A Hot Roman Pitstop
I turn a corner to my right and hug the pavement, joining a main road completely devoid of shade. The sun hits me like the right fist of a heavyweight boxer. The wall of the block of apartments to my right reverberates with heat. I glance down towards my feet and the tarmac gently wobbles as I take a step, and behind me my Birkenstocks leave tracks in the semi-molten asphalt like paw marks in the snow. August in Rome. There’s a reason there’s noone around. They even cut half the streetlights at night because the locals aren’t here to appreciate them. Romans flee the capital for cooler climes; a Tuscan hill village or a fine sandy beach in Sardinia.
Believe the Hype
We’d stopped in the capital to break up the journey to Puglia, one of the parts of the Italian peninsula we’d never seen. Its beauty is well documented. Maybe too much. Everyone talks about their dream to renovate a whitewashed trullo, and barely a day goes by that I don’t see a video on my social media of a nonna thumbing out trays of orecchiette pasta on a backstreet in Bari. I’m perhaps one of those annoying people who pointlessly gives a wide birth to the places that the world obsesses over. (Although as I write I notice the irony of that statement as a foreigner living in Tuscany).
But there comes a time where you have to, to throw two cliches into the same sentence, stop cutting your nose off to spite your face and admit that there’s no smoke without fire. As I lie blissfully by the pool in a beautiful agriturismo near Ostuni, I’m happy to report Puglia is every bit as wonderful as they say it is.
Wondrous Olive Trees
On the farm on which we’re staying, there are fields and fields of ancient olive trees. And when I say ancient, I mean ancient. Literally thousands of years old. We have no shortage of olive trees in Tuscany, but you rarely see the likes of these. The trunks twist and turn, enormous and contorted. You look a little closer and you see that they’ve grown with a corkscrew effect. Our gentle and knowledgable host explains that they’ve been alive so long that their growth starts to mimic the rotation of the planet. And you can really see it. This information itself already made my holiday and it was only day one.
A Nation of Many Faces
The five hours spent in the car getting here seem few when you consider how different things here look and feel. The way things are built and the things used to build them. The things growing here and the things used to turn the growing things into other things.
I’ve always been struck by the huge regional contrasts in Italy. I guess it makes sense when you consider it was a collection of separate nations until 1861. Plus it’s a considerably long country, so the environmental and climatic diversity is huge. Just a few weeks ago I was in the Dolomites, where it’s lush and green, they eat heavy dumplings and speak italian with a thick German accent. Here down on the southern heel of the peninsula the hills are stony and barren, Indian figs grown on cactae and everything is built in gleaming white stone; you see and feel the vicinity to and influence of Greece strongly in Puglia.
The White City
We visited Ostuni, the ‘White City’. The sun was setting as we took our aperitivo just outside the gleaming walls that curve and climb ever upwards. The bitterness of ice cold Campari was quenching in the heat, accompanied by little crunchy friselline, delicious Pugliese crisp breads, smeared with tangy ricotta ‘piccante’, or tomatoes so sweet they tasted like dessert. The White City became pink as the vivid evening skies drenched Ostuni in colour. It felt a celestial place, and it was a great evening to be alive.
Nature's Bounty and Seaside Serenity
Things grow here that don’t survive further north, like lemons and almonds. It never gets particularly cold, even in winter. One evening we stayed on our farm and barbecued. What a pleasure to pull fresh citrus from a tree and drizzle it over grilled meat. Apart from salt, nothing else can transform something you’ve cooked like a squeeze of lemon. Our agriturismo had its own orchard too, in which we were welcome to help ourselves. A daily ritual was to collect deep purple figs, delicious, sticky and tooth-achingly sugary.
We floated weightlessly on the salty sea in the coves along the seafront just a short drive away. The atmosphere was zen-like on this strip of coast. No-one relaxes at the seaside like Italians do. Littering the sand were couples, their sun-tanned limbs intertwined as they snoozed away the afternoon heat. Just in from the beach, lines of grandmothers and grandfathers on plastic chairs clustered in the shade of trees, having slow conversations, or staring quietly but contently out to sea.
We went to a concert too. One of our favourite reggae bands was performing at a festival down the road. This concert was a thing of beauty. The bureaucracy kills me, but this country wins at culture every time. The stage was set up with the backdrop of beautiful 16th century buildings with ornate terraces, Baroque busts and marble colonnades. Surrounding the crowd were traditional white dry stone walls, draped in bright pink Bourgainvillea plants. Meanwhile the music thumped into the hot night under an impossibly starry sky.
Of course we ate and drank well. Cavatelli and orecchiette (see Oli making them in the video below), two famous pasta shapes of the region. Soft and delicate but with the perfect amount of chew thanks to the semolina flour from which they’re made. Crunchy sweet watermelon and cold rose Primitivo, pale but with just enough of a kiss of pink skin contact. Focaccia, but not as we know it. Unlike the crispy version we’re used to in Tuscany, down there it’s soft, thick and spongey. It’s laden with zucchini, tomatoes or other toppings. Each bite leaves your hands and mouth coated in golden Pugliese olive oil.
Then there are the taralli, little hoop-like snacks simply made with flour, olive oil, white wine, salt and fennel seeds. They’re eaten all around Italy, and I regularly have them with a cold beer back in Tuscany. But I now realise we’ve got used to poor imitations. Here they’re on another level and completely addictive; perfectly crumbly and rich.
All too soon our first time on Italy’s heel was over. It really is a magical part of the world; if you haven't already you must visit. Unfortunately Puglia has ruined figs for me - from now on no others will ever compare! Just another reason to come back then I guess… one of many.