For The Heel Italy
. The new 'in'
region is Tuscany . Jeremy Atiyah
finds out if it's hip or hype Puglia
18 July 2004
And I confess that this is bothering me. Let me declare my interests: I love
Back then, you never met any British tourists during your holiday. The trulli were allowed to crumble in peace. The azure sea was the preserve of effortlessly brown and beautiful locals. The only industry of the scuffed fishing ports was fishing. The only sounds from the interior were those of peasants fermenting their wine and pressing their olives and killing their pigs.
But now what? I'm back, having just arrived on the new Ryanair flight to
The omens are not promising.
Anyway, I'll be staying in the Valle d'Itria, a region famous for its gentle hills, fertile land, historic towns and trulli. This is by no means the only attractive part of
In case anyone still doesn't know, a trullo is a stone cottage topped by one or (usually) several conical stone roofs. Some are tiny cottages; others verge on the palatial. Driving around the Valle d'Itria, trulli roofs can be seen peeping up on all sides. If you drive off the main roads and on to the country lanes, trulli are sometimes all you'll see. Many comprise little more than quaint piles of rubble amid the almond, walnut and olive trees. The Longs' own trulli are gorgeous little cottages in perfect rustic locations of the sort that any self-respecting Englishman would die for. I, too, covet their natural stone floors, their terraces, their courtyards and their trees. It is hard to imagine that Ryanair customers will not soon be clamouring for them.
But strangely enough the Longs themselves seem ambivalent about the growing tide of tourists. In the short term, they concede that their business may profit. But in the long term? "We aren't sure," they murmur, "whether the local authorities can be trusted not to go mad." And conversation turns to golf courses, giant hotels, marinas ...
As for foreigners coming in and buying up all the trulli - it's already happening. The masons who are qualified to restore those conical roofs are indeed prospering, as are some who are not. Naturally, I am bitter about this, as should any Englishman be who has always wanted to buy a palace in
Swallowing my envy, I accompany the Longs to meet their own neighbour, whom I can certify to be a peasant of the most authentic variety. He shows us his pig, his cow, his sheep, his rabbits. We see the place where his wife prepares her homemade pasta and bakes her own homemade bread. We sample his cheeses and sausages over a glass of rough wine, and I worry that on present trends, these humble Pugliese pleasures may be extinct within a few years.
In the evening I head back to my lodgings in Martina Franca, one of several exquisite towns in the valley. Through a local agency, I've rented a flat in the old town: I've got my very own vaulted ceilings, stone floors, antique furniture and a roof terrace. All around me is a warren of whitewashed lanes, staircases, arches and terraces and tunnels. It echoes to the sounds not of traffic, but of eating and cooking. Turn any corner and you'll walk face-first into a pair of pants, where someone's laundry line has sagged.
There are more foreign tourists wondering round Martina Franca than in the past, but right now I can report that the locals outnumber them by about a thousand to one. My visit coincides with Easter and the streets are thronged with immaculately dressed families heading for church. By they will have transferred, small kids and all, to the restaurants.
Over dinner, I notice with approval that increased tourism has not yet inflated the price of wine: a litre of house red in my restaurant of choice costs €2.50 (£1.70). And when I order the dirt-cheap "starter of the house" I am brought a vast tray of delicacies, including pickled mushrooms, succulent mozzarella, crunchy fennel, spicy meatballs, tender octopus, fizzy cheese, stuffed zucchini and cured meats (and afterwards the waiter looks troubled when I decline the offer of a main dish).
By the time that's finished it's nearly , and in the streets an Easter procession has begun, overlooked by the ancient Baroque façades of the central piazza. Dumpy ladies in black carrying Roman candles come followed by men in strange capes and headdresses, and emergency workers with "Misericordia" written on their jackets. At the sight of the effigies of Jesus and Mary, the silent crowd breaks spontaneously into a reverent prayer. In the background a band of trumpeters and trombonists is playing an emotional and, indeed, epic dirge that seems to owe as much to
As I already know, historic and traditional towns such as Martina Franca are plentiful in this region of
For my last couple of days I decide to get out into the countryside, to sample another kind of accommodation unique to
I try a couple. One is the Masseria San Domenico, which offers probably the most luxurious accommodation in the whole of
But the general problem of staying in a masseria-hotel becomes apparent at dinner time. The attached restaurant will no doubt be classy. Except the problem is this: who wants to eat in a classy restaurant in
From the Melograno, after dark, I escape by car a few miles down the road to the seaport of Monopoli, one of several similar ports along this coast. At at night its piazzas are packed with perambulating townsfolk. Waves are beating on its massive stone walls. Fishing boats are pulled up in its ancient harbour. In tiny restaurants people are ordering fishy delicacies, while old women are mourning for their sons lost at sea in winter storms of long ago, and giant old churches of weather-beaten stone are looming over the hearts and minds of all of us.
It is atmospheric rather than beautiful, but that's all right by me. None but the most dedicated aficionados of
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Return flights to
A week's car hire through National Car Rental (0870 400 4560; www.nationalcar.com) costs around £202.
Where to stay
Long Travel (01694 722193; www.long-travel.co.uk) specialises in tailor-made holidays in
Long Travel also organises hotel accommodation. Bed and breakfast at the five-star Il Melograno, near Monopoli, costs from £125 per person per night through Long Travel.
I Paesi della Luce (00 39 080 430 1588; www.ipaesidellaluce.it) offers quaint old apartments inside the old town of
Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).