It must be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited: an ancient town named Matera in Italian region of Basilicata, occupying the arch of the Italian foot, bordering the southernmost regions of Italian peninsula: Campania, Puglia and Calabria.
Now, as I’m writing this, contemplating the travels past on a rainy evening, I’ve poured myself a glass of red wine to keep the meandering thoughts going, and it must be more than a coincidence that the wine is a superb Primitivo di Manduria, the one we fell in love with during our holiday to Apulia last summer. A holiday when we devoted a day to visit Matera in the neighbouring Basilicata.
Ever heard of Senigallia? Me neither. Until last summer that is. As it turns out, it’s one of the most popular sea-side resort towns on the Italian side of Adriatic coast in the region of Le Marche. It’s where masses of Italian families spend their beach holiday. I was shocked by the sheer size, i.e. length of it.
Whenever I flip through the photographs I took, a warm feeling comes over me. Mostly, I remember the mood not only of the place but the one I was in at that moment.
Different occasions provoke different responses: these days it is a regretful sense that the holiday season is over. I know, I know, the whole world is back to work again (myself included) so stop moaning and groaning, right? Right. Let me take you on a trip to Lecce then, as promised. This way please.
There was this store we were passing every day for it was just around the corner of the garage where we parked. Its shelves were full of wine and champagne bottles and other liquor from all over the world. The loaded pallets were stacked outside on the pavement in front of the store waiting for lorries and vans to collect them. On our second evening in Lecce we decided to stop by and ask if one or two bottles can be bought since it gave the impression more of a wholesale. Well, we could’ve bought the entire pallet had we known how good the wine was going to be and spent the holiday happily surrounded by emptying bottles. We’d end up lying under the table soon enough though because the Apulian reds are intoxicatingly strong. So, instead of doing that we healthily opted for two bottles to drink on our terraces (yes, we had four at our disposal) before going out or after we’d return or for no reason at all – just to enjoy them. Not only did the signore serving us suggest two lovely wines, Primitivo di Manduria and Negroamaro, when asked he would happily recommend a place for dinner.
“Fish?” he asked. Upon our confirmation he stepped outside and we obligingly followed because, well, of course, you have to be outdoors to give directions properly, and murmuring to himself and counting using his fingers directed us, verbally and manually alla italiana: “Seconda left, porta grande, prima right, corner e li ristorante Blu notte.”
To be honest, the restaurant didn’t look very convincing upon our inspection (it resembled a regular tourist trap). But we were shown the day’s fish and decided to dine. The restaurant filled up completely by nine (mostly locals; lady from the kitchen came out to greet them that’s how we knew) and was bursting with muted voices of diners’ satisfaction. It was soooo good. I’d like to say that it was then and there I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto of my life but I’d be lying. I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto a few days later when we chose Blu Notte to be the venue of our last Apulian dinner. There may be better ones but haven’t been discovered yet.
No surprise then that the next evening when we were passing the wine store I asked: “Another place?” Signore was genuinely happy and gleamed with pride when he heard we liked his previous recommendation. This time the directions were in higher numbers but nevertheless quite straightforward: “Quattro left, sette, no, otto right, venti metri, right: Degli spiriti.”
There, we entered the oasis of calm and elegance that this restaurant is. It was exactly what we needed after the hustle and bustle of the whole day around town. The food was to die for. The antipasto of melanzane was too good to be true as were the orecchiette with clams and chickpeas – what a wonderful combination. Mind you, the dish was filled with full halves of the clams only – where else do you get that?
The wine we had was superb as was the passito that rounded off the meal nicely. We returned to the apartment hypnotised by the deliciousness of it all.
By all means, there’s more to Lecce than food and wine. There had been the Messapians, the Greek, the Romans, the Normans, and the Ottomans. The rich mixture of cultures and their clashes caused the town to have developed a distinctive charm. There are countless impressive churches, terrific villas, monuments of astounding proportions, colourful roof tiling, extravagant baroque facades that blow your mind, not one but two Roman theatres, infinite number of ornate balconies with bearded plants hanging over them, huge pedestrian area for passeggiata and numerous picturesque streets of the golden centro storico. Proximity to the coast adds appeal and the climate is fantastic. I’ve said it before, Lecce is overwhelming. Breathtaking. Astonishing.
We were very lucky to have had selected a fantastic accommodation and I highly recommend a rooftop place to stay: the views over town’s landmarks, terraces, flat roofs, aerials and church bells are unforgettable. Plus, the gentle movements of the evening air are priceless in the summer heat because the only place to feel the gentle breeze is on top.
Last but not least, beginning another new day with a delicious breakfast under the shade surrounded by blue skies and lush Med greenery is a rare luxury several floors above the dried up stone pavements.
As for the signore from the wine store, we never met him again although we passed the store almost every evening, carrying our helmets at the near ending of yet another joyful day. I regret we couldn’t fire the sparks in his eyes with praise of his recommendations again.
A traveller arriving to Apulia by way of Campania is greeted by rolling, seemingly endless, wide and flattened hills of wheat fields. If one is lucky enough to arrive in full sun of a mid July afternoon, it appears as though one entered an enormous treasury. All around, practically everywhere, for as far as the eye can see, to the ends of the horizon, there are interconnecting fields of wheat. Some pure golden, others in deep antique gold colour, some already harvested and loaded with bales lying around in a semi-scattered order, just like diamonds set in a necklace of a frivolous heiress, waiting to be escorted to some grand ball. One feels almost hypnotised by all that golden delight on both sides of a modern motorway.
Then, after a while, after tens and tens of kilometres of ripe wheat fields and nothing else, one notices slender white windmills dot the landscape of golden infinity. Somehow, they’re not obtrusive: in different sizes they line the soft borders of smooth hilltops in a never-ending sight. The immensity and vastness of it all is overwhelming.
After another while, kneaded within the gold appears a lonely vineyard. The vines are fascinatingly spread over a pergola-like structure the height of a man forming a rather dense shade overground. Gradually, the land gets filled with nothing else but vineyards. As much as everything was golden for quite a stretch of the way now everything changes to fresh and gleaming green. The landscape is still wide without an obvious interruption in visual field. Wherever one turns the head, all vineyards. Some are, for unknown reason (possibly some kind of a protection against heat? birds?), completely covered with what seems to be dense cloth of some sort. Again, tens and tens of kilometres of everything green. In awe, a first-time traveller to this fertile land needs to be pinched to make sure it’s not all a dream.
Every now and then an olive grove squeezes in between the vineyards. Those are huge olive trees, clearly very old even to an unaccustomed onlooker. Their crowns are almost as high and voluminous as those of chestnut trees in the north. How can they let them grow so big, one can’t stop to wonder. As a déjà-vu of some sort, step by step the land fills up with nothing but silvery green olive trees and it goes on and on and on. Once more, whatever you see for tens and tens of kilometres are gigantic olive trees.
Above it all, a painfully blue sky. A-l-l t-h-e t-i-m-e. The images of luxurious variations of gold, green, silver and blue are doomed to remain forever embossed in traveller’s mind. So, obviously, Apulia welcomed us royally. Although very hot and quite exhausted by a long ride, we were both continually being astonished by yet another kilometre of breathtakingly wonderful landscape.
Not to neglect the rows of colourful oleanders lining the motorway for hundreds of kilometres on end. Alternating in spectacular pinks and reds and whites, some of them are as big as houses. And fragrant too.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, that once we arrived to Lecce, the heart of Salento, our final destination, we were nearly speechless. True, we were captivated even more by a soft pink sunset but the town is a precious haven even without it. The dusk, though, lends it a special feeling of magic-like magnetism.
This is how our uncovering Apulia started. We fell in love with it on the very first day. So much so, that I’m enchanted even after a few weeks of everyday. It will certainly take more than one post of praise.
For any of you out there contemplating a perfect Apulian lunch (as presented in the photo at the beginning of this post) this is what you need:
– a kilo of ripe, locally grown pomodori (firm and meaty, juicy but plump)
– a jar of large, green Apulian olives with pepperoncino
– a bunch of rucola selvatica (a woody silver leaf kind of rucola, extra sharp and spicy)
– a pouch of silky soft, creamy burrata, super fresh from Mercato di Porta Rudiae in Lecce
– sea salt
– Apulian extra virgin olive oil
– a bottle of Primitivo di Manduria
– a sunny day
– a roof top terrace in Lecce with unbeatable view over town.
That’s it. Buon appetito!
Do come back for more on our Apulian trip. This one post can’t do it all the justice.