September in Puglia (Week 4 - Galatina to Herculaneum)

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October 25th 2014
Published: October 19th 2015
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Sunday, 21 September – Galatina - Otranto

Southern Puglia is quite narrow; its width between Taranto on the Ionian Sea and Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea is less than 75 km (about 45 miles). The peninsular narrows to a point at the sanctuary at Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost point on the Italian heel. Distances between towns are short and we drive slow or stop at many of the small towns on the way. We put the new compilation cd of the local Taranta folk music on the cd player, retracted the roof, and headed south to Galatina.

Galatina, only 18km south of Lecce, is at the core of the Salentine Peninsula's Greek past. It is almost the only place where the pagan ritual tarantismi (Spider Music) is still practised. The tarantella folk dance evolved from this ritual, and each year on the feast day of St Peter and St Paul (29 June), it is performed at the (now deconsecrated) church.

We parked opposite a busy cafe on the main tree-filled piazza. Every Italian town and city has its central piazza. Some are wide open spaces and others more garden-like with trees and other plants, all have benches and a monument or fountain at its core. And they are very important gathering places in the everyday lives of Italians.

After our now obligatory morning shot of strong coffee and chocolate pastry, we walked around the corner to the church, outside of which was a stage being constructed for the launch later that evening of the new Renault Twingo automobile. Two of the cars were already on the stage, covered in a shimmering cloth, and a third also draped in cloth was parked at the edge. Two Pop bands were advertised for the evening’s entertainment. There was no mention of Tarantella and no jazz.

Tarantella is a folk music and group of folk dances from southern Italy characterised by an upbeat tempo. (It is also popular in Argentina among its large immigrant Italian population.) It has a most interesting developmental history: it originated with the bite of a common local spider, called a ‘tarantula’. The spider bite was thought to be very poisonous and led to a hysterical condition known as ‘tarantism’, a frenzied and spinning dance mania in which victims perform days-long trance-like dancing to the fast-paced hypnotic music to exorcise the poison from their body. When the victim collapsed from sheer exhaustion they were deemed ‘cured’.

We listened to the first cd of our compilation anthology and detected Celtic and Irish folk music, including the use of a penny whistle, the Cajun music of New Orleans, and the repetitious rhythms of the Gnauoa music from Morocco. It was certainly lively and great music to drive to!
Galatina, like all other Italian towns, has a few churches. Unlike other Italian towns, however, it has the Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria Galatina. It is considered one of the most important Gothic Romanesque churches in Puglia. Although it has a rather unimposing if not dull faceade, It is one of the most remarkable churches we have ever visited. The reason for its importance is the well-preserved vividly-painted frescoes covering the walls and ceilings of the interior of the building. (I was followed around by a ‘no-photo’ guard and didn’t manage to evade his watchful eye for even a moment, thus no photos.) In the early decades of the fifteenth century Maria d' Enghien, a wealthy local noblewoman and patron of the church, hired the muralist Franciscus De Arecio and artists from the school of Giotto and Sienese workshops. They covered the walls and ceiling with marvellously detailed scenes of life and religious devotion. Due to the vastness of the pictorial cycles, the Basilica in Galatina is second in importance only to the Basilica of San Francesco d' Assisi, which we will have to visit again soon Spiritually-cleansed, we drove onward to Otranto. We had tried to make reservations at two self-catering apartments, neither of which confirmed, so we arrived in Otranto without a place to stay for the night. We drove around and stopped at a few hotels and Joan hopped out to inquire about availability and price. We drove around a bit. It was very hot and humid and we were hungry and knarking at each other. We stopped in the middle of the small seaside town. We ate our picnic lunch on a bench in the park. We picked up the wifi from a nearby hotel and searched on the internet for accommodation. Most places with availability were quite expensive. Otranto is a vibrant seaside resort and even though it was the end of the season it was still hectic with visitors searching for relief from the heat by being near the sea. After lunch we drove around some more and found a reasonably-priced Bed-and-no-Breakfast a short walk from the town centre, with air-conditioning and a large terrace, and just in time for siesta. We walked back into town in the early evening. Otranta is an historic seaside town, a small place with a castle, the 'castle of Otranto', Castello Aragonese, and a few small churches, most notably the little Byzantine Chiesa di San Pietro, an attractive small building containing Byzantine frescoes, narrow winding streets and lanes lined with shops selling local wines and pastas and olive oils and clever and witty ceramic and mosaics, and many restaurants and pizzerias (but no jazz clubs). It has a relaxed holiday atmosphere. We had dinner at Balconcino d’Oriente. Joan had read about this restaurant during her research on the town, and it had passed the initial menu inspection earlier in the day. All the reviews raved about their anti-pasta starter plate, and they were accurate in doing so. We sat outdoors in a small courtyard at the rear of the building. As we were browsing the menu we were served a gratis welcome dish of about ten deep balls of breaded caper berries that melted deliciously on the tongue. We ordered the anti-pasta starter and a few minutes later the dishes arrived. There were eight of them and they reminded us of the starter dishes we experienced in some restaurants in Istanbul. There were portions of pickled beet root, breaded aubergine, a mini herb soufflé, chicory stuffed tart, melanzane, zucchini with beans and chicory, a glob of ricotta cheese with diced tomatoes, and spinach puree with fave beans. It was a meal in itself. We shared a dish of the local pasta, called Sagne ‘nCannulate, a thick pasta shaped a bit like dreadlocks. We also shared a mixed grill of small pieces of pork, chicken, beef and sausage. With a bottle of brisk rose wine and two bottles of thirst-quenching sparkling water, our bill came to 49 Euro! After dinner, we stopped on the square for an ice cream and later wandered around the brightly-lit shops and browsed in the windows at the colourful items and then made our way back to our bed-without-breakfast.

Monday, 22 September – Otranto

We walked into town in the morning, coffee and croissants at Sud Est Cafe, a bit of wifi, and seriously this time browsed the shops and studied the restaurant menus. The heat and humidity was oppressive. A cruise ship had docked in the port overnight and we heard French being spoken among these visitors more transient than ourselves.

While researching Otranto, one of the things I learned about it was that on August 14, 1480, a massacre was perpetrated on a hill just outside the city. Eight hundred of the city’s male inhabitants were taken to a place called the Hill of the Minerva, and, one by one, beheaded. In medieval warfare, the bloody execution of a city’s population was commonplace, but what happened at Otranto was unique. The victims were put to death not because they were political enemies of a conquering army, nor even because they refused to surrender their city. They died because they refused to convert to Islam. The 800 men of Otranto were the first victims of what was fully expected to be the relentless conquest of Italy and then all of Christendom by the armies of the Ottoman Empire. It is suggested that because of their sacrifice, the Ottoman invasion was slowed and Rome was spared the same fate that had befallen Constantinople only 27 years before.

The unrelenting sunshine – it was now in the mid-30 celcius – and oppressive humidity encouraged us to find a small beach to swim and cool down. We had read about a place about 10 kilometres to the south, called Porto Basilico. Joan made lunch and we drove the winding seaside road. We arrived but it was not very nice, so we drove on and had our lunch in a town further down the coast road. We sat on a bench with a view of the sun-glittered sea. We returned to Otranto and I dropped Joan off in the town where, like Collioure, there are a number of small sandy beaches, and I returned to the bed-no-breakfast to write and read and relax in front of the air conditioner!

Evening found us back in the village for dinner. I went in an hour before Joan to search for a music store I had briefly glimpsed during last night’s walkabout, but when I eventually found it, it was closed. I returned to the Sud Est cafe and had a beer and read while waiting for Joan. (The novel I am reading, The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, is disappointing, but I have already passed my self-imposed 10 per cent turn-back point so will persevere to its conclusion.)

Dinner was at Ristorante Le Torri. We shared another anti-pasta starter called Pulpo Pignata which was small chunks of octopus in a rich home-made tomato sauce seasoned with fresh herbs. I had a main course of Linguine Fruit de Mar that featured clams, mussels and red prawns in a light olive oil. And Joan had gnocchi with a tomato based fish sauce with prawns and zucchini. A bottle of the local white wine was a perfect accompaniment. With the cover charge of 2 Euro each, and a large bottle of sparking water, our bill came to 48 Euro. (We have been hard pressed to break 50 Euro for dinner!)

An after dinner paseo with a brief pause for gelato completed our comfortable and enjoyable visit to Otranto.

Tuesday, 23 September – Otranto – Tricase – Leuce - Gallipoli

Our destination for today was Gallipoli, over 100 kilometres away along the sea-hugging coastal route (or about 40 kilometres via the direct route through the centre of the Salento peninsula). The night was very windy and Thelonious MG was covered in a layer of red dirt; it has needed a good clean bath since driving through the muddy flood residue in Peschici. I gave it a brief wipe with a small towel and we headed south out of town.

Our first stop was the small town of Tricase where we had our ‘elevenses’ at ten! Tricase has a castle, a couple of churches, and an oak tree that is amongst the oldest trees in Italy, dating from the 13th century. More importantly, it had a housing goods store run by a displaced Parisian that had in stock a table cloth that matches the curtains in Collioure! We purchased it and managed to find a small space for it behind Joan’s seat for it to begin its own journey to France.

At a dip and a bend in the road we stopped for a photo opportunity, where we met two twenty-something girls from Cork who were on a cycling tour of Puglia. They were averaging 50km per day, but their luggage was being transported ahead for them. They were finding the route from Saint Maria de Leuca difficult as it was hilly and windy. They were heading for a week on a beach in Sicily after the bike tour. The area where we met was stunning. There was a shallow inlet of deep blue water at the bottom of a crevice between two steep cliffs, and a small ‘beach’ made of concrete. There were a few people sun-bathing there and a few also swimming and snorkelling in the inviting waters. The entrance to a grotto at the base of one of the cliffs was visible and snorkelers were swimming into it. A wooden stairway led up the rocky incline and onto a hiking trail in the hills behind. We chatted with the Irish girls for awhile and returned to the car where we found two young Italian males beside it and bending to look through the windows. They asked, I think, what the car was like to drive and if we had driven it all the way from Ireland!

As we were approaching Leuca, the southern-most part of the heel of Italy and where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet, Joan spotted a sign for a car wash and we paused for a good cause. With Thelonious MG shining and looking like new again, we stopped at a large basilica perched on a hilltop with a magnificent view over the sea. It was a bit hazy but the sun was sparkling on the water.

The land in this part of southern Italy is covered with large boulders of porous white rocks and cactus. There are virtually no trees, only small scrub bushes and the occasional olive tree. Very little of the land is cultivated, but that which we have seen overturned and reading for planting is deep magenta in colour.

We stopped in Leuca. It is a popular resort for wealthy locals. The town boasts many Art Nouveau villas lining the seafront. We had noticed, also, many elaborate gated entries to waterfront estates as we drove, as well as quite a few beautiful stone-built houses perched high up the hillsides. We stopped in a grocery and stocked-up on emergency provisions for our cool-box, and then we patrolled the restaurants where none passed Joan’s menu inspection. They looked to Joan to offer only standard ‘not great’ cooking for tourists, so we broke out the cool-box and had a picnic lunch on a bench instead. Joan spent a couple hours on the beach ‘topping-up’ and I retreated to a beach-side cafe for a coffee and to read and to watch the local life pass quietly by. After about an hour I asked the attendant for an Italian beer but was informed that, as it was the end of the season and he was closing up at the weekend, he had no Italian beers left in stock, only had Heineken and Becks. Wherever we travel I drink the local lager. I kept to this routine and I opted for a Coke Zero instead - it tasted like very weak, strongly-diluted Coke; it was awful. (I won’t make that mistake again!)

We continued driving, mostly on the coastal road, although we did miss one turn and ended up inland for about 15 kilometres, to Gallipoli, where we had reserved a room at the nineteenth-century building Palazzo Angelelli. It is a wonderfully restored building with enormous rooms, very high ceilings, and antique furniture, located a few metres from the central squares and shopping area and about five minutes walk to the historical centre.

The proprietor recommended two restaurants nearby for dinner and after some searching and menu-inspection, we chose La Fontanelle di Luciano Franco, but we had to wait about fifteen minutes for a table as it was packed. It was worth the wait! This lively place was filled with local diners. Starters were small, pinxtos-style dishes. We shared three of them: marinated prawns, deep-fried octopus balls, and a tempura cuttlefish with shrimp. The marinated prawns were a bit slimy, but the other two were excellent. Joan’s main course was grilled Fruit de Mar which contained octopus, shrimp and prawns and cuttlefish. I had the cavatelli pasta in a lobster sauce that was nice but tasted little of lobster. The local house white wine was a bit effervescent, but not quite processo, and a perfect companion to the fish. We were given a small complimentary glass of limoncello at the end of the meal. Including a bottle of sparkling water, the bill came to 40 Euro.

Wednesday, 24 September – Gallipoli

Breakfast at Palazzo Angelelli was two strong macchiato coffees and a number of sweet croissants (so we skipped ‘elevenses’ today) and yoghurt and cereal.

Here is what I have learned about Gallipoli: first, it’s name means “beautiful city. The old town centre sits on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge. It is almost completely surrounded by defensive walls, built mainly in the 14th century. The east side is dominated by a robust fortress dating back to the 13th century, but largely rebuilt in the 1500s when the town fell under Angevin control. Because of its strategic position, Gallipoli was frequently under siege. According to popular legend, it was founded by Idomeneo from ancient Crete, and the town soon became part of Magna Graecia, the coastal areas of Southern Italy that were extensively colonized by Greek settlers. It remained Greek until Pyrrhus was defeated by the Romans around 280B.C. This is where the term a ‘Phrrhic victory’ originated: a victory with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat.

After being sacked by hordes of Vandals and Goths, the Byzantines arrived and rebuilt the town, much in the form that remains today. Subsequently, Normans, Angevins and the Bourbons conquered and ruled over the town until the Unification of Italy in 1861.

The island heart of Gallipoli is home to numerous impressive Baroque churches and aristocratic palazzi, testament to the town's former wealth as a trading port. A labyrinthine weave of narrow streets all eventually lead to the broader sea-front promenade with wonderful views.

We walked down the Corso Roma and over the bridge which connects the commercial modern city with the historic old city. There is a marina for pleasure boats on one side and a working harbour for fisherman on the other. At the near end of the bridge, we stopped to view and photograph the sixteenth-century Green fountain, which has bas-reliefs with mythological figures on one side and the insignia of King Charles III of Spain. The castle too was worthy of a few photos.

Cafes, bars and restaurants proliferate on the island, as well as a plethora of gift shops offering pastas and wines and biscuits, pottery and ceramics, mostly along the central via Antionetta di Pace. A sandy crescent-shaped beach marks the end of the island. We wandered along the street, stopping briefly at the churches (of which there are eleven including one cathedral) and window-browsing. The shop-owners offered samples of biscuits and olive oil. Joan inspected menus (although she already had a good idea of our lunch destination from her research that corroborated the recommendation we received from the lady of the Palazzo Angelleli) and I looked for local music in the gift stores.

We went to the restaurant, L’Angolo Blu, and after checking out the room and inspecting the menu, we made a lunch reservation for 1:30. We walked around some more. We saw a few old men weaving baskets and lobster pots. We watched the fishermen mending their nets with quick fingers and deft movements. We walked along the sea-front promenade and I took some more ‘studies in blue’ photographs. (I’ve nearly enough for an exhibition now!) Joan was keen to get some beach-time, so we returned to the B&B to retrieve her beach gear and then walked back to the restaurant for lunch.

And we had another very good fish meal. We shared the Antipasta L’Angolo Blu which consisted of eight pintxos-sized servings. A large prawn baked in almonds; mackerel in pesto; anchovies marinated in olive oil; cuttlefish marinated in a sweet-and-sour brine; a whole small local fish fried in batter; strips of calamari in aubergine sauce; chunks of warm shrimp in a rich cream sauce, a swirl of duchess potato on a curled spoon. Joan chanted ‘absolutely delicious’ after every bite! We shared a risotto in a shrimp sauce. A full prawn was buried beneath the perfectly-cooked rice. But it was served so hot that it was too hot to eat at first and the taste improved significantly as it cooled down. We drank two bottles of sparkling water and a bottle of white wine from the Bonsegna estate in Nardo (less than twenty kilometres away). While I was writing the name of the wine down (Cenate Vesshie-Salento) the waiter brought a note with the phone number of the winery and urged us to visit it. Even though there were only two other couples dining, the room was very pleasant and comfortable, with a warm and relaxed atmosphere. Our bill came to 52 Euro (but we were only charged 50 Euro).

Joan decamped to the beach and I to a coffee shop to read, and then an hour later to another coffee shop for a gelato and to read some more! We met there at 5pm and returned to the Palazzo. We walked around the commercial high street and browsed the mostly fashion outlets and perfumeries. We shared a couple slices of pizza and a Coke at a fast food place and went back to the Palazzo for an early night. (We liked this Palazzo very much!)

Thursday, 25 September – Nardo – Taranto – Mottola

It was a noisy start to the morning in Gallipoli: the workmen renovating a separate portion of the palazzo began their pounding and hammering at 7am, and the at the large school across the street the teenagers arrived from 8am. Traffic on the adjacent main street increased in number and volume, with many cars turning down our road looking for a parking space or short-cutting a delay in traffic. We had another breakfast of chocolate and cream filled croissants and two macchiato coffees before departing the lovely Palazzo Angelelli.

Traffic going out of the city was as congested and mind-boggling as that coming in, with cars seeming to come at us from all directions except from above, and pedestrians just walking out into traffic without looking (even on very busy roundabouts). One woman back out of a parking spot at speed without looking and right into our path and I saw her laughing as our brakes screeched to avoid hitting her. Driving in Italy is the most challenging driving I have ever encountered. Drivers don’t stop at Stop signs, they rarely even slow down. One way streets are often traversed in the wrong direction. Cyclists obey no traffic rules, and pedestrians just walk out into of traffic and expect it to flow around them. We have noticed here - is it any wonder! - many road side memorials to the dead (nearly as many as we saw in parts of South America). It is a strange phenomenon, as the Italians are unvaryingly polite and relaxed, but behind the wheel of an automobile they become crazed lunatics rushing toward oblivion.

Once safely out of the city, we drove northwards and inland to Nardo. I had made a note to visit Nardo on our travels but not the reason why. Except for a large castle that had been restored and converted into municipal offices, Nardo was a small town, very run down houses and quite dour, and filled with the aged. We walked the residential streets, peering into the houses that had half-doors open and saw in many of them groups of the very old and infirm. Most of the centre piazza was cordoned off with red-and-white tape for the filming of a new movie from the successful director Paolo Genovese. Here is where there were gathered the town’s few young men and women, arms crossed, viewing the tedious proceedings. We hung around only a few moments but did not glimpse the Italian director (or maybe we did but didn’t recognise him).

A quick shot of coffee in order to allow us to use the toilets, and we were driving again, this time to the coastal route bordering the Ionian Sea. The towns along this road are summer holiday resort areas with bars and pizzerias and long sandy beaches. Here there are no obstructions such as rows of sun umbrellas or changing huts between the road and the sea, just little hillocks of dunes. It is a rough and ready beach, bring your own kit for sun-bathing and snorkelling. As there are acres devoted to parking, we suspect that these towns and beaches are thronged with people in July and August. But they are virtually deserted now as the summer vacation season has finished. Wind-battered posters advertising ‘last night’ parties are tacked to telephone poles.

Taranto is a small city with a large commercial port. Tankers spotted the bay. It is also Italy’s primary naval base. There is much industry in and around Taranto: steel and iron foundries, oil refineries, shipyards for building and maintain Italy’s naval fleet, and food-processing factories. Taranto was founded by the Spartans in 706 BC.

We arrived at lunchtime and lucked onto free parking outside a Chinese restaurant. We looked at each other and smiled: yes, Chinese for lunch – no pasta today! (Sometimes you need a change of diet!) I am happy to report that the service in Italian Chinese restaurants is as rushed and disinterested as it is anywhere else in the world that we have experienced it. And the food tastes exactly the same everywhere too! We have spring rolls and a bean sprout salad to start, followed by sweet-and-sour pork and Cantonese duck. With a bottle of Italian lager and a bottle of sparkling water, our bill came to 23 Euro.

There is money in Taranto. The gleaming main street featured many brand name fashion stores and a large Coin department store, all of which were closed for siesta. We walked across the bridge connecting the new city with the old city which is situated on a peninsula. It was originally an ancient Greek city. A few ruins remain including part of a city wall and two temple columns dating to the 6th century BC. Except for the university building, much of the old city is derelict and run down and falling down into rubble. It reminded us of some of the worst areas in Moroccan cities where existence is tenuous at best. The state of some of these magnificent buildings is disgraceful. One absolutely stunning building on a very large and central piazza was a near-hollow shell held together by scaffolding.

We had been intending to spend the evening in Taranto but the only available accommodation was considerably beyond our budget. We discovered that there was a large and major international Archaeological conference occurring in the city that filled up the hotel rooms and B&B’s. We walked back along the main shopping street and stopped briefly for a small gelato. The stores were beginning to open again for business. People were waiting to enter. I had noticed a music store on our first passage along this route and was keen to return. Joan browsed in the Coin store while I waited for the music store to open. About fifteen minutes late, a man sauntered up and unlocked the security grate and entered, but he did not turn on the lights or open the doors until a few minutes later when two young men banged on the door. The man finally, seemingly reluctantly, pushed open the rest of the sliding grate and let the two men in. He was talking animatedly on his phone. I entered and a woman entered behind me and walked behind the cash desk and stuffed her handbag beneath it. I asked her if they stocked Italian jazz cds and she looked at me as if I had asked her a question impossible to answer. She looked in the Italian section and then in the jazz section and offered a negative shrug. I had a quick browse in both sections and departed.

Joan met me outside a few minutes later, having had no success in Coin either. We returned to the car and continued on our journey, heading to Mottola, about 20 kilometers north. Mottola is a small hill-top town, 387 metres above sea level. It can be seen from a great distance as the surrounding Puglian countryside is flat and low. There was a mean black cloud just behind it and as we approached the town from one side the cloud approached from the opposite. We drove up the climbing twisting road to the summit and were met there by a torrential downpour. We pulled into a car-park and stuffed bit of tissue in the roof gaps of Thelonious MG. (Soft top cars always have extra air vents!) We rang the apartment owner and informed him that we were parked nearby and would come to the office to collect the keys when the rain let up, which didn’t happen for about an half hour. It was still raining when I met the apartment owner at his office and followed him back to the apartment. It was a cute old family house on one of the small church squares. The ceiling was so high that a slanted stepladder led to a loft where in former times as many as eight children slept. The rain continued. After unloading the car I was drenched and took a hot shower. Joan was exhausted and went to bed at 7pm. I read and wrote for a short while and crashed before 9pm without even bothering to have dinner!

Friday, 26 September – Mottola – Matera – Altamura

Mottola was dry this morning. A coupon from the apartment owner allowed us a coffee and croissant breakfast at a nearby cafe. We walked around the tiny streets of the historic centre that features a number of quaint, small piazzas each with their own church. There are great views from various vantage points at the edges of the town. As we were early to rise, the shop-keepers and stall-traders will still un-opened. An 8am mass was being broadcast on loud-speakers from one of the small churches; inside it was packed.

We drove to Matera. Matera is an incredible place, and one of the most unique and spectacular places we've visited in Italy or anywhere in the world. The ancient neighbourhoods are known as ‘sassi’ and are a series of caves carved into the limestone cliffs. Originally, these caves were used for storage and as animal sheds, but eventually they housed up to 30,000 persons in abject misery and poverty. To call them ‘slums’ would be too generous. Until the 1950s, Matera was a source of great shame for Italy. People lived in these caves without electricity, running water or sewage. It was the publication of a book by Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, that raised awareness of the dire circumstances of the people of Matera and created such an uproar among the rest of the Italian people that the government was shamed into action to build new housing. Half of the population moved into new housing on the outskirts between 1953 and 1968. The resettlement process was not entirely successful and many of the people ended up immigrating.

Matera was declared a World Heritage Site in 1973. Although many of the caves have been transformed into stylish hotels and restaurants, the majority are abandoned or derelict and it has an undiscovered atmosphere. Nicknamed “The Second Bethlehem,” walking Matera’s haunting streets makes one feel they have been transported back to Biblical times. Mel Gibson filmed ‘The Passion of Christ’ here. The buildings climb up and down the hillside, houses piled on top of each other, the roofs of some acting as streets for those above, the original caves extended with facades that look like normal homes.

Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in history dating back to the Palaeolithic period and on the opposite side of the ravine you can see the simple forms of the neolithic caves where people lived 7000 years ago, which perhaps explains one of the reasons why the idea of living in caves was not un-natural to the people of Matera.

We walked around the sassi for a few hours in the afternoon heat. We visited two of the cave houses and one of the rock churches that have been turned into museums. Visiting Matera was an incredibly moving and humbling and haunting experience. It was as remarkable as the highlights of our South American tour, on par with Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Galapagos and ‘the Balcon de Meurte’.

Friday afternoon, 26 September Altamura:

From Matera we drove a short distance north to Altamura, where we had reserved a room in a cute and comfortable B&B called Stupor Mundi. Altamura was not even mentioned in either the Dorling Kindersley or Lonely Planet guide books we had with us and that seemed to us like an excellent reason to go there! We followed our maps and the road signs to Altamura and then we GPS’d our way to the B&B where the proprietor, Anna Capurso greeted us with enthusiasm and warmth and kindness and a strong cup of coffee.

The road signs into town welcome visitors to "Altamura: The City of Bread" and that famous local bread is protected as ‘unique’ in European Union regulations, which note that Horace, the ancient Roman lyric poet, called it, in 37 B.C., "far the best bread to be had, so good that the wise traveller takes a supply of it for his onward journey." (Here is a great story from the New York Times about the battle between the bakers of Altamura and McDonalds in the early 2000’s.

Click here: )

This northern area of Puglia, known as the Tavoliere Plain, is Italy’s grain store and supplies a large portion of the bread eaten in Italy. Bread and baked goods are the cornerstone of the Puglian diet. The bread baked in Altamura is famous throughout the country. It even comes with its own DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), much like wine and olive oil and some Italian cheeses. (One could feast quite contentedly on Puglian bread, cheese and wine!)

We walked the short distance into the city centre. The shops were re-opening and the people re-emerging from their apartments to stroll their streets and congregate in their piazzas and churches. We went to the Tre Archi Trattoria for Joan to inspect the menu. Anna had recommended it. A quick peek into the restaurant and glance at the menu and we made a reservation for when they opened at 7:30. We walked among the promenading residents of Altamura for another hour until it was time to return to the restaurant for dinner. This town is reasonably well-off. The people are well-dressed and the shops feature expensive clothes, shoes, eyewear and jewellery.

The Three Arches restaurant offered an anti-pasta starter called ‘misto terra’ (mixed earth). It consisted of six small warm appetisers that we shared: an egg frittata with grilled vegetables, a smoked mozzarella, a sliced aubergine with a layer of smoked ham, a small split roasted pepper stuffed with herbs, a local mushroom called the cardoncello in a layer of local cheese, a layered zucchini melanzane. (We have thoroughly enjoyed the variety of Puglian anti-pastas, which are considerably different from the meats and cheeses and olives we are so familiar with in Umbria and Tuscany. We have learned that antipastos were a late arrival in the culinary tradition of Puglia, as dishes that were once eaten as main courses shrunk to tapas-type mouthfuls.) Joan ordered a bottle of the local Primitivo wine but the waitress had a hard time finding it and we finished the starters before she emerged from their wine storage area with three alternative wine choices. Our main courses were pizzas: four cheeses with wurstal for me and sausage and the cardoncello mushroom for Joan. We managed to eat only half and took the rest away for the next day’s lunch. With two bottles of sparkling water, our bill came to 42 Euro. We were each given a small after-dinner shot of a fennel-seed liquor that had a distinct liquorice taste, and a small slice of light cream sponge cake to share.

We walked back to the apartment and encountered a religious procession in our neighbourhood in which two of the statues were taken from the church and paraded through the streets. They were accompanied by rows of mostly elderly men in uniforms at the front of the procession and women and children holding small torches following the religious figures. The priest stopped at various houses along the route to offer prayers and blessings. We watched as the procession made its way up the street and around the corner, heading back to the church.

Saturday, 27 September – Altamura – Potenza – Torre del Greco

Before departing Altamura we took Horace’s sage advice and went to the nearest bakery to purchase a loaf of the local ‘tipico’ bread for our onward journey.

Today was a day of driving: we exited Puglia and entered the region of Basilicata and later in the afternoon Campania, covering 240 kilometres and arriving at Torre del Greco on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the early evening just before sunset. The initial seventy kilometres from Altamura toward Potenza was through lands of rolling hills and cultivated fields, now post-harvest brown, with farmers on tractors tilling the soil.

Potenza is a small hilltop city that has been rebuilt several times after being destroyed by earthquakes. The most recent earthquake occurred in 1980. It was also heavily bombed during WWII. Few of the ancient buildings remain. We walked the length of its main street. A university town, the street was full of young people. We found there a most interesting shop, called Music and Singer, that sold cds, plastic kitchenware, stuffed dolls and wooden model classic cars, and sewing machines. A couple bargain baskets at the doorway called to me and there I found three cds that needed to be added to my collection. We lunched on last night’s leftover pizza while sitting in the car and continued our journey eastward.

We bypassed the large port city of Salerno and drove straight through until we saw the isolated blown mountaintop of Vesuvius. This fast road contained tunnels through the mountains and long bridges across deep valleys. The alternative route was on a series of small secondary roads that wound around the mountains and ravines and would have taken hours if not days to traverse. We were eager to reach the Mediterranean today. At one point a filter directed all traffic to an exit and a detour. We were travelling in a convoy of fast-moving cars and the one in front of me did a quick u-turn on the exit and got back on the highway heading east, and I followed him, and three cars followed us. There were road-works on part of the highway but as it was Saturday there was no work being done. About fifty kilometres on the detoured route re-entered the highway.

We arrived at the small hotel in the beach side town of Torre del Greco. We chose this place as it was close to Herculaneum which we wanted to visit. We also chose it because the hotel had secure parking. Our room overlooked the blue sea and the setting sun. Torre del Greco is run-down, drab and congested. There are derelict buildings directly on the seaside and decrepit apartment blocks on the opposite side of the street. It feels a bit rough. During World War II, the city was used as an ammunition depot by the German Army, and consequently suffered heavy bombing by Allied forces. It looks and feels as though parts of it still haven’t recovered from the damage.

The hotel was clean and comfortable although quite noisy but we were exhausted from our long day of driving and after some meats and cheeses and the wonderful bread from Altamura we slept heavily and well.

Sunday, 28 September – Herculaneum

Torre del Greco is the closest town to Mount Vesuvius. We have discovered that before WWII it was a renowned holiday destination with a famous Art Nouveau cafe and fine beaches in a rural setting of lush farmlands and vineyards. There was a funicular railway starting from the town which scaled the volcanic mountain. Extensive and massive urbanization and redevelopment after the war damage, coupled with the increase of the use of the motor car, caused the funicular to fall in disuse. The town lost its appeal to the more wealthy holiday-makers who decamped to Sorrento and Capri and the Amalfi Coast. What remains is shabby with no chic.

We had previously climbed Mount Vesuvius and visited Pompeii and we were keen to visit Herculaneum. Herculaneum was originally discovered when a well was being dug in the early 18th Century at a depth of 50 – 60 feet below the modern surface. It was buried during the same series of eruptions that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. It was covered in mud as well as the volcanic pyroclastic flow from the eruption. Much of the timber has survived in a charred condition which affords a good idea of what a Roman town may have looked like at that time. 75% of the ancient city remains buried beneath the modern city of Ercolano.

The site and entrance is difficult to locate; we drove passed it twice before we realized it. There is very little sign-posting and what there is is faded and nearly illegible. And there are no public car parking facilities anywhere. There is on street parking, free on Sunday, but we were uncomfortable leaving Thelonious MG unattended in the area (remembering our incident in New Orleans of a bad decision about parking). We drove around and around the very rough stone and rock roads. The one-way system and road closures filtered us through narrow passages barely wide enough to get through. Passing the entrance for the second time, a self-appointed parking attendant with a hand-written badge standing in front of a long private driveway beside a restaurant waved us down and offered us secure parking for ten Euro. (It was he who pointed out the main entrance to the archaeological site nearby.) Parking in Italy is, if not free, then generally quite inexpensive, and we hesitated at the ten Euro charge, but after driving fruitlessly around for another twenty minutes, and with increasing frustration and annoyance and bickering, we approached him again, signalled our defeat and forked over the cash! (He owned a right-hand drive Japanese convertible that he had purchased in the UK and assured us that our Thelonious MG would be safe with him!)

We slowly walked the excavated streets and entered the buildings of Herculaneum, which apparently was a much wealthier town than Pompeii and possessed an unusual density of fine houses, some with two levels, and a lavish use of coloured marble cladding. It was buried under approximately 20 metres (50–60 feet) of ash. It lay hidden and largely intact until discoveries from wells and underground tunnels became gradually more widely known in the early 1700s. Because initial excavations revealed only a few skeletons of men, women and children, it was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants had managed to escape. In 1981, however, several hundred skeletons huddled close together were discovered on the beach and in 12 arches facing the sea and further excavations in the 1990s confirmed that at least 300 people had taken refuge and died in those chambers.

It is an interesting place to walk around, but it somehow lacked the awesome charisma of Pompeii. We had found Pompeii utterly fascinating and amazing. It probably helped that we went to Pompeii in late October and there was virtually no one else there during our visit. Herculaneum was a very busy site, with tour groups of Germans and French and Italians and Brits all being led around and lectured to. We found our own path and avoided the crowds as much as was possible.

Lunch was at The Big Apple American Steakhouse. (Sometimes you just need an American-style ‘Big Steak’ dinner!) We had noticed this restaurant when driving down the access road into Torre del Greco the previous meeting and made a mental note to check out its menu. After leaving the archaeological site we walked around the modern town of Ercolano, which was as ragged and rundown a town as Torre del Greco, and couldn’t find a restaurant there that looked appealing or appetising. We collected Thelonious MG, who was indeed safe and unscarred, and drove back, via another bumpy and bone-jolting and nerve-wracking route. This was some of the roughest and toughest driving I have done yet! (I am getting another pounding headache writing about it!)It was a version of madness and chaos. Cars and motorcycles came at us from all directions, including directly at us on our side of the road. Pedestrians walk out in front of traffic without looking. One man left his car parked in the middle of the road to have an argument with a couple other men on the side of the road. Horns are used extensively here, mostly to tell you to get out of the way. The road is so bad you cannot drive very fast without jouncing out of control, but that does not stop the Italians from bouncing along with wheels more off the road than on. Enough of that ... onto the lunch!

We drove to the Big Apple American Steakhouse and Joan went in to read the menu and case the joint. It was empty. Two large televisions were tuned to Italian football matches. It was new and modern but Joan could smell no cooking and as no one was eating could see no food. Other than that, it looked okay. We decided to return to our hotel and try the fish restaurant across the street. It had tables overlooking the water. Two families were happily and busily eating away. We sat down and looked at the uninspired menu. The deck area was very hot, only partly shaded, and our table would be in full sunshine before the starters arrived. We decided to return to the steakhouse instead; we were both looking forward to some juicy meat!

We drove back to the Big Apple. In the meantime an Italian family had arrived. They seemed to be friends of the owner, who had spent time in Brooklyn and returned to Torre del Greco to open an American-style steakhouse four months ago. We ordered chicken wings and a spinach dip served with nachos as starters: four thick and juicy chicken wings emerged within a few minutes, and a deep bowl of a puree of cream spinach. I ordered the starter portion of spare ribs as my main course and Joan ordered the tagliata. The spare rib was just that: one small portion that was very tasty (although not anywhere near the Blue Smoke ribs we always feast on at the Jazz Standard in NYC) but also very tiny. The tagliata, on the other hand, was a massive, thick and juicy steak that could have served as three portions of tagliata! We had to have a portion of french fries to go with the meat, of course. They also served us a basked of delicious local bread. The dessert menu offered a ‘New York Cheesecake’. The waitress asked if we wanted coffee or dessert, and we did, but were too full. We lingered over the last of the wine and alternately watched the Italian family at the next table who had received the entire dessert menu to pass around (there were eight of them) and the Italian football (soccer) matches on the strategically placed massive televisions. We were presented with a complimentary plate of fruits. (We have experienced an overwhelming level of generosity and friendliness during our tour of southern Italy.) After the fruit platter we ordered the NY cheesecake, which tasted very genuine to us (although not quite at par with Juniors of Brooklyn). With two bottles of sparkling water and a bottle of Negroamaro red wine, our bill came to 62 Euro (only the second time in a month of eating out in southern Italy in which our bill broke the 50 Euro mark).

We returned to the hotel, stuffed!

A siesta followed the heavy dinner, and at sunset we walked along the seafront promenade. The small beach was black volcanic sand. Photographers were taking confirmation photographs. Another photographer had waded into the sea to get a photo of an anchored boat backlit by the setting sun.

We returned to the hotel to read and write and catch up on emails. Tomorrow we drive back to Orvieto, with a quick stop at a large shopping mall just north of Rome planned. (Ikea for Joan and FNAC for me!) And thus ends our September Tour of Southern Italy. We hoped you have enjoyed reading about our journey as much as we have experiencing it!


18th November 2016

Hi enjoyed reading your trip through Puglia. It has been our destination for past 6 years. Have gotten to know so many families at Masseria and b&bs. Too bad so many tourists never make it this far south.

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