Come To Italy With Me: Part Four, My Puglia

I’ve been coming to Italy since I was 17 thanks to a vow my parents made to expose this American child of theirs to her heritage. Next to their happiness as a couple, I consider it the most important gift they gave me. On my first trip to Italy, we stayed in Molfetta with my grandmother, but Dad wanted me to see the sites so he booked a week-long bus trip for me and a girlfriend to Tuscany and Umbria. My second trip was memorable because cousin Lela, a nun stationed in Rome at that time, showed me that glorious city the best way one can see it – on foot. I still remember walking from the Vatican to the train station, passing the Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps along the way as she kept up the most interesting and comprehensive commentary only someone with her background in ancient history could provide. A few years later, I visited Turin and the wine country where I stayed with family friends. When Mom passed away and I came to Italy for her memorial, I flew through Milano and visited that great city and gorgeous Lake Como too. But ask me which area of Italy I like best and the answer comes quickly – Puglia!

As I planned our month-long trip to Italy, I wanted my husband and daughters to see as much of this region as time and resources would allow without running them ragged through tourist destinations. I thought a weekly trip to a nearby destination just a few hours from Molfetta would suffice. “Where do you want to go?” my cousins asked ready to make plans. Their enthusiasm and generosity always present, I was again reminded of how lucky I am to have such an armada of family members at my disposal.

Before I gave them an answer, I carefully studied what Puglia could offer to first-time visitors and took notes on sites I thought would be varied and interesting. The list I came up with included travel destinations that were both cultural and natural wonders. I especially wanted them to explore some of the world heritage sites recognized by UNESCO, a United Nations organization safeguarding outstanding vestiges of the world’s richest and oldest civilizations. I have to admit my choices were well-received.

Alberobello – There’s nothing in the world like this place! It looks like a fairyland due to its dwellings known as trulli. They were built with no mortar or any other adhesive material. The circular domed-shaped roofs consist of a series of concentric horizontal slabs of limestone artfully arranged. Originally these structures were designed to be quickly dismantled and moved to avoid the tax collector, but later generations found that the thickness of the walls kept the indoors cool in summer and warm in winter making these houses a perfect bio-environment. There are a thousand of them in the Monti neighborhood of this city and my family enjoyed exploring the narrow streets where trulli structures contain shops, restaurants and churches. The setting was further enhanced by courtyards dotted with riotous potted geraniums and roses climbing over the front doors and window tops of the residential trullis. We toured for three hours, ate lunch and then drove the short distance to Castellano where we explored caverns.

Grotte di Castellano – This is Italy’s biggest and most monumental underground development of corridors open to the general public which take visitors deep into the earth. The 90-minute guided walking tour passes enormous grottoes and marvelous stalagmites along the way. Warning: it was exhausting! The visitors’ center should probably recommend attending a gym on a regular basis before attempting this downward jaunt. I would suggest the shorter tour.

Lecce – Another day trip took us two hours away to one of the most elegant cities in Puglia, the beautiful Lecce known as the “Florence of the South.” Invaded by many due to its strategic location near the bottom of Italy’s heel, it owes its baroque architecture and rich cultural heritage to domination by the Spaniards between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The walled city contains many churches and civil buildings heavily carved of a golden limestone which is soft to work but hardens when exposed to the air, preserving its architectural beauty. We toured in the early morning and left by noon when the place began to close down for siesta time, greatly annoying the busloads of German tourists who were there that day.

Ostuni – On our way back to Molfetta from Lecce we stopped to see some of the great sand beaches on what’s called the “lace coast” because of its undulating landscape. We loved the white sand, emerald water and lack of crowds. We also stopped in Ostuni, which turned out to be such a treat. We could easily see it from miles away as we drove through the moors because the whole town is painted white and swirls upwards from its base on three hills. We spent the afternoon climbing like mountain goats and loving every minute of it. After the richness of Lecce, the simplicity of this hilltown made for a striking and memorable contrast.

Castle del Monte – Honestly, no one should see Italy without visiting a castle and this one, another UNESCO site in Puglia, is worth the trip. Built as a hunting lodge for Frederick II in 1240, it’s located on one of the region’s most spectacular sites and just an hour from Molfetta. This castle is mystical. Known for its use of the number eight in construction – eight sides and eight octagonal towers – it’s considered an architectural masterpiece of purity, line and harmony. OK, so that last line came from the guide book but if you want a personal take on the place then go see this at sunset when the beige stone assumes a rose glow and you witness the kind of beauty God and man can create together.

Matera – Just over the border from Puglia in a region known as Basilicata, this was probably my husband’s favorite day trip because of its stark beauty and uniqueness. Matera made UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites because it is an intact example of a rock-cut settlement in the Mediterranean. These caves have been inhabited since the Stone Age and people modernized them and continued to live there through 1950. At that time the Italian government closed the caves and began resettlement into public housing. Honestly, the caves were more charming! Again, go to the gym and get in the best shape of your life before attempting this one and wear rugged shoes. I couldn’t believe some American tourists were wearing flip-flops!

Bari – This city is the capital of Puglia and home to the University of Bari, largest in the region and school of choice for most college students from Molfetta. It was important to cousin Rino, who made his living in the maritime trade, that my husband Ron see this city with its important port on the Adriatic. We spent a wonderful Sunday there and I took note for future travel that this is a hub for passenger ships sailing the popular Bari-Venice-Croatia-Greece circuit. St. Nicholas’ Basilica is worth a visit as his remains, stolen from the Muslims in Mira in 1087, are in an impressive crypt below the church. This is a popular pilgrimage destination for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe. This is the “St. Nick” of Christmas legends.

Trani – Just two towns up the coast from Molfetta, this is a great place to visit for the night life. It has a spectacular walkway hugging the coast just made for slow evening walks known as “la passeggiata”. A beautiful jasmine scented park perched over stone cliffs overlooks the yacht-filled harbor with the towns 12th century cathedral in the distance. Lots of restaurants, bars and night clubs serve the crowds of Italians who dress up and enjoy themselves in grand style. Trani is an important wine producers known for Moscato, but I prefer to think of it as the kind of place tourists who get those expensive houses in the hills of Tuscany never get to enjoy. If you don’t experience Italy in a place were locals gather for fun by the sea on a summer’s night, you will really miss out on an important key to understanding these foreigners.

The Pulo – Thanks to cousin Liliana who took us here, we got to see an important site where archeology, history and ambiance come together in an exceptional setting. While digging out a 1700s nitrate center which made Molfetta important in the production of gun powder, archeologists found a Neolithic community of cave-dwellers who lived in this part of Puglia some 8,000 years ago. But these were no ordinary cavemen, since they made beautiful decorated ceramics in raw clay of such exceptional quality that their art is admired in museums throughout Italy.

These day trips were sufficient travel around the region for Ron and I. We were quite content to spend the rest of our Italian visit close to home. The house we rented had a lot to do with it. It was very comfortable and we were able to walk everywhere. We spent several afternoons touring museums right in our ancient neighborhood. These included:

• The Sala of the Templar Knights who had a hospital and place of shelter in Molfetta for pilgrims to the holy land. The order had a presence here for over 100 years till it was suppressed by the Catholic church in 1312. The knights were charging interest on money they were loaning the pilgrims and the church wasn’t getting its cut so it confiscated all of the Templar’s property, including this ancient reception hall, presently used as an art gallery.

• The Torrione Passari – one of several watchtowers on the coast where fires would be ignited to warn residents of invaders coming from the sea. This one is beautifully refurbished and worth a visit.

• The Church of the Dead – No burials on land in olden times, just the sea. But this church had an underground chamber where water came in and gently cleansed corpses till their bones could be gathered and moved to appropriate burial sites.

• The Diocesan Museum of Puglia – I spent part of an afternoon here reading books in the 1,600 volume Jesuit library. Of interest were histories of the noble families who built the houses in my neighborhood.

• The Museum of the Sea – When I attended a meeting of the local archeology club, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this well-displayed maritime museum they had recently established. Members gave me a personal tour which was informative and memorable due to their enthusiasm for the project. I learned about ship building, how ropes and nets were made, read diaries from ancient mariners and explored their maritime instruments.

Is it any wonder Puglia is my favorite part of Italy? And to think that this is where my whole family has always lived for as long as anyone can remember. On a visit to Taranto located in the arch of the Italian boot, cousin Angela who was hosting us, called to ask what we wanted to eat. “Something regional,” I told her. “Very well,” she said, “then I will make you ‘Cozze alla 600.” Cozze are mussels for which Taranto is noted. Her dish consisted of hand-made pasta shaped like little hats, mixed with chick peas cooked in olive oil, garlic and parsley, and topped with blue-black mussels harvested that day from the sea outside her house. As for the number, she was referring to 600 A.D. – now that’s the Italian version of an old family recipe.

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