Monday, February 19, 2007

Matera, Ostuni and the Trulli 2.13.07

Sorry we haven't posted anything for a couple of weeks. We have just been revisiting favorite places along the Amalfi Coast, like Ravello and Cetara and back to Naples a few times, just enjoying being on the sea and not wandering too far. We'll try to post some photos of these places and also some watercolors, since I haven't posted any of those for a while. Partly I felt a little burned out for a bit there, maybe just tired, but for a few weeks I didn't do too much. Then I decided to carry one of the little Moleskin journals with me and started doing what I call "drive-by sketching" and I have been having a lot of fun doing quick sketches of what we see as we drive from place to place and putting in washes of color later when we get home. It's a lot like a coloring book for grown-ups! Mostly just quick impressions but it has taken me back to the watercolor journaling that I enjoyed so much before. (check out our archives if you want to read about when my journals were stolen from our car in Sicily, around February 2006)

Road Trip to Puglia

This week we took what we think may have been our last road trip, to Puglia. We didn't want to leave Italy without seeing the trulli, the little houses with circular pointed stone roofs unique to this area. I did some research and planned an itinerary that included 3 nights in Ostuni, a beautiful white city with a view of the Adriatic Sea and not far from the trulli towns of Alberobello and Locorotondo where the largest concentration of these buildings can be found. Check out this website:

We left early in the morning on Tuesday, the 13th and drove through the Basilicata. This region southeast of Campania, we have discovered, is absolutely gorgeous. We had our first experience there when we went to visit Pino's hometown and were happy to drive through it again. It is the region that straddles the instep of Italy's boot and touches both the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic. It is filled with majestic mountains, the castles of Frederick II, forests, and cave-homes and the latter were the reason for our stop here.

Matera and the Sassi

Matera is known as the "city of the sassi," cave-homes cut into the tufa rocks. On one side of the ravine you can see the rough caves inhabited in Paleolithic times.

We learned that until the beginning of the 20th century these homes functioned quite well for the local inhabitants, who also carved churches out of the rocks, being easier to do that in the soft tufa stone, than to cut the stone and build with them. They had an ingenious system of canals that regulated sewage and rainwater and apparently everyone lived in harmony with the land. But in the period between the wars it became overcrowded, overburdening resources and throwing off the delicate balance. It became unsanitary and unhealthy and the Italian government finally relocated the inhabitants to other parts of town.

Since then, it has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Italians have been working to clean it, renovate and repopulate it and in fact it is one of the more visited sights in this area. Fascinating and beautiful, it is like a neighborhood museum - 3.3 million square feet (300,000 square meters) of homes, in a tangle of streets that are well worth spending more than the few hours we had to spare. Not the reason we came, but we learned also that Mel Gibson filmed his "Passion of Christ" movie here. There is also a novel we want to read by Carlo Levi, called "Christ Stopped at Eboli" an unflattering account of this region I believe, published in 1945. He was vocal in his opposition to the Fascists and banished here during that period. It really does seem like a city lost in another time.

We think the Basilicata is worth exploring further but unfortunately we are running out of time for getting to know an entire new region!

It was pouring rain when we left Vietri sul Mare and rained for most of the drive through Campania and the Basilicata. Luckily, the clouds parted, although the sky was still white and grey with them, while we clamored around the stone steps and in and out of the incredibly cool cave churches, visiting the museum, a fully furnished home where we saw the way people would have lived up until the 1950s. Fascinating stuff.

On to Ostuni

By noon we were picking up some panini at a local alimentari and continuing our journey towards Ostuni. The rain resumed again but the sun broke through the clouds long enough for us to appreciate the sight of this white city on a hill as we approached. We got a little lost entering the town (frustrating!) and eventually had to call the man we were renting the apartment from to come and find us and we followed him to where we could park the car and take our bags up to the second floor apartment (that's first floor to the Italians). We found a very comfortable, modern, fairly well equipped kitchen with dining table, a soggiorno (small living room) and a loft bedroom - an ingenious way to make two rooms out of one with a high enough ceiling to split the space. Not much of a view, but a tiny balcony onto the street, off one of the main squares in town, well insulated and quiet, with very efficient heaters which was appreciated.

We dropped our stuff and went off to explore, the rain having subsided, liking this town very much. In truth, it was love at first sight! Gleaming white wash, doors of bright blue and green, a tangle of streets, lots of steps leading this way and that and just interesting at every turn of, it seemed more like Greece to us than Italy. When rain threatened again we hurried back to the apartment. Bob ran out to pick up some bread while I stayed in to "color" in my sketches from earlier in the day. A nap was definitely in order and we slept for a few hours before braving a torrential downpour to walk around the corner to the only open restaurant we passed!

The Locanda dei 7 Peccati

What a find! Francesco welcomed us warmly and ushered us in to his restaurant called "Locanda dei 7 Peccati" which translates to the "Seven Deadly Sins" basically and illustrated with paintings on the wall. The atmosphere reminded me of the interior of the sassi home we had seen earlier in the day at Matera, with tools and baskets, ceramics pots over the doorway and furniture, an eclectic mix too, with old Tvs, chiming clocks and religious paintings that seemed more secular in their placement as decoration, than pious icons for worship. In the center of the room there was a fireplace and he motioned for us to sit next to it. We were the only customers in the place and normally I would take this to be a bad sign, but as the night was cold and wet and it is so completely off-season, we were just happy to have found it to be open and grateful for the warmth of the fire and the conversation with this very lovely man.

The meal that followed was fabulous! We had a local white wine and he made the most incredible orrechiette (the ear shaped pasta this region is famous for) in a mixed vegetable sauce that was light and a bit spicy and absolutely perfect! He also fixed us a plate of the most scrumptious fried potatoes ever and a bread that seemed more like a doughy pita, drizzled with olive oil and rosemary. We were full at this point but he talked us into a secondo and I had a pork dish with fresh tomatoes and Bob, the grilled lamb. They were good too, but the memory of that orrechiette lingers on. He spoke pretty good English too and it was nice to be able to just chat with someone (besides each other!) in our native tongue for a change.

I Trulli! Alberobello and Locorotondo

On Wednesday, we got up and out early (in spite of a bit of a hangover from drinking an entire bottle of wine!) and headed for Alberobello, by way of Locorotondo. We were thrilled to see a brilliant blue sky overhead and couldn't wait to get started. It is impossible to describe the feeling of driving through this area and seeing these little houses in clusters everywhere. For one thing, they seem so simple and lovely, sometimes a single one standing along, usually in clusters of 3 or more. Some are dark stones, other more tan, golden. Some have white tops with decorations on them, some are plain. They say that it is just easier to build another one when you need more room, so some of the larger farms seem like an entire little borgo, with at least 10 or 12 of varying heights, clustered around a more box-like house. White is the color of these homes, unless they are made entirely of the warm, pink/tan stones of the area. Low stone walls surround the farms, reminding us of Ragusa and there are olive groves and vineyards and broad stretches of rolling farmland, a bright chartreuse green now.

But nothing is like arriving in Alberobello and seeing an entire little city, two huge neighborhoods on either side of a main drag, built completely of these trulli. The people themselves seem built to fit in them as so many of them were small of stature as well and we wondered which came first! They were for the most part friendly and proud of their little homes but we can only imagine how it must be in the summer when their world is invaded by hordes of tourists. It really is like stepping into a fairytale and you fully expect to see Snow White appear, because surely, Sneezy, Grumpy and Happy must be nearby. We loved it. We took copious amounts of photos. I sketched.

Later in the afternoon, when we had our fill of the trulli, we tried to find a local beach but found many of them to be private, associated with a campground or just closed for the season. We did find Marina di Ostuni, and maybe we weren't in exactly the right place but at this time of year it didn't really impress.

Another Yummy Meal

Back to Ostuni, a nap was in order and we decided to go back to Francesco's place to see what else he could do with the orrechiette! This time we decided to skip the secondi and he fixed a huge platter of roasted vegetables, another of those potatoes we liked so much and we each tried a different pasta. Bob had one with melanzane (eggplant) and I ordered one with fresh tomato sauce and ricotta salata. Both were yummy but Bob's turned out to be a bit too picante for him and mine a little mild for me, so we switched and were both happy. It was nice again to talk with Francesco and he offered tips for other places to go in the area. It turns out he also rents apartments in Ostuni and invited us to come by the next afternoon and he would show us his place there.

Thursday we had planned to spend entirely in Ostuni, exploring the city. I made Bob get up earlier than he would normally have done so we could drive away from the city and catch the morning light. We realized that the city is not very large and found our way around fairly well. One of the things we absolutely loved was how incredibly clean it is. Spotless! Litter has been one of the things we have complained about all over Italy and especially in the south. But not here. The city was completely litter-free, dog-poop free, white and clean, no visible graffiti even and just a delight. We wandered around the streets, up to the highest point, had a history lesson from the man in the shop where we bought postcards, admired all the potted plants, succulents and flowers and the view of the Adriatic and dreamed about buying a place here! It is evident that the Brits have discovered it and are buying up property here. I suppose that will raise the prices for everyone but we can certainly understand it.

We met Francesco in the late afternoon for a tour of his property and found a wonderful apartment with a roof-top terrace and a view of the entire city and the sea! It can accommodate anywhere from 2 people to 8 (in a second apartment one floor down) and he rents it for 25 euros per person per night in season. A good deal. He can be reached at +39 0831339595 and the apartments can be seen on the web site, under the following names: Villa Preziosa, Casa di Sara, Casa Teresa A & B, Casa 7 Peccati and Casa Giosue. You'll get the better deal if you telephone him directly and his English is great. Tell him we told you about it! You won't get any better price for it, but it will be fun for us to know that we were able to spread the word.

After yet another afternoon nap we returned to Francesco's Locanda dei 7 Peccati for our last meal. We thought about trying one of the other restaurants but it didn't seem necessary, we liked this one so much. By late afternoon the clouds had formed again and rain seemed imminent. We took our umbrellas with us and I asked Francesco if he had soup and he asked "What do you want?" and threw together a vegetable soup with a light tomato base and a bit of a bite that was exactly what I wanted. Bob had to try the pizza and we each drank a glass of wine. With the fire burning next to us, we savored the meal, the company of this friendly man, the warm atmosphere and the rain washing down the streets outside until well after 10pm when we walked back to where we were staying for our last night in Ostuni.

Polignano a Mare

On the way home the next morning we stopped in Polignano a Mare at Francesco's suggestion and found it delightful as well. Right on the Adriatic, this cluster of white building blocks sits on a cliff jutting out into the sea with caves below carved out by the rushing water no doubt. It seemed definitely geared to and discovered by tourists and well done at that. Signage was attractive, professionally done, the historic center is extremely well-preserved and extremely charming.

A Visit TO St. Nicholas

We hurried then to reach Bari before 1pm as we wanted to see the church of St. Nicholas, whose remains were stolen from Turkey in 1087 and lie in the crypt there. The city on first and very fast look seemed important and dignified. It has one of the most modern commercial centres in the south, according to our guidebook and looked quite prosperous. When we asked someone to help us find the church, he advised us to be careful and watch our belongings. It's a large city. I guess that goes with the territory. We found the tomb of Old St. Nick (aka Santa Claus)and the church is lovely, gothic, with beautiful Byzantine style paintings and mosaics, built in the 12th century and not fancied up with too much Baroque detailing in later years. Unfortunately we barely had time to look around before the caretaker was turning out the lights and throwing us out. We would have liked just a few more minutes to wander around and admire the art but we have to be satisfied with what we saw.

That was the last planned stop on this limited tour of Puglia and we stopped this time at a supermercato and picked up the fixings of a lunch and ate in the car, on the autostrada, in the direction of Salerno and Vietri sul Mare, where we found ourselves around 2 hours later, tired but very satisfied with our little road trip to the other side of the boot.

Ci vediamo dopo,
Rosemary e Roberto

(photos to come)


GVMelissa said...

I tried the link for the apartments and found it spelled slightly different - Try this:

Bob and Rosemary said...

Thanks! sorry I didn't see this before but I'll fix it!!