It was Thursday by the time I drank my first real expresso in a nondescript bar, the bars where the barista still dresses in a white shirt with a black waistcoat. It gives me confidence in the coffee when it's served by the dressed up men behind the counter. It's no secret that I have harboured a certain fondness for holidays in Italy, I like the traditions, familial closeness, rituals in food and Italian's expressiveness. Even if they believe themselves in the right like the time when we tried to make our way from the carpark in Alberobello only to be confronted with approaching vehicles. Perhaps the one-way signage was inadequate, one can only guess with a huge degree of accuracy what the frenzy of gesticulations implied from those in the opposite car. In 36 degree (celsius) heat we covered swaths of land and narrow streets in shuttered towns observing life objectively from the cool confines of our hired Renault. The heat either sucked life back inside homes or drove them in herds to the sea. I've never been drawn to stretches of sand no matter how beautiful where there are masses of people. It was on the other hand a spectacular view to see the sea of bodies.
And when finally the sun disappeared out came the elderly men in the piazzetta to play cards around their plastic tables and in the narrow alleys the housewives gossiped with their neighbours on similar plastic chairs outside their front doors. Their casualness and sense of companionship greatly impressed me, this is real life. What we enjoyed the most was the ocean swims in San Cesarea Terme, both because of the fewer bodies and the wonderfully cool, deep waters of the Mediterranean. We based ourselves just outside of Lecce in the carefully maintained (watered) surrounds of our masseria surrounded by the omnipresent parched landscape of olive groves. Here's a fact... Puglia produces 40% of the total olive oil production in Italy. I spotted pear, orange and lemon trees and around the olive trees fresh basil and bushes of lavender at our Masseria. Grape vines clung to the fences and framed the front entrance patio, you could in fact reach up and pluck those green globes right off the vine and in amongst chest high plantings along the perimeters we spotted strawberries peeking through the greenery. Apart from a day trip to the Valle D'Atria to see the trullis we spent the entire week in the Salento region and there is much to see if you're not afraid of a little driving. I've highlighted below the cities and places we visited that are worthy of the travel;
Lecce - described as Puglia's baroque masterpiece, the old town is the best place to base yourself as there are numerous architectural achievements to marvel at and enough restaurants and cafes to take a breath in for when you can go no further.
Gallipoli - the old town, the part worth visiting, is located on a tiny island connected by a 17th century bridge and protected by impenetrable walls. History tells us it was frequently under siege. It is built up for tourists with souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. Despite this it is lovely to circumnavigate when the sun calls it a day and even if you get there earlier, amble between the buildings it's much cooler. Gallipoli translates to "Beautiful City".
San Cesarea Terme - set amongst the cliffs with direct benefits from the caves and it's natural thermal baths. It's real jewel in soaring temperatures is the cooling waters of the Mediterranean down the cliff face, less perilous than it sounds. Most spas attract it's share of wealth so there are extravagant residences built over the years including the moorish looking Palazzo Sticchi. Approaching San Cesarea Terme along the coast from the south is spectacular, keep your eyes out for the caves.
Galantina - the quieter baroque cousin of Lecce. We visited Galantina before calling into Lecce and it's attractiveness for me lay in it's tranquil sereneness ahem less bodies on the street. If you haven't filled up on all your baroque curiosities in Lecce then start the engine and head south to Galantina.
Alberobello - this is as touristy as it gets as all converge to see the conical roofs of the trulli pointing to the heavens in clusters on the hillside. Here and there residents go about their daily chores, oblivious to the tourists, to scrub the landing, talk to the neighbours or jump into their small cars, highly practical given the narrow roads.
A word on the food, there are enough homegrown vegetables to make any vegan happy. Most of the pasta is made without eggs, fava bean soup is a celebrated dish and when friselle, like a bagel that has been dried out twice over, is prepared in just the right manner it can be downright heavenly. Home cooking is almost always best so stay at a masseria as you will often have all the food made from scratch, even the bread, with key ingredients picked from their gardens. We ate amazing hand made pasta with beans in a tomato broth at our masseria.
To get you in the mood for Italy, here is my list of good reads and films;
My Brilliant Friend(including the follow-up books) by Elena Ferrante - enduring friendship
I'm not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti - a coming of age story along the lines of Stand by Me
Cinema Paradiso - one of my favourites, a classic
A Bigger Splash - set in Sicily, my favourite scene is with Ralph Fiennes getting down to St. Vincent's cover of the Rolling Stones "Emotional Rescue"
I am Love - okay I'm a fan of Tilda Swinton, directed by Luca Guadagnino who also directed A Bigger Splash
Stealing Beauty - dreamy Tuscany, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Inspector Montalbano - detective series set in Sicily, love Montalbano's appreciation for good food
Life is Beautiful - you all know it!
Il Postino - romantic