Editors' Choice

Running in Puglia

by Mary Jean Pramik

It became a spiritual experience.

An hour before sunrise on a June morning, Puglia beckoned. When I stepped out into the dark, the blackened narrow meandering streets of Alberobello opened like a labyrinth before my trullo. I was determined to maintain my marathon training schedule. Often when traveling, my resolve to keep up my running fast dilutes with the local wines from the previous nights. But not this trip. Over the years, running for me has become a communication with myself and the earth. Here in Puglia, it became a ritual, like making love to the land at the break of day.

Puglia, the district of southern Italy that fills the rugged heel of the boot-shaped country, stands as the heartland where Mussolini harvested his idea of growing food for the entire country that had become Italy. He intended to create a "bread basket" for the people. Puglia, an impoverished area far from the fashion centers of northern Italy and five hours by train from the power seat of Rome, responded. The province now produces tasty durum wheat for semolina, olives and olive oil, vibrant full red wines and a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits.

Without a map or a GPS device, I turned to follow the road out of Alberobello. Named after two feudal wars, alberobello means tree of war. The town nestles alongside a riverbed on two sloping hills about an hours drive from the Adriatic port of Bari. The eastern hill houses the modern area of town, while the western hill hosts the trulli, thick-walled houses with conical roofs sometimes marked by white-painted zodiac and religious symbols. Clustered in two neighborhoods—Rione Monti and Rione Aia Piccola—both boast National Monument status and UNESCO World Heritage site designation.

On Alberobello’s Via Don Francesco Gigante, I paced past an austere camping ground. No frills for three euros a night. Scattered hay lay under the automobiles and campers. As I ran up past Via Pasteur, in the early morning mist an elderly man tended geraniums on his balcony, pinching the decaying blossoms, moving slowly from plant to plant.

At the trident crossroads, I turned left on intuition, toward the spreading rays cresting on the horizon. I recalled a friend asking on a recent evening, “When will you stop this lifestyle?” He meant the repetitive hours of training required each day to achieve a level of fitness for some unnamed event. I had not thought of it as a lifestyle.

“I don’t do lifestyles,” I told him. “I try to live a life.”

Thrusting again toward the horizon, I recalled the Academy Award-winning 1981 British film, Chariots of Fire. I heard its soaring Vangelis synthesizer score as each foot struck the paved country lane. In the film, the Scottish track phenom Eric Liddell raced over the moors above the sea. In one scene, his sister Jennie worried that her brother’s interest in running and training for the 1924 Summer Olympics distracted him from their work as missionaries in China.

Reflecting on his sister’s concerns, Liddell commented on his running, “I believe that God made me for a purpose…[the mission in China], but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Though I am not religious, I understand Liddell’s sentiment.

Through sports training, I first explored my physical self because my body was my most immediate contact with the earth. I reasoned that my current form is the only body housing my mind and any creative spirit available in this lifetime.

At the end of any race, I experience a curious kick during the last fifty meters. My body grinds into hyperspeed as I focus on the finish line. There is a joy in this movement I had not previously experienced in my life. My legs turn over faster, I angle toward the finish. No matter how exhausted I felt seconds before, my entire being springs forward and zooms. Zipping over the responsive blacktop-paved road leading out of Alberobello in the cool morning, I understand the sense of Eric Liddell’s feeling the deity’s pleasure in running. Fast I may not be, but the first light cresting over the eastern horizon lifted my feet and tightly-fitted worn running shoes.

In this rock-strewn rough heel of the land that is Puglia, the Italian earth is red, rich as if it absorbed the blood of ancient Messapians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. As the light began to open the sky, I avoided a black-spotted pale green lizard on the sidewalk. I followed the rising sun past home gardens with tall tomato bushes, zucchini blooming golden yellow, each plot hosting several olive and fig trees. Hummingbirds darted in and out of the blossoms as I passed.

Gliding by the garden center on my left, I inhaled the clay essence of the variously-shaped terra cotta pots upended one on top the other, waiting for homes later in the day. Then, I took leave of what resembled a town. Now running at a brisk pace up, each step took me farther out into farmlands past cherry trees pregnant with bright red orbs that perked up like nipples on a breast. Blurring past were the gray stone trulli where farmers housed the tools of their trade or stored hay for animals nearby.

The amaranthine earth, redolent with iron and assorted minerals, pulled me toward it with a sensuous primordial beckoning. Chicory caressed the stone fences that lined the road. I could feel the sea in this land residing between the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas.

At a “Y” in the road, I first followed the orange arrow identifying Regione Puglia and Bosco Selva Comunale and Silva Arboris Belli. With rudimentary Italian and Latin roots from high school, running during these hours did not require a dictionary. I aimed toward the community forest, the beautiful trees. Pine and a touch of balsa scented the gentle zephyr that meandered through the needles. The morning air cleared my breathing, allowing for a faster pace. Yet another horizontal stone fence bordered the forest of curving trees. Along the roadside, a camper stood in quiet contemplation.

I retraced my course and headed to the right at the “Y” in the direction of the Az Agricola del Trulli arrow. More trulli hid slightly behind higher flat-stoned fences. In one grove of gray-barked olives, a pyre quietly burned with the smoke snaking along the red soil into the dawn as an unseen Puglian cleared his orchard of debris. A crimson-painted wrought-iron gate stood slightly ajar between stone fences, an open invitation. As the sun rose, the inhabitants began to stir out into their fields, checking tomatoes, onions, artichokes. A lone man in blue pants and white shirt and cap watered his blooming green peppers neatly ordered in five long rows. Through the leafy branches of cherry trees that bordered his plot, I watched as he stooped over to tenderly prune each plant, much like my father had done so frequently through his ninety-one years. Watching this farmer flooded me with memories of so many Ohio summer mornings when my father would tend his garden before leaving for work in the coal mines.

The gnarled olives and figs extended their branches as I ran toward them, welcoming me. I retraced the roads and crossings back towards Alberobello. Small tractor-like vehicles began to pass slowly. The drivers nodded. Passing a furry-blossomed tree nearing town, thousands of bees swirled about and dove at the white flowers.

I ran through Piazza Curri past the Basilica de SS Medici down the hill in the new town, past the glorious Cantina restaurant where some nights friends and I feasted on succulent burattaricotta wrapped in fresh mozzarella, a vibrant house wine, and two exquisite desserts, sugar from the last entry powering my run this morning. Stepping lightly so as not to awaken the inhabitants, I tripped past Piazza Mario Pagano, a former threshing center in the town where farmers brought their harvested wheat and other grains to contribute their required allotment to the local count’s stores.

For ten mornings, during these running meditations, I fell in love with Puglia.


Mary Jean Pramik, has credentials in medical and science journalism where she mined scientific metaphors and labored to discover alternatives to the passive voice so beloved by scientists and physicians. She is an award-winning writer in medical advertising and her work has been published in Nature Biotechnology and Cosmetic Surgery News as well as mainstream publications Good Housekeeping, the National Enquirer, and Odyssey Magazine. She has contributed to three Travelers’ Tales titles: Floating Through France: Life Between Locks on the Canal du Midi, Venturing in Southern Greece: the Vatika Odysseys, and Venturing in Ireland: Quest for the Modern Irish Soul. A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she moonlights as a biotech day laborer, political activist, and fledgling triathlete and half-marathoner. She is currently completing an MFA in Writing, a novel, GEM of Egypt, and a book of essays, Know It All. "Running in Puglia" won the Travel and Sports Silver in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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