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Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Slow-Travel Road Trip in Italy: Puglia and Basilicata - Page 2

Written by Russ & Emily Firlik
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45 minutes away we locate the town of Metopondo (pop. 1000) located by the Ionian Coast. Our focuses in Metaponto were the seventh century Greek necropolis, and the Greek Temple of Hera - (6th century BCE). Hera, Roman name Juno, was the wife of Zeus and queen of Ancient Greek gods, and represented the ideal women. Marvelously preserved, and set on a typical Greek raised platform base. Unfortunately, the Doric capitals were almost obliterated, but the visit was well worth the short diversion in the mountains.

Leaving the incredible and lovely region of Basilicata, we continue on to Puglia. Puglia forms a long peninsula into the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and is the least mountainous region of Italy.

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The region has been completely transformed since 1945. Prior to 1945, Puglia was a harsh and cruel land for most inhabitants. Malaria killed thousands of Puglians. In contrast, what we discover today was the relative wealth of the Apulians. We were told that the dynamic transformation had to do with the coming of water to the region. The great aqueduct, initiated by Mussolini, provided deep wells, and with the winter rainfall, the rain must go somewhere, that is, into the deep wells and reservoirs. Water made life more agreeable and fostered farming production. To get a grip on the wealth of this region, seventy percent of Italy’s fruits and vegetables, forty percent of its olive oil, and 15 percent of its wine comes comes from Apulia. Puglia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the north, the population of the region is 4 million.

We begin to pick up the rhythm of the south of Italy. First, all shops and petrol stations are closed from 2:00 until 5:00. However, trattorias, cafes and bars remain open. If we travel to a town or city in the morning, have a latte macchiato, lunch at 2:00, scout out the valuable sites of interest, and return to our base by 5:00, we are good. The roads were curvy, twisty, with a plethora of round-a-bouts that slowed travel down; but who cares if it takes longer from point A to C?

Our base for the next 10 days was in the Valle d’Itria, or Trulli Valley, 5 km from the large town of Martina Franca (pop. 50,000). First, a stop for food supplies in Franca. It was Sunday, and it was not easy to find a supermarket open on Sundays. We surmised that the folks that live in the many tower blocks of apartments must have a supermarket nearby, and that is where we found a lovely market with everything we needed for the next 12 days. We detoured into the historic center and meander a bit admiring the Picasso theme all around us. Martina Franca was focusing on Picasso’s sculptures and drawings; even the placards on the walls were quotes of wisdom from the great artist, e.g., “Learn the rules like a professional, to be able to break them as an artist.”

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We learned that Martina Franca has been a commercial center for a long time. It has attracted noble families and businesses for centuries. Accordingly, we counted 20 palaces, 15 churches and Renaissance and Baroque architecture throughout the town. The two main piazzi were the home to many cafes, bars and restaurants. For the next 10 days, and only 5 minutes away from town, we spent many hours roaming around this magnificent town.

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Next we headed 20 km to the town of Locorotondo (pop. 14,000), taking its name from its round shaped historic center, which is absolutely beautiful! The town is all white, and is known as “Puglia’s Prettiest,” and definitely a town for strolling. It was a good thing that we had only two focus sites, in addition to the lazy walk around, as it turned out there were 15 churches, architecturally ranging from Byzantine (9th century) to Rococo (18th century) style. The two churches: Church of St. Rocco and the Church of San Giorgio, were both recreations of their original 9th and 11th century to Rococo style. We read that Rococo - late Baroque - used exuberantly fluid, florid decorative European style as a reaction against grandeur and symmetry, which was the final expression of the great baroque era. These two churches were perfect representations of their original Rococo style.

After a farm- to- table lunch in Locorotondo, we drove 20 km back to our base and our little trullo hut. These dry stone architecture huts originated with the Stone Age or Iron Age Period- (2000 -600 BCE). “Trilli” is derived from the Greek word for dome. They are rectangular, built of corbelled limestone slabs, in a pyramidal, domed or conical roof style. They were generally constructed as temporary field shelters and storehouses, or permanent dwellings. Our hut had whitewashed cylindrical walls of gray stone, held in place by lateral opposition and gravity (no mortar) piled to a pinnacle. The roof structure sits directly on the walls using simple corner arches allowing the transition from rectangular wall structure to the circulated of oval sections of the roof. That was the architecture of the trullo. These huts are cool in the summer and warm in the winter - a truly once in a lifetime experience.

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Our road trip continued 25 km to the very touristy town of Alberobello (pop. 11,000). There are over one thousand trulli huts in Alberobello, some “ homes” open to visitors. Many of the trulli are craft shops, bars, restaurants, and jewelry and leather workshops. Alberobello trulli use everyday materials and are outstanding examples of human settlements that retain their original form to a remarkable extent. Interestingly, there were many different styles of trulli within the region. All trulli are protected as national monuments by the Italian government, even the limestone bits around any trulli.

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We are on the road again to the stunning white hill town of Cisternino (pop. 10,000). It is perched on one of the highest hills of the Apulian Murge. The town boasts a charming old historic center remaining intact for centuries. The 6th, 14th and 18th century architecture of the old town was of considerable interest. Cisternino doesn't have to try to impress any tourists with its white washed houses, narrow streets, historic churches and a grand central piazza. Our one planned visit was to the Romanesque church of Chiesa Madre. Built in the 14th century on an early Christian church, the Mother Church of San Nicola di Pàtara has changed its appearance over the centuries. The precious treasure chest of art, the neoclassical facade, makes this church a splendid example of Apulian Renaissance sculpture. Something that we have never seen before was the interior structure with three naves, divided by columns with stone capitals that preserve the original medieval imprint. Absolutely amazing! As fascinating as the historic center and the Chiesa was, the surrounding countryside, dotted with trulli, ancient farms, bell towers and percussion local limestone walls were captivating and memorable.

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These ten days of exploring in Martina Franco, Locorotondo, Alberobello and Cisternino were difficult to leave behind. Such a wealth of history, beauty, culture, fantastic food and wine, and the very friendly and inviting people. But we did have one more large town to visit before we left for Lecce. From Martina Franco we drove 30 km east to the Ostuni, “La Citta Banco” - pop. 32,000 - We immediately noticed that the surrounding countryside was dotted with fortified large estate farms (masseria), and thousands of very old olive groves (25% of Italy’s oil comes from here). After driving 20 km from Franca, Ostuni rises high above the ocean of olive trees that are everywhere in Puglia. The entire town had whitewashed walls and white painted architecture. Glimpses of the Adriatic and a plethora of green and blue doors, paints a perfect Impressionist picture. A barista told us that “the structures must be painted white every two years,” and they looked really fresh. However, once inside the perimeter, the walls had a somewhat organic rustic look. Following the old cobblestone streets of the town we easily located the Ostuni citadel high on the hill, and the Cathedral located at the end of the main piazza. The cathedral has an elegant 15th century frilly rose window, and a dramatic unusual Gothic - Romanesque -Byzantine facade. The interior had a number of 18th century art works. What a beautiful moment to pause, reflect, and be thankful for this opportunity.

Since we were close to another town that dates back to the Greco-Roman times, the lovely town of Fasano was an inviting diversion to close our time in this part of Puglia. The narrow streets, archways, cafes, and little piazzi suggested another touristy town. No, it was too beautiful, clean and slow-paced. There was a museum of olive oil, an abbey and many 13th-17th century churches. This town was special.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020

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