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Reasons to return: Puglia

It’s not the fruit that you are looking for but you can’t cease to get over the trunks of the trees; knotted and gnarled into grotesque shapes and no two alike! They are quite like sculptures, sculpted by nature over the years.

There is no experience as enriching, no education as wholesome and thereafter, no memories as momentous as visiting a foreign land in quest. A blurb, a snippet, an image is enough to ignite my interest and to draw me there. Just as I dislike reading reviews of movies I intend going to, I dislike researching destinations I intend visiting. I quite fancy composing my own impressions on contact and building a bond with each quirk I distinguish to the destination.

The first visits thus are usually an invitation to return. Return I do, riveted, indulging in bonds born the first time around.

Hot-on-trot from my recent visit to Puglia, the ‘spur & heel of the Italian Boot’, here are my reasons to return (first timers read ’reasons to visit’)

Oh Shoots!
If you chance upon a solitary olive tree you would probably not pay much attention but to catch glimpses of the fruit. You come by an olive grove and it’s a different story. It’s not the fruit that you are looking for but you can’t cease to get over the trunks of the trees; knotted and gnarled into grotesque shapes and no two alike! They are quite like sculptures, sculpted by nature over the years. An olive oil vendor at a store said to me as a matter of fact, ‘It is a searching sun … so it turns’. It’s a commonality to find trees that are a millennium old. Just the region of Puglia has about 60 million olive tree (that’s one tree per Italian!) and you come across them, groves after groves, as you drive from one town to another.

 

Wash Them White
The towns itself are tastefully done up. Not just when they were built but to date they are slick and spruced. Just like it is keeping your home clean and pretty, so it is for these towns. Many of these are whitewashed white and (here is the thing) no matter when you go they always look white! A hotel-proud owner and a graceful lady at that, let me into the reason, ’sometimes I have to paint them white every fortnight … when the guests arrive, how can I not let them find it as white as they saw it in the pictures? You know?’ Well, I know now, dear lady.

  

The charm of these towns is the narrow winding cobbled alleys. The reasons why these towns were built so were different but today they are idyllic for aimless wander as you chance upon (imagine set against white backdrop) buxom balconies with pink germaniums, eclectic green and blue windows and doors, vendors selling their produce of red cherry tomatoes, even brighter red chillies and such. Somehow these towns appear more Greek than Italian and the locals are quick to site historical influences from across the Ionian Sea. If you avoid August, you will find very few tourists in these towns and you will concede these days that’s what makes all the difference. Some of the must visits in the valley are Ostuni, Locorotondo and Monopoli and then there are towns by the impossibly turquoise sea called Otranto, Gallipoli and the gateway towns of Bari and Brandizi.

Trulli Transfixing
A trullo is a stone-shaped dwelling with a distinctive conical roof, particular to this region of Italy. You see these handfuls of Trulli (plural) driving the countryside. The town of Alberobello has 1400 of them, viewable in one vision! A wondrous sight and little wonder that they are now UNESCO protected. You could experience staying at one of these in one of the several masserias that dot the countryside. A masserie is like a fortified farmhouse that bears a 20-odd-room boutique hotel within and a few hectares of producing farmland splashed around. The produces include vegetables, fruits, and cheese and needless to say, they all have their own olive trees and produce their own oils. The owners are eager to please and usually join the guests over dinner that is slow-cooked through the day.

Being Puglian
Slow is also the pace of the land and the locals have time on hand. Their English may be Italian but their spirit makes up for it; they are proud of their region and are eager to help you explore. From the hotel hosts to your guide and from the vendors to a local on the street, their nature to be helpful and naturally polite, their animated spiels and the warmth they exude are to sure to linger long.

F&B
All of that perhaps also go into their cooking as the food is ‘fantastic’, to characterize it in one word. A delight especially for the vegetarians … here, ‘local’ and ’seasonal’ are not fashionable words but just the way things are done. The range extends through all that sounds exotic; zucchini, chicory, cherry tomatoes, turnip tops, wild fennel, aubergine, courgette flowers, almonds, mint … suffice to say, its a staggering list. 800 kilometers of coastline also yields seafood, fresh as it can be, cooked cautiously (so as to not lose its actuality) and not at all at times. Meat-solicitors would do well with the lamb meat that is prevalent here, which is slow-cooked and well. Sheep naturally drive the dairy. Cheese is abundant and usually finds its place in the antipasti (starters). ‘Burrata’ is the most served of all; it has a sack like look, which when knifed oozes fresh mozzarella. Pasta is to Italians what food is to humans. Puglia has its very own called ‘Orecchiette’ (literally ‘little ears’, given its shape), which is hand made. I had a go at it and believe me it isn’t easy to shape these right but the ladies of the house in Bari come out of their houses and make these in the evening (most of which is bought by the several ristorante and trattoria around). Especially indulgent, also for the locals, is ‘Focaccia’, yeasted baked bread smeared with roasted sun dried tomatoes, studded with olives and glistened with olive oil.

 

Until better sense prevailed, Puglians were selling their grapes to the rest of Europe and even California. Wiser now, they produce some good quality wine, indigenously. In pursuit they have mastered wines that are pressed from Negroamaro (meaning black-bitter) and Primitivo (not to confuse with ‘primitive’, it actually means ‘early ripening’). Negroamaro is a dry red with flavours of plum, baked raspberries and on the spice side of aniseed and cinnamon and on the other hand Primitivo is a more fuller-bodied red with tastes of fresh figs and baked berries … a distinct dried fruit-leather character, if you fancy. Neither much acidic so they go down well with the grub.

There you are; four hearty reasons to return to Puglia. So if you are museum-ed and churched out enough of Italy, plan for Puglia. Its not grand but you know what? … It’s what holiday was actually meant to be.

Arriverderci (until we meet again)!

~ Sanjar

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