Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Day 6 - Polignano-Alberobello-Grottaglie

Today we are to visit greater Puglia, straying away from Gioia del Colle and we wake not to the bright warmth that had been predicted, but instead to freezing temperatures and grey skies. In fact, while the world has been watching young athletes compete in the Winter Olympics only a couple hours’ flight from here, we had naively expected Puglia, indeed the whole south of Italy, to be as warm as southern California. Instead, it has been downright frigid, even when the clouds have lifted and the sun has turned the sky a bright blue and seas an opalescent green.

We meet Angelo at breakfast, hurry through coffee and pastry and climb aboard his car for a daytrip that will take us from the Adriatic coast to the Ionian coast. For three quarters of an hour we wind through beautiful countryside and small towns as we make our way to Polignano a Mare, a picturesque town on the Adriatic, south of Bari. As we pass through the various towns along the way Angelo notes that each of these towns has its own special identity – Alberobello, the town of the cylindrical stone farm houses called trulli; Turi, known for its cherries; Santeramo in Colle renowned for inventing the sofa; Altamura, known throughout Italy for its bread, which is trucked to restaurants as far away as Rome and Venice; Grottaglie, the town of ceramics; Putignano, known for its bridal fashion and shops; Castellana Grotte, renowned for its caves; and of course Gioia del Colle, not known for one thing, but three: the best mozzarella in Italy, its D.O.C. primitivo wine and its extravirgin olive oil.

The drive takes us through farm country as well. Far from appearing impoverished as Americans tend to perceive the south of Italy, there is a refined tidiness to it all. Low stone fences partition endless plots of land. Carefully stacked by hand, these stone fences stretch as far as the eye can see. Within every plot defined by these fences is an abundance of life, animal, vegetable and mineral. Olive trees, their silver green leaves in repose for the winter and almond trees like wooden skeletons devoid of leaves or nuts nonetheless appear full of life against carpets of green grass, lettuces and vegetables. Despite winter’s best shot, life and abundance spill forth within these little confines and large, comfortable looking farmhouses, most of which incorporate an older trullo give the impression of a cozy country life.

We arrive in Polignano a Mare, an ancient seaside town built on sheer cliffs above the boiling Adriatic. To the north and south other beach towns dot the coastline, but only here in Polignano do the cliffs dramatically rise from the sea and the locals have made a spectacle of the setting, with their town dramatically built right to the edges of the cliffs. We wander along the cliffs at the edge of town, Angelo explaining to us about how the locals will set up their towels on the rocks to take the sun while their children will plunge into the sea dozens of feet below. It is something, one hopes, that they grow out of as they age.

We wander through the streets of Polignano, a tidy, compact little town with shiny stone streets. Although essentially a summer place, there is a good deal of activity in the streets and a number of good looking restaurants, pubs and bars, many of which are closed for the season. We wander through a small archway and down a windy alley and emerge on a balcony overlooking the sea. Below, choppy waves swell in and crash against the cliffs on which the balcony is perched and along the cliffs we can see a number of such other public balconies, strategically positioned private homes, with their living room windows overlooking the sea, and some awesome looking restaurants with tables either set out on seaside terraces or with enormous picture windows looking out to the sea.

We wander from balcony to balcony, taking in slightly different views of the ocean from each successive one and enjoying the twisty alleys that connect each one. At one point we pass through the main square and note an inscription below a religious offering, that is dedicated to San Vito, lawyer, that thanks Jesus for bringing him. Imagine that! People thanking Jesus for setting an attorney upon them, when most references have them playing for the other team. We figure that there may be money to be made in organizing pilgrimages of attorneys from our native Washington, DC to this mecca of jurisprudential gratitude.

As we depart town, we stop in a caffe for some café and, surprisingly, the barista inquires whether we are Americans. He mockingly tells us of how he loves George Bush (the American president does not seem very popular here). He and Angelo, himself a foreigner in this strange land so far from Gioia del Colle, begin to engage in an animated, but respectful, conversation about the state of Italian politics that, to our ears sounds a lot like how two Americans would argue about Democrats and Republicans.

We return to the car and head toward Alberobello, the famous city of the trulli. Along the way, as we pass through Putignano and into the Itrian valley we see increasing numbers of trulli along the road, mostly brown and grey stone structures. But where the occasional trullo could be seen in the countryside outside of Gioia del Colle, this valley is literally chock full of trulli, each neatly marked parcel of property sporting not just a single conical roof, but rather large multi-roomed structures, with four, five or six spires, looking like stone circus big tops. The effect, coupled with the ubiquitous stone fences and the fertile soil, is honestly breathtaking.

We arrive in the outskirts of Alberobello, looking for il Vecchio Granaio (C. da Capitolo 7 B. 151, 74015 Martina Franca, tel. 080.4383122), which Angelo promises us is a nice local trattoria. We pass fields of olive trees and trulli and eventually arrive at the restaurant and cannot tell whether it is open or not. Angelo and Bill enter the empty restaurant while Suzy completes a phone call to find out our son’s SAT results (great work, Austin!) and after knocking on the door of the house next door Angelo is able to get the owner to open up and seat us.

And what a good decision our perseverance turns out to be. The genial owner offers us a limited choice for lunch, explaining how the pasta is made fresh on Sundays when the crowds are larger, but suggests some pasta and a main course of donkey meat. We eagerly agree and once again a two and a half hour lunch begins its slow, steady assault on every aspect of our physical, social and psychological being, rendering us completely open and satisfied in every aspect upon its completion. We start with a platter containing little bowls of olives, tasty dried fava beans resembling corn nuts and spicy little tiralli, which resemble round pretzels. This is followed by a plate cheeses – ricotta, mozzarella and another fresh cow’s milk cheese – and a variety of cured meats including prosciutto and a buttery lardo which is thinly sliced white fat that may sound repulsive but is in fact a treasure. The owner then brings us three lasagne, stuffed with fresh mushrooms from his garden and filled with tomato sauce and garnished with little fried meatballs. Finally we arrive at the donkey, which is thinly sliced and rolled around a mild cheese in an involtina, and served in a hearty tomato sauce with smaller chunks of donkey meat hidden in the sauce. We bray that it is the best donkey we have ever had, trying not to make asses of ourselves as we lick our plates clean. For dessert we are treated to potatoes baked in a wood fired oven and baked whole onions, which are served plain, which we drench in olive oil and salt, a perfect light accompaniment for our meal.

Actually, dessert is forced upon us, a slab of chocolate cake that is multilayered, alternating with moist cake and a chocolate crème, whipped cream and laced with walnuts (a bowl of which are also served, unopened, for us to enjoy after our meal). By this time, it is nearly time for dinner, but we lube our joints with a shot of espresso and a grappa (it is truly good for the heart and digestive system we keep telling ourselves), profusely thank the owner who must think that we are morons for going gaga over what for him is just another meal and head out the door for a visit to Alberobello, the town of trulli. As we leave we note the three middle aged women at the table next to us have eschewed donkey for their main course, opting for a thick steak instead. We make a mental note to try it next time we are in town.

We arrive a few minutes later in Alberobello, a small town bisected by a wide main street from which smaller pedestrian streets rise. On one side a colony of perhaps a hundred white painted trullo rises in the zona turistica (how appealing is it to enter a place with a name like that?). The trulli have been built for city dwelling, not the tough country life, and are much bigger than their farm counterparts and the effect of this dense concentration of them is a little surrealistic, dissipating the charm one feels when seeing a single trullo in the countryside. The fact that nearly every trullo in the zona turistica has been converted into a shop selling tourist junk further reduces the effect. We walk through the zone for a half hour, having lost interest in the trullo themselves within about 10 minutes, but amazed at how lacking in charm most of the shops are and enjoying the opportunity to walk off lunch, despite the freezing temperatures.
Angelo takes us across the street to a small park, where we wind our way up narrow streets also lined by white painted trulli. But his residential zone is much more picturesque than the commercial zone on the other side of road. The handsome lowrise trulli are maintained in very good condition, but with one trullo giving way to another the effect is of Smurfville and reminds us vaguely of Georgetown, with tourists gawking in residents’ living room, as if expecting to catch a glimpse of Papa Smurf. When we finally reach the top of the hill, the view across the town of hundreds of little white houses is truly worth the climb.

Our final stop for the day is Grottaglie, a little town on the Ionian side of Puglia, just outside the town of Taranto. Grottaglie is known for its ceramic production, which it has been engaged in for centuries. We have some difficulty getting to Grottaglie from Alberobello, even though it is not far on the map. Angelo admits that he has never visited the town, interestingly noting that there is some tension beween the people of the province of Bari (where he is from) and those from the province of Taranto, where we are not. Not so much dislike as chauvinism, but strong enough that Angelo has never had the urge to make a casual visit.

We arrive as the sun has set and the temperatures have dropped another few degrees. We want to explore some ceramics shops and examine the quality of the work in Grottaglie and see if there are any typical patterns. In our brief visit we are impressed by the quality of workmanship and product here, buying a few pieces bearing a rooster on a plain background to show off at Bella Italia. The shops, which are all concentrated in a quartiere delle ceramiche are easy to find and bear a return visit in the future.

With our shopping done we head back to Gioia del Colle, satisfied with our first excursion into the Puglian countryside, which has left us eager for a return visit. What we have decided not to visit, at least for tonight, is any type of eating establishment, so after being dropped off at our B&B by Angelo, we take another digestive stroll and head back to our room for a dose of the Olympics and a good night sleep, counting donkeys to help us nod off. Goodnight Pappa Smurf.

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