experience Puglia, we toured three cities in Salento: Galatina, Otranto, and Gallipoli (the Italian Gallipoli, not the Turkish site of the famous World War I battle). We only ate lunch in Gallipoli because it began raining buckets as we left Otranto.

We began our tour of Salento in Galatina, where we saw the amazing 14th-century frescoes by Francesco d’Arezzo in Chiesa Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. Angelo told us that the church would remind us of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, and he was right. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take photos, so I can’t show you the frescoes, but you can see them here.

Castello Aragonese

Castello Aragonese

Otranto is the easternmost city in Italy, lying only 45 miles west of Albania and 60 miles west of Greece. If it had been a clear day, we could have seen Albania across the Adriatic Sea. We saw three impressive sights in Otranto, the first two in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata: one of the largest mosaic floors in the world, constructed by a monk named Panteleone between 1163 and 1166, covers the entire nave and the side aisles; and a gruesome and sad chapel honors 800 survivors of an Ottoman attack in 1480 who were subsequently beheaded because they would not renounce their Christian faith (12,000 other locals also lost their lives during the battle). Horace Walpole wrote about the third sight, the 16th-century Castello Aragonese, in his novella, The Castle of Otranto.

Photo by K. McKenna

Photo by K. McKenna

In the New York Times on October 8, 2006, Phoebe Hoban had this to say about the floor in the Otranto cathedral: “The astonishingly detailed mosaic looks like the work of someone tripping on acid. The nearly 1,000-square-yard pictogram borrows its images from everything from pagan times to ancient Greek and Hindu mythology to the Old and New Testaments to medieval history. Using the Tree of Life as its central motif, it weaves a wildly chaotic chronological web ranging from creation to the fall of Adam and Eve. Here King Arthur and Alexander the Great share floor space with the Tower of Babel, elephants, dragons, hydra-headed beasts, griffins, unicorns, minotaurs, Norse gods and horned devils.” Taking photos of the floor was difficult, because the colors were so muted and the lighting was so dim.

Late in the afternoon Angelo dropped us off at our hotel in Lecce and said goodbye. We were so lucky to find Experience Puglia. Thank you again, Angelo.

Here’s my advice for Salento. Go and stay in beautiful Lecce, which offers a lot to see and do (my next post will cover Lecce). Take a day or a half-day drive through the tip of the heel, and whatever you do, don’t miss the mosaic floor in Otranto or the magnificent frescoes in Galatina.

Ciao!

Other posts in this series: Matera and Basilicata, Trullo Country, Trani and Castel del Monte, Hill Towns of the Valle d’Itria, Lecce, Simple and Delicious Food

Galatina - door of Chiesa Santa Caterina d’Alessandria

Galatina – door of Chiesa Santa Caterina d’Alessandria

Galatina - I loved the frame around this door.

Galatina – I loved the frame around this door.

Otranto - Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata

Otranto – Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata

Otranto cathedral - carving over the entrrance

Otranto cathedral – carving over the entrance

Otranto - cathedral floor (photo by K. McKenna)

Otranto cathedral floor (photo by K. McKenna)

Photo by K. McKenna

Photo by K. McKenna

Photo by K. McKenna

Photo by K. McKenna

Cathedral - bones of the beheaded war survivors

Cathedral – bones of some of the beheaded war survivors

Otranto - cathedral ceiling

Otranto – cathedral ceiling

Otranto harbor

Otranto harbor

Otranto, a popular summer resort

Otranto, a popular summer resort

Otranto

Otranto

Gallipoli - church

Gallipoli – church

Gallipoli - mosaic above the church doors

Gallipoli – mosaic above the church doors

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Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: The White Hill Towns of the Valle d’Itria

The White City (Ostuni)

The White City (Ostuni)

If you go to Puglia (Apulia), you must visit the trulli in the Valle d’Itria. Lucky you, because the valley, smack dab in the center of Puglia, has other lovely sights, including many dazzling white medieval hill towns, endless fields of olive trees, and several fortified farms called masserie. I can’t show you a masseria, because we saw only a couple, and we drove by the best one on a rainy night on a narrow road. Masserie were fortified with thick walls, towers, and other defenses against attacks by foreign invaders or by thieves, and many of these farms have recently been converted into lavish spas. They sound fascinating and I so wanted to see one. Sorry!

One town in the Valle d’Itria, Ostuni, is called the White City. I don’t know why it bears that nickname, since most of the hill towns are bleached white as snow. We visited Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Conversano, Ceglie Messapica, Putignano, and Ostuni, and although Ostuni sits on the highest hill and has a gorgeous view of the sea, the other hill towns seemed much more lively, cheerful, and interesting.

Locorotondo - mal occhio decoration

Locorotondo – mal occhio decoration

One of my favorite discoveries in the Valle d’Itria is the mal occhio (which means “evil eye”) building decorations that are used to ward off evil. Mean but beautiful, these masks are mounted above the doors of houses and businesses to protect the inhabitants. I wouldn’t want to mess with them!

Another favorite was the interesting building construction in Locorotondo: the cummerse, narrow rectangular town houses with pointed gable roofs that reminded me of the roofs of Belgium or The Netherlands. The streets of this town on a conical hilltop are circular (hence its name, which means “round place”), and the views of the Valle d’Itria were terrific—trulli everywhere!

Walking—and getting lost—in these whitewashed villages is such a treat. But photos speak better than words, so I’ll let them do the talking.

Here’s my advice for the Valle d’Itria. You will go to see the trulli, so pick one or two (or more) nearby hill towns and while away a few hours. The towns are not far apart, so seeing a few is easy. I especially enjoyed Martina Franca and Locorotondo, but all of the hill towns are pleasant and restful.

Ciao!

Other posts in this series: Matera and Basilicata, Trullo Country, Trani and Castel del Monte, Easternmost Spot in Italy, Lecce, Simple and Delicious Food

Martina Franca - one of the gates leading into the old town (photo by K. McKenna)

Martina Franca – one of the gates leading into the old town (photo by K. McKenna)

Martina Franca - Ducal Palace (now the city hall) with 18th-century frescoes by Domenico Carella

Martina Franca – Ducal Palace (now the city hall) with 18th-century frescoes by Domenico Carella

Martina Franca - Ducal Palace frescoes - one of my favorite frescoes EVER (on the ceiling)!

Martina Franca – Ducal Palace frescoes – one of my favorite frescoes EVER (on the ceiling)!

Martina Franca - we saw lots of these unusual, bell-shaped windows in this town.

Martina Franca – we saw lots of these unusual, bell-shaped windows in this town.

Martina Franca - the glorious Baroque Basilica di San Martino

Martina Franca – the glorious Baroque Basilica di San Martino

Martina Franca - a mal occhio is mounted over this beautiful door

Martina Franca – a mal occhio mask is mounted over this beautiful door

Martina Franca - this is the mal occhio mask above the door in the previous photo

Martina Franca – this is the mal occhio mask above the door in the previous photo

Martina Franca - mal occhio decoration

Martina Franca – mal occhio decoration

Martina Franca - madonnella

Martina Franca – madonnella

Martina Franca - church

Martina Franca – church

Locorotondo - I took this shot from a traffic circle below the town.

Locorotondo – I took this shot while we were driving around a traffic circle below the town.

Locorotondo - cummerse house

Locorotondo – cummerse house

Locorotondo

Locorotondo

Locorotondo - closeup of the cummerse construction

Locorotondo – closeup of the cummerse construction

Locorotondo (photo by K. McKenna)

Locorotondo (photo by K. McKenna)

Locorotondo - mal occhio decoration

Locorotondo – mal occhio decoration

Locorotondo - church

Locorotondo – church

Conversano - castle (photo by K. McKenna)

Conversano – castle (photo by K. McKenna)

Conversano - such a graceful castle tower

Conversano – such a graceful castle tower

Conversano - beautiful majolica dome of the monastery of San Benedetto

Conversano – beautiful majolica dome of the church or the monastery of Santa Benedetto

Conversano - dome of the monastery of San Benedetto

Conversano – dome of the church or the monastery of Santa Benedetto

Conversano - cat fight at the Monastery of San Benedetto (so ferocious!)

Conversano – cat fight at the church or the monastery of Santa Benedetto (so ferocious!)

Conversano - Cattedrale di  Santa Maria Assunta

Conversano – Cattedrale di
Santa Maria Assunta

Conversano - icon in the basilica

Conversano – icon of the Virgin of the Source in the cathedral

Conversano - alterino (s small altar honoring someone, usually a real person—not the same as a madonnella.

Conversano – altarino (a small altar honoring a person—not the same as a madonnella)

Ostuni house

Ostuni house

Ostuni church

Ostuni church

Ostuni street

Ostuni street

Ostuni - view of the sea and the olive orchards

Ostuni – view of the sea and the olive orchards

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Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: Trani and Castel del Monte

DSC00466Although some tour books claim that the best sights in Puglia (Apulia) lie between Lecce in the south and Bari in the northern middle, Kate and I enjoyed two beautiful spots northwest of Bari: Trani and Castel del Monte. Angelo drove us there Thursday—Trani in the morning; a long, leisurely lunch in the middle of the day (as is the custom in Puglia); and amazing Castel del Monte in the afternoon. I almost told you that this was my favorite day, but that’s simply not true—all of the days in Puglia and Basilicata were my favorites, rain or shine.

DSC00481Trani lies on the coast of the Adriatic Sea just 25 miles northwest of Bari and is primarily known for its spectacular cathedral, Cattedrale di San Nicola Pellegrino. The Romanesque-style cathedral sits majestically on a spit of land that juts into the blue, blue sea—exquisite! The cathedral honors St. Nicholas the Pilgrim, who drowned in Bari in 1094 and was canonized five years later. It was constructed on top of two seventh-century churches, which can still be seen, between 1099 and 1143, and the 194-foot bell tower was added from 1230 to 1239. Next to the cathedral sits a lovely castle (at least from the outside), one of many in Puglia. It was built by Frederick II, who also built Castel del Monte.

While I found the cathedral breathtaking, the real draw of Trani for me was, of course, the sea. I love the sea, and this port with its blue-painted fishing boats and many pleasure boats, was beautiful, especially with the cathedral rising high above the north end. I also enjoyed wandering through the tiny medieval streets between the basilica and the port.

Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte

After a spectacular lunch Angelo drove us to the marvelous, unusual, and mysterious Castel del Monte, Puglia’s second most visited attraction (after the trulli). UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, calling it “a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture.” The castle sits seemingly in the middle of nowhere on a 1,770-foot-high hill in a region known as Le Murge, and we could see it from miles away. Built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (who was from Swabia—now part of southern Germany) from 1229 to 1240, Castel del Monte is featured on the back of the Italian version of the one-cent euro coin.

DSC00513No other castle in the world looks like this one, and Frederick II, who loved mathematics, seems to have been obsessed here with the number eight. The castle has eight octagonal towers supporting the eight outer walls, an octagonal inner courtyard, and two stories consisting of eight trapezoidal rooms. The emperor built 200 castles after his return from the Crusades but only one octagonal castle. Castel del Monte has no kitchen, chapel, stable, storerooms, moat, or drawbridge, so while some scholars believe that the castle was used as a fortress, others doubt that, despite its location. Some speculate that it may have been used as a school, others think it was a hunting lodge, and still others believe that it was an astronomical observatory. Angelo also told us that the mottled red marble (a kind of coralline breccia) used on the exterior door is unusual, and no one has ever discovered its source.

View from the castle

View from the castle

I found the inside of Castel del Monte less interesting than the exterior, except that seven of the eight rooms on each floor have two doors so that people can pass easily from room to room, but the eighth room has only one door. Furthermore, the upstairs room with only one door does not sit atop the downstairs room with one door, so the purpose of these rooms is unknown.

Here’s my advice for Trani and Castel del Monte. GO! You can see them both in a single day. If I had to choose just one, I’d choose Castel del Monte, but I would have hated to miss Trani and that beautiful cathedral. Puglia offers so many mysteries—and such a wealth of riches.

Ciao!

Other posts in this series: Matera and Basilicata, Trullo Country, Hill
Towns of the Valle d’Itria
, Easternmost Spot in Italy, Lecce, Simple and Delicious Food

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Cathedral bell tower

Cathedral bell tower

Side of the cathedral (photo by K. McKenna)

Side of the cathedral (photo by K. McKenna)

The sea at Trani - the spur of the Italian boot, the Gargano Peninsula, is in the distance.

The sea at Trani – the spur of the Italian boot, the Gargano Peninsula, is in the distance.

Frederick II's castle in Trani

Frederick II’s castle in Trani

Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte

Marble surrounding the main door

Marble surrounding the main door

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View from the castle

View from the castle

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Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: Puglia’s Trullo Country

Trulli everywhere!

Trulli in the countryside in the Valle d’Itria

On Tuesday evening, Kate and I left Matera (see yesterday’s post) and settled into the beautiful new B&B Cavour in Gioia del Colle, our tour guide’s hometown in central Puglia, for  four nights. For two of the next three days, we wandered the narrow roads in the Valle d’Itria in the center of Puglia. Both Kate and I couldn’t wait to see the main attraction of the valley (and of Puglia, for that matter)—the fascinating, magical huts called trulli (trullo means dome). Although the town of Alberobello is the trullo capitol and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, trulli dot the countryside throughout the Valle d’Itria.

DSC00435The conical, dry-stone, single-story trulli of Puglia are unique in the world. Made from local limestone without mortar or cement, they have been described as beehives, Hobbit houses, igloos, and fairytale houses. Mysteries surround the trulli, including when people began constructing them (some sources say the 13th century; others say later), and why trulli are constructed the way they are (some sources postulate that trulli could be taken apart quickly to avoid taxation; others say that trulli could be moved quickly to places where workers were most needed).

Each conical roof covers one trullo, although some trulli are combined to make a multiroom structure (with a conical roof over each individual room). A trullo or a group of connected trulli is typically occupied by only one family. In Alberobello the tip of many of the cones sport sandstone finials—a disk, a ball, a cone, a bowl or some other design that may be the signature of the stonemason who built the trullo. Some trulli have primitive symbols painted on their roofs—crosses or hearts pierced by an arrow, for example—probably for decorative purposes.

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Photo by K. McKenna

The walls of the trulli are quite thick—about 3.5 feet—making the inside much smaller than the exterior suggests. Frommer’s Italy 2013 says, “Those thick walls become a nuisance, too, when it comes to buying a trullo: All that extra square footage is counted in the price.” Many trulli have no windows, and those that do generally have only small windows. Trulli stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Some have chimneys; in others the tip of the roof allows smoke to escape.

Chiesa San Antonio, built in 1926-27, and Kate

Chiesa San Antonio, built in 1926-27, and Kate

As I mentioned, the trulli area in Alberobello is the most visited place in Puglia, but late on a cool, sunny winter afternoon, we had the place to ourselves. We dawdled a little too long over a delicious lunch in Conversano and arrived in Alberobello about an hour and a half before the sun went down, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. The trullo that is open for visitors was closed, although I could see what the inside of a trullo looked like when we visited a trullo church at the top of the hill. Some trulli have been converted into hotels and B&Bs; others are souvenir or snack shops.

Here’s my advice for Alberobello. GO! Do not miss it! When you walk through Alberobello, you will feel as if you are wandering through a storybook. A half-day visit in the town will be perfect. Drive through the Valle d’Itria and discover hundreds of trulli dotting the countryside—spotting one is such a thrill! You do not need to stay in Alberobello overnight, but you can if you like, and you can stay in a trullo.

Ciao!

Other posts in this series – Matera and Basilicata, Trani and Castel del Monte, Hill Towns of the Valle d’Itria, Easternmost Spot in Italy, Lecce, Simple and Delicious Food

Trulli in the countryside near Locorotondo

Trulli in the countryside near Locorotondo

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Photo by K. McKenna

Photo by K. McKenna

Typical street in Alberobello - I like the streetlights.

Typical street in Alberobello – I like the streetlights.

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The door, which is typical in Alberobello, is intended to keep bugs out. (photo by K McKenna)

The door, which is typical in Alberobello, is intended to keep bugs out. (Photo by K. McKenna)

Photo by K. McKenna

Photo by K. McKenna

An example of an old trullo - this one in Alberobello is uninhabited. This construction is more common in the countryside that in Alberobello.

An example of an old trullo – this one in Alberobello is uninhabited. We saw this kind of construction more often in the countryside than in Alberobello. (Photo by K. McKenna)

Chiesa di Sant'Antonio

Chiesa di Sant’Antonio

Ceiling of the trullo church

Ceiling of the trullo church

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Exploring the Heel of Italy’s Boot: Matera and Basilicata

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Matera

My friend Kate McKenna and I traveled to Puglia (Apulia) and Basilicata for eight days the first week of February. Although Matera is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and Puglia has so much to recommend it, including delicious and interesting food, tour books generally ignore the area (one of my tour books covers Matera in only one short paragraph and another with the title Italy ignores everything south of Naples except the Amalfi Coast!). How sad, because we had a wonderful trip to the heel of the boot, and we went in winter!

The oldest section of Matera (in Sasso Caveoso) - mostly uninhabited now

The oldest section of Matera (in Sasso Caveoso) – mostly uninhabited now

We were lucky to find Experience Puglia and owner Angelo Collucia, because he arranged two fascinating days for us in Matera and Basilicata and showed us his home region for the following four days. He’s a popular and passionate guide and is already booked for the high season in 2014. If you want a great travel experience, choose Angelo. You will have a wonderful time and eat extremely well.

Kate and I took the train to Bari (in Puglia) on Sunday and were driven to Matera (in Basilicata), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inhabitants began digging cave dwellings in the calcareous soil in Matera and throughout Basilicata about 10,000 (!) years ago. The ancient area of Matera consists of two sections, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, jointly called the Sassi (stones). The ancient cave dwellings are used today as houses, hotels, restaurants, businesses, churches, and anything else you can think of.

DSC00297Some cave houses are built on the roofs of others, and streets and stairways are built atop cave dwellings as well. Some cave houses have freestanding rooms built in front of the cave, so some parts of the Sassi look almost like a normal town. On the top of the hill above the Sassi is the main square, and the buildings that line the nearby street—including museums, several churches, and stores selling anything you want, for example—are freestanding. Matera sits above a ravine (the Gravina), which was dug by a river. In the steep slopes across the Gravina from Matera, we could see many rudimentary caves. I don’t know whether they were manmade or natural. You may have seen Matera, because Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ there.

Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo - the animals were housed downstairs through the door behind the bed (photo by K McKenna)

Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo – the animals were housed downstairs through the door behind the bed (photo by K McKenna)

In early times, people built rooms in their caves for their animals, and in the early 19th century because of overcrowding, people began to occupy these rooms, which lacked natural light, ventilation, and running water. Not surprisingly, that created a terrible health hazard. Because of these conditions and because of the extreme poverty of the inhabitants of Matera, the Italian government finally stepped in and evicted most of the Sassi inhabitants in the 1950s, moving them into modern housing surrounding the Sassi. Slowly people have been allowed to return to the Sassi, but residents and tenants must abide by strict rules if they wish to improve the caves. I asked Giovanni, our guide who lives in Matera, if the people who lived in the Sassi before 1950 wanted to move back into the caves, and he said that most of them didn’t, so the new residents are mainly young people and businesspeople.

Il Palombaro Lungo waterworks

Il Palombaro Lungo waterworks

We ate in caves, we slept in a cave, and we visited sights in caves, and for the record, cave life, albeit fascinating, is not for me. Our cave B&B was very nice, with modern furniture and fixtures, a thermostat in each room, and a delicious breakfast each morning, and we enjoyed delicious meals in two cave restaurants, but I need to live in a dwelling with windows and natural light.

Some tour companies suggest that visitors spend two hours in Matera. We were there for two days, and I still didn’t have my fill of that amazing place. We visited two cave churches (rupesti) and one “new” church (not in a cave) from the 13th century. We climbed down, down, down into a the five-story-high ancient waterworks (Il Palombaro Lungo—one of my favorite places) that was dug out of the rock by hand beginning about 3,000 years ago. We visited the fascinating archeological museum (Museo Nazionale Ridola) and an art museum. We explored a typical cave dwelling (Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo) with furnishings from a century or so ago. We saw an ancient wine press, where barefoot wine treaders—usually women and children—pressed the grapes while holding onto a dangling rope to avoid sliding into the juice. We wandered through the twisting rocky streets, peeking into people’s patios, doors, and windows. We peered into the Gravina from both sides. I took a wrong turn going home Monday evening, but I never felt lost, and a van driver even stopped to ask me for directions.

Crucifix in Miglionico (photo by K. McKenna)

Crucifix in Miglionico (photo by K. McKenna)

Late Tuesday morning, we left Matera and drove into the brilliant green countryside of Basilicata. We visited an 11th-century Norman castle in Miglionico. The mist was so thick there that we could barely see the outer castle walls. In the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Miglionico, Giovanni showed us a beautiful wooden crucifix carved by Padre Umile da Petralia in 1529. The crucifix was taken to the Duomo in Matera for a visit by Pope John Paul II, and on a wall near the crucifix is a photo of the pope gazing at the crucifix with a huge smile of reverence and utter joy on his face. I almost took a photo of the photo because it was so touching!

One of my favorite things of the whole trip happened in Miglionico. I was taking a photo of one of the several groups of men dressed in black and hanging around the main square (we saw that a lot in Puglia, too). Two older men came up to me and asked if I wanted them to take a picture of me in front of the town hall. I declined, and they said, “Are you Chinese?” I got a big kick out of that, but I tried not to laugh, saying, “Sono americana.” Then they launched into a series of questions, speaking at a rapid clip and sometimes yelling over the top of each other. I was saved only by the return of Kate and Giovanni!

Here’s my advice for Matera. GO! Do not miss it! Do not go for two hours—stay two nights or three, and soak up the atmosphere. Eat wonderful food (we ate at Ristorante Francesca near our B&B and at Ristorante San Biagio just off of the main square—both in caves). What a wondrous, unique place!

Ciao!

P.S., If you’re claustrophobic and the thought of staying in a cave overnight makes your skin crawl, Matera does have hotels that are not in caves.

Other posts in this series: Trullo Country, Trani and Castel del Monte, Hill
Towns of the Valle d’Itria
, Easternmost Spot in Italy, Lecce, Simple and Delicious Food

From across the Gravina

From across the Gravina

From across the Gravina - the oldest section of Matera

From across the Gravina – looking at the oldest section of Matera

Caves in the hill across the Gravina from Matera

Caves in the hill across the Gravina from Matera

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Caveoso

Sasso Barisano (photo by K. McKenna)

Sasso Barisano (photo by K. McKenna)

Sasso Barisano from the main square

Sasso Barisano from the main square

Basilica from the main square

Duomo from the main square

Cave house - animals were housed at the bottom of the stairs

Cave house – animals were housed at the bottom of the stairs

Most patios are shared by four or five cave dwellings

Most patios are shared by four or five cave dwellings

Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo - view from the entrance

Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo – view from the entrance

Ha ha!

Ha ha!

Chiesa Santa Barbara - cave church from the 11th century; frescoes are more recent

Chiesa Santa Barbara – cave church from the 11th century; frescoes are more recent

Chiesa Santa Barbara altar (photo by K. McKenna)

Chiesa Santa Barbara altar (photo by K. McKenna)

Chiesa Santa Barbara entrance

Chiesa Santa Barbara entrance

13th-century cave church - Madonna delle Virtù

12th-century cave church – Madonna delle Virtù

The boulder in the center of the photo - with the door on the right - is a church, Madonna de Idris

The boulder in the center of the photo – with the door on the right – is a church, Madonna de Idris

Chiesa San Pietro Caveoso, which stands on a piazza just below our B&B

Chiesa San Pietro Caveoso, which stands on a piazza just below our B&B

Our rooms - Kate's room has the window on the top floor; my room has the blue door on the bottom floor

Our rooms – Kate’s room has the window on the top floor; my room has the blue door on the bottom floor

My cave room in our B&B - the bedroom is behind the wall (photo by K. McKenna)

My cave room in our B&B – the bedroom is behind the wall (photo by K. McKenna)

My frescoed shower!

My frescoed shower!

Most caves had small "windows" to let in air and light - this one at our B&B is especially fancy

Most caves have small “windows” to let in air and light – this one at our B&B is especially fancy

Steam venting from the kitchen at our B&B

Steam venting from the kitchen at our B&B

Ristorante Francesca - everything was white except for the fabulous purple chairs! Loved them!

Ristorante Francesca – everything was white except for the fabulous purple chairs! Loved them! The food was great, too.

Looking down into Il Palombaro Lungo waterworks - the black line shows the highest mark that the water reached in the winter

Looking down into Il Palombaro Lungo waterworks – the black line shows the highest mark that the water reached in the winter (photo by K. McKenna)

Wine vat - the inside is separated into two tanks, one for red and one for white; the top of the vat is about six feet off the floor, so they must have climbed a ladder to get inside

Wine vat – the inside is separated into two tanks, one for red and one for white; the top of the vat is about six feet off the floor, so the treaders must have climbed a ladder to get inside

Mater Domini church on the main square in Matera

Mater Domini church on the main square in Matera

Cave presepio in Chiesa San Francesco da Paolo

Cave presepio in Chiesa San Francesco da Paolo

I found a madonnella in Matera, although they are called something else in Basilicata and Puglia

I found a madonnella in Matera, although they are called something else in Basilicata and Puglia

Main square in Montescaglioso in Basilicata - doesn't it look like a movie set?

Main square in Montescaglioso in Basilicata – doesn’t it look like a movie set?

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