I would gladly pass my summers in Puglia, willingly entangled in its wild coastline and vast olive groves. On clear days you can make out Albania on the horizon and 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 influences of Italy’s past 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. Despite the regions rising popularity, English/German/American tourists would probably still opt 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 a day pass your time comfortably. The town’s beach is clean, its waters clear blue and inviting. The town itself just like most towns on the south coast ooze antiquity and faded opulence.
We stayed in Santa Cesarea, a small sleepy thermal spa town which comes alive in the summer months. When we first 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 venues I have ever visited is Caicco, a beach bar with sun beds on it’s rocky terraces by day and a great romantic spot to drink / dine at night. The beautiful come here to people watch, dressed int heir best beach attire. Funnily enough the cocktails were each named after cities / towns in Turkey..
Gallipoli was lively and characteristic. Here, we had our first experience of ‘ricci’, sea urchins, which are so very much adored in these parts as are most sea molluscs, but a word of warning; don’t have them cooked with pasta – its a dish not for the faint hearted and definitely an acquired taste! The thought of the dull snotty urchin flesh makes me heave to this day! Eat them at their best, raw and mopped up out of their spiky shells with bread.
Lecce was a Baroque lover’s dream; heavily embellished architecture, layers of history, amazing street food: well, I guess tasty street-food is normal anywhere in the Med. After clubbing al-fresco style on the outskirts of Lecce immersed in crowds of tireless party people, a Rustico soaked up the failing will to stay awake.
Speeding through acres of olive groves where all signs pointing different directions lead to mystical town of ‘Maglie’ (which despite driving through most of Puglia’s Southern tip never actually appeared) you soak up 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 Trulli homes, it would have been a big risk taking the exit off the motorway whist speeding to the airport already for 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.
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 and relented to 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 on firm on its traditions. You can hear tamburellos, accordions, dance the Pizzica, experience festivals with Pagan roots, eat the most simple food made by the most delicious seasonal produce. And it’s not just the older generations who abide by tradition, the youth also hold their heritage high with pride. A revival of Italian tradition 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 and spurred on by a 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 and no dance can be recreated. It’s spontaneous, the dancers whirling around 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. 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.
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