I would gladly pass my summers in Puglia between its wild coastline and vast olive groves. On clear days, you can make out Albania on the horizon. Greek songs lament nostalgically the radio. But of course, you are on Italy’s heel tip, a peninsular seemingly far from civilization called Salento. The further south you travel in Italy, the more remnants of Italy’s visitors you see, Puglia seems as if a cultural pinnacle. Its easy to become disoriented here with beaches / towns named after Turks, dishes identical to those in Albania (Pittule = Petula) and Griko speaking villages.
In August tourists from all over Italy flock to Puglia’s beaches. I noted a lack of English/German/American tourists which had probably opted for one of Italy’s more known and overly crowded destinations. Baia dei Turchi (Translates as Turk’s Bay) just north of Otranto offers selvage beaches with crystal clear water beyond a dense pine forest.
Otranto is a small town, yet big enough to pass your time comfortably. The town’s beach is clean, its waters clear and blue. The town itself just like most town on the south coast ooze antiquity and faded opulence.
We stayed in Santa Cesarea, a small thermal spa town on the coast. This sleepy town comes alive in the summer months. When we passed through, a Bollywood movie was being shot on its rocky shores, actresses dressed in billowing sari’s sheltered from the sun in between scenes. Perhaps one of the most memorable places I have ever visited is Caicco, a beach bar with sun beds on it’s rocky terraces by day, a great romantic spot to drink / dine at night. The beautiful come here to people watch. Funnily enough, the cocktails were each names after cities / towns in Turkey..
Gallipoli was charming and lively. Here, we had our first experience of the eagerly awaited Ricci tasting. Ricci (Sea Urchins) amongst other molluscs are a delicacy revealed in the Med, but a word of warning don’t have them cooked with pasta! This dish is not for the faint hearted! The thought of the dull snotty urchin flesh makes me heave to this day! Eat them at their best, raw and mopped up with bread dough.
Lecce was a dreamy city, heavily embellished with Baroque architecture. The street food here was amazing – well, I guess tasty street-food is normal anywhere in the Med. After clubbing al-fresco style on the outskirts of Lecce, a Rustico soaked up all that alcohol.
Speeding through acres of Olive groves when all signs pointing different directions lead to mystical town of ‘Maglie’ (which despite driving through most of Puglia’s Southern tip never materialised) you soak in the deepest darkest Italy. We passed Ostuni, a Moorish white city with spectacular panoramic views. Regrettably, through lack of time we were unable to visit Alberobello with its hobbit like homes (Trulli), it would have been a big risk taking the exit off the motorway whist speeding to catch a flight to Sicily. We may have even ended up at Maglie! Seeing the Trulli teasing us through tree tops was enough assurance that they’d still be there when we would eventually return to Puglia.
Puglians have remained relatively quiet through all of Italy’s turmoil. Its as if after centuries fighting off invaders, Puglia breathed a sigh of relief, embracing simplicity and tranquility. It’s a region worth discovering not just because of its rugged beauty, but because here you will find the real Mediterranean way of life, hidden away from modernisation and far away from the tourist trail. Where the North of Italy has been ‘Westernised’, the South holds firm on its traditions. You will hear tamburellos, accordions, experience festivals with Pagan roots, eat the most simple yet tasty food. And it’s not just the older generations who abide by tradition, the youth also hold their heritage high with pride. It seems a revival of Italian traditions is rife. I’d love to go back when La Notte della Taranta is on – to dance Pizzica in the ancient cobbled squares.
My sister and I became involved with Friends of Puglia, a social networking group, on our return to London. Thanks to them we danced the Pizzica together to music by London-based folk band Amaraterra. I think I lost 6lbs that evening, dancing saturated in sweat, spurred on by the frenzy of tambourines and memories of the Med (nothing to do with the vodka and redbulls of course!). Pizzica is a dance where partners are equal, no one takes the lead. Whirling round and stamping, Pizzica resemble the cycles of life itself and can be joyful, angry or tragic. The dance is said to have derived from exorcising the poison from a spiders bite. No two dances can ever be recreated as there is no set routine; the steps are improvised on the spur of the moment. Good dances are dependent on how well you know your partner. The music may play on, so chose your partner carefully because you may have to dance together for an eternity.