Puglia is like a rich and beautiful woman, lacking for nothing and desired by everyone. The kind of woman that causes a hush to fall over the room when she enters, all eyes fixed on her delicate and fascinating charms.
Puglia pulses in the Mediterranean like the heartbeat of a man in love; it has always been a land of hospitality, a bridge between different cultures, who after landing on her soil left their seeds to germinate over time, so that even today we can admire their multicolored flowers. We find traces of the diverse cultures of the Mediterranean entwined in the various dialects, and in the architecture, infusing their magic in the gardens, noble homes and palaces. In fact, Puglia is not only the land of sun and sea, the entire territory is a living museum, stretching from its northernmost point of Gargano to Leuca at its southern tip. Visiting this land means letting the past take you by the hand, allowing yourself to be enchanted by myths and legends, diving from the high rocks and surfacing to rest in the golden sands, exploring castles and cathedrals, principalities and marquisates, going down towards the bowels of the earth in the subterranean olive mills of Presicce, the ancient “frantoi”, and resurfacing in the salt works of Margherita di Savoia.
Travelling in Puglia means discovering a land that is western but also eastern, traces of which emerge in the Byzantine crypts, in the cult of saints like San Nicola of Bari, a place of pilgrimage, with a practicing Russian Orthodox Church in the crypt below the Catholic Cathedral, or Sant’Ippazio of Tiggiano, one of the most ancient eastern Orthodox religious practices in Italy.
Puglia is overflowing with history, from prehistoric cave paintings to the infinite treasures hidden under clods of earth, earth where dinosaurs have left their footprints, where the faithful throughout the ages have followed sacred paths of pilgrimage, from the recent veneration of Padre Pio to the ancient pilgrims’ road of Francigena leading from Normandy in France, to the farthest southern point of the peninsula, the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Leuca, De Finibus Terrae, where the end of the earth meets the sea of the unknown, Mare Nostrum.
This is a land steeped in religious sensibility, where the act of worship is a constant dance, shifting between mysticism and tradition, that goes from the procession on Good Friday in Taranto, to the larger-than-life saints carried on the shoulders of the faithful in a sign of penitence and sacrifice, to the celebration of each town’s patron saint, to the magical holiday decorations and fireworks illuminating the piazzas, the irresistible rhythm of the traditional pizzica salentina, and its tireless, transported dance and percussion at the celebrations of San Paolo of Galatina, the night of San Rocco of Torre Paduli, with its medieval dance of swords, and the annual international concert, La Notte della Taranta, in Melpignano.
Every beautiful woman must have her jewels, and for Puglia, it is her art, glorified in the settings of her most noted cities: the coned trullis of Alberobello, the White City of Ostuni, Trani and her cathedral, mystical Otranto, opulent Gallipoli, and the crown jewel, Lecce, in all her baroque splendor. But just look behind any dusty door, peek in the gates of the ancient villas dispersed throughout the territory, look up and you catch a glimpse of exquisite baroque details, the finely carved balconies of Leccese stone. Just slip into the semi-darkness of any small church to find yourself spellbound by the statues in papier-machè, the sculptures by Bortone, and the paintings by “de Palma il giovane” and del Catalano, and you will discover the true treasures of Puglia, the diamonds of her art, shining with refined elegance throughout her cities, towns, and villages.
At the lunch hour, a magical aroma wafts through the lanes of the towns of Puglia, where sitting down to eat is a sacred duty, and letting yourself be indulged and nourished by the flavors and tastes of this land is a daily pleasure. The true king of Pugliese meals is the olive oil, the condiment of simple, traditional, country dishes: yellow-gold on the vivid red of sun-ripe tomatoes on crunchy bread. Not too much, not too little, drizzled on in just the right amount, like an ancient ritual whose secret would rather not be shared. In the fields, the countryside is beautified by waves of blond wheat, which is then molded into dough by the knowing hands of the women, together with water and salt, to make home-made pasta, the long, braided tagliatelli, “sagne torte”, but above all the orecchiette, (little ear pasta). In the north it is served with cima di rapa (a tart, broccoli-type green), in Salento it is served together maccheroni pasta as “maritati” (the married pastas) in tomato sauce. The innumerable varieties of D.O.C. certified wines offer the perfect accompaniment for every dish, whether it be meat or fish, legumes or freshly-picked vegetables.
The beauty of Puglia, if we look beyond her graceful features, beyond the artistry of her jewels, must surely include the splendor of her magnificent garment, its bodice the cobalt-blue of the sea, her cliffs breathtakingly steep, the crystalline natural swimming pools, the white silk beaches, the luxuriant green of her parks and natural reserves, offering a one of a kind bio-diversity, the ancient coastal towers that punctuate the coast of Salento, once essential elements of defense, now beloved geographical points of reference. As we go down her wide and swirling skirt, we find the ancient, mysterious fascination of her masserias, the fortified farms and noble estates of times gone by, with their ornamental balconies, lush and poetic gardens, frescoed salons, curving stone staircases and sun-drenched courtyards of hypnotic beauty; in the north, with their low-towered medieval complexes, to the graceful lines of the white-washed palaces in the Bari region, arriving in Salento, with the monumental nobility of her stone fortresses.
Puglia must be seen, her unforgettable charms savored and explored, from the fascination of her ancient stone streets and the exquisite elegance of her architectural marvels to the winding country roads leading to breathtaking panoramas of incomparable natural beauty. Every hidden corner holds another jewel to be discovered. Puglia is so full of treasures that it would be impossible to know them all, perhaps that is why she remains so irresistible and intriguing to everyone fortunate enough to visit this magical land.