Once Poor And Now With Its Olive Trees Dying, Puglia In Southern Italy Grows Rich On Tourism, Fine Food, Wine And Padre Pio.
The last time I was in Puglia four years ago, it was palpable that this eastern toe of Italy bordering on both the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas, was quickly acquiring a reputation for being a region with the magnetic appeal of being as yet undiscovered. Since then, Puglia has become recognized for its beautiful cities, artistic culture, food and wine, and a slew of very fine, very high-end palazzos and resorts have opened up and down its coasts and in its interior.
And the province’s unique attraction is the Shrine of Padre Pio, the second most visited Catholic Shrine in the world (after Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City), which honors the revered stigmatist saint who spent most of his life as a priest in the town of San Giovanni Rotondo.
Long among Italy’s poor Southern provinces, with next-to-no industry and co-operative wineries turning out a bulk product, Puglia did have a thriving olive oil export industry, but ten years ago a pestilence began destroying the trees, which have been replaced with rootstocks and grafts from resistant varieties of olives not indigenous to the area but that quickly produce fruit within two or three years.
The region’s history began with the settlements of Greeks who gave it the name lapygia referring to the tribes that emigrated there in the first century BC, and even today in nine small villages in the south a Greek dialect is spoken. Rome dominated Puglia’s early history, but as in all of Italy, Puglia has had many masters, from the Saracens and Turks to the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, the Spanish and Napoleon; pirates once sacked the city of Vieste and left with 7,000 slaves. When Italy was united in 1861 Puglia became an integral part, and under Mussolini the region was developed for agriculture but suffered under the German occupation of World War II until liberated by the Allies in 1943. Its principal port cities like Bari, Brindisi and Taranto were heavily damaged by bombings.
Like most southern provinces, economic progress was slow after the war, and many young people left to find work in the north. But in the last decade considerable efforts have been made to focus on the region’s accessibility to beaches, cities like Lecce of baroque magnificence and the folkloric trulli structures found in Alberobello made of dry limestone huts with pyramid-like corbelled roofs that look like tea cozies. These are now among the five World Heritage Sites in Puglia, which also include the medieval Castel del Monte and Sanctuary of San Michele Arcangelo outside of Bari , the National Gargano Forest, and, though just over the provincial line in Basilicata, the unique Sassi cave structures of the town of Matera, which were featured in the last James Bond movie, No Time to Die, though the motorcycle scene was filmed in nearby Gravina di Puglia.
Puglia is largely a flat landscape without mountains—which means no volcanic eruptions—although there was an earthquake in 2016—but its long seashore has become a great attraction for northern Europeans and, recently, Americans who had heretofore flocked to the usual tourist centers of Rome, Florence and Venice. Those who now come to Puglia are also in search of history and culture very different from those western and northern cities.
What they find are city centers of great and varied beauty—Bari looks nothing like Lecce, and Polignano nothing like Monopoli—but all of them now share a commitment to restoration and polishing that only enhances the natural sheen and glow of cities with broad avenues and piazzas that lead to winding, narrow inner streets of extraordinary quiet and cleanliness. One of the reasons for Puglia’s cities not becoming darkened by centuries of soot and auto fumes as in other regions is that strong, salt-rich winds have had a natural cleansing effect on the buildings’ façades, which are largely soft limestone, and streets that actually gleam and are kept tidy by the locals.
Puglia has its local contrasts that distinguish it from the overrun tourist cities like Rome and the maddening, traffic-clogged streets of Naples, thus reducing noise at the same time. By ten o’clock in a city like Bari—Puglia’s capital—you may hear little else but an occasional motorcycle or Vespa passing by. In the small hillside town of Castro di Marina the street was blocked by a four-foot-high mass of firewood just delivered at someone’s front door for use throughout the winter by a homeowner was in no hurry to clear more than one log at a time to bring inside. Maybe his neighbors would help him. Maybe not. Patience is a virtue in Puglia, and as its residents will remind you again and again, “Remember, this is southern Italy.”
I shall be writing frequently in the coming months about all aspects of Puglia—its culture, resorts, restaurants, magnificent sea food and wines that are now among Italy’s best.
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