They make movies here. They should make more. I’m standing on a clifftop, looking across a ravine to the ancient city of Matera in southern Italy. Though no longer formally part of the Puglia region, it forms part of the Exodus Travels Walking Tour of Puglia and Matera that I have joined.
I’m standing where the crucifixion scene in the 2004 movie, The Passion of Christ, was filmed. Last year the quirky comedy Tulipani was filmed throughout Puglia, including Matera. Also jostling for space at the same time were the cast and crew of Wonder Woman who used Matera as the fictional city of Themyscira.
The funny thing is, I didn’t know any of this when I went to Puglia. I’ve fallen in love. That’s what it is. I’ve come home and can’t stop researching the history, the events coming up, anything I can find.
Puglia is often described as being the heel of the boot that represents the shape of Italy. Her coastline is married to the Adriatic Sea that is never without a twinkle in its eye.
The gift of Puglia is time. There is a feeling that you have more time for that espresso in the middle of the day or that limoncello after dinner. You have time to stop and embrace an olive tree that is hundreds of years old and, like some sort of arbor matriarch, watches over younger trees in the grove, preparing them for their life under the warm Puglian sun.
In 2019, Matera will welcome visitors with an extensive program of cultural events and activities that acknowledges Matera as one of Europe’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities. It is renowned for its caves that until the mid-20thCentury were home to many of Matera’s residents. Many have now been restored as restaurants, hotels and art galleries. The more I learn, the more my love grows.
From the caves, canyons and ravines that surround Matera, our next destination is Montescaglioso, a small castle and village set on top of a hill surrounded by a green belt of forest and overlooking a series of rolling hills and valleys filled with olive groves and vineyards. We stand in front of an ancient stone archway which frames the view we will be walking today. Down through the forest and then small farms and fields of olive groves and vineyards. Beyond that is the Parco della Murgia Materana, a canyon wilderness with many previously occupied caves, including several cave churches still in use today, particularly for weddings.
With all this talk of canyons and ravines, the walking on this tour possibly sounds a bit more difficult than it is. (The Exodus Travels website provides a rating for each walking tour and this tour is in the “easy to moderate” range.) Our tour stays pretty much in the easy zone and just for a few moments becomes moderate and slightly tricky. It’s fair to say a trekking pole is handy but many in the group don’t use them.
Our walking group of ten for this tour are all from England. Some are recently retired, some are a long time retired. Each day’s itinerary allows plenty of time to rest and it’s the first walking tour or trek I’ve undertaken where the worst injury was a headache from drinking the beautiful, local red wine with lunch.
My love for Puglia continues to dive headlong into the reckless territory of the completely besotted. There is something special about places you visit that have names you just enjoy saying; Ostuni, Locorotondo, Polignano a Mare and Alberobello.
The narrow alleyways and low arches of Ostuni lure you with the promise of a new discovery around each corner. Sitting atop a hill overlooking olive groves that stretch to the sea just a few kilometres away, Ostuni’s white washed buildings are the result of an attempt to treat the plague of the 17thCentury. The limestone and water mix that was applied to all buildings in Ostuni was thought to lead to less illness. These days, the white buildings are encouraged by the local government and they contribute to half the cost of repainting.
Locorotondo is a small village with an ancient heart. Its name means ‘round place’ and is located in the Itria Valley. Its beginnings date back to 1000AD and the surrounding countryside features the famous cone-roofed trulli; round, stone huts that many people still live in.
While Locorotondo means ‘round place’, the historic part of the part of the town has a similar meaning. The centro storico is circular and, like Ostuni, is a maze of alleyways filled with cafes, art galleries, churches and nona’s flicking wet towels at tourists who stumble into their washing baskets.
Walking tours have a wonderful ability to slow down the pace of life. While you have a daily destination, it is done so with time to sit in the shade of an olive grove, pick figs and grapes to snack on and even stop for a swim at the beach. Things don’t rush by. If you see a horse stick its head over ancient old stone wall in an olive grove, you can stop and create your own experience; rubbing its nose and asking nicely if you can take a photo. There’s no rushing past in a car or bus, snapping your head around and wishing you could have stopped for a better look.
It hardly seems needed to include a rest day on the itinerary but this part of Italy is already proving such an indulgence that a rest day just seems to make sense. While most of our group head south for the day by train to Lecce, described as the Florence of the south, I strike out north for a little village on the coast called Polignano a Mare.
This little town perches on a coastline of cliffs that don’t have to work too hard to hold back a serene Adriatic Sea that is more intent on sparkling flashes of blue brilliance than going to the trouble of throwing waves against a rocky shore.
Along this coastline of cliffs is the Ponte dei Lapilli, a very popular small cove for swimming. It’s a public beach and completely hassle free. It’s for not the self-conscious though. It’s a bit like a fish bowl with people on the bridge behind the beach taking photos and on both cliff sides of the cove there are many others watching and taking photos. I am very self-conscious and wish to offer a public apology to all those whose photographs I have ruined by attempting to leave the water like Daniel Craig.
As a former cabaret singer of no repute I know what I’m looking for next. Overlooking the sea, just a five minute walk from the Ponte dei Lapilli is a full theatrical stance statue of Domenico Modugno. This wonderful singer and songwriter co-wrote and performed ‘Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu’ in 1958 and the song came third in the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest.
In 1959 the song won two Grammy Awards and was recorded by Dean Martin under the title, ‘Volare’.
While I’m there, I am interviewed for an Italian travel television program and we encourage the crowd to sing the song with me. I’m pretty sure I heard a cry of ‘Bravo!’ although it’s possible that was because I’d finished singing.
It’s been a busy morning and it’s time to make my lunch appointment. On the other side of the Ponte dei Lapilli is a restaurant that has been entertaining for parties and banquets since 1700 and has become synonymous with amazing food; the Grotta Palazzese.
This restaurant sits on a natural limestone terrace, in a cave on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. This restaurant is about more than food, it is about magic. It is about the smile it puts on your face and the tingle of excitement you feel as you’re escorted to your table, each with its own view of sea, sky and cliff.
As I drink extraordinary local wine and as slowly as possible caress each mouthful of roasted octopus with chickpea and pesto pearls, it is the view around me that is demanding the same attention I’m giving my tastebuds. Below me, through the balustrade against my table, are the brilliant, blue waters of the Adriatic while around and above me are the natural limestone cave walls where it’s as if light itself has come alive and is dancing with the same amount of joy I feel in my heart.
Come mid-afternoon, it’s time for me to leave the Grotta Palazzese. As I walk through quiet, white washed streets that are just about to enter their traditional siesta, I stop and talk to the shop owner of La Nicchia, a small purveyor of local produce, including olive oil and wine. She is about to close for the afternoon but invites me in to learn about the local produce she is so proud sell.
Realising that my Polignano a Mare stories will go long into the night, I purchase a bottle of wine and then swagger, sway and sing my way back to the railway station for my short journey south and inland to Alberobello, a small town that is famous for its trulli huts that have held UNESCO heritage status since 1996.
The trulli story dates back to the 15thCentury and was a quirky solution to having your house demolished if you failed to pay your taxes. Each circular trulli is built without mortar with overlapping, flat stone and a conical roof decorated on the pinnacle with an adornment that can be of prestigious, mystical or religious significance.
The walking tour has been an opportunity to experience a much loved culture at a pace I’ve never previously been able to achieve. Italy is often about the bucket list; get a photo of me in front of it and move on to the next attraction. This is a tour completely achievable by everyone I know in my life and I wish they could all do it.
Just like taking your girlfriend home to meet mum and dad for the first time, sharing Puglia with family and friends has been something I am so proud of. Puglia is an undiscovered land in a well discovered country and the quicker you get there, the quicker you will fall in love too. With thanks to the lyrics of ‘Volare’, “No wonder my happy heart sings”.
How to get there:
The writer flew with Etihad Airways from Perth, Western Australia, to Rome International Airport (Fiumicino – Leonardo da Vinci Airport). From there, it’s a 45 minute flight with Alitalia to Bari, the capital of Puglia.
Who to see Puglia with:
Exodus Travels have over 40 years experience and over 100 destinations worldwide. The Walking in Puglia and Matera Tour is available throughout the year. Tours support all age groups and fitness levels.
www.exodustravels.comor call 1300 131 564
When to go:
All year is good walking weather in Puglia. 2019 will be the year to visit Matera as it celebrates being a European Capital of Culture.
You have to:
Dine and recline at Grotta Palazzese in Polignano a Mare and then buy some local Puglia olive oil and wine from La Nicchia. In Matera, stay at the Hotel Sassi which has cave rooms with views over the historic town site.
For further information contact the writer at www.chrisparrywritesforus.com