“In order to have an authentic experience of Italy you should go south,” said a friend of mine. I went south and found myself at the heel of the boot; going from Bari to Otranto, I was on the Apulian route. On this journey, I got to know southern Italians, and learned about their traditions and the epic land they live on.
Is the good life a plum job, a fabulous house, and the latest model automobile? The criteria for happiness and success in the region we live may be related to these; however, this is not the case everywhere. The residents of Apulia use recipes for life that are as old as the olive trees that stand witness to the passing centuries on their lands. I always want to learn about those things I am curious about as quickly as possible, but this time speed is of no use. These lands call out to me: “Slow down!” To understand the secret of happiness, it is better to take it slow.
However, right now is the best time for “speed” -I am on my way to Bari in a 1975 black Alfa Romeo!
The windows of the car are open halfway; the smell of the earth fills the car as I drive through verdant vegetable fields.
Neither the English of our driver Francesco nor my Italian is sufficient to tell stories to one another; however, we are both from the Mediterranean, so we find a way to communicate. The sun is shining and Francesco is in good spirits! Removing his glasses, he says, “This car was so fast that in the ´70s police officers used it; and the bad guys also used it to flee the police,” and he bursts into laughter. I remember this exact model, which is familiar to me from somewhere; it is from the chase scene in the 1969 The Italian Job, which starred Michael Caine. At that time, this car raised adrenalin levels -now it is nostalgic.
Arriving at the Bari coast, I can feel the salty Adriatic breeze blowing from the sea. This is the second largest city in southern Italy, after Naples, and is also a busy port city with links to Albania, Croatia, and Greece. Like many European cities, Bari is also separated into two: the “old” and the “new” city. I begin my trip walking around the new city, a place with a fast pace. Although I call it “new,” this part of Bari is full of 19th-century buildings and wide boulevards. Via Sparano is the favorite boulevard for those who want to add an Italian touch to their wardrobes. This street, where designer shops are located, is crowded at all hours of the day and night.
After walking around a while, I visit the Pinacoteca metropolitana di Bari “Corrado Giaquinto,” the painting gallery of Bari. There are collections of works by southern Italian artists here. The outstanding works of this museum, in which paintings and statues dating from between the 11th and 19th centuries are on display, are by Luca Giordano and Giovanni Bellini. However, I prefer to spend more time with the impressionist paintings of my favorite artist, Francesco Netti of Apulia.
Now, it is time to visit the 12th-century castle Castello Normanno-Svevo in Barivecchia -the old town of Bari… It is easy to lose one’s sense of direction in this area which is quite confusing.
The bubbling sound of pasta sauces on the stove top and the smell of polenta being fried in the kitchens accompany me.
Some streets are so narrow that women can chat while hanging out the laundry on the balconies; they take their time and do not have to speak loudly to hear one another.
The smell of soap wafting from the clothes takes me on a trip down memory lane, back to my childhood. Suddenly, I see women skillfully making orecchiette, a famous type of pasta in this area, on their tiny counters. These women work in front of their shops or houses and on the streets, just like their mothers and grandmothers. Probably their daughters and granddaughters will carry on the same business.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Bari is that you feel as if you are a living part of history. I am not the only one who is creating memories in the area. For example, visitors from all around the world come here to visit Basilica di San Nicola (Basilica of Saint Nicholas). What makes this Romanesque edifice popular is its story: Saint Nicholas, born in the ancient city of Patara in Turkey and known as Santa Claus, was orphaned at a young age. He used his inheritance to help people in need. Inside the basilica that was constructed in the honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, the remains of the saint are preserved. Rumor has it that Italian pirates stole these remains from Patara.
My first destination after Bari is Polignano a Mare. Almost all of the side streets in this coastal town, built on the cliffs, have a wonderful view over the cliff edge. The wind blows and dries the clothes hanging in the streets, just like in Bari. On the corners of the balconies, colorful ceramic ornaments in the shape of pine cones catch my eye. According to the locals, these ornaments, called pumi di grottaglie, bring luck and abundance when they fall down and are broken by the wind!
The people here are attached to their cuisine traditions. Southern Italians suffered from poverty for centuries and as a result, they have created a cuisine that uses inexpensive ingredients. The philosophy of cucina povera, which means “cuisine of the poor,” summarizes the gastronomy of Apulia, turning humble ingredients into delicious meals.
Local people do not look for more than whatever the land and sea can offer them. Fresh vegetables, wheat, seafood, and olive oil become tasty and healthy meals in the hands of massaias, that is, Apulian housewives. It is also very important that ingredients are not wasted. The exquisite taste of orecchiette, made from the leaves of broccoli, which most people usually throw away, and burrata, produced using the leftovers of mozzarella, changes my point of view about consumption.
Also, there are “rebellious” chefs who have modernized those ancient tastes and revolutionized the Apulian cuisine. One of these chefs is Domingo Schingaro, the main chef of the innovative restaurant Due Camini, which earned a Michelin star in 2019. Apulia is Domingo’s motherland and the sea is his father. His kitchen is his own house, and here nothing goes to waste. The tasting menu from “-50 to +450” takes me on a memorable gastronomical trip from the depths of the Adriatic Sea to the mountain peaks of Apulia. Following this feast, I end the evening at Borgo Egnazia, the hotel where the restaurant is located. The complex architecture and simple decoration of the hotel resemble a typical Apulian house. I think the hotel is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever seen. As I was later to learn, I am not the only one who thinks this: in 2012, Justin Timberlake married Jessica Biel in its fabulous atmosphere.
The next morning, I am on the road again… While driving from the seaside into the interior, heading towards Alberobello, I see the cabbage, broccoli, and dandelions in the fields, lined up and greeting the sun.
Masserias, farmhouses peculiar to this region, are making preparations to host their new guests. I stop by Masseria Salamina, which was once a 17th-century castle and was later transformed into a masseria.
Filippo, a passionate olive oil producer tells us how to distinguish pure extra virgin olive oil from other types of olive oil: extra virgin olive oil should be fruity, bitter, and pungent. Olive oil, considered to be “liquid gold,” is of great importance in Apulia. Most of the olive oil production throughout Italy is carried out in Apulia, where more than 60 million olive trees have grown for centuries.
Leaving this behind, I arrive in an epic town. Included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996, Alberobello is famous for its photogenic houses “with cones.” These houses are made of limestone and are called trulli. You can see them in many areas of the Itria Valley, but if you want to see a town that consists only of trulli, you should visit Alberobello. With their mysterious symbols on the cone-shaped roofs, trulli keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter thanks to their thick walls. You can spend a mystic night in the buildings that were constructed as houses in the 14th-century as most have been converted into hotels.
The people of Apulia consider Alberobello to be the heart of the Itria Valley, and Locorotondo its balcony. Locorotondo, which is a combination of the word “loco” meaning “place, spot” and “rotondo” meaning “round,” is located on a hill surrounded by vineyards. Limestone houses once again greet me. What makes this village special are the fine details: potted flowers are lined up on the window frames to welcome spring; little statues decorate the stone stairs that head up to the houses; there are narrow whitewashed passages and black-and-white photos hanging on the walls… This must be one of the cutest villages in Italy!
Even though the villages and towns in Apulia are close to one another geographically, each has a unique personality and attribute. Lecce could be described as Baroque, elegant, and energetic. The moment I step through Porta San Biagio (Gate of St. Blaise), I feel as if I was on stage. All of the magnificent edifices are the set, and the residents are actors and actresses in this play. Passing through Piazza del Duomo, I see the fabulous exterior of Basilica di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross) and Palazzo dei Celestini; the feeling of wonder reaches a peak. The sun reflects off of everything, bathing it all in different shades of white -it is like a master painter was trying to capture light with different techniques… It is clear that I am in a very special place.
Now, it is time to head to the southernmost point. I am in Otranto, my final destination in Apulia. There is no other place in Italy where I sense the Balkans more. I look at the Adriatic Sea from the shore. The weather is so bright that if I were to reach out, I could almost touch the Albanian mountains. Otranto is bursting at the seams during the summer months; people flood the white-sand beaches, enjoying the turquoise sea and shining sun. During the spring, the town is peaceful and restful. I allow myself to enjoy the slow pace of narrow streets of the old city.
I now better understand the Apulian saying “We do not live to work, but work to live.” My journey has taught me to live life like a Pugliese: gently and enjoying every moment…