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Off the beaten path in Puglia, southern Italy

Last April we travelled to Altamura in the Puglia region of south-east of Italy. This old walled town has narrow cobblestone streets barely wide enough for even a Fiat 500. Our taxi made several attempts to find our hotel but in the end dropped us some distance away. From there we dragged our suitcases over the flagstones to a charming inn. This 18th century building was once a residence of local nobility. Now it would be our home for one full week. Together with ten other guests, we planned to sightsee and enjoy several guided walks in the rolling limestone hills of Alta Murgia National Park located in this relatively undiscovered part of Italy.

A Romanesque cathedral, constructed of native white limestone, featuring two tall towers and an ornately carved portal, dominates the old town. It was built in the 13th century upon the order of Frederick II of Swabia, one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors in the Middle Ages. A maze of winding passageways radiate in all directions from the main piazza. It is a haven for pedestrians.
Altamura by night
Altamura still clings to many old-world customs. The “passaggero” takes place every Saturday evening. It is a time when residents of all ages stroll around the old town. New mamas with strollers, grandpas with grandchildren and boisterous youngsters all congregate in the piazza. Everyone is talking rapidly and gesticulating wildly. Later in the evening, teenagers throng the central square as pop music blares out from the local bars.

Tucked away on a winding walkway off the Corsi Frederico II di Swabia is a much-loved trattoria and pizzeria. It would soon become our favourite ristorante. Here we tasted real Italian food. The owner, Mina, raises her own organic produce. Most evenings our meal would start with a selection of antipasti … grilled sliced vegetables, served alone or wrapped around a soft creamy cheese, bruschetta topped with tomatoes and basil as well as focaccia and Altamura bread. Every night, the antipasti just kept coming and coming and coming. And this was only the beginning. There were more courses: primi and secondi and the not-to-be-forgotten dolci. The primi course could be handmade orecchiete pasta bathed in a mouthwatering green or red sauce. The secondi was usually some kind of meat dish, perhaps sliced veal in wine. For dessert there was tiramisu, panna cotta and baked cassata. This was simple rustic cuisine at its best. And it was absolutely delicious. Everything was so fresh and tasty. After dinner Mina offered each of our group a digestif, a shot of a fennel seed liqueur, based on her grandmother’s a time-tested recipe … delicioso!

Bakery, AltamuraAfter breakfast the next day we wended our way to the local market to purchase fresh fruit for lunch. Then we dropped by the bakery to order a prosciutto e formaggio, ham and cheese, on coarse-grained “Pane di Altamura”. This is one of Italy’s most renowned regional breads. It’s very filling and very tasty … just the ticket for a hungry hiker! In fact, as long ago as 37 BC, an Italian poet declared it the best bread he had ever eaten.

By ten o’clock the whole group was anxious to start our first hike in Alta Murgia National Park. Accompanied by Rose and John, our knowledgeable Tour Leaders, we headed for the “Pulo di Altamura”, a gigantic sinkhole, over 90 meters in depth and approximately 550 meters across. Formed by the ceiling collapse of an underground cave in the limestone strata, it is a feature of geological significance. We circled around the depression on a narrow path through fields of wildflowers. The steep walls of this crater-like basin are honeycombed with caves of all sizes, once occupied by our human predecessors. Carefully, we descended a rickety wooden ladder into one of the bigger caves. Its location high up in the cliff wall obviously offered good protection from the elements and any marauding wildlife. Nearby John pointed out a “jazzi”, an unusual structure whose original purpose was to protect sheep from prowling wolves and wild boars as well as chilly winter nights. Piles of churned up earth made it clear to us that wild boars still roam the area. After lunch, we followed a wide gravel track past grove after grove of gnarly olive trees. The brilliant yellow carpet of wildflowers beneath offered a vivid contrast to the trees’ grey-green leaves. Later we learned that Puglia produces more olive oil or “liquid gold” than any other place in Italy.

The following day, walking in Rose’s footsteps, we climbed a steep slope up an unmarked trail to the Norman fortress of Castel Garagnone. Today little more than a rocky outcrop, this former stronghold played an important role in the Middle Ages. From here we had a bird’s eye view of a traditional “masserie” or large farm surrounded by agricultural and grazing land. Another day a gentle meander along farm trails brought us to the top of a small rise and the 13th century octagonal Castel del Monte, a world heritage site. En route, we passed many characteristic “trulli” built in the 19th century. These are traditional dry stone huts with conical white limestone-tiled roofs. They were often erected as temporary field shelters, storehouses or sometimes as permanent dwellings. Our lunch stop that day was at a smallholding where the owners lived in a more modern-day “trullo”.
But the highlight of the week was a steady ascent on a well-trodden path up just over 1,000 ft. alongside the deep Matera Gorge, past an old monastery, more troglodyte cave dwellings, fields of wildflowers, a disused 12th century church and the site of an abandoned Bronze Age village until finally we arrived in the small town of Matera.

A UNESCO protected site, Matera is the most continually-inhabited town in the world, going back almost 10,000 years. It was from the town’s main square that we got our first glimpse of the Sassi, an ancient community which grew up on one side of a deep ravine. It is a collection of rock dwellings carved into the soft tufo rocks of the hillside in such a way as to let in the maximum amount of air and light. It is a confusing jumble of buildings where the roofs of some houses act as streets for the houses above them. From our Italian guide, Nicola, we learned that the Sassi, now perhaps Italy’s best-kept secret, was once a national shame. In the 1950s, more than 18,000 people moved away. At that time there was no electricity, no running water and no sewer system. But in 1987 the Government developed a scheme to restore the area. Now the Sassi is home to about 2,000 residents as well as several trattorias, cave-hotels and ristorantes. Quite the reversal of fortunes from former times! Nicola also took us to the 12th century rock Church of our Lady which features symbolic arches and an amazingly well-preserved fresco of Jesus and Mary painted by Giotto. Finally, we returned uphill via a series of switchbacks and stone staircases to the main square. Our leisurely ascent enabled us to appreciate the mystery of Matera with its hodgepodge of cascading stone structures.
Sassi, Puglia
We truly enjoyed those eternally sunny days in the heel of Italy’s boot. It was wonderful to be off the beaten path, to visit some of Puglia’s ancient towns, to explore the Alta Murgia National Park on foot, to savour the region’s flavourful local cuisine and to absorb its unique history and age-old traditions.

Arrivederci a Puglia.

Matera Gorge

All photographs by David Grimble.

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