The Back Roads of Puglia – Day 1

Tomatoes so fresh that they came with the sun still attached

An early start.  9am. The foyer of the elegant Hotel Oriente in Bari, Italy. Reds and white and a bit of bling but beautifully designed. Hotel Oriente BariSlight apprehension but massive excitement too. 

The town has the largest seafront in Italy and it’s beautiful. Well worth a visit even for just a few days. The maze like narrow cobbled streets of the old town invite exploration. At night the piazzas, the hub of the social scene, take on a near magical atmosphere. 

We were about to embark on a gastronomic tour through Puglia. A tour with a difference – exploring Italian life in this region through food and wine – organised by award winning Back-Roads Touring.

Slowly the foyer filled. Introductions were made, handshakes all round and for me names instantly forgotten. Oh I’m so bad with names. Must be my age. Not to worry, we are all together for five nights so plenty of time to remember. Our group of 16 consisted of 4 Brits, 7 from Australia, 4 New Zealanders and one from Canada. 13 females, 3 men. All but one over 50. Most had been away from home for weeks and had already taken Back Roads tours around Europe. And the feedback was very encouraging. 

From the start it was clear we were in safe hands. Giuseppe our driver was lovely. As was Susannah, a bella- donna from Tuscany and our guide for the trip. Both incredibly helpful and both dressed oh so Italian – casual yet wonderfully chic. 

MateraFirst stop on our road trip Matera, a rock city. And in Basilicata, not Puglia and a 40 mile journey from Bari. Matera is home to ancient cave dwellings and churches hewn out of solid rock. The Madonna de Idris with its huge cross reaching heavenly is awesome. With a history of dire poverty and malaria it was once the shame of Italy but now Matera is gaining cult status as tourists flock to the city. A UNESCO world heritage site in 1993 and the European city of culture in 2019. 

A star of the silver screen too. ‘The Passion of Christ’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ were filmed here. It has also doubled as Jerusalem too. Beautifully enchanting. Authentic and remarkable. We were Romancing the Stone in Matera. 

The cave dwelling area – the sassi – are built into the sides of a steep gorge with the Gravina River below. Many of the caves were desperate places in which to live. No heat, no toilets. All the family and the animals slept together in a damp squalid hell! Mortality rates in infancy reached 50%. It was a dirty city. Not today. 

Sasso Barisano by Tango7171Sasso Barisano is the smarter troglodyte district. Inhabited by merchants who showed off their wealth by extending their homes outwards from the caves to create a town tightly packed. Neighbours live ‘cheek by jowl’ in homes stacked haphazardly on top of each other. Sasso Caveoso was the poorest of the sassi and today it is still mostly abandoned. 

The Church of the New Purgatory is fascinating. It wasn’t purgatory to visit, it was actually a pleasure. A must visit. The huge door consists of 36 panels. Above and all around skulls are everywhere, carved in stone and wood. Representing nobles and common people. “All men are equal after death”. 

Church bells resonate on the hour and echo around the valley. The distinctive distant whine of a Vespa. A few wispy clouds and broken plane trails. A blinding morning sun, a quality of light that was wonderfully uplifting. All around local people with tans as deep as terracotta. Matera Rocks! 

Sasso Caveoso by Tango7171Our local guide took us through the city and ‘up and down dale’. The uneven rocky steps were at times very slippy especially after they had been sunkissed by an ever present sun and worn down by centuries of trampling feet. Silver travellers do take care. The grey stone adds beauty and intrigue. This area was once under the sea and shells and fossils are still to be seen in rocks dug locally for building works. 

We trudged wearily pilgrimlike to a chiese rupestra (a rock church). Does it have a rock choir? Such exquisite frescos on the walls. Closer to God, high up on a rocky outcrop. The road to redemption is never on the flat. A bottle of water was ample reward for our upwardly mobile trek. In the ancient cemetery the dead were buried in graves cut out of solid rock, overlooking the river below. A room with a view! Here the dead were buried above the living. 

By the end of the visit no stone had been left unturned. Around every corner another extraordinary view and glimpse of an ancient life now in regeneration mode. 

One of the most astonishing places I have ever seen. Fascinating. We left Matera with a heavy heart and so privileged to have seen such a wonder. 

Azienda DragoneNext stop. A light lunch at Azienda Dragone winery about 15 minutes from Matera. The tour lived up to its name as we drove down winding back roads, free of other traffic, surrounded by gorgeous countryside. 

Suzannah entertained us with her knowledge and some great Italian titbits. Do you know that in Italy if you want rain then you wear your underpants or knickers inside out?! So if the summer in the UK is too hot to handle then the answer lies in your own hands – well pants.

The air-con in our minibus worked its magic. And en route our group began to gel. Travel tales and tips were exchanged amidst much laughter. And that’s what travel is all about. You can learn so much by talking, much more than you can from any amount of books. 

We expected a light lunch and got a feast. A feast for eye and stomach. A wonderful bruschetta. Take note restaurant chains back home – you can do much better. This was the real Italian job. Tomatoes so fresh that they came with the sun still attached. Cucumber, celery, hard cheese, soft cheese, more exquisite tomatoes. Salami, sliced ham, mushrooms, peppers in oil, olives, eggplant, various crostini and Taralli (small circular crackers) and fresh breads. All washed down with red and white wines produced on site.

Just as we thought it was safe to get up from the table and have a stroll, another course arrived. A bowel of pasta again topped with sun drizzled tomatoes. I was in danger of turning orangey-red but it was worth it. 

Azienda DragoneFinally a strong coffee, or that is what we thought. Next a slice of home-made tart which crumbled in the mouth. Dragone and Back Roads you did us proud. Grazie. And the wine was superb too just like the two golden retrievers outside which had won everyone over with their beauty. 

A few hardy souls ventured down to the Crypt of the Original Sin, accessed down a path through vineyards and olive groves on the estate. The frescoes date back to the ninth century. I chose to stay and stroke the dogs. 

Masseria Chiancone Torricella was our hotel for the next two nights. Now a four star hotel, in 1600 a fortified farm. The bedrooms had thankfully been renovated and updated since then. Situated in countryside awash with olive trees and a green carpet of vines, all set in Martian red fertile soil. 

Masseria Chiancone TorricellaThe room was large. Plenty of wardrobe space but only 5 hangers. Ten extra were soon delivered by charming staff. A massive bed. A large shower room with plenty of towels. Our luggage was already in our room. A nice touch. The bags had travelled separately from our minibus. The air-con unit had an annoying rattle when on. But this was soon stopped with a well-placed shoe. We had arrived at the hotel at 6.30pm after a very long but enjoyable day. We had to leave again for our welcome dinner in Martina Franca at 7.30. So a quick unpack, shower and we were ready. 

It was dark when we arrived in Martina Franca, a lovely town scattered with Baroque palaces, a perfect experience of Italian life Pugliese style. The roads were packed with cars. Cars were everywhere. But we had Guiseppe. And we knew he would be back to collect us after the meal. 

Martina FrancaOur welcome meal was at the Ristorante La Tana and very welcoming it was too. Excellent service and great staff. A great location too – slap bang in the middle of town. Wine again flowed. Another glass per favore, I’m not driving.  

Tonight was our first real introduction to the Slow Food of Puglia movement. Slow Food – a shorter distance from production to plate and a much fresher taste. ‘Soil to plate with Italian flair and passion’. And what an introduction! 

Food came out of the kitchen faster than items on The Generation Game conveyor belt. 14 different dishes to try – meat fish and veg. All delicious except for that raw something. I don’t do raw. The fried aubergine was amazing . A phrase I never thought I would use in my lifetime. The pork was stunning. The dessert tart was oh so light. And the coffee superb. I have never ever had a bad coffee in Italy. 

It was time for bed. Buona notte.

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Dave Harcombe

Travelling pharmacist

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