By Lucia Adams
The Piazza Oronzo in Lecce is named for the sainted bishop whose statue looms over countless African immigrants trying to supplement their stipends from Italy by selling trinkets. Though there were 62,000 migrants in 2015 and 200,000 since 2014, in a poor crowded country, the Italians are tolerant and kind though the commercial harassment of tourists is continuous. The piazza is constructed atop a wonderful Roman amphitheater that once seated 25,000.
Our hotel was the remote Best Western’s Leone di Messapia (evocatively named for the Balkan Messapians, those Indo European Illlyrians who settled in Apulia. seven centuries before Christ). The restaurant Mbriana Bella was sparsely populated like the hotel and the veal dry and pasta pomodoro, always with ricotta mixed in, bland. Maybe the hotel and restaurant were like many of those optimistically built in the oughts when everyone predicted a tourist stampede to Lecce and the Salentine, which one suspects has not really materialized. Even the luxe high priced masseria may not have found it easy to attract tourists and one wonders how Francis Ford Coppola’s Palazzo Margherita is faring in even more remote Bernalda, Basilicata.
The next night a wine tasting at the Masseria d’Astore in Cutrofiano a few miles south of Lecce took place in a fortified farmhouse on a grand Salentine estate carefully restored by orthodontist Paolo Benegiamo who lives there with his family. It produces evoo and small batch wines mainly from the Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes grown in their vineyard. We started dinner of with a Malvasia Bianca, then a Negroamaro Rose and on to two Filimei Reds one a year old the other five years made from the Aliarico grape. They were clean and crisp though lacking complexity.
L’Astore studiously makes biodynamic wines, subsidized by the government, using purely organic grapes, with no synthetic chemicals or mechanical irrigation and no added ingredients. That the harvesting and planting respect obscure astrological rituals detracts a bit from the credibility of this monoculture. The masseria was once a 16th century frantoio ipogeo and still retains the underground olive mill, in the original cave where olives were crushed and made into golden liquid for consumption for London street lamps. The workers were too poor to use the oil themselves and the subterranean conditions under which they labored to produce the oil was visibly worse than Dickensian, dark, underground, damp, with low ceilings which forced the men to remain bent over. Mamma mia!
Apulia has olive trees some which still bear fruit, though they predate the birth of Christ. Before the xylella fastidiosa outbreak, there were about 60 million trees and some estimates claim over one million trees or more have been lost since 2013. The olive trees here are much larger, gargantuan even, than in Tuscany, and, like the people of Apulia because they have had to struggle for survival in a harsh land, they have grown tough, reaching deep down to reserves of strength.
The next day, we drove through the Valle d’Istria, the lovely undulating Trulli Valley, stopping by Ostun, the White City, dazzling on a high hill about five miles inland to evade pirates. As usual in Apulian towns, it was repeatedly sacked, has a colorful but treacherous history, a riot of Norman churches, palazzi for the aristocratic families past and present, and winding streets and alleys with shops and family restaurants. English and German tourists flock here.
Tourism in Apulia is usually promoted with endless photos of Alberobello, which until 100 years ago was the lair of brigands hiding in thick woods and preying on travelers. Today, the hundreds of picturesque trulli, the bee-hived shaped conical houses that resemble farm tool sheds in the olive fields, are one- or two-room dwellings. Built of local limestone slabs, their triangular roofs have Messapian roots with enigmatic icons and varied rooftop spindles. They tell the tale of the woodland town Sylva Arboris Belli and powerful Count Giangirolamo in the 16th century who told his feudal serfs to build houses without mortar to be easily dismantled to evade tax collectors. They are gleamingly whitewashed, with walls of several feet, perhaps one window and are charming en masse.
The restaurants were closed even before the magical siesta hour because of nearby construction, so we spent our time walking up and down the hilly town about to close for the season. Sometimes called Trulliville, with its endless tiny, poor tourist shops, it has chic weekend second homes for rich Milanese or Barese. Our hotel for the next two nights, the Grand Hotel Chiusa di Chietri, again far out in the suburbs, was built as a luxurious spa paradise with magnificent landscaping and spacious public spaces, but alas had fallen on hard times perhaps because the working class English trippers tolerate substandard everything. Our feisty American tour group complained that the carpets were wet and mold was everywhere, including the questionable bathrooms.
Otranto … Otranto — where had I heard that? Was it Byron? No it was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (he had never been there but liked the sound of the name), the very first Gothic novel, kicking off centuries of vampires and monsters and other nonsense. Bari and Otranto were ruled by the Catapan of Byzantium before the explosion of Christianity in the middle ages, the 11th through 13th centuries, when ruthless conquering Muslims were replaced by equally ruthless and even more cruel Catholic Normans, those footloose mercenaries who passed through Southern Italy in 1015 on their way back from the Crusades and by 1050 were powerful enough to defeat the papal army. The capital of the Terra d’Otranto and the easternmost point in Western Europe, Otranto seems like a Greek town. The Norman cathedral’s floor is the most important mosaic in Apulia, depicting the struggle of good and evil, perhaps predicting the Turkish invasion of 1480, still called the sacco, which wiped out the town of 12,000, leaving only 800 who were canonized as saints.
We were, however, getting a tad churched-out, so we hurried up the steep hill to the cathedral, then descended to the seaport to look at the meeting point of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. We bought a gelato at one of the few places still open at the end of the season, and I thought of our trip to the seaside towns of Northern England a few years ago when shuttered shops greeted autumn’s visitors. But there was one more important place to see.
Matera was once in Apulia, but today is the Sassi city on a hilltop in Basilicata. The bus was parked alongside a long string of buses about a mile from the center of the town of Matera, located on top of the Sassi cave dwellings. We were herded on to a viewing platform as we had in Alberobello, here with Italian tourists and their families taking selfies before the spectacle of the troglodyte village.
My grandmother often told me that people lived in caves in Apulia, and now I knew she was not exaggerating as I stood before a ghoulish stage set from a production of Dante’s Inferno. The caves carved into limestone ravine, treeless and desolate, a fortress standing above the plains and the Gravina River below. Although sassi existed in some form since Neolithic man, they remained throughout the millennia, dire peasant dwellings for the poorest of the poor in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, like Aleppo. For several centuries, the city was entirely underground, hiding in a dense forest, so invading Saracens could never see it from above.
Down, down, down Escher-like steps into the old city hewn, we saw limestone rocks, tufa, high above the river and plains, past the newer sassi, now four-star hotels and boutiques and second homes (some call it Tribeca), down, down into the vertical chaos of the old city that was exposed by Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli. When it was published in 1945, a horrified government forced the evacuation of the population of 15,000 who lived with their animals in the filthy underground caves. They were moved into sterile new housing blocks, destroying the community, but in 1986, subsidies were made available to renovate the sassi and grotto churches, cutting costs in half, and in 1993, it had recovered enough to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ah, would that we had happened upon this astonishing vision by chance in another era! Today, the city of Matera, with 60,000 residents and its elegant 18th century square with palazzi and restaurants, was just declared the 2019 European Capitol of Culture. After viewing all the memento mori skulls and crossbones on the cathedral, we grabbed an aperitivo at Hemingway’s Bistrot on the via Riobla Domenico. Yes, Hemingway again, even here in the Mezzogiorno. This man was a historical menace.
Such melancholy thoughts accompanied me the 200 miles to Sorrento, through Basilicata’s mountains that resemble the Dolomites, which after the flatness of Apulia, was a shock. Both regions of the Mezzogiorno are still poor compared to the rest of Italy with over one-quarter (some say 75%) of young men unemployed. One of our guides, Simonetta, told me with that characteristic menefreghismo that there were no opportunities in the south and that she will probably be stuck in her job forever if she chooses to stay here. Many young people have already jumped the train out of there since Matteo Renzi’s master plan to resuscitate Apulia seems to have stalled.
Sorrento was a mass of humanity spilling off the sidewalks, so exquisite, so picturesque, so polluted with unregulated tourism, here on the beautiful Tyrrhenian. The Cristina Hotel had a spectacular view of the coast. You cannot ruin the beauty of the natural setting of the peninsula, the red cliffs against the blue sea and the golden light.
We took the bait and went to Capri via the hydrofoil, then on to a waiting speedboat that zipped around the gorgeous aquamarine grottoes (though the Blue Grotto is now off limits), past scores of boats, some with divers. Then we were crammed into a funicular for the ride to the Piazza Umberto, a seething scrum of comically overpriced shops and restaurants. We did get some stunning tourist shots from the Gardens of Augustus at the base of the Krupp mansion, but this was not the Villa Jovis of Tiberius or the Capri of Graham Greene and Debussy.