Puglia: Beautiful Scenery & Amazing History

Otranto

I’m having trouble starting the blog about our past week in the Puglia region of SE Italy. We’ve experienced relaxing down time, great touring, interesting history and wonderful hospitality. Southern Italy seems more rural, agricultural and relaxed than Northern Italy. One of our tour guides described the culture of Puglia as closer to the Middle East than to northern Europe, but we doubt that’s true. Southern Italy, like northern Italy, has a strong Catholic influence, the people are friendly, many people dress stylishly and the food is predominantly pasta and pizza.

To get here we had a full day of travel from Tromso to Oslos to Zurich to Brindisi. All our flights were on time and our luggage made it safely. The sun shined brightly as we took off from Tromso in the Artic Circle but the clouds increased as we flew south and the rain poured as we loaded up our rental car to drive south to Otranto, about 90 minutes away. But working together, with our IPhone GPS and only a little glitch we made it safely to our beautiful stay at the Masseria Muzza, a 500 year old villa that has been converted to one of the small hotels that dot the agricultural lands a little north of the ancient harbor town of Otranto.

We were guided to our room by the friendly staff, and welcomed with a bottle of champagne and a large bowl of fresh fruit. You have to love Italy! Our week in Norway was spectacular, but there was definitely a shortage of fruit and fresh greens. Yum!

The staff here is more like family than a typical hotel. They couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating. The food was scrumptious and the surroundings peaceful. The entire area is former agriculture fields that now have a lot of small hotels on expansive acreage. At the cafe overlooking the fields we met several lovely travelers from America, England and Australia. Three had been to Seattle and all of them had eaten burgers at Dick’s Drive-Ins! Another “small world” experience.

After a restful first day, we toured the ancient port town of Otranto with our lovely guide Pamela. She grew up and lives in Otranto. Everyone knows everyone in this small area. Her husband serves in the Italian Navy as an intelligence officer, but is home most weekends. Otranto is small, very walkable and a great introduction to the area.

The main cathedral has a spectacular mosaic depicting the tree of life and a Dante-themed story. I thought it would be a great middle school or high school project for students to create there own story with more current characters. Amazingly, this church is in use and people just walk on the mosaic.

The ocean water is spectacularly clear near Otranto although the temperature was swimmable but a little colder than we expected. On the day we left Otranto to head further north, we went back into the old town to take a particular picture for our grandson Robert’s “Flat Stanley” project. After finding a magic parking space near our destination we got out of the car just in time to witness a wedding procession complete with live music!

After leaving Otranto we drove a couple of hours north to Torre Canne, also on Italy’s SE coast, but fairly close to several classic Italian “hill top” cities including the five we visited: Gravina, Matera, Ostuni, Locorotondo and Alberobello.

On the way we stopped and walked around Lecce. I was in search of a little artisan shop that sold amazing papier-mâché earrings. Pamela our guide was wearing some. She gave us the address. Amazingly, the GPS took us very close and we found a parking spot. We road the elevator up near the Cathedral to get an amazing view of the city.

Torre Canne is an oceanfront area popular with British tourists. It’s nice, with a narrow but long walkable beach, but it was much less intimate than Otranto and the beach was a bit muddy compared with the lovely white beaches at our condo on the west coast of Oahu in Wainaie. But the people at the “Canne Bianche” hotel where we stayed were very nice, the food was good, and it was a great base from which to explore the old hill towns.

On our first full day, we drove 90 minutes to the NE to visit the ancient towns of Gravina and Matera on our own. Both were featured in the recent James Bond Movie “No Time To Die.” In Gravina, just like locals — with the help of our GPS and dropped pin here — we navigated the city roads, found street parking and made it back to our car after a lovely exploration. Without the the dropped GPS pin we would still be walking around Gravina looking for our car!

The old Roman bridge in Gravina is remarkable and worth seeing. In the Bond movie they filmed the car chase scene combining this bridge with some of the very narrow stairways in Matera. Movie making is so fascinating!

From Gravina we drove SW about 30 minutes to Matera, which is the most amazing place we visited here in SE Italy. Matera is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because it has been continuously inhabited for 12,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in human history (along with places like Damascus, Jericho, Athens, & Luxor). Matera was an ideal location for ancient humans because it had water, large grazing areas for sheep and goats, and generally temperate weather. Unlike these other sites, however, Matera was never a great and powerful city-state. Instead, it was almost always a small backwater community.

Finally, in the 1950’s, the post-WW2 Italian government realized that thousands of poor people were still living there in cave dwellings that they shared with sheep, goats and pigs. Of course, they had no electricity or running water, but they did have an ingenious system of underground cisterns that collected the rainwater during the rainy season so that there was sufficient water during the dry summer months. While this was an advantage during ancient times, in modern times it was associated with extremely high infant and child mortality rates, with typhoid and other ancient diseases still running rampant there in the 1950’s.

To address the situation, the Italian government forced all of the cave dwellers to move to rent-free apartments about two miles away. Although many took some of their animals with them, over time they adjusted to their new housing situation and joined modernity.

We explored some of the old caves that are still in Matera and walked up the hill to the more developed part of the town, where “classic” Italian buildings were built over the original caves centuries ago. We scheduled a last minute group tour through the Trip Advisor app. Our guide loved Matera and even earned his college degree in ancient history at the local university. He gave us a marvelous 3 hour walking tour starting in the old caves and then walking up hill into the “classic” parts of the old city (which is now adjacent to a very modern Italian city).

Even though Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Matera didn’t really become popular with tourists until 2003 when Mel Gibson produced “The Passion of the Christ” and decided to film it in the ancient part of the Matera (because even in 2004 the ancient city was still so undisturbed by modern civilization that looked more like ancient Jerusalem than modern Jerusalem). After the film became popular the crowds started coming. The crowds only increased when the ancient part of Matera was also used to film first “Wonder Woman” movie as well as the most recent James Bond movie.

As the ancient part of Matera became more of a tourist destination the Italian government began encouraging entrepreneurs to rent the caves (for up to 99 years) and redevelop their interiors as small B & B’s, museums and restaurants. Although the rent is low, redeveloping the inside of the caves in accordance with strict building codes, and adding modern amenities like running water, sewer, heat and air conditioning is very expensive. But tourists seem to love the little B&B’s so there is a lot of construction going on “behind the cave doors.” It’s still not a place to stay for more than a few days, but it is a fascinating place to visit.

We drove home via the backroads instead of retracing the more traditional freeway route. Once again, we took the path less traveled, but as usual it was worth it. Thanks to the GPS and Jim’s fantastic driving, we made it back to our hotel a little after dark. The day was long, but so worth it and we had a bowl of soup and salad before going to sleep.

Life goes on back home and I was hoping to wake up in the early Saturday morning (late Friday night in Seattle) to see if the Mariner’s could beat Oakland and qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. I knew Saul, Jasmine, David, James, Robert and many of our friends were at the game. I woke up at 4:30 AM and listened with my headphones from the 4th inning game until they won in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the 9th inning. It was so exciting!

Ryan Davis from the Seattle Times described it well. “After flailing at a 3-1 slider and fouling off another slider from right-hander Domingo Acevedo, Cal Raleigh didn’t miss the third straight slider thrown to him. He launched a majestic fly ball deep into the night. As it climbed toward the right field stands, his teammates and 44,754 raised their hands in anticipation for jubilation. The ball smacked off the windows of the “Hit It Here” Cafe and turned T-Mobile Park into beautiful bedlam and joyous chaos with the Mariners 2-1 walkoff victory.”

Here’s my Happy Dance on the deck of our hotel room and a photo of the family in the ballpark. I rushed in and woke up Jim to share in the celebration.

Yesterday, we went with a tour guide and driver to explore the three hilltop cities of Ostuni, Locorotondo and Alberobello. We were glad to have our driver for these cities, which were much less drivable than either Gravina or Matera.

In Ostuni, we learned from our guide about how Napoleon’s system of transporting and using cannons put an end to the usefulness of giant stone walls in Italy’s hilltop cities. The good news is that meant that walls could now be tunneled into to create more apartments for the growing population. Now strolling around the outside of the walls of an ancient city less is one of the most pleasant parts of any visit.

Our tour guide’s favorite place in this area is Locorotondo because it is very clean and quiet with no cars allowed at all in the central city. It is populated mostly by locals, not B & B’s and tourists, and the locals take great pride in their balcony gardens. He calls Locorotondo the “garden city” of Italy.

From Locorotondo we drove on to the more well known Alberobello with it’s many “Trullo” homes, which looks like a blend of hobbit homes and stone igloos. First we enjoyed a lovely vegetarian lunch in a garden restaurant. The food we ate all came from a nearby farm and were scrumptious. The bottle of wine didn’t hurt either. It is rare for us to drink that much wine, but when in Italy . . .

After lunch (and a little tipsy) we toured the Trullos of Albeobello. Interestingly, these strange little homes became popular because as “primitive, temporary structures” they were exempt from the usual real estate taxes levied on brick homes. But 300 years later they are still here. I guess 300 years is “temporary” compared to other structures in this area. Our guide said many people believes Trullos have a mystical energy, and many of them have religious or mystical symbols painted on their stone roofs.

Fun fact of the “seven separations” category. We were talking with our driver, Santos, before lunch and telling him where we were from. He said he knew our area because he had visited Cle Elum. Cle Elum is just 30 minutes further east on I-90 from of our home at Snoqualmie Pass. We visit there quite often to play golf at Suncadia or have a meal at Mama Vallone’s Italian Restaurant. It turns out Santo’s cousin is the Priest at the the Catholic Church in Cle Elum and he has eaten at Mama Vallones! He even hopes to immigrate there one day and open his own restaurant there. We told him to let us know the next time he visits so that we could share a meal at Mama Vallone’s.

We got back around 5pm. Still feeling the effects of the wine and getting up early for the Mariner’s game we were exhausted and still full so we read our kindles, watched some news and went to sleep early.

Today (Sunday) is a restful transition day before we drive back to Brindisi tomorrow morning and catch our flight to Palermo (via Rome). In Palermo we’ll meet up with Greg and Carolyn Call for dinner, explore the city on Tuesday and then head off Wednesday morning for our 10-day walking tour of Sicily. Many people have said to us: “oh Sicily is wonderful!” And “A walking tour sounds amazing.” However, our guide and driver on Saturday laughed when we said we were surprised that the locals here in Puglia don’t believe in stop or yield signs. They said that Puglia drivers will seem like they are from Switzerland when compared to drivers in Sicily! We definitely appreciated the warning and are very glad that will not be doing any driving ourselves while in Sicily!

Another tidbit about this area is that they love Elephant Ear Catcus, and love to decorate private and public areas with and clippings from the cactus (which grow everywhere) as well as ceramic copies. Although these cactus are not native to Italy (they were imported from Mexico hundreds of years ago). But the cactus grows really well here and the locals love it. The other symbol of the Puglia is the flower bud, which is also found everywhere here and always beautiful addition to the scenery.

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