Like much of Italy, Puglia is a land of contradictions. It is, at the same time, a complex and a simple land, where tradition and history mix, oddly yet somehow comfortably, with technology and the modern world. In this article, we hope to offer you a glimpse of what makes up ‘Pugliese’ culture; it’s people and history, and to provide you with a number of additional links and resources for you to explore these themes further, should you wish.
Sometimes known as Apulia, Puglia is also known as the ‘Heel of Italy'. It lies in the heart of the Mediterranean, even though it is in fact flanked by the Adriatic Sea along it’s length and touches the Ionian Sea at it’s tip. Generally speaking, it is relatively flat, although there are areas of gently rolling hills such as those within the famous Valle D’Itrea. At it’s heart, however, it is a land of lush Olive trees and vineyards, of rich brown and red soils, mild wet winters and hot dry summers, and of friendly, open people, with ready smiles.
Puglia’s history, belying the apparent simple nature of the land, is a complex weave of colonisation, invasion and a continual struggle for independence. Strategically located, and blessed with a rich, fertile soil, Puglia has been a coveted possession for many a civilisation. Believed to have been settled by the Greeks as early as the 8th Century BC, the Romans, Turks, Saracens and Spanish, among others, have also held claim to parts of Puglia at one time or another through its history. For the Wikipedia article on Bari, the capital of Puglia, please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bari
Sometimes referred to as the ‘breadbasket’ of Italy, Puglia historically produced much of Italy’s pasta, and today it still produces over half of its olive oil. Increasingly, it is also becoming known for its rich fruity red wines, particularly those from its Salento region. As you would expect, food plays an important part in Pugliese culture and, its main dishes are distinguished by an explosion of flavour in its meat and pasta dishes, often through the use of freshly picked herbs and wild vegetables, invariably obtained from individual private gardens. Almost everyone seems to have their own small vineyard and, as well as the inevitable olive trees, almond and fig trees are also often found in private gardens or even growing wild at the roadside. To learn more about Pugliese food and dishes please seehttp://www.laterradipuglia.it/ing/ricette.htm.
In keeping with Mediterranean culture, the people of Puglia love to congregate during the cool evenings and it is not unusual to walk along the streets and find people milling on the streets, catching up on local gossip. Lunch is something to be enjoyed and, perhaps because of the hot midday summer sun, it is a long drawn out affair. It normally lasts from between 1pm and 4:30pm, depending on the town, and most businesses and shops, except for restaurants of course, are actually closed during this period, so you need to take this into account when planning your day.
The architecture of Puglia is at once simple, yet stunning. From a distance, many of the smaller towns appear as beautiful ‘walled’ villages, many sitting atop hills, with church spires and towers often rising high above the rooftops. Close up, it becomes apparent that the town ‘walls’ consist of near solid rows of tall, terraced houses which not only define the town perimeter, but were also designed to allow the town to be more easily defended against the coastal pirates and bandits of old. Many of the houses are painted white to reflect the hot summer sun and indeed Ostuni, located between Bari and Brindisi, is also known as the ‘White City’.
Within the old quarters of these towns, a plethora of balconies, doorways and arches all provide insights into the different civilisations that have influenced their architecture. Roman, Greco andMessapian features are often seen side by side and Martina Franca features a wonderful Gothic feel to it. The maze of tiny whitewashed alleys that make up Cisternino’s Old Town conceal a surprisingly spacious clock tower square inside, and it is not hard to see why it has been named one of the ‘Borghi piu Belli d’Italia’ – in other words one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.
Puglia is the home of the Trulli, simple yet beautiful dwellings with conical roofs made entirely of local limestone. Built by peasant farmers, with some dating back to the 15thcentury, they are today highly sought after - despite the need to make heavy investments in their restoration - by both local residents, and well to do outsiders. Whilst originally a practical way for the poor farmer to build a home, today’s Trulli have taken on a magical character, like tiny personal castles, with a fairy tale quality about them. For more about Trulli please see our article Trulli - how did they come about?
For the landed gentry, Masserie, or farm-houses, were the residence of choice and the owner of a Masseria would often own many hectares of land (one hectare is approximately two and half acres), planted with olive trees and vineyards. Today, many Masserie continue to grow olives and grapes, employing traditional methods dating back hundreds and even thousands of years, although they frequently supplement their income by taking advantage of the rise of tourism, doubling up as B&Bs, or even luxury hotels. Thus, they become part of the Italian Agriturismo phenomenon: working farms which also offer restaurant and accommodation facilities.
Perhaps because of the successive wave of conquerors, and despite its strategic location and ports, Puglia, like much of southern Italy, has in the past been considered a poor relation to the more northerly regions such as Tuscany. Its cuisine, with its use of pasta without eggs, and freshly picked wild herbs and vegetables, the now delightful Trulli, and even the distinctive style of furniture, known as Arte Povera, all originate from the need to make do with little material wealth.
Today however, the picture is very different and the enterprising nature of Italians comes out strongly here. Agriculture and tourism are two of the more obvious contributors to the local economy, however Puglia also boasts many small and medium sized enterprises, specialising in foods, marble and limestone quarrying, textiles, shoes and engineering. Grottaglie, in the south, is especially famous for its ceramics and the many trendy stores and boutiques tucked away inside most towns and villages attest to the growing wealth of the region.
In fact, many regard Puglia as a region which is beginning to flourish, as improved transport links, its favourable climate, the beauty and unspoilt nature of its countryside and beaches, and its warm, inviting people make it a favourite destination for many discerning holiday makers.
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