The driving time from Perugia to Vieste, on the Gargano Peninsula in Puglia, is about five hours, and it was as though we had been transported overnight into a completely different Italy. Indeed, many northern Italians refer to the southern part of the country, the mezzogiorno, as “Africa”, so different is it from the north. Everything changes; where the landscape of the north is rounded and manicured, in the south it is rugged, wild, unkempt. We are in midsummer, and a sun that was merely hot in the north has become oppressive and malevolent, beating everything into submission during the hottest hours of the afternoon, The traditional siesta is an absolute necessity, not merely a quaint local custom, and the towns that we passed through during the afternoon – conglomerations of square, boxy apartment buildings, painted in white or bright pastels, their flat roofs covered in a profusion of TV aerials, buildings designed to defend against the harshness of the outside world, providing a refuge until it is comfortable to go out and meet friends for the evening passegiata – were shuttered at street level, as much a ghost town as any in the Old West.
For us, this landscape also had an odd sense of familiarity. Robert and I both grew up on Adelaide’s, northern plains, where the land is flat, dry, and hot as Hades in summer. As we passed through the flat lands of northern Puglia, we suddenly saw why so many Italian migrants arriving in Adelaide must have instantly seen a world that had echoes of the places they had left behind, and why they settled down to create market gardens, grow grapes and olives, and build houses in the style they were accustomed to here in Puglia, and which we, with the careless harshness of youth, used to deride as “wog houses”.
Leaving the plains behind, we were treated to spectacular coastal views as we ascended the mountainous plateau of the Gargano Peninsula, the “spur” that juts out into the Adriatic from the “heel” of the Italian boot, following its periphery around to our first southern destination, the port and resort town of Vieste. The town embraces a deep bay; on the northern and western sides of the bay is the “new” town – actually dating back to the 18th century – built on a grid pattern to channel the sea breezes between the narrow lanes. A dramatic peninsula juts out on the southern side, the location for the old town, the centro storico, three or four steep streets climbing up from the harbour to the dominating castle built by Frederick II, who studded the whole of Southern Italy with fortresses of this sort during his 50 year reign, first as King of Sicily, which at the time included Puglia and Calabria, and then as Holy Roman Emperor. The old town is the tourist hub; shops selling souvenirs, food and drink specialties, like the local limoncello, spill out out into the narrow streets, which in the early evenings are are crowded with sightseers.
The new town, on the other hand, is definitely not gussied up for tourists – the streets are just as narrow, but instead of tripping over a carefully prepared display of souvenirs, you are more likely to bump into someone’s washing, left to dry in the street. Young boys play soccer everywhere that there is an open space, watched with a tolerant eye by nonnas who have planted a couple of kitchen chairs on the street so that they can sit and enjoy a gossip in the cool of the sea-breeze that wafts up from the harbour in the early evening. Wandering through the new town, our presence as tourists was noted, though our cheery buona sera usually elicited a smile and a nod.
Vieste is also very much a beach destination, and having had a day of looking around the town we decided we had to have our first go at having a day at the beach, Italian style. For Australians, of course, such an event can range from a simple grab-a-towel-and-let’s-go exercise, to a full military expedition, armed with beach umbrellas, beach chairs, and eskies full of drinks and food. Going to the beach in Italy is much simpler. You turn up at your favoured beach club, pay your money for an umbrella and two sun beds, and if you are really extravagant a changing box. You are then conducted to your allocated spot in among the seemingly endless rows of umbrellas, and that’s it, you’re set for the day. If you’ve got kids, they go off to play volleyball or soccer in the areas provided and equipped for that purpose. And when you’re ready for lunch or just want a drink, there is a bar and restaurant right there, in the middle of the club area. Some clubs even have a separate swimming pool, for those who like to swim and get the sun but aren’t so keen on the sand getting between their toes. Of course, these beach clubs are private concessions, so they squeeze the maximum number of beds into the given space, and it’s a bit cheek-by-jowl, which bothers the communally-minded Italians not one bit. But all in all it is a fairly civilised way of having a day at the beach, which we proceeded to do.
Vieste was a beguiling place that beckoned us to stay for weeks, but our timetable was relentless, and so off we went to our next stop, Bari, with a stop for lunch at Barletta, a pleasant coastal city dominated by another of Frederick’s castles. We didn’t take to Bari at first, probably because we were not enchanted with our hotel, which was located in the new part of the city. But it did grow on us once we had a chance to explore the charming old town, have a walk along the seafront, and visit the city’s first class art gallery (pretty much deserted!).
Our itinerary took us inland to the town of Martina Franca, which lies pretty much in the middle of the region of Puglia known as the Salento, a high and fertile plateau dotted with unique, conical-roofed houses called trulli. The greatest concentration of these houses in the region is in the town of Alberobello, where there is a whole hillside covered with them; unfortunately, it is also a huge tourist-trap, and the place swarms with coachloads who come to wander through the narrow streets, take pictures and buy souvenirs. Much more charming is the laid-back town of Locorotondo, which, though there is barely a trulli in sight within the town, affords great views across a countryside dotted with them. Its whitewashed town centre is a delight to wander through, and unlike Alberobello it doesn’t feel like it has become a museum town. Martina Franca, our base for these few days, is similarly “lived in”, and from our hotel – another of those marvellous Italian hotels where lunch is served by white-jacketed waiters and where there seems to be a permanent population of older Italian ladies – we happily joined the evening ritual of an aperitivo or two in one of the town’s piazze, before heading off to join the passegiata through the streets, ending the evening with an excellent pizza from a cheap street-side pizzeria.
Further south, our next destination was Lecce, often described as “the Florence of the South”. This is probably a bit unjust to both cities, since Lecce is actually quite unique. In the 1630’s a burst of building left it with a remarkable legacy of baroque architecture, which makes it a fantastic place just to walk around. Which we did, quite a lot, after we had sorted out one of my occasional failures as a travel organiser; the room I had booked, though basic and in itself comfortable enough, lacked any airconditioning at all, not an acceptable situation in the middle of a Salentine summer. So we hightailed it out of there and booked ourselves into the Grand Hotel which was actually only a few dollars more expensive, and sported, in addition to the all-important airconditioning, an excellent swimming pool.
After Lecce, our final destination for this road trip was the town of Otranto, right down on the south-eastern coast of Puglia. An important port since Roman times, Otranto’s old town sits on a peninsula and is almost entirely surrounded by impressive fortifications that connect it to the equally formidable castle, which these days is used for the much more pacific purpose of hosting art exhibitions; when we were there, it had an excellent exhibition featuring one of Carravaggio’s masterpieces as the focus for a collection of southern Italian followers of the great master. That wasn’t the only artistic endeavour going on in the town – as we wandered out for dinner one evening, we happened on a concert that was just getting under way in a small piazza just under the walls. That evening there was a little rain about, and halfway through the pianist’s performance, it started to come down – not heavily, just enough to cause a few umbrellas to be unfolded. We thought that perhaps the rest of the concert would be cancelled, but a little water wasn’t going to put these guys off; a big sheet of plastic appeared from somewhere to be draped over the piano, and the show went on!
Our hotel was just outside the old town, right opposite the beach, where we spent a pleasant couple of days swimming and relaxing. It was here also that we met the charming and handsome Lorenzo, a young Italian who lives in New York, but who was in Otranto having a holiday with his parents – and who was, we were all pretty sure, the only genuine gay in the village that week. I say “genuine” gay because, as Lorenzo pointed out, there are plenty of “straight” Italians who will cheerfully park their wife and cross to the other side of the sexual street should the urge take them. I think it is fair to say that the Italian attitude to sexuality is, to say the least, complicated. Even Lorenzo, who was very much an out gay man, couldn’t really explain it. In any event, he was fun to chat to (he talked even more than Robert, if anyone can believe that).
We didn’t spend all of our time being beach hedonists, though. There was plenty more to see down in Italy’s stiletto, and we made day trips down to Leuca, which is the most southerly point of Puglia, and across to Gallipoli. The latter follows the pattern of southern cities – a pleasant new town, laid out in a grid and lined with 18th and 19th century apartment buildings, and the original old town, which in this case is on an island joined to the mainland by a bridge and guarded by yet another fearsome-looking castle. On a whim, we decided to do a quick motor boat tour around the old town and out to another little island just offshore, where a multitude of boats were anchored, their owners enjoying a Sunday outing.
Our stay in Otranto was idyllic, but of course it had to come to an end, in this case with a two hour drive across the peninsula to Taranto, where we were to catch our train to Naples. We barely had time here to do much more than stop and have a quick walk around, which was a pity because it seems to be an attractive town, worth investing more time in. Ah well, there’s always next time …
Next blog entry – fabulous but frustrating Naples!