Modern Traveller jots a journal note after four properly peaceful days in Italy’s deep south.
Glittering, shimmering, resplendent in the sunlight, ancient stone walls and spires soar heavenwards. White-painted cities rise from craggy hilltops, brilliant against the infinite expanse of azure sky.
They beckon to the traveller, who ambles towards them along half-paved roads which wind and weave between fields of gnarled old olive trees. Low dry-stone walls serve as the sole barrier between the pitted lanes upon which cars jostle for space with rusty Ape, where stray dogs chase anything and everything that moves, and the wide, lonely fields occupied by those wizened trees.
Twisted, time-hewn, their bark ridged and cracked, these silent sentinels stand on dry, rocky earth, their branches heavily laden with fruit, birds atwitter amongst their grey-green leaves. Here, the harvest is collected by hand; ripening olives fall into waiting nets, or are picked by the sun-browned and nimble fingers of white-haired farmers teetering on rickety ladders.
The archetypal trulli, too, emblematic of this sun-baked, southern region, immortalised in slate and stone, snapped on a million postcards scattered the world over, hunker in that same reddish dirt, windswept and worn.
Some remain homes, or parts of homes; others, mere relics dotted across the landscape, scorched by that piercing Mediterranean sun. Many have stood for almost four hundred years, abandoned remnants of a lost world. They will stand a little longer.
Forays into those white-washed, fortified towns reveal old ports where clear water harbours blue-and-white fishing boats, tiny cobbled alleys where neighbours call to one another from precarious-looking terraces, and piazzi dominated by towering sandstone churches with striking once-copper doors, where families feast on freshly caught seafood at wobbly wrought-iron tables.
There are secrets to be uncovered under every archway, in every courtyard. In Polignano a Mare, where caves appear hewn from the cliffs which fall away into the turquoise sea, an old chapel, witness to countless wedding vows, has been deconsecrated and given new life as an art gallery.
In Ostuni, travellers flock upwards to the cathedral, a conurbation constructed in just a year and a half. The walls of the old harbour of Monopoli are adorned with black-and-white photographs of the city’s fishermen: some with twinkling eyes, others with a cigarette pressed between their lips.
From the Roman ruins of Lecce to the locals seated in the cafés and bars which spill into the streets of Locorotondo, the peeling paint on the blue-green shutters of the grand houses of Fasano and the maze of ancient trulli of Alberobello, there is always more to Puglia than meets the eye.
Puglia smells of the Mediterranean — of olive oil, of lemons and of the salty sea. Here, aged olive trees set their roots deep in the red dirt and ancient bell towers rise from white-painted cities under skies of a deep, dazzling blue, bathed in that same bright, white light.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS