Sunday 19 November 2017

Perfect Puglia

Italian holidays

The whitewashed walls and buildings of Ostuni look resplendent in the sunshine and can be seen for miles away.
The whitewashed walls and buildings of Ostuni look resplendent in the sunshine and can be seen for miles away.

Jamie Blake Knox

Puglia sits in the heel of Italy, with the Adriatic Sea on its east coast and the Ionian on its south. It is steeped in an extraordinarily rich ancient history, with especially strong cultural ties to nearby Greece.

It has a largely unspoilt coastline that is full of inviting long, white-sand beaches, and, even in Italy, its cuisine is renowned for its exceptional quality.

Despite all of this, Puglia has been somewhat neglected, and overlooked in favour of Rome, Florence and other more famous neighbours to the north. However, there are now regular flights into Bari directly from Dublin with Ryanair. I was welcomed at the airport by local tour organiser, Daniele Napoleoni, who was keen to share his considerable knowledge and enthusiasm for his home region.

The Residence Barbara is located right on the coast. My room was simple but comfortable and airy, and its balcony looked right out on to a dazzlingly blue Adriatic Sea. It was the perfect staging post to further explore the region. The stunning medieval citadel of Ostuni was only a short drive away. Driving past scores of olive groves, it is all too easy to see why it is known as the white town; its whitewashed walls and buildings look resplendent in the sunshine and can be seen for miles away. It is perched on top of a hill with commanding views of the coast and surrounding countryside. Its large defensive walls, ramparts and fortifications hint at the region's turbulent and unstable past. Throughout its history, Puglia has been invaded by the Romans, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Normans, the Spanish and the Turks.

The Old Town of Ostuni is a fascinating blend of these diverse cultural influences, with late high-Gothic, Baroque and Rococo mixing easily with Turkish and Spanish styles. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and adjoining Bishop's Palace are truly spectacular. The cathedral is Gothic, but it has beautiful undulating curves, and its facade is adorned with a magnificently elaborate rose window. This is composed of three concentric circles, with 24 delicately carved beams and a dozen arches all highly embellished with the 12 apostles and floral motifs. At the very centre, surrounded by seven cherubs, is the resplendent figure of the Cristo Sole, the Master of the Universe.

It all too easy to lose a sense of direction when wandering through the picturesque maze of winding alleys. This is where whitewashed simplicity sits alongside Baroque and Rococo extravagance. Strolling through these streets is also hungry work. Seafood is at the heart of Puglia's cuisine, and I headed to Vicolo 43 Bistrot, a charming and inviting restaurant found near the Old Town. After a starter of zucchini stuffed with anchovies, I had paccheri - a wonderfully light dish of local shrimps with tomato and chopped pistachio.

The next morning, after an invigorating swim, I headed south to the port of Taranto. This was originally founded in 706 BC as a Spartan colony, and there are still several Greek temple ruins, including two imposing Doric columns - all that remains of a temple dedicated to Poseidon, the sea-god. During the last century, the region was industrialised on a massive scale with the opening of numerous steel and iron foundries, oil refineries, chemical works, shipyards and food-processing factories. It is still a major centre for Italy's military fleet.

The colossal Palazzo del Governo was inaugurated in 1934 by the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. It is a stark example of the corrupt ideology, and derivative aesthetics that Mussolini promoted. Its architect Armando Brasini pillaged Roman imagery, and the entrance is flanked by two huge imperial triumphs. Above them are two eagles with their wings outstretched. The building is constructed on the gigantic scale that all dictators seem to favour - perhaps, because the massive size seems to reduce the individual to insignificance. Martina Franca is one of the most photogenic towns I have ever visited. You enter the old town centre through a huge ornate yellow sandstone gateway. Just inside there is the Palazzo Ducale, one of its grandest civic buildings. Its architect, Andrea Carducci, is said to have had input from his friend the great sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Its narrow streets are full of cafes, restaurants, bars and there is a great variety of Rococo and Baroque buildings, both grand and intimate.

The Garibaldi Bistrot is situated right in the heart of the old town in the Piazza Plebiscito. It was early evening when I arrived, and the magnificent Baroque Basilica di San Martino was dramatically illuminated. This revealed the intricate and fluid statue of San Martino on horseback. The Bistrot is beautifully presented, extremely clean and fresh, and they serve up some marvellous local food. The antipasto-tasting menu, which came in what seemed like a never-ending selection of courses included a great range of assorted cured meats, local cheeses and vegetables. Although I was full, I still managed to sample a local delicacy of orecchiette pasta, served with tomato sauce with grated cacio ricotta cheese. It may have been simple, but it was full of flavour.

Otranto's Romanesque cathedral is unique. With most cathedrals, one's eye is instinctively drawn upwards towards the roof and heaven. Although the blue-and-white wooden coffered ceiling of this cathedral is very beautiful, it is the floor that is unique and quite remarkable. It is entirely covered with a vast 12th-century mosaic of the Tree of Life, which is delicately balanced on the back of two giant elephants.

It is one of the world's largest surviving medieval mosaics, and it is extremely well preserved. It was created by the fevered imagination of a young monk called Pantaleone in 1165. The mosaic contains a bewildering assortment of different themes that range from Adam and Eve to visions of heaven and hell. Hercules, King Arthur, Alexander the Great, and a menagerie of monkeys, demons, lions, snakes and sea monsters are also featured. The beauty of the floor contrasts sharply with the ghoulish Cappella Mortiri - or Chapel of the Dead. This is where the bones and skulls of some 813 Otranto martyrs, beheaded by the invading Turks for refusing to convert to Islam, are placed. The stone, upon which the grisly deed was allegedly carried out, is preserved behind the altar, and hundreds of skulls peer out at you from seven tall glass cases. It is a grim reminder that Otranto's strategic significance not only brought great wealth, but also frequent and bloody conflict for its possession.

Driving through the modern suburbs of Matera, it seems at first just like any other Italian town, but appearances, as they say, can be deceptive. Nothing can quite prepare you for the Old Town.

It rests on a great limestone gorge, and is one of the oldest towns in the world. It has been continuously occupied for almost 7,000 years: from the Neolithic to the present day. It has a Roman amphitheatre just a stone's throw away from a honey-coloured Baroque church of Santa Maria de Idris. Less than 50 years ago, this was one of the poorest towns in Italy, with over 20,000 people crammed into the tiny traditional cave dwellings called sassi. However, in the 1960s, the Italian government cleared most of the dwellings, and relocated their inhabitants to the new town. In recent years, there has been extensive investment in its regeneration.

It is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and some 2,000 people have returned. Its dizzying warren of streets, sleepy squares and medieval houses are once again alive and buzzing with activity.

Looking down onto the city, it seems to be almost timeless. Indeed, it was used by Mel Gibson as a setting for his film The Passion of the Christ. In 2019, it will become European City of Culture. With its sweeping vistas over a strangely empty but compelling landscape, I think it well deserves that title.

Puglia may have been overlooked before but it is well worth visiting and I can't wait to go back.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Trulli

These curious little beehive-like stone dwellings are scattered throughout the region. The town of Alberobello boasts 1,400 of them in a maze of narrow streets.

Treasure

The archaeological museum at Taranto contains an extraordinary collection of artefacts from the classical period, including some astonishingly well-preserved and intricate Roman jewellery.

Getting there

Flights

Ryanair: www.ryanair.com

Tour guide

Daniele Napoleoni, www.puglia.ie

Daniele arranges accommodation and tours in the region. He advises about best restaurants, wine and olive oil tasting and organises weddings.

Places to stay

Residence Barbara: www.puglia.ie/residence-barbara-apartments.html

Restaurants

Gli Archi a Villanova di Ostuni

Vicolo 43 Bistrot, Ostuni

Garibaldi Bistrot, Martina Franca

Places to visit

Archaeological Museum of Taranto: museotaranto.org

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