The land and the life can be hard in Puglia but it gets under your skin, writes Annabel Langbein.
I had booked us a family cabin on the overnight ferry from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Bari, Italy, recalling with nostalgia the family Interislander trips of my youth. As we looked into our cabin — four tiny bunks in a 2m x 3m space, including an en suite so small you could hardly lift your arms to brush your teeth — I wondered if I might have made a very bad decision.
The thing is, once you get off the main routes or anywhere that Easyjet and the other package companies fly, air travel in Europe can get really expensive. The ferry, at around £400 ($760) for all four of us, had seemed like a really good option to get our family to Puglia.
In the lounge, a rough red wine was on offer along with powdered coffee, sad saggy pastries and packets of chips. We settled for a glass of wine each and sat under the bright fluorescent lights playing card games, until the wine tasted so bad there was no other option but to retire to our sardine-tin bunk room. Luckily the crossing was calm and uneventful and we arrived in Bari, feeling only a little worse for wear.
As one of the main gateways to the region of Puglia (known locally as Apulia), Bari sits about halfway down the heel of southern Italy's boot. Its primary claim to fame is having the highest number of car thefts in Italy (more than 8000 a year), a fact the car rental company was at great lengths to make sure we understood ("if you leave anything in the car, it will be stolen").
We didn't stick around to explore, instead making a beeline for our digs near the hill town of Martina Franca about an hour's drive to the south and slightly west. This is the capital of the Valle d'Itria, and it has a splendid medieval old town yet to be discovered by the tourist hordes. Each night between about 5pm and 8pm the locals come out to take the evening passeggiata — a nightly stroll through the wide, worn streets. Most evenings we would head into town to join the promenade, take in a couple of Aperol spritzes at a local bar and watch the world go by before heading out for dinner.
But for an area renowned for its glorious architecture and art, there is an awful lot of ugliness in this part of Italy. The outskirts of every town are hard edged and raw, a spaghetti of motorways and industry. But once you escape from the cities there is an astonishing beauty of light and landscape. Medieval hilltop towns, olive groves, vineyards, forests and grazing lands string out like a fairytale. It's easy to see why this once-little-visited, and off-the-beaten-track region of Italy, has become one of its hottest destinations.
Having emptied our car of all its contents at our Airbnb — a traditional stone hut "trullo" with a conical roof — we were now ready to eat. Perusing the list of restaurants recommended by our hosts, we opted for Villa Bacco, the trattoria on the outskirts of Martina Franca (Quarta Strada Madonna del Pozzo, 46-48, villabacco.it).
It's fair to say we weren't expecting much, but our spirits lifted at the sight of a huge bowl of fresh porcini at the restaurant entrance. Our fixed-price lunch started with a choice of around eight magnificent antipasti (lunch in itself), followed by a lip smacking soupy fresh porcini risotto, and another sensational stuffed bon bon-shaped pasta called caramelle. A main meat course of tender pork shoulder followed, and at our waiter's insistence, the house baked ricotta and berry cheesecake. All served up with charm and grace for €28 ($47) a head.
During our meal, a heavily gold chained and Rolexed man arrived, with slicked-back, dyed black hair, a high-heeled, tightly-topped, and heavily made up young woman firmly attached to his arm. They sat at the table next to us out on the terrace and the man tried to engage us in conversation — in Italian of course. It was the four cell phones on the table and the exceptionally deferential treatment of the waiter, that gave him away. Ahh yes, that's right, this is the home of the Basilicatan mafia. Our new friend insisted we sample the extravagant dishes he had requested be prepared and we really couldn't refuse.
It was one of those strangely compelling moments — you knew you were damned if you did and maybe dead if you didn't. However, just like the table of old ladies who were the only other people dining at this establishment on this particular Sunday, he was here purely and simply to enjoy the astonishingly good food.
To say the trullo I had rented was a disaster would be an understatement, but the thing about staying somewhere small, uncomfortable and damp with dodgy plumbing, is you don't hang about. Every day we would take a new direction, our first trip down to the sea and the spectacular Polignano a Mare.
This tiny seaside town is perched on a limestone cliff about 200m above the Adriatic Sea.
Walking its white-washed streets with their stunning buildings and beautiful old churches, you pass three panoramic terraces which look down into the tiny Blue Flag-awarded beach. The people swimming below bob about like flotsam and jetsam as the sea surges between the cliffs. We didn't see any cliff divers but this is what the town is most famous for. Each year the Red Bull diving competition attracts crowds of more than 45,000.
It's easy to get lost in the winding streets, but keep going and you will find Primi and Vini (Piazza caduti di via fani 7), a great place for lunch offering the freshest seafood and pasta — not overpriced or touristy. The town is also famous for its icecream.
The cooking of southern Italy draws heavily on pulses — ceci (chickpeas), fava (broad beans), and all manner of other legumes. Combined with fresh seasonal vegetables, these pulses form the basis of traditional peasant cooking. It's cheap, filling, nutritious and satisfying fare, and in the hands of some of the brilliant chefs who cook in this landscape, it's more often than not very cleverly executed. My favourite combination in this scenario is a fava puree served with boiled chicory, dressed with sweet peppery local olive oil.
We enjoyed a delicious rendition of this dish as part of the antipasti course at the family run restaurant Bell'Italia (Via Duca D'Aosta, 29, 72014 Cisternino, osteriabellitalia.it), after visiting the bustling and un-touristy market in the pretty hillside town of Cisternino. The contrast of the bitter greens against the smooth buttery puree and the lush oil is the ultimate in "silk purses out of sows ears" cooking.
At the suggestion of a friend, we made the trip over to the Ionian side on our last day, visiting the glorious boutique hotel Masseria Potenti, near Mandurai in the Province of Taranto. (masseriapotenti.it/masseria). We enjoyed a long lazy lunch and made friends with the wonderful Maria Grazie and daughter Chiara and left wishing we actually had the time to stay.
It's in places like this that you start to understand the south. The landscape is brutal — dry hot and hard. The marks of poverty stand out everywhere, in broken windows, faded curtains, hunched backs and windswept rubbish. (Unemployment in this region is a staggering 70 per cent). Then out of nowhere, you come across this extraordinary 16th-century fortified farmhouse. It's hard to describe the enchantment and grandeur of the property, which sprawls across 130ha with a pool, restaurant, huge pockets of spaces, hidden gardens, whitewashed walls, cactus lined corners, palms which juxtapose with the bluest of skies. People come here from all around the globe to get married and it's easy to see why. It's truly glorious, a gem hidden inside a tight, hard fist of the land. These masseria exist all over southern Italy and for my next adventure I think these old rustic farmhouses are the way to stay.
Another highlight was meeting the charming, effervescent Paolo Belloni and visiting his incredible fig orchard. I Giardini Di Pomona (contrada Figazzano 114, 72014 Cisternino, igiardinidipomona.it) is a botanical conservatory with 1000 different ancient fruit varieties from all over the world, including 500 varieties of figs. Paolo's fig collection is one of the most important in the world, with some varieties the only ones of their type remaining.
I have never tasted so many different figs — some had floral flavours, others were honey-like, musky or with notes of pear, agave and berry. Some were white and creamy inside, others a deep rich red. It was a surprise to find figs with a savoury flavour and an almost tannic finish. This is fig heaven. Paolo and his wife offer three apartments to rent here, which I wish I had known about; they are charming and close to the pretty town of Cisternino.
A magical surprise near the end of our garden tour was a lavender labyrinth with a Nagasaki persimmon planted in the middle. Paolo was given this tree, which was found in the rubble of the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, and decided to create this beautiful labyrinth to symbolise the winding journey you need to make towards peace in the world.
As we walked silently through this winding sea of blue, our hands drifting across the massed heads of fragrant flowers, I contemplated the remarkable vision of this wonderful man. People like Paolo make the world a better place. The rich embrace from this experience drifted on my skin for days in the fragrance of lavender, figs, mulberries and wild herbs.
The south has a way of getting under your skin. Avoid the tourist traps like the tiny trulli town Alberobello (swamped by 10,000 tourists a day) and immerse yourself in a journey of this incredible landscape. The food everywhere is excellent, the people are friendly, the markets still run to the rhythm of yesteryear and the wines are stunning. It's a place that seems to hold time apart.
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