We were tourists not travellers in Apuglia (I prefer the older word) setting out to see as much as possible with a guided tour. It was a trade off to be sure, more a quantitative than qualitative experience, but that was fine, the purpose was served. For fifty years I longed to see Bari which my grandmother left forever in 1911, the land of poverty, the Land of Remorse, the land of chronic massacres. It was far more beautiful and haunting than I’d ever imagined and understood why Laura Terrone missed it every day of her life in the New World.
My DNA is half Apuglian; I had expected to see half Italian when I sent the sample to Ancestry which determined the other 50% originated in the British Isles. Instead it revealed 29% Greco Italian, with 21% an assortment of Balkan, European Jewish, Caucasian, and Middle Eastern with a touch of the Iberian peninsula, like a history of the eastern-most region of Italy. At one point in time it was the colony of Magna Graecia where
Pythagoras, Archimedes and Aeschylus lived and where Western Civilization started to flourish.
I could scarcely believe how congested, chaotic and graffiti -strewn Naples was on the drive from the airport to the Renaissance Mediterraneo hotel, a few minutes from the Bay and overlooking Vesuvio. After a sleepless night with singing giovanetti outside our window we spent the next day at the National Archaeological Museum one of the true wonders of the western cultural world housing the Farnese collection and artifacts and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the Herculaneum excavation site later that day a few miles south we walked down into the ruins of luxury villas in what had been a seaside resort for the wealthy, Ercolani, before Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. It rained lava here not volcanic ash as in Pompeii which preserved the organic life in the bustling commercial center. Here only a few skeletons remained, in basements near the river bank and scholars are still debating what happened to the people.
The next day we were off to the northeast of Campania, stopping for lunch in the stunning mountain town lying on a ridge between two rivers, Benevento, on the Via Appia between Rome and Brindisi. Founded by Diomedes after the Trojan War it became a Roman colony then a Lombard city and has numerous Longobardian churches where a young Padre Pio worshipped. Trajan’s Arch still stands and from a later moment in time Santa Sofia where the locals congregated after mass then strolled in a colorful passeggiata on the Corso Garibaldi.
Later in the day we arrived at Apuglia’s most prominent landmark, the 13th century Castel del Monte, one of the 92 castles built in the region by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Hohenstaufen. The dark moody day was perfect for visiting this massive Gothic castle sitting atop a 4,000 foot mountain overlooking the coast from the Gargano to Monopoli and the foothills of the Murge plateau. Equidistant between Chartres and Cheops it has an obsession with the number eight (as in the emperor’s crown!) , with eight rooms, all perfect octagons, on both floors, and eight octagonal towers, one of which we ascended on impossibly tiny steps. There was a lot of climbing up and down streets and staircases on this tour and you really had to have stamina. Most of us were past 60 some past 70 and 80 and the level of activity was considerable though we had not been forewarned.
Passing Cerignola, the storm center of revolt in the early 20th century when peasant farm workers struck against the brutal conditions imposed on them by the owners of the vast latifundi. The green and golden fields of wheat, the endless olive orchards and vineyards of the Tavoliere here in Foggia rolled by the window, once the land of extreme poverty and inhumanity imposed on Apuglians by men from the north who came south after the Risorgimento like carpetbaggers. Latifundism was another reason why millions emigrated from Apuglia.
Then Bari, Bari, Italy. Finally. We stayed in the new town on the Corso Cavour with its grid plan spaghetti-thin streets a few minutes walk from Bari Vecchia which reminded me of a medina in Tangiers with narrow streets winding around and around the port within the fortified castle walls. It is authentico, with a vigorous street, life old men sitting and smoking on plastic chairs, laundry hanging from each balcony, nonnas their daughters and grandaughters making the daily orrechiette and taralli drying them on screens in the sun.
The 11th century Basilica Pontificia San Nicola the vast Romanesque cathedral was my true destination, the church which my grandmother sent money to from America, $2 at a time, for stained glass windows. It was startlingly half Roman Catholic, half Orthodox, housing the bones of Saint Nicholas ( Santa Claus of legend) a Turkish bishop adopted by the Barese when 62 local sailors stole his relics from Myra in 1087. in the lower crypt babushked Russian women and Orthodox priests prayed before his bones at the silver alter behind a silver screen. Every May the 17th century statue, right there still in the basilica, is carried through the streets of Bari down to the sea by sailors. That St.Francis of Assisi prayed here and that my grandmother sometimes wore the Capuchin robes and scapulas of the Order of St. Francis was emotionally powerful.
At dinner In a trattoria on the Piazza Ferrarese, overflowing with Barese on a warm Sunday night, we had the best meal of the trip, with the main ingredients the mellow, fruity Apuglian olive oil and dark red wine from the Primitivo grape. It was virtually vegetarian, true cucina povera, rapini with orrechiette, fava bean puree, wild mushroom ragu, stacked eggplant sliced paper thin, ceci. Mussels and some veal made an appearance as almost always in Apuglia where I never saw chicken or beef because it is too expensive to raise cattle to maturity. The brown grainydurum wheat bread was a revelation.
Bari has a long gracefully curved harbour and busy port, which was in October with the blinding sun still too hot to tarry on for long. One can only imagine the 100 to 120 degree temperatures in the summer which justifies these long siesta hours when everything is chiusa from 1.30 to 5. Everything still was this October, much to the tourist’s annoyance The port was a point of departure for the Crusades and the entry point for a dizzying array of conquerors including the Lombardian Dukes of Benevento and Muslim Saracens and the Byzantine emperors of the Levant . From the Neolithic, to the Peutians, the Messapians, the Greeks, the Romans, Swabians, Normans, expecially the Normans, the Longobards, the Angevins and Aragons and the Turks. It seems everyone who had a fleet raided this part of the Adriatic coast.
We checked out of the Hotel Oriente and boarded the bus to Lecce at the beginning of the humble Salentine peninsula, the southermost part of the heel. Deemed the Florence of the South, the Athens of Apuglia, the Florence of Baroque, all meaningless terms because it is perfect as it is, remote Lecce has now been discovered by Helen Mirren, Gerard Depardieu and countless Englishmen. After the great commercial successes of the 17th and 18th centuries the city’s architects embraced Baroque and Rococo decoration carving on to classical facades golden bouquets of stone putti, angels, saints, fruits and flowers as in the gay and exuberant Cathedral of Santa Croce. Though loved by most over the centuries, 18th century Marchese Grimaldi said the facade made him think of a lunatic who was having a nightmare.
There are numerous ornate palazzi where the elegant Salentino citizens lived (who called the Barese decadent Levantines), with Spanish style wrought iron balconies. The Piazza Oronzo is named for the the sainted bishop whose statue looms over countless African immigrants trying to supplement their stipends from Italy by selling trinkets. Though there were 62,000 migrants in 2015 and 200,000 since 2014 in a poor crowded country the Italians are tolerant and kind though the commercial harrassment of tourists continuous. The piazza is constructed atop a wonderful Roman ampitheater that once seated 25,000.
Our hotel was the remote Best Western’s Leone di Messapia (evocatively named for the Balkan Messapians, those Indo European Illlyrians who settled in Apuglia seven centuries before Christ). The restaurant Mbriana Bella was sparsely populated like the hotel and the veal dry and pasta pomodoro, always with ricotta mixed in, bland. Maybe the hotel and restaurant were like many of those optimistically built in the oughts when everyone predicted a tourist stampede to Lecce and the Salentine, which one suspects has not really materialized. Even the luxe high priced masseria like Borgo Ignazio may not have found it easy to attract tourists and one wonders how Francis Ford Coppola’s Palazzo Margherita is faring in Bernalda, Basilicata. This has been called the Great Tourism Fail in the Mezzogiorno with the Italian government using 98% of the tourism budget for salaries and where only 13% of all tourists to Italy venture.
The next night a wine tasting at the Masseria d’Astore in
Cutrofiano a few miles south of Lecce took place in a fortified farmhouse on a grand Salentine estate carefully restored by orthodontist Paolo Benegiamo who lives there with his family. It produces evoo and small batch wines mainly from the Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes grown in their vineyard. We started dinner of with a Malvasia Bianca, then a Negroamaro Rose and on to two Filimei Reds one a year old the other five years made from the Aliarico grape. They were clean and crisp though lacking
L’Astore studiously makes biodynamic wines, subsidized by the government, using purely organic grapes, with no synthetic chemicals or mechanical irrigation and no added ingredients. That the harvesting and planting respect obscure astrological rituals detracts a bit from the credibility of this monoculture. The masseria was once a 16th century frantoio ipogeo and still retains the underground olive mill, in the original cave where olives were crushed and made into golden liquid for consumption for London street lamps. The workers were too poor to use the oil themselves and the subterranean conditions under which they labored to produce the oil was visibly worse than Dickensian, dark, underground, damp, with low ceilings which forced the men to remain bent over. Mamma mia!
Apuglia has olive trees some which still bear fruit though they predate the birth of Christ. Before the xyella fastidiosa outbreak there were about 60 million trees and some estimates claim over a million trees or more have been lost since 2013. The olive trees here are much larger, gargantuan even, than in Tuscany and like the people of Apuglia because they have had to struggle for survival in a harsh land they have grown tough, reaching deep down to reserves of strength.
The next day we drove through the Val d’Istria the lovely undulating Trulli Valley, stopping by Ostuni ,the White City, dazzling on a high hill about five miles inland to evade pirates. As usual in Apuglian towns it was repeatedly sacked, has a colorful but treacherous history, a riot of Norman churches, palazzi for the aristocratic familes past and present, winding streets and alleys with shops and family restaurants. English and German tourists flock here.
Tourism in Apuglia is usually promoted with endless photos of
Alberobello which until a hundred years ago was the lair of brigands hiding in thick woods and preying on travelers. Today the hundreds of picturesque trulli, the bee hived shaped conical houses that resemble farm tool sheds in the olive fields, are one or two room dwellings. Built of local limestone slabs their triangular roofs have Messapian roots with enigmatic icons and varied rooftop spindles. They tell the tale of the woodland town Sylva Arboris Belli and powerful Count Giangirolamo in the 16th century who told his feudal serfs to build houses without mortar to be easily dismantled to evade tax collectors.They are gleamingly whitewashed, with walls of several feet,perhaps one window and are charming en masse.
The restaurants were closed even before the magical siesta hour because of nearby construction so we spent our time walking up and down the hilly town about to close for the season. Sometimes called Trulliville with its endless tiny, poor tourist shops, it has chic weekend second homes for rich Milanese or Barese. Our hotel for the next two nights, the Grand Hotel Chiusa de Chietri, again far out in the suburbs, was built as a luxurious spa paradise with magnificent landscaping and spacious public spaces but alas had fallen on hard times perhaps because the working class English trippers tolerate substandard everything. Our feisty American tour group complained that the carpets were wet and the mold everywhere including the questionable bathrooms.
Otranto Otranto — where had I heard that? Was it Byron? No it was the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (he had never been there but liked the sound of the name) the very first Gothick novel kicking off centuries of vampires and monsters and other nonsense. Bari and Otranto were ruled by the catapan of Byzantium before the explosion of Christianity in the middle ages, the 11th -13th centuries, when ruthless conquering Muslims were replaced by equally ruthless and even more cruel Catholic Normans, those footloose mercenaries who passed through Southern Italy in 1015 on their way back from the Crusades and by 1050 were powerful enough to defeat the papal army .
The capital of the Terra d’Otranto and the easternmost point in western Europe, Otranto seems like a Greek town. The Norman cathedral’s floor is the most important mosaic in Apuglia depicting the struggle of good and evil perhaps predicting the Turkish invasion of 1480, still called the sacco, which wiped out the town of 12,000 leaving only 800 who were canonized as saints.
We were however getting a tad churched-out so hurried up the steep hill to the cathedral then descended to the seaport to look at the meeting point of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. We bought a gelato at one of the few places still open at the end of the season and I thought of our trip to the seaside towns of northern England a few years ago when shuttered shops greeted autumn’s visitors. But there was one more important place to see.
Matera was once in Apuglia but today is the Sassi city on a hilltop in Basilicata. The bus was parked alongside a long string of buses about a mile from the center of the town of Matera located on top of the Sassi cave dwellings. We were herded on to a viewing platform as we had in Alberbello here with Italian tourists and their families taking selfies before the spectacle of the troglodyte village.
My grandmother often told me that people lived in caves in Apuglia and now I knew she was not exaggerating as I stood before a ghoulish stage set from a production of Dante’s Inferno. The caves carved into limestone ravine, treeless and desolate, a fortress standing above the plains and the Gravina River below. Although sassi existed in some form since Neolithic man they remained throughout the millennia dire peasant dwellings for the poorest of the poor in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, like Aleppo. For several centuries the city was entirely underground hiding in a dense forest so invading Saracens could never see it from above.
Down, down, down Escher- like steps into the old city hewn we see limestone rocks, tufa, high above the river and plains, past the newer sassi now 4- star hotels and boutiques and second homes (some call it Tribeca) down down into the vertical chaos of the old city that was exposed by
Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped and Eboli. When it was published in 1945 a horrified government forced the evacuation of the population of 15,000 who lived with their animals in the filthy underground caves. They were moved into sterile new housing blocks, destroying the community, but in 1986 subsidies were made available to renovate the sassi and grotto churches cutting costs in half and in 1993 it had recovered enough to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
Ah would that we had happened upon this astonishing vision by chance in another era. Today the city of Matera with 60,000 residents with its elegant 18th century square with palazzi and restaurants was just declared the 2019 European Capitol of Culture. After viewing all the momento mori skulls and crossbones on the cathedral we grabbed an aperitivo at Hemingway’s Bistrot on the via Riobla Domenico. Yes. Hemingway again, even here in the Mezzogiorno. This man was a historical menace.
Such melancholy thoughts accompanied me the 200 miles to Sorrento. through Basilicata’s mountains that resemble the Dolomites which after the flatness of Apuglia was a shock. Both regions of the Mezzogiorno are still poor compared to the rest of Italy with over one quarter (some say 75%) of young men unemployed. One of our guides Simonetta told me with that characteristic menefreghismo that there were no opportunities in the south and that she will probably be stuck in her job forever if she choses to stay here. Many young people have already jumped the train out of there since Matteo Renzi’s master plan to resusitate Apuglia seems to have stalled.
Sorrento was a mass of humanity spilling off the sidewalks, so exquisite, so picturesque, so polluted with unregulated tourism, here on the beautiful Tyrrhenian. The Cristina Hotel had a spectacular view of the coast. You cannot ruin the beauty of the natural setting of the peninsula, the red clfffs against the blue sea and the golden light.
We took the bait and went to Capri via the hydrofoil, then on to a waiting speedboat that zipped around the gorgeous aquamarine grottoes (though the Blue one now off limits) past scores of boats some with divers. Then we were crammed into a funicular for the ride to the Piazza Umberto a seething scrum of comically overpriced shops and restaurants. We did get some stunning tourist shots from the Garden of Augustus at the base of the Krupp mansion but this was not the Villa of Jovis of Tiberius or the Capri of Graham Greene and Debussy. One needs to go to the private parts of the island for that and there was no more time.
One of the pitfalls of being a tourist is the relentless momentum of it all, when your brain cannot keep pace with your feet and spectacular sights flash by with one’s dwindling comprehension. I will have to return to Apuglia some day as a traveller but I will always be grateful for this chance to see what I have always dreamt of. Ciao