A Turn Around Puglia and Basilicata
Words by Giada Valdannini
Images by Stephanie Gengotti
If you think you know a place, try looking at it through the eyes of another. You will find their awe intact. This is what happened to us, a photographer Stephanie Gengotti and journalist Giada Valdannini, travelling with UNCOVR between Puglia and Basilicata. We toured alongside two other creatives – Coke Bartrina and Nuria Val – Spanish professional Instagrammers.
The season is favourable. At the end of May, the breeze blows softly, the sun kisses without being aggressive, and tourists have yet to invade the more crowded localities. But it’s not like UNCOVR frequents these places to begin with: we stay away from the hustle and bustle, which is probably also why, even to an Italian eye, this part of the South can seem so unfamiliar.
We know about the “boot” that it is a land of beauty, of open and hospitable people, but beware of starting off on the wrong foot: you can end up stranded on a packed beach or in line to museums along with everyone else; never at the table with locals, which is precisely what we did.
Is there anything better than stretching evenings out late as not to give up the pleasure of waking up in the morning in an unexpected place? Imagine opening the blinds, being greeted by the first rays of sun and seeing the Adriatic appear ahead of you. It is impossible to resist the embrace of nature, anticipating – as you breakfast under a pergola of wood and stone (La Peschiera) – the taste of one of the three seas that surround Italy, in which you will immerse yourself shortly. We left from Monopoli, aboard two iconic Alfa Romeo Stelio cars in order to explore Puglia and Basilicata in total comfort. Traveling with UNCOVR is an immersive experience, made up of stories, not only places, orally recounted by the protagonists: the local creatives and entrepreneurs who seek out hidden gems that can only be found by those who delve deep enough and imagine adventures beyond the traditional itineraries
From Age-old Olive Trees to Good Wine
Not by chance, the first stop is at the beginning of Martina Franca: a Baroque architectural gem in the heart of Valle d’Istria, on the southern offshoots of Murgia, at the border of Brindisi, Bari and Taranto. That’s where I Pastini is based, a wine company that makes efforts to retain the teachings of ancient traditions and pair them with more modern techniques of winemaking. It is in the oldest area of its kind where you can appreciate the rows of the native Verdeca Bianco d’Alessano and Minutolo, guided by Gianni Pastini – the owner, who, while we tasted wine, tipped us off to a venerable trullo across the train tracks that curiously run by the property and separate the plantations in half. We also learn from him that in Latin, the ‘pastinum’ wasn’t anything other than the hoe that dug the little ditch that collected water, as though to confirm how much in Puglia, past and present necessarily go hand in hand.
But the most startling is when we arrive at an open-air museum: a stretch of monumental trees in the Park of Coastal Dunes, an integral part of the unmissable Masseria Brancati. In this estate from the 16th century, you can lose yourself between the olive trees aged up to 4,000 years, the presence of which – already certified in Roman times – might as well date from the Mesopotamic period. “Just like the ruins of the wheels and the subterranean olive press, used not long ago as a simple storage room,” Corrado Rodio proudly tells us as he strokes the trunk of an olive tree “twisted three times upon itself,” sustained by stones placed there 300 years ago.
He is the owner of this estate that has belonged to his family for two centuries. “I had an office job, and this nearly-abandoned masseria. At a certain point, I decided to trade in my punch card for a shovel, and restructured the residence and underground areas.” He wanted to be economical without so much as planting a nail, and he managed to, considering that every year he has visitors from all over the world: primarily from China, Japan, South Africa and New Zealand. The secret? Quality oil and warm hospitality, to the point that, when dancers assemble at dusk in the courtyard for a spectacle of pizzica, the traditional dance, it is difficult to leave.
We encounter a gregarious but decidedly more glamorous atmosphere at Tenuta Terre di San Vito. Owned by Giovanni De Napoli, a young entrepreneur who was able to combine his personal cosmopolitan experience – he worked in fashion for years – with absolute craftsmanship in working the grape, bringing into Puglia – it’s true, a rare thing – typical vines from from other latitudes that were perfectly adaptable to the conditions of the territory of Terre di San Vito: Cabarnet Sauvignon and Malbec. Plantations surrounded by century-old olive trees stand on stretch of grass so neat that it could be a golf course.
But visiting Puglia also means experiencing its art. This is why a stop in Polignano a Mare is a miracle cure for the eyes and the spirit, because Polignano is a miniature Puglia with the blue sea, the white houses and the culinary fragrances emanating out of its bustling streets.
Art and the Table
We transfer from there to Ostuni for an unexpected lunch at Masseria Moroseta, where atmosphere and design are combined with nature and organic ingredients. “I cook for tourists,” the young Milanese chef Eugenia Goggi tells us. “Not being from here, I mix Pugliese tradition with personal taste.” Good call, judging from the excellent orecchiette with coconut milk, chickpeas and sautéed shrimp with ginger, just one of the dishes you can try in the dazzling white plaster interior courtyard, between stone murals and a pool that faces stately olive trees.
“Where atmosphere and design are combined with nature and organic ingredients.”
“Salentu: lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu” (“Salento: sun, sea, wind,” in dialect) is every Salentian’s mantra. In that pocket of land spanning Taranto to Brindisi, passing through Lecce, is a triangle of wonders kissed by a bold sun that wraps around everything, forming earth and colour, chiselling faces, giving shape to flavours and fragrances. In the heart of Lecce, we meet the travel designer Ilenia Sambati. She tells us about the alternative itineraries she proposes, but one in particular stands out for us: the Jewish tour with which people from all over the world return to Salento in search of the places and homes their dear ones used to inhabit. Between 1943 and 1947, those lands harboured families of Jews prior to their settlement in Palestine. “Imagine how I felt,” she says, “when one of them, a Canadian, told me of their mother with Alzheimer who remembers only her years in the Salento.”
Lecce, the “Florence of the South”
And just this is how we familiarize ourselves with the beauty of the region, taking walks through the gardens of La Fiermontina, a restful, minimal-chic oasis born from the architectural renovation of a 17th century ruin in the heart of the historical centre of Lecce: elegant interiors, designer furniture and works of art signed by Le Corbusier, Tobia Scarpa and Charlotte Perriand. A pool surrounded by olive trees is an invitation to dialogue and relaxation. Understanding why Lecce is called the Florence of the South is rather simple. Culture and art transpire through its typical Baroque style which recalls the florid in the smattering of fruit elaborately carved into the local stone of the city’s buildings.
Wandering along the streets, our friends at UNCOVR guide us through the hidden art shops, in which we meet two creatives who merit a visit: Pierpaolo Gaballo and Francesca Tarallo: a ceramist and sculptor respectively. If Pierpaolo revisits traditional ceramics with the contemporary illustrations of his plates, Francesca transforms papier-mâché into lamps of every shape, size and colour. One that we find particularly beautiful is hung above a large flight of stairs at Residenza Palazzo Tamborino Cezzi in a private visit that opened the doors to this incredible 16th century residence.
Our guide is the owner Fernando Cezzi – editor and scholar, and the historical “memory” of the Palace. He tells us how it was his great-uncle “Achille Tamborino who commissioned the resplendent red and ochre frescoes in the Pompeian style, which now adorn parts of the chambers, especially in the first floor gallery.” On the ground floor, visitors are welcomed to the Museum that houses historical documents and family objects of the past two centuries. It is managed by Maria Irene Cezzi, daughter of Fernando, with her siblings, Nicola and Clementina, who direct the communications, an example of how a private historical residence can be transformed into a little cultural agency.
In the high season, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the flourishing garden of the Palace, with all its flowers and fragrances. The corner of repose is not unlike what we experience ten minutes away from Lecce, walking through the olive trees of Masseria Trapanà, which was built at the end of the 16th century and entirely reconstructed, bringing to light the evocative Cappella di Santa Barbara (the protector saint) and the splendid underground olive press, which today houses a luscious temperate pool.
Diving, Castles and Graffiti
But if Puglia is about art and the well-set table, it is just as well about the crystal-clear sea and fantastically-formed caverns. Half an hour from Lecce, we find the unmissable Cave of Poetry of Melendugno: a little paradise amid some of the most beautiful natural pools in the world, part of one of the most striking archeological sites in Italy with Messapian, Greek and Latin rupestrian inscriptions carved by mariners prior to sea journeys to Greece and Albania. “Every young Salentian has passed through this cave,” an old fisherman tells us when we encounter him there. “You can’t call yourself an adult if you haven’t dived at least once from the cliff.”
What is most beautiful is that you can cross the strata of history, one after the other: arriving in Ugento, in lower Salento, you experience a typically medieval atmosphere. The Castello di Ugento is hard to forget both for the relaxing walks in the courtyard and because it is a place where centuries of history melt into the present. This is due to the love of cooking that surrounds the Puglia Culinary Centre: much more than a local gastronomy school, this is a proper brigade de cuisine of the highest level led by a chef whose dishes we tried combine tradition and innovation. To nourish us with absolute contemporaneity, however, we visited Casarano, which for years hosted a school of artists who produced enormous murals on the facades of the buildings – among the most beautiful is Casarea, the portrait of a woman by Francisco Bosoletti.
Ceramics and Good Wine
Puglia is swarming with art, confirmed by the storied artistic expressions that are produced in absolutely modern ways. The ceramicists of Grottaglie (TA), Enza Fasano and her daughter Giovanna Alò greet us with open arms in their workshop that is also a boutique. “Ceramics have been made here since the 17th century,” Giovanna tells us. “It used to be a monastery. The first in my family to work with ceramics was my great-great-grandfather. Ever since, we haven’t stopped. My mother is an established ceramicist and I owe everything I have learned to her, perfecting my craft by studying design in Rome.” Today, the two women enjoy a flourishing activity from classic traditional stoneware to more modern collections for the table and outdoor.
Travelling towards the Gulf of Taranto, before we arrive to Basilicata, we stop in a female-led agricultural company, Vetrere, owned by sisters Francesca and Annamaria Bruni. “It is a family-run company that dates to the 17th century. We produce wine, oil, pasta, flour and pulses.” We have a chance to sit at their table and try the produce during a family-style Mediterranean lunch. They tell us how fortunate they feel to have children that intend to continue their activities in producing Primitive, Negramaro, red Malvasia and white Minutolo wines. This palpable sense of familiarity makes you feel right at home.
Finally, imagine concluding the trip in one of the most incredible places you might ever have seen: Matera, 2019 European Capital of Culture, not long ago a nearly abandoned township. On the Appennini mountain range, the city is made up of rupestrian caves that data back to the Bronze Age. Within these, as is the case with Sextantio, there is a “diffused hotel,” the product of a formidable project of restoration that allows its visitors a stay in the historic centre of this immemorial city, to wake up to caves transformed into tasteful and charming rooms that face the Parco della Murgia and countless rupestrian churches. All these are impressions from a trip that you wish would never end...
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