Getting out of Rome for an occasional long weekend is necessary if you want to hold on to your sanity, and it hadn’t happened since last summer. So two days near Bari were a breath of welcome hill and sea air.
The Puglia region – Apulia is its name in English – is by definition Italian deep South, so the stereotype is that of a traditional and change resistant culture. But Puglia goes counter to these notions, and is a refreshing surprise if you look beyond the guide-book history and art when you visit.
Make no mistake, the art is definitely there, and its most famous expression is probably the wildly baroque “putti” and cherubs on Lecce façades, as well as church frescoes to rival those of Assisi. Not to mention the fascination of the Middle Ages conveyed by the various massive forts built by Frederic II – one of the most unusually eclectic rulers of his time -, including the mysterious Castel del Monte. Or the “Trulli” houses built with prehistoric building techniques. It even boasts an Impressionist painter on-par with his more famous early 20th century Paris peers, who is honoured in his home town of Barletta.
Puglia’s got it all, but this isn’t a travel blog, so you can check out details elsewhere: the beaches are indeed among Italy’s most natural – the coastline is over 800 km long – and the food is great. Except for the unbelievably varied starters, it’s often a simpler and lighter cuisine than in other regions.
In many ways, I get the feeling Puglia today is modern.
Notions of southern Italy usually go hand in hand with visions of religious processions with Madonnas and local Saints and rigid Catholic mores, yet they elected a gay activist as Governor of Puglia in 2005, and he served until 2015. There are unexpected sprawls of industrial areas and factories along the main north-south highway that runs down the middle of Puglia, and even in little towns, shop windows mix trendy fashions and modern jewelry. The elderly do wear the expected blacks, greys and browns: the men sitting like sentinels on the village squares or at card tables in the cafés, and the women on kitchen chairs, chatting in the alleys outside their homes. But apart from these, the other “Pugliesi” seem to favour livelier shades.
On this recent visit I realized that the architecture, the new houses along the coast but also inland don’t conform to any particular pattern. When you drive through most of the rest of Italy, you’ll find bland models of same-colour (beige) post- WWII houses that often look boxy and at best like a typical child’s drawing of a house: square or rectangle topped by a regular sloping roof. I could never figure if it’s just cheaper to build that way, or if local building specifications are so arcane it would be too much trouble tackling them.
Conversely, on a walk through a couple of really little towns along the coast in Puglia, most houses displayed some original features, so the inhabitants had obviously strived for at least a modicum of creativity. Colourful windows and balconies and unusual shapes produced an overall optimistic feeling for a region with solid history-based roots. In fact, long glorious histories often lead to exclusively museum-based economies, but Puglia gives the impression it’s kept what’s best from its past but is also moving along nicely into the future.
(to be continued)
Do you have a favourite region you like to visit time and again?
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