Puglia -- the ancient and intriguing "heel" of Italy

Oleanders lined the autostrada, and lavender grew thick and pungent along the smaller roads. Ancient olive groves, silvery and gnarled and immaculately tended, covered almost every square kilometer, and when they were interrupted it was by vineyards, rich with heavy-hanging grapes.

And I thought southern Italy was a mountainous, barren region! Well, much of it is; but not the easternmost tip, the heel of the boot, Puglia.

It is surprising how quickly you can get there from Rome. On a bright blue day in late August my friend Laura and I left Rome at about 9 a.m., cut straight across on an excellent and practically deserted autostrada, and had lunch south of Bari at 1 o'clock with the Adriatic at our feet.

I rally didn't know what to expect in Puglia, and neither did Laura, who, although Italian, had never been there before. We did know about the famous baroque of Lecce, though, and of courss we had heard about the trulli.m

What are trulli? you may well ask. As we began to penetrate slightly inland, nearing towns like Alberobello, Cisternino, and Maratina Franca, the trulli suddenly took over the whole countryside. A trullo is rather like an igloo, with a pointed head and a little nob on top, built of sand-colored stones. Each trullo is really one round room where the farmers of the region would traditionally hang their produce, high up inside the coneshaped roof. A prosperous family, and there are a great many in Puglia, builds not a large trullo, but several trulli clustered together.

As we drove along the straight, quite road from Alberobello to Martina Franca , we felt we were in a kind of Hobbit-land, or on some other planet where strange little creatures live, for nothing but white onion-shaped trulli dot that gentle plain as far as the eye can see.

We couldn't find any satisfying explanations of the origin of the trulli, which exist in this corner of Italy and in no other, so we had fun making up our own. Their onion shape was the key, for it gives them a definitely Balkan look. This, added to the fact that there is a village in Puglia called Cheuti where an Albanian dialect is spoken (Albania is just across the water), gave us our clue. During what period in history the first trulli were built, whether before the classical Greek colonization or long after, is also a mystery. The stone roofs are often decorated with white-painted symbols, unidentified shapes that look as if they might have had some early religious significance.

Trulli aside, Laura and I were lured to Puglia by two other points of interest: the baroque of Lecce, and the sea. Ostuni, which turned out to be the high point of our trip as far as I was concerned, was an unexpected dividend.

Knowing very little about the area, and being fairly adventurous types, we made no hotel reservations beforehand. Our plan was to find a little hotel on the sea somewhere, at A point from which we could easily reach the towns that interested us most. Laura had a brochure about a seaside hotel near Ostuni, so, after passing through the valley of the trulli on that first afternoon, Ostuni became our goal.

We reached it in the early evening, and it took us completely by surprise. The road had been winding gently upward when a sign marked OSTUNI pointed us in the right direction. We turned left, then right, and then both of us gasped out loud, our mouths wide open in amazement.

There was Ostuni, completely white, spread thickly over a rounded hilltop -- near enough, it seemed, to reach out and touch. The bright whiteness of the town, even in that fading light, gave it a Moorish look. The houses were like so many snow-white cubes piled and bunched together in one big mass, and risng out of the top was the undulating gray form of the 15th-century cathedral.

I believe that when you love something, no matter what it is, is never fails to shine for you. You always manage to catch it at its best. That's how I feel about all of Italy, and our experience at Ostuni bears me out.

The patron saint of Puglia is a certain St. Oronzo, whose baroque effigy, beard and benign, looks down from the top of a column on most of the piazza in the region. Now it just so happened that Laura and I arrived in Ostuni on the eve of the most important day of the year -- the Festa di St. Oronzo.

I'm sure the Ostunesi don't go as all-out on Christmas or Easter I doubt if they could afford all those fabulous strings of white lights adorning the main streets -- or the gazebo set up in the piazza of the musicians and singers or spectacular fireworks -- more than once a year.

The evening of the festa we drove up into Ostuni from our hotel on the sea, and arrived in the piazza just as the procession was getting under way. First, the dignitaries of the church paraded past us, followed by little acolyts in white robes with lace trim. Then the horsemen, one buy one: handsome young men and their mounts bedecked in silver and red, each outdoing the other in pomp and splendor. We asked a young couple near us with a sleeping baby in its pram, and they explained that the riders and their horses were being judged in a kind of municipal St. Oronzo beauty contest. Indeed, each hors had a cardboard number attached to its rump.

After the procession we inquired about the time of the fireworks, as we wouldn't ahve missed them for the world. I had seen Italian fireworks once before, at the end of a Spoleto Festival, and they spoiled me for any other fireworks ever since. We were told they'd be at 9 o'clock, so we wended our way up the narrow, twisting, whitewashed street to dinner. The restaurant had been recommended to us, when we had lunch just south of BAri, as serving the most characteristic. Pugliese dishes. In fact, the menu was printed in the local dialect, but I must admit I prefer the cuisine of other parts of Italy. What I loved was the walk to and from that restaurant, for in that highest part of Ostuni the streets very often become stairways, narrow and twisting with many arches overhead -- and always, streets, stairs, archways, and houses are washed with that beautiful bright white.

The fireworks began as we were eating, and we and all the other clientele ran outside to look. It seemed to me that we saw them at their most beautiful, framed by one of those thick white arches against a deep, dark sky.

But best of all was what happened after dinner. Back in the piazza the gazebo was ablaze, strung along every rococo curve with white lights. In it was an orchestra, whether local or imported for the occasion, I don't know. The piazza was full of people, dressed up -- mostly in black -- for the festivities. WE found ourselves surrounded by small farmers -- contadinim -- their sunburned faces wrinkled and their black suits shiny with age. The music came floating over their heads from the gazebo. The singers, one by one, took their places at the microphone and gave us an aria. I think those musicians and performers must have had a style all their own, for at first I didn't recognize what they were playing. One of the contadini obliged me, though. He nudged his neighbor and, nodding toward the gazebo, whispered respectfully, "E il Rigoletto."m

For the short four days we had at our disposal, I think we found an ideal place to stay in Puglia. I found it excellent because it was only three kilometers (less than 2 miles) from Ostuni, and Laura found it excellent because it was right on the sea.

Plaia Residence was the name of the establishment, which consisted of several "villas" on the volcanic-rock beach. In one of these villas we had a big, modern room and bath with kitchen alcove and terrace, pleasantly furnished and spotlessly clean; when we were there this cost 16,000 lire a night for the two of us, or about $55 for three nights.

The Plaia Residence supplies no meals, but we found that about one kilometer up the coast was a tiny fishing port that had a couple of "alimentari," which provided us with bread and cheese for a light lunch or dinner.

And the swimming: glorious! I realize that volcanic rock doesn't sound very inviting as a beach surface; in fact, rubber-soled slippers of some kind are essential for walking to the water's edge, and they're a big help in getting in and out, too.Also, it's not easy to find a comfortable spot on the jagged, uneven ground to stretch out and worship the sun.

But once you're in the water, none of this matters in the least.A little hardship before- hand will only increase the pure joy of your swim. That wonderful water! There had been a storm before we arrived, and the sea was "mosso," billowy and very salty, and such a deep, clear blue-green that it was like swimming in a jewel.

We spent one day in Lecce. I have since learned that this llittle city is known as the Florence of Baroque, and it is easy to understand why. The churches, palaces, and squares of Lecce are the most impressive on that side of Sicily; and yet, Leccese baroque has a particular style exclusively its own.

This distinctive quality must reflect the diversity of outside influence in Lecce over the centuries. All of Puglia, to begin with, was part of the Greek colony of Magna Grecia. A Roman amphitheater in the center of town date from the first century. Then there was Byzantine influence, followed bay conquests by the Normans and the French House of Anjou. From 1463 through the baroque age the Spaniards included it in their Kingdom of Naples.

Probably the most fanous building of Lecce is the church of Ste. Croce, and with good reason. Virtually every inch of its large, curvaceous facade is crammed with carving -- yet is not too much. Because of the comparative smallness of all those jubilant and varied decorative forms, the effect is delightful and unique. I loved, for example, the strange row of caryatids shouldering the upper tier, unlike any I had ever seen before: geese, griffons dragons, and men, between three and four feet high, grinning at one another in fiendish delight.

We had a superb lunch in a little piazza opposite Ste. Croce in a serene and unhurried restaurant of the old style. Then as the city took its afternoon nap, we meandered through ancient streets. A southern Italian town, with its high walls, imposing facades, and the occasional glimpse of an inner courtyard, has such an air of mystery, and the lavish, crumbling curlicue forms of Lecce only enhanced this impression.

All of a sudden, in our wanderings, we came upon a piazza. What a thrill to turn a corner from a narrow street and discover that magnificent expance, princley, glittering, and totally unexpected. I suppose, to be perfectly honest , the buildings of this piazza (the cathedral, the Bishop's palace, and the ecclesiastical seminary) don't actually glitter, but the elaborate delicacy of their baroque facades certainly gives that umpression. The piazza is not square , nor round like a medieval piazza, but L-shaped, and if you stand in the middle of its majestic space and look around you, you can really feel the pomp and splendor of a dazzling, decadent age.

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