Today I returned to Brindisi after a week in Grecia Salentina, which is the Greek-influenced part of Puglia, just south of Lecce. It was an amazing week, not only to dip in to their music, myth, and history for an article (upcoming in Afar, www.afar.com), but to become acquainted with an often neglected part of Italy and some of its people.
Salentino is becoming chic, which surprises the people there. For most of history, Salento has been so poor that, as one resident put it, even the mafia didn’t bother with the area. People worked in tobacco fields and harvesting grain. They were so hungry that while today , if you ask for a fig from someone’s tree, they will not only say yes, they will pick you the best one, years ago someone could be killed for picking a fig. The area is full of cactus blooming with what they call “fichi indi,” or “Indian figs,” which they eat alongside regular figs, which are also abundant.
Driving in Salento is difficult. You have to aim for the next town in the direction you’re heading, go through the middle, negotiate lots of turns, and hope to come out the other side of the centro going the direction you’d like to go. I got lost every day, but in the meantime saw so many of the town’s treasures–medieval churches, fountains, squares. At night, it was impossible to believe that the ghost towns I saw during the day were the same crowded shopping and dining districts of the evening. The rhythms are very set here, both in the music and in daily life.
During the day it was so hot there was nothing to do but head for the sea (the Adriatic). Salento is crowded in August, when everyone has vacation, and everyone crowds to the mare. My friend Giovanna stayed with friends near the mare and they invited me to dinner a couple of nights; it’s nothing for them to have 18 people for dinner every night, so 19 is fine. After dinner, they put on pizzica music and danced.
In Salento I stayed in Le Pezzate, a masseria, which is a former medieval fortified farmhouse, typical of the area. The owners, Benedetta and Mario, have done a gorgeous job of restoring the place and making guests feel welcome. Mario described how human beings like to have a closed-in place where they can feel safe, and yet the courtyard makes it feel open. I felt like family there, and went out to dinner with other guests; when I was alone at pranzo Benedetta and Mario insisted I eat with them. Mario called me “Laura Adorata” and made hilarious attempts at English; they went to great lengths to help me with my story. My room was tiny but lovely, and the stone pool was a refreshing refuge in the heat. It may be my favorite place to stay, ever.
Last night I went to Lecce, which is one of the beautiful towns in the world. They call it the Paris of Salento, and the Florence of the South, but Lecce is Lecce, an astonishing Baroque town, with a Piazza del Duomo in the centro that makes me cry every time I see it, especially in the evening, the blonde pietra lecchese glowing in the twilight. On this visit I had only a short time, since I was doing an interview, but while we were talking an old man came up to me and offered me a fan, since it was so hot. I refused at first, but he told me he was offering it to me with all his heart. The fan came in useful since it has been as hot as 40 degrees centigrade, i.e. too hot to do the math.
I was sorry to leave, and today travellednorth to the district of the trulli, the teapot-shaped houses with domed roofs made of rock (since there was only olive wood, which is not good for building) and walls of plaster. I got completely lost on the roads, but loved wandering around narrow streets with rock walls and these trulli poking up in the hills.
I had lunch in a town called Locorotondo, which has a central pedestrian area full of white houses and balconies dripping flowers. I found a restaurant there that had a Slow Food sign and also a sign for Gambero Rosso’s inexpensive restaurants, and went it. The food in Puglia has thusfar been disappointing at times, but lunch made up for a lot. I had a fava bean puree with chicory that was divine, with the local olive oil, and then a simple salad. When I asked the cook, the mama, how to make the favas, she offered me a bag of the dried beans, which unfortunately I can’t take back. I was so enchanted with the place I forgot to write down the name. Ma che shema sei, Laura! Veramente una cretina!
I am leaving tomorrow for Palermo, but know I am going to be back to Grecia Salentino. I have been speaking only Italian, which makes me feel like my English sounds translated.