My second trip after the end of quarantine was to Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot. I spent a week in countryside just outside Ostuni, amid the region’s vast olive groves, vibrant bougainvillea, and dusty oleander. Puglia, with its mix of cultural influences and incandescent light, has become a huge tourist draw in the last decade, warping lovely visits to places like Alberobello, Polignano a Mare, and Lecce into hot, crowded, and sometimes irksome experiences. This year, as we all know, is different, and Puglia has regained much of its natural rhythm. The Masseria Le Carrube, where I was staying, was full of guests. Most were Italian, enjoying una vacanza patriottica, with only a smattering of German and French visitors. The manager told me that they are indeed struggling, as they lost all of the spring and early summer bookings, but they where fully booked through July and August, so short of another catastrophe, she was hopeful.
What struck me was that there was no sense of being forlorn, nor did the estate have that dejected air of a tourist spot out of season. The breakfast patio was full, there were visitors about, but no loud voices rang out, and the lovely surrounding towns of Ostuni and Carovigno were wanderable without being harried.
Puglia was not on the Grand Tourist map, probably because it has always been difficult to get to. Despite such wonders as Frederick II’s octagonal Castel del Monte, a fusion of poetry and mathematics in stone, or the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, built between 1087 and 1197, which has contained the reliquary of St Nicholas’s bones since its foundation, there is almost no Grand Tour literature about the region.
There is, however, Horace Walpole’s genre-creating gothic novella, The Castle of Otranto, which borrows with abandon from the area’s medieval history. One can see immediately why Walpole was drawn to the dark power struggles of the murky past for inspiration, and readers of the work will recognize the origins of the characters immediately. Though historians don’t mention ghosts, bleeding statues, or talking paintings, Frederick II (1194-1250) was an impulsive, larger than life iconoclast. His character was marked by sharp contradictions: enchanting amiability was paired with cruelty; harshness and rigidity coupled with ravaging intelligence and a keen sense of realpolitik; tolerance and intolerance were the mingled thread of his character, as were a love of beauty and intellectual curiosity. King of Sicily (which included Puglia), Duke of Swabia, a German king, and Holy Roman Emperor, he eventually broke with the papacy and was excommunicated, nearly at the very moment he crowned himself King of Jerusalem claiming to be the fulfillment of prophecies, a messiah, and the new David. He tore through wives, crowned his one-year old son King of Germany, who later died in prison in Calabria, probably by his father’s command, and then crowned his nine-year old son, Conrad with the same title. His son Manfred was eventually defeated by Charles of Anjou in 1266.
Compared to Frederick II, Roman rule seemed tame. Apulia is the name the Romans used for the region, and there are many theories as to the meaning of the word. One theory is that it comes from the Latin a pluvia, meaning without rain, which doesn’t really make sense because the prefix “a” meaning “without” is Greek, while the word pluvia is Latin. Anyway, Puglia definitely does not lack rain, and the region has a unique blend of abundant precipitation and sunshine, making it ideal for olive groves and vineyards (something not lost on the Romans). The name Apulia probably comes from pre-Roman settlers in the region and not from a description of its climate, but actually both theories hint at what is special about this part of Italy: its rugged beauty and its fascinating history.
Like most places in the Mediterranean, Puglia was at the cross roads of trade and empires, with views towards East and West. The Arab influence is strong, and some of the cities that spill down into the sea seem more like North Africa than Italy, but there is evidence of much older civilizations. The Altamura Man dates from the Paleolithic era, and Puglia's history is traced to one to the earliest indigenous populations in Europe. There were also the usual suspects from around the Mediterranean; Greeks, Normans, Byzantines, and Spanish, all leaving their mark on Puglia’s culture and traditions and on its weird and wonderful architecture. There are fantastic trulli, with their hobbit-looking conical roofs, and spare and elegant masserie, which are fort, monastery, and hacienda all rolled into one. The stark white of stucco and stone pops among the blues of sea and sky and the russets and golds of earth and sunset.
While Puglia is probably more famous for its trulli, I prefer the austere simplicity of the masserie. The simple yet spacious rooms have a distinct charm: stone kitchen fireplaces, church-like arched hallways, and tile or stone floors. The masseria was at the heart of the vast land estates that thrived from the 16th to 19th centuries. They were fortified farmhouses, much like haciendas, surrounded by rolling hills, thick with olive groves, and pasture lands. In addition to the central building, where the landowner lived, there were other buildings to house animals, store crops, or to make oil, wine, and cheese. Some grew to the size of small villages, with the structures built around a central courtyard and protected by high walls against the Turks and pirates.
At the Masseria Le Carrube a friend from Puglia who is studying for her Master Sommelier certification helped to organize a sunset picnic with Walking Wine, a group of friends who specialize in "unconventional catering". In the warm light, surrounded by buzzing cicadas and olive trees like ancient sculpture, we gathered (there were about five couples) around a little three-wheeled truck, called ape in Italian. We tasted several local wines before settling down on blankets and pillows under the ulivi strung with twinkling lights to feast on variations of local dishes created by the masseria’s master chef.
On one of my last days in Puglia, I stopped to buy olive oil from Sant’oro, a frantoio whose oil had won several awards last year. I drove reluctantly down a very dusty road clogged with tractors, animals, and all manner of farm equipment, to meet Angelo Santoro, the youngest son in the current generation of Santoro oil producers. He had been out in the groves, battling the heat and the ravages of xylella fastidiosa– a plant pathogen that has killed tens of thousands of olive trees in recent years. Angelo’s family has been producing olive oil for generations, and their oil is pungent with tradition and artisanal know how. The monocultivations, oil from a single variety of olive, are so good you almost want to drink them straight. They each have a subtle difference and pair with different kinds of food. All of them have wonderful fruit quality with the right balance of spiciness that catches in your throat. The oil from leccino olives has a slight sensation of almond, and the peranzana is herby with a scent of artichoke, while my favorite, picholine, hints of green tomato and is a bit more spicy and aromatic.
Between xylella fastidiosa and global warming, the growers in Puglia face long, hard workdays with much smaller yields and less income. This has left much of the region more reliant on tourism, but it is people like Angelo’s family and vintners like Tenute Rubino, who create heady and complex wine from the amazing black susumanuiello grape, who are the backbone of Puglia’s economy. They represent the traditions of the past and the promise of an economic future less reliant on mass tourism.