Puglia and Valle d’Itria: Once Upon a time in the East……

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if you don’t know Puglia (or Apulia, the “heel of the boot”) I strongly suggest you to start reading something about it. It has been the “bridge” between the Greeks and Romans, from here almost all the Nordic’s conquerors have passed in their way to Middle East and Saracens, Africans….everybody, and each of them have left something in the local culture, starting from food….

But for the purpose of this tale, you only need to know that there are several “Puglie” that you can discover by traveling across the about 450 Km of this region. From “Gargano” to the very North, to Salento and “Finis Terrae” at the very South, passing thru “Daunia”, “Murgia”, “Tarantino” and “Valle D’Itria”, just to mention the major areas.

1I grew up in the area just North of Lecce (see blue arrow), known as the “Florence of the South”, in between Salento and Valle D’Itria. This area is now very popular in Italy, for Holidays especially during the Summer season (that in this part of Italy lasts 6 months, from May ’till end of October). But at “my time” it was just another Southern Italian region, too far to be easily reached (by train, from Milan or Rome, it used to take about 10 hours, flights were too expensive and cars not a good option) and without the services that other places, like the “Riviera Romagnola”, were very good in providing.

For this reason the area has preserved its history better than other areas, from a landscaping as well as traditions standpoint, and this is becoming its strength….

It is difficult, for me, to have some free time when I get in this area, because I go there mostly to visit my parents and relatives. For this reason it was quite an experience to show Cesare and Monica around our Puglia and to show them things we were used to… so much that we did not realize how amazing they were….

This time I want to talk to you about the “Valle D’Itria” (see red arrow above). That is an area placed in between the South part of Bari’s province and the North side of Brindisi’s province. It is not a real “valle” (Valley) but more a depression, due to karstic phenomenon, placed in the lower part of Murgia.

A day in Valle D’Itria: the itinerary

2We moved from Terlizzi, Mapi’s hometown that we will describe another time, at about 10 AM and we drove South on the SS 16, a comfortable freeway that connects Foggia with Lecce, for about 1 hours. During this short trip we passed close to several places that could be worth a visit, starting from Bari itself, without forgetting the amazing Polignano e Mare and several others. So we promised ourselves (and our guests) we must have another trip soon to cover the gap. That day, when we got close to Monopoli we left the main road and we started driving inland towards Alberobello, the first, and main, stop of this day…

If there is one thing that represents this part of Puglia more than anything else, this is the Olive tree… but you have to imagine trees everywhere, surrounded by small dry stones walls

3You can find them all around the world, but here they are pretty well preserved and are, still, the main way of dividing properties (it is difficult, if not impossible, to see modern walls or fences in the country side). Over the centuries the partial isolation of this region has helped in keeping the landscape as it was long time ago. When the big properties were assigned to farmers in the XIX century, they just built these small walls to define their property. So they are everywhere and the strange winding roads you can find here, despite the flatness of the territory, is mostly due to the fact the roads have to follow the properties boundary.

Olive trees and Olive oil is the most typical element of this area and Puglia has been, for centuries, the main producer of Olive Oil of the world. I have great memories of the olive’s harvest season.

4Almost everybody was involved, in a way or another. If you did not own some olive trees (every family in Puglia owned at least one olive tree at a point), you were engaged for the harvest, or for the transportation or for the production of the oil itself (the “spremitura”). Amazing experience because you have only a limited period to harvest, like the grape, the olives must be perfect, since they mature quite quickly starting from the moment they are ready. In fact there is a second harvest, that was quite popular in the past. The big properties allowed everybody to get into their lands to collect the olives that, being ripped, had fallen into the ground. These were the “Ulie rendute”, a way for people to get some new olives for their needs. A good symbiosis since the landlords, in this way, cleaned their lands at no cost.

After about 20Km you get to Alberobello; when you approach the village, you are not very well impressed by it but when you get into the “old town” you’ll immediately understand the reasons why this place is so famous and why you could not miss it… I Trulli

5Dozens, if not hundreds, of these dry stone huts with a conical roof. You could see others while you were driving through the countryside, but not so many and organized to create a small village. People live here, even if today they are mostly souvenir stores for tourist, but you can still see real houses while walking through this magic place. They look similar, but they are very different one from the other, so visiting this small village could take hours if you stop every time you see something interesting….

We had a quick look, by stopping by few Trulli, it was about lunch time and we did not want to take the risk to miss some of the typical food of the area.

Alberobello is quite a touristic place, so it could be difficult to find good places to eat. We preferred to look for an Agriturismo not very far from there. It is difficult to have bad surprises in the Agriturismo since, by definition, they must use local products….the down side is that there is not a lot of choice, but such is life….

6Typical products of this area are mostly on meat and vegetable bases. The sea is very close but its influence is minimal. We had a typical “Fave nette con le cicorielle” (Mashed dried Fava beans with wild chicory)… the poor food of my childhood, great taste and fond memories…

 

7We also tried the “Orecchiette con il ragu e ricotta salata” (a type of homemade pasta, with a sauce, made with meat (typically donkey meat, but every red meat works) and tomato sauce, and ricotta salata, a very tasty fresh cheese).

 

8“Strascinati con le cime di rapa” (another, similar, homemade pasta, this time with anchovies and “cime di rapa”, turnip greens, a vegetable that is very typical of this side of Italy).

We’ll be back on food, since it is one of the strength of Puglia and this area in particular; of course everything has to come together with local Olive Oil, very tasty and very strong… as I love it!

 

Wine in this area is mainly white (the Locorotondo and Martina Franca) but this is also a Primitivo di Manduria area, a red wine that is recently reaching very high levels of quality as its Californian version, the Zinfandel, shows.

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Another red worth to mention is the Gioia del Colle, with its Rosato version.

After lunch we moved to the second stop of this day… Castellana with its “grotte” (Caves)… a natural masterpiece that you can’t miss if you are hanging around this area…

 

…but that is another story…

 

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