Friday, August 12, 2011

Ten Days in Puglia, Part 2: A Basilicata Seque and Southward

Lovely, limestoney, Trani welcomed us into a gorgeous old monestary and fed us fresh fish and creamy gelato.
Had we been staying in an apartment instead of a hotel, we would have hit up this charming fisherman and his selection of langoustine, pulpo, sea urchins and fresh fish.

Sometimes you just stop, right there in the middle of the street, and admire. But keep an ear out for oncoming Vespas. They'll sneak up on you, fast.

In case you've thought about doing one of those "Leaning Tower of Pisa" poses on other monuments, you might want to reconsider, as Ingo cheerfully demonstrates at the Castel del Monte, about an hour outside of Trani and high on Ingo's, "Must see before I die" list.

So, Matera. In all honesty, I had never heard about Matera until I read this article. I am not sure if the city, particularly the former cave dwellings, referred to as the "Sassi" or stones, have attracted many tourists in the past or if the industry got a boost when Mel Gibson' filmed "The Passion of the Christ" here in 2004. But it appears that Matera is poised to become a sort of Disneyland for spelunking tourists. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the old cave dwelling side of the city faces a gorgeous arid canyon. The caves were actually inhabited until the 1950s when the Italian government forced residents out because it was an "embarrassment" to have people living in such squalor in modern times. Government high rises were constructed and the former owners were begrudgingly relocated. Begrudgingly because these caves were kinda rad. They stayed cool in hot summers, boasted the first irrigation system in the city and offered membership into a sort of tight knit community that comes from living literally on top of each other.

We booked a room at the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Le Grotte della Civita which coincidentally, is the primary focus of an article in the upcoming September issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine entitled "The Towns Italy Forgot". (Another one of those DAMNIT!! WHY DIDN’T I WRITE THIS!! moments). As Miriam Murphy says in the article, it is a one-of-a-kind hotel and she speaks with the proprietors and provides interesting background on the architect’s vision for the hotel and other similar projects focused on resurrecting abandoned villages while preserving their architectual and historic integrity. And although Phillipe Starcke obviously wasn't around back in the day to design bathtubs for the cave dwellings like the one in our hotel room, they do use mostly locally sourced materials, like the dark woods used by local carpenters to make the closets and tables. Or old stone troughs used as sinks.

We wandered the city from one steep slippery stone walkway to the next. Which was a bit of a technical feat being that I was 6 months pregnant – meaning I had to haul around 20 extra pounds and my balance was off - and it was 95 degrees. But the views kept us going, every winding trail offered scenery more spectacular than the next. As much as “jaw-dropping” is an overused cliché, I can’t think of a better word to describe the Sassi.

In a country like Italy, there is very little left to “discover” – the famous works of art and architecture have all been found, documented, restored and displayed. The charming fishing villages have traded in shanties for boutique hotels and waterfront seafood restaurants, the best beaches are covered with “bagni” where it costs 20 euro a day to have the privilege of sitting under one of their umbrellas and on one of their beach chairs, the best restaurants have lines and waiting lists, as do the most significant cathedrals and now even the wild countryside of Tuscany and Umbria boast views that are blocked by sign after sign for the newest oldest agrotourismo accommodations and dining.

Our cave room
Don’t get me wrong, I love Italy. I fell madly deeply hopelessly in love with Italy when I was 16 and went abroad for the first time in my life on a Rotary exchange program. I spent the summer with two families, both of whom had a girl my age who I quickly called my best friend and both of who lived outside of Milan. I was enchanted by the animated language from the lyricism of the words that would be impossible to speak in a straight jacket for lack of use of the hands and entire body. I was thrilled that dinner started with a huge plate of pasta – just started! I looked forward to the afternoon lull following lunch where we’d lay around and watch bad talk shows or just talk. But most of all, I fell head over heels for Massimiliano. And let’s be honest, a short but sweet love affair will definitely taint your view of a place.

The common room
Massimiliano is long gone but my love for Italy remains deep. The way they stock legs of prosciutto and wheels of Grana in gas stations (!) and convenience stores (!), the repertoire of endearing names you are called by complete strangers and acquaintances (Ciao bella! Ciao stella! Ciao gioia!), the stand-up espresso counters and potato chip buffet apperitivi, the nonnas in their one-size-fits-all moomoo dresses and knee high stockings, the way the women will get made up, decked out, dressed up just to go out to the corner store for milk, the multitude of hand gestures that one must learn to actually understand the language, the tolerance for sexist talk shows that have not changed in 20 years. Even the annoying things – especially the annoying things – are endearing. That’s love.

And the touristy stuff is often endearing as well. But not always. If Italy had a Masai Mara, a Chang Mai hill people tour, an overtouristy, voyeuristic, over-hyped, something potentially interesting relegated to the ranks of banal, it would be Alberobello and “trulli” country. Please tell me I am wrong, I so wanted to be enchanted. And I preface my opinion by saying we had only 24 hours to spend in the Valle d’Istria – nowhere near enough time to explore it properly. I would have loved to spend a week in an artfully restored trullo somewhere in the countryside – and I don’t doubt there are many of them and that they are amazing. But I am atalking about Alberobello.

A typical trullo in Alberobello

Just skip it. Drive by. Snap a pic if you want. But don’t stay there. It’s the kind of place where you feel like you got suckered. You will be angry with yourself for falling prey to the trulli scam. At least, that is kinda how we felt. Go instead to Locotarondo for dinner, and stop in Martina Franca for granita at the M Betitto Sorbeteria.

An evening stroll through Martina Franca

Drive by the trullis in the fields, maybe stop by. But do yourself a favor and skip Alberobello. Maybe it’s because we just came from Matera, or maybe it was the family from Long Island who was walking around behind us with a heavily accented running commentary, but the town was just – meh. Everyone wants to sell you something, or provide you with an “authentic” stay in one of their trullis. Just avoid. Overall we were surprised by how “untouristy” Puglia is. At least, by foreigners. Italians discovered Puglia long ago and continue to appreciate its beaches, its food, its towns. But the rest of the world has only just started to catch on. And a great way to take it all in, is to set up shop there for a little while. Like we did. With our HomeAwayUK rental on the Adriatic coast just outside of Tricase, north of the southern most tip, Santa Maria de Leuca. Next and final installment: our amazing little house on a cliff and the southern tip.