“Venturing in Italy is as romantic and entertaining as it is informative. A great read for Italophiles and armchair travelers alike.” —Alison Biggar, editor, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
Venturing in Italy: Travels in Puglia, Land between Two Seas is filled with true stories that explore every aspect of this fascinating region. From the fairy tale trullis of Alberobello to the mussel farms of Taranto, an intrepid group of writers explore Puglia, the heel of the boot of Italy.
This narrow peninsula has been inhabited since Neolithic times when hunters painted in caves now accessible only by boat. Part of Magna Grecia, archaeological sites of Greek ruins abound. In medieval times, local inhabitants turned limestone caves into dwellings, while Frederick II built castles and fortifications to consolidate his rule. And today’s Puglia is vibrantly alive with unique local wines and cuisine, thermal spas in Santa Ceasaria and mussel farming in Taranto.
Nineteen writers set loose in the region find stories everywhere they look. Including all of these topics and more, the writers celebrate the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of this ancient, unknown countryside. Their tales will inspire readers to visit Puglia on their own voyages of discovery.
Venturing in Italy: Travels in Puglia, Land between Two Seas is the product of a writers’ workshop held in June 2008 in Puglia, Italy. For ten days, a group of nineteen writers, including instructors Linda Watanabe McFerrin and Joanna Biggar, Connie Burke and myself, crisscrossed the narrow peninsula, the heel of the boot of Italy that is Puglia.
Based in Alberobello, we lodged in trulli, the architecturally unique stone houses of the Valley of Itria. We visited the baroque city of Lecce, the archeological site of Egnazia, with its Messapii, Greek and Roman ruins, and Castle Svevo in the white city of Oria. We toured the austere octagonal Castle di Monti, and crossed the border into the neighboring province of Basilicata to tour the sassi (cave houses) of Matera. We relaxed at a day spa in Santa Cesarea, reveling in mud baths and massages. Famed singer and songwriter Al Bano Carrisi welcomed us to his estate and personally guided us through his cantina, home and recording studio. We toured wineries and ate at masserie. Every day, we enjoyed local culinary specialties at the fine restaurants scattered throughout Puglia and savored wines produced from native varieties of grapes.
These experiences inspired each writer to create pieces reflecting the aspects of Puglia that he or she found most moving.
- Carol Kelly discovered unexpected musical ties to her native Jamaica.
- Chrysa Tsakopoulos and Roger Webster experienced mystical connections with the relics of their personal Orthodox saints.
- Denise Altobello found cultural parallels with her native New Orleans.
- Tom Harrell and Barbara Euser were intrigued by the ancient Messapian and Greek civilizations of Puglia.
- Doreen Wood deeply empathized with the sassi dwellers of Matera.
- Connie Burke indulged in—and wrote about—her favorite game, golf.
- Linda Watanabe McFerrin indulges in spa treatments at Terme Santa Cesarea
- Joanna Biggar learns to speak with her hands
Every writer was fascinated and charmed by the Puglian countryside, from its rolling hills and open valleys to its seaside cliffs and sandy beaches.
Accompany the writers as they make their own personal discoveries of the sights and sounds of Puglia. May this book inspire you to travel to Puglia to make personal discoveries of your own.
Barbara J. Euser
Barbara J. Euser
Seeing Green in Gargano 1
At Home in a Masseria 9
The Heel of the Boot 15
Waist-ing Away in Puglia 21
Laurie McAndish King
The Gallo of Grottaglie 31
Ethel F. Mussen
The Mystery of Messapia 37
Thomas R. Harrell
St. Nicholas and My Own Miracle of Bari 43
Roger Nicholas Webster
Trulli, Trullo 51
Time Travel 57
On the Road, Without the Band 63
Carol J. Kelly
Tenute Al Bano Carrisi: Puglia’s Graceland 73
Mussels Farming in Taranto 85
Barbara J. Euser
The Sassi di Matera 93
The Italian Masseuse 101
Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Letter to Isabella 109
Twirling for Lepers 115
Could I Eat a Horse? 123
Laurie McAndish King
St. Chrysanthus at Oria 131
Return of La Brava 139
Ethel F. Mussen
Links to Puglia’s Past 147
Puglia and Middle-earth 153
Thomas R. Harrell
Vini Pugliesi 159
Speaking in Hands 167
Mamma Mia 175
The Castel del Monte Conundrum 185
Running in Puglia 193
Mary Jean Pramik
Stones Unturned 201
Carol J. Kelly
Magna Graecia 211
Barbara J. Euser
About the Contributors 220
About the Editors 236
At Home in a Masseria
by Eleanor Shannon
The baby girl in the arms of her father is the only person smiling in the black and white family photo on the wall of my room in the Masseria Cimino. In the center front, two older women stand together in the waning light of the afternoon. They look like sisters. One wears flat, black shoes and a dark dress. Her left arm is held up at an awkward angle by a black sling. The other has a long white apron tied solidly around her thick middle in a way that accentuates her heavy breasts. She gazes down at the ground with a vacant stare.
I wonder about the women in this photograph. If they could see the Masseria Cimino today, would they believe that sophisticated visitors from around the world come here to experience the authenticity and simplicity of Puglian food, wine and family traditions?
This masseria (fortified farm), like hundreds of others, was originally part of a feudal system used for over five hundred years by Spaniards and Bourbons to dominate Puglia and protect the Adriatic Coast from Saracen pirates. Even long after the oppressors left, life on these farms was hard as Puglia lagged behind the rest of Italy in its development.
In the last ten or fifteen years, however, the masseria have been the backbone of a rapid rise in tourism in Puglia. Visitors can choose from a complete range of masseria: from the most basic agriturismo-style bed and breakfast on a family farm all the way up to places like the Masseria San Domenico, which was built as a sixteenth century watchtower and is, now, a five-star fifty-room hotel. When I first arrived in Puglia, the unabashed luxury of the San Domenico seduced me into staying for three days of decadent relaxation. There was a freeform saltwater pool, a private beach, a golf course and a chic “thalasso therapy” spa.
As I was leaving, Marisa Melpignano, the founder and owner, had said, “Listen, you really have to go over and see the Masseria Cimino. My sister runs it as a guest house on the edge of the San Domenico golf course.”
“Hmmm …” I thought, “Maybe I will stop by.” Fifteen minutes later, I entered the reception area. There was a taller than average woman with shoulder length brown hair at the desk. I approached her, introduced myself, explained that Marisa had sent me, and asked if I could speak with Signora Annamaria Lisi. The woman’s tanned face broke into a warm smile and her soft eyes laughed at me. “I am Annamaria Lisi!” she had replied, “I always work at the reception desk on weekends to give my desk staff a break.”
I looked around at the whitewashed walls of this stone masseria. It was small and intimate compared to the San Domenico. The furnishings, all white or light grey, gave a feeling of freshness and simplicity. Well-used iron farm tools and cactus pads hung in attractive patterns on the walls. Their starkness gave the impression of contemporary art, but also served as a reminder of how hard it had once been to eke a living out of the dry, sun-baked Puglian soil.
I remembered what the padrone of the Casa Nova restaurant in Alberobello, Ignazio Spinetti, had told me a few days earlier when he gave me his grandmother’s recipe for a Puglian staple called le fave ‘ngrapiate (a single dish of pureed fava beans, potatoes, olive oil, leftover bread, vegetables and onion that could be served as a “one-plate” meal).
“Food was scarce, Signora. We could only eat meat once or twice a year. Our mothers and grandmothers had to find ways to fill our empty stomachs with only the simplest ingredients. The most precious moments of the day were when we gathered to eat.”
Although food is anything but scarce at the Masseria Cimino now, mealtimes are special. That first afternoon, I asked Annamaria if the masseria served lunch. She responded, “It’s not a proper lunch, but Rosa can bring you something light.”
Eating the simple bowl of orecchiette there on the terrace of the masseria produced a feeling of intense connection with the past while living in the beauty and pleasure of the moment. I felt a kind of magic and lightness as I drank in not only the wine, but the scene: sun, sea, earth and sky.
The thick, twisted roots of the olive trees in front of me reminded me of how deeply Puglia is grounded in its tradition and history. From the terrace, I could see the ancient walls of the Greek and Roman city of Egnazia running along the edge of the olive grove just to my left. Directly in front of me was the road that the Emperor Trajan had built as an extension of the Appian Way from Rome to Brindisi. And, Annamaria had just told me that the masseria sits atop a necropoli (underground burial sites) of the Messapian people, who lived at Egnazia even earlier in the fifth century BCE.
Every masseria in Puglia, whether simple or deluxe, enthusiastically serves sumptuous meals featuring Puglian specialties with the stated objective of making visitors feel “at home”. The Masseria Tenuta Pedale represents agriturismo at its finest. Built in 1600 on the peaceful plains below Castel del Monte near the Adriatic Sea, this fortified masseria is nestled in a grove of oak, olive and fruit trees interspersed with endless rows grapevines. Our writers’ group enjoyed a lengthy organic lunch of fresh-picked tomatoes, eggplant parmigianna and zucchini followed by estate-made lamb and pork sausages. The wine and olive oil, like everything on the menu is produced on the farm. Fresh cherries are picked while you eat and served for dessert.
In the area between Bari and Brindisi, there are many masseria in addition to the San Domenico and the Cimino. For example, the Masseria Don Sante and the Masseria Alchimia are agriturismi. The Masseria Il Frantoio near Ostuni is an organic farm producing olive oil with eight guest rooms and a riding stable so that guests can bring their own horses! The Masseria Torre Coccaro and the Masseria Torre Maizza, two five-star hotels near Savelletri on the sea, offer an Aveda spa, a cooking school, a private beach, pools and horseback riding.
At the end of our Puglian sojourn, we had dinner at the Masseria Cantone near Cisternino. We arrived by a narrow winding road through rolling hills of olive trees, entered through acancello (iron gate) and followed a candlelit path through a lush garden to the front door. There were five apartments with kitchenettes for overnight guests, a swimming pool and bicycles available for touring the area. The masseria’s dining room had a high ceiling with square windows hovering well above our heads, once a necessary part of defending food stores, animals and the family from invaders. Greeted by tall thin glasses of chilled white wine produced by the masseria, we feasted until we could eat and drink no more.
On the morning of the summer solstice, my next to last day at the Masseria Cimino, I woke up at 5:30. The sun was coming up above the long, flat line of blue sea, just visible from my bed. I pulled on my swimsuit, threw on a t-shirt, grabbed a towel and walked five minutes across the masseria’s olive grove toward the sea.
I knew from previous explorations that the dirt path on the other side of the road led to a small sandy beach between the rocky outcroppings of the coastline. The waves, wind and current were blowing onshore. I dove in and floated on my back. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face as the cool, salty water flowed over me. “Coccolle del mare” (Caresses of the sea), I thought to myself. The Messapians, Greeks and Romans probably swam here and the landscape has changed very little since then. Walking back to the masseria, the wind and sun dried my back and shoulders.
In my rustic but elegant room, I looked at the faces of the family photo once again. This time, I felt connected, almost a part of their family. I wished I could talk with them. It seemed that the women would be proud of Marisa and Annamaria: two sisters, who had left Puglia to spend thirty years in Rome, but had come home to their masseria giving each a certain style and personality. I knew that it would be hard to leave the next day. I was at home in the masseria.
BARBARA J. EUSER is a former political officer with the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. As a director of the International Community Development Foundation, she has worked on projects in Bosnia, Somaliland, Zimbabwe, India and Nepal. Her articles and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies. She is the author of Somaliland; Children of Dolpo; Take ‘Em Along: Sharing the Wilderness with Your Children; The Northern California Plantscaper ( Gibbs-Smith 2010); co-author of A Climber’s Climber: On the Trail with Carl Blaurock and editor of Bay Area Gardening and Gardening Among Friends. In 2005, she organized the 2005 Writers Workshop on the Canal du Midi in France. She contributed to and edited Floating Through France: Life Between Locks on the Canal du Midi, an anthology of essays by workshop participants. A founder of Writers Workshops International, she contributed to and co-edited Venturing in Southern Greece: The Vatika Odysseys, Venturing in Ireland: Quest for the Modern Celtic Soul and Venturing in Italy: Travels in Puglia, Land between Two Seas. She is married and has two grown daughters.
CONNIE BURKE left San Francisco, California in 1979. She set out for Ithaka, hoping to make her journey a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. She has yet to return. On the way, she received a B.A. in English Literature, M.A. in the Humanities, and a Ph.D. in Education. She joined the English Faculty of the University of Maryland, European Division and The American College of Greece. Then she went on to establish and direct The Burke Institute for English Language Studies in Piraeus, Greece. Retired from academia, Connie resides in Pireaus where she served as the first President of Habitat for Humanity, Greater Athens. When she is not hammering nails and cleaning paint brushes, she spends her time reading, writing, and celebrating life in the southern Peloponnesus. A founder of Writers’ Workshops International, she is co-editor of Venturing in Southern Greece: The Vatika Odysseys, Venturing in Ireland: Quest for the Modern Celtic Soul and Venturing in Italy: Travels in Puglia, Land between Two Seas.