Puglia: The Heel of the Boot of Italy
by Lou Aledort M.D. and Ruth Aledort
Puglia, the heel of the boot of Italy, is a relatively unknown and unappreciated tourist destination. Not the easiest place to reach from the United States (you need to fly through either Rome or Milan to arrive in Bari), it is well worth the effort. Puglia offers a delightful assortment of interesting towns, splendid baroque architecture, Roman ruins, and a beautiful coastline. The Pulignese are warm and welcoming, the local white wines refreshing and inexpensive, the seafood (always the catch of the day) is well prepared and delicious. Doused in local olive oil (Puglia produces 10% of the world’s output), served by friendly wait-staff eager to practice their English, dining is very much a part of la dolce vita.
It is possible to choose a central point along the coast, which will enable you to take day trips no further than 90km. An excellent choice is the Relais & Chateau Il Melograno. This 400-year-old farmhouse has been charmingly converted to an intimate hotel of 37 rooms. Daily rates start at 300 Euros. The décor is Mediterranean, rooms are air-conditioned, bathrooms are spacious and modern, and 1000-year-old olive trees grace the gardens. The large swimming pool is flanked by a loggia where breakfast is served. There is a wonderful spa on the premises with an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center, and a large menu of beauty treatments and massages. The restaurant in the hotel is an elegant dining experience, the staff, under the watchful eye of the maitre d’ (Francesco) provides excellent service and wonderful fish from the Adriatic. Of all the places in which we dined, this was most memorable, both for the quality of the food and its presentation.
There are other good restaurants in the area, including Il Dragone in Vieste, situated in a cave below the medieval walls of the city, and Osteria Del Tempo Perso in Ostune, which provided wonderful antipasti and the ubiquitous “archiette con vongole and gamberetti”, a delicious mixture of pasta, clams, and shrimp. Near the sea in Monopoli is an excellent restaurant, Toretta del Pescatore. The young owner was eager to show off his chef’s skills – delicious stuffed artichokes, fritto misto, grilled octopus, and a surfeit of local crustacean at about 125 Euros for two. For a romantic setting, it is hard to surpass La Peschiera, the restaurant in the sister hotel to Il Melograno. Set directly on the Adriatic, the luxurious hotel offers a varied menu of local produce and fish well prepared and beautifully served.
It is possible to eat well and substantially at a plethora of cafes, pizzerias, and trattorias throughout the region. Americans are warmly received, and any attempt at speaking Italian elicits smiles, kisses and hugs.
Touring in Puglia
Our sightseeing began with a visit to Monte St. Angelo. At an elevation of 2600 feet, a white city rises from the mountaintop. Though it seems devoid of life from below, it actually bustles with local inhabitants. Construction on the cathedral was begun in the 5th century A.D., and added to over time. Services are conducted in the main chapel and are attended by large numbers of pilgrims. The chapel is located well below ground in a cave which one reaches through old, carved bronze doors opening on a marble staircase. An adjacent campanile rises in whitish stone with a large base, and two more layers of squared off stone. Outside of the church, you'll find tourist shops in the narrow streets and regional breads as well local buffalo mozzarella.
In Lucera, you are in an ancient Roman city, with its amphitheatre built 100 years after Christ. It is under reconstruction and will soon host theatre and concert performances. The narrow streets remain paved in shiny black stones just as they were seet in place by the Romans. A renovated gothic cathedral stands at its center.
Vieste is a port city with a fort and ancient wall overlooking the Adriatic. Beneath the wall, you'll discover the restaurant, Il Drogone. Its attractive dining room is below ground room and has a vaulted ceiling. Friendly waiters serve local dry white wine. Try the asparagus wrapped in cheese, [prepared with a red wine reduction and dates. We ordered a tasty pasta, bathed in a pinkish sauce made of shrimp shells and sprinkled with local fresh-caught shrimp. Our main course consisted of grilled, small local fish and langoustine. We concluded with a Pecorino cheese, served with a house-made orange marmalade and a glass of port. It was a fine meal and cost 60 Euros per person.
South of Monopoli lies Lecce, a charming, bustling baroque city. The decorative works on many of its 16-18th century buildings are embellished in rococo and are mainly baroque style. The square Piazzi Saint Oronjo marks the end of the Appian way. Next to the square, you'll find half of a Roman amphitheatre. Gladiators fought there and entertained the crowd. Church after church is elaborately decorated, outside as well as inside. The piazza del Duomo is surrounded by beautiful buildings, and the seminary has an ornately decorated well in its center. The columns in the church chapels are decorated with animals, faces, leaves, and flowers. A most remarkable basilica is Santa Croce. The decorations are sumptuous, ornate and the highlight of the city. A well-known sculptor, Francesco Antonio Zimbalo created a side chapel. Within the chapel, a bas relief of six panels on each side, tells the story of the life of Christ's disciples.
The "white" towns of the Trulli area are Ostuni and Martino Franca. Both have many narrow cobblestone streets and many houses in trulli style. Each room has a conical peaked roof made of stone. frequently painted white. Many of the larger houses have 4-6 such peaks, beautiful to see. Ostuni is the more interesting of the two towns, surrounded by elevated ramparts. Narrow, cobblestone streets lead to a central area where one finds churches and a 15th century cathedral. We stopped for lunch near the cathedral. The Osteria del Tempo Perso was in a cave-like building. The osteria served a superb local verdicchio wine, fine antipasti and pasta with shrimp or clams. The cost was 30 Euros per person.
An hour and a quarter drive north and west through completely different terrain led us to Matera. The topography is low hills and agricultural planting. But from afar, we saw a town rising above the hilly region. The Sassi area dates back to the 8th century B.C. It is dominated by a church with a large rose window. Like many in Puglia it is under reconstruction. This area has been undergoing major restoration. It has become a city within a city of ancient houses and palaces. Many are now inhabited. By foot from the church, we descended into a steep valley, surrounded on the sides by tightly packed edifices. It almost appeared like a stage set. Bed and breakfasts are sprinkled throughout and tourism appears to be the local industry. You won't hunger for a snack. Small pizzerias and coffee shops are readily available. Near the Church of Purgatory, dedicated to death and the hereafter, you'll find a fine art gallery. While the gallery owner specializes in famous Italian artists (most dead), he recently exhibited Andy Warhol silkscreens and monoprints.
Dinner was in a two-storied restaurant near the sea in Monopoli, Toretta del Pescatore. Recently opened, it is dedicated to fish and local wines. Salads of fresh shrimp, octopus, mussels or langoustine are served with local tomato, fennel, celery and cucumber and the delicious local light olive oil. An artichoke was filled with small bread crumbs and the octopus was especially good. Pasta was prepared with local fresh mushrooms and the shrimp in a red wine sauce was delicious. The local grilled fish was slightly tough was very tasty. With wine, a local fruity chardonnay, the cost was again 60 Euros per person.
The following day, we traveled northwest and arrived at Castel de Monte. Ferdinand II of Germany conquered this area in the 13th century. Atop a mountain, strategically located to view the fertile valley and sea, he built a large, central octagonal castle with four octagonal towers as living space. Interested in geometry, the spaces were created with a great deal of symmetry. Much of the restored castle's shining golden beige structure, has the original fireplaces, columns, and entrance portals, as well as storage areas defined by a red-colored stone terrazzo. The walls of the original castle were covered in marble. The second floor had windows to view the surroundings, and several wings had primitive but typical areas for toilets.
We drove east to visit the three famous port cities of Trani, Biciglie, and Malfetta. Standing along the shore in Trani, we viewed a beautiful sandstone cathedral with an impressive campanile. Within the cathedral, many original Byzantine frescoes and multiple columns filled the chapels set below the main floor. The 11-13th century Romanesque-styled interior is high and beautiful. The surrounding piazza has many old, large villas, one of which now houses the Puglia appeals court.
Malfetta is a charming, but less beautiful port than Trani. The church, also essentially on the Adriatic, has two large square towers. The traveler should be aware that in southern Puglia, churches close at 12n and reopen at either 4pm or 5pm. The same is true for shops and souvenir stalls, though some restaurants stay open.
On our final day in the region, we visited one of the largest groups of ancient caves: the Castellonagiotto. We took a 3km walk through 60 foot deep caverns with multicolored stalactites and stalagmites, red and pink from iron, brown from the earth,
green from moss, and black from local mushrooms. An English-speaking guide took us through. The last room, called the white room, had long flaring bouquets of flower-appearing formations. Thin drape-like ones were most unusual. Many rooms had formations resembling animals, Madonna and child, altars, candles, and many more.
On our last night, we went to the La Peschiera, sister hotel of Il Melograno, on the Adriatic. The service was excellent. The amuse bouche was a zucchini flour stuffed with anchovy. A lasagna was filled with local small shrimps and mushrooms. A second pasta was small orchiette with local mussels and local olive oil. They were both perfectly cooked. A bottle of regional Gavria was young, dry, and mildly fruity. As a main course, we dined on the famous red shrimp from Gallipoli. One portion was grilled, the other steamed. They were sweet and excellent. The dessert was a runny chocolate cake served with nuts and fresh whipped cream. The cost once more was roughly 60 Euros per person.
Our five-day trip to Puglia, with good weather, a wonderful, welcoming hotel, excellent food, beautiful terrain, varied architecture, a strong sense of the local commitment to tradition, interesting history and the beautiful, blue-green Adriatic, proved a memorable experience. We recommend it highly to those travelers who want it all.
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