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Traditional Life in Puglia, Italy

Otranto, Adriatic, sea, Italy

Photo: David Cicconi

I had only to glance into the market before I made a new friend, Cosimo, who introduced himself as “un vero pescatore di Gallipoli” and persuaded me to buy more clams and mussels (at a fraction of New York prices but with a hundred times the flavor) than we could ever eat. While Cosimo packed up my purchases, I explored the town. Like much Salentine architecture, that of Gallipoli has a distinctly Baroque stamp even on some of its modest private houses, whose friezes of molded white plaster were relieved by flashes of yellow, persimmon, and gold. Everywhere I walked I saw fishermen repairing nets or older women leaning out of windows or sitting on small folding chairs in the streets, knitting and watching children. In a place without sidewalks or gardens and very few piazzas, the street itself was the de facto town square.

Another morning I set off to visit some of the towns of the entroterra. These inland places make up a small, secret world within the blue-green border of coastal Salento. In Maglie, the largest of them, I stopped at the delightful Pastificio Benedetto Cavalieri pasta factory, which has been producing spectacular pasta locally since 1918—think Willy Wonka with semolina in place of chocolate—before walking through the central streets, where there seemed to be a disproportionate number of bridal shops, underwear boutiques (for women and men), and pasticcerie.

Maglie was bustling and caloric; the towns of the Grecia Salentina, by contrast, were closed, stony, and mysterious. These 11 villages—Corigliano d’Otranto was my favorite—have Greek roots that may go back as far as the eighth century; by the 10th century, Greek refugees had settled in what was a de facto inland protectorate. Their language, clothing, food, and habits were entirely Greek; even now, a millennium later, an older generation still speaks a version of the Greek dialect.

So much about the Salento is specific to the province: the dialects; the food; the music (Alan Lomax visited in 1954 and made several notable recordings); and above all the tarantella, a dance whose origins are still in dispute, but which is believed to have originated in the 15th century around Taranto. Peasant women believed they were bitten by spiders and could only purge their bodies of the venom, and their souls of the accompanying hysteria, by whirling in frenetic circles. The tarantella, which was practiced well into the 1960’s, has undergone a revival in recent years and is celebrated at summer festivals in Melpignano and Galatina. I spent a Sunday morning in Galatina looking at the frescoes in the basilica of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, where Old and New Testament stories are given such a pungent specificity that the serpent in the Garden of Eden has long flowing tresses and an oddly coy, knowing grin, as though she alone was immune to the spider’s transforming bite.

The Salento is a place of many endings. The Romans ended the Appian Way in Brindisi. The main autostrada still branches to a secondary road there, as do the state railways. But the most dramatic ending of all is of the land itself: at Santa Maria di Leuca a sign in the empty windswept piazza reminds you—as if, surrounded by all that infinite sea, you needed reminding—that you have reached finibus terrae.

I came one afternoon to see water again, at the place where, or near where, the Adriatic and the Ionian seas merge. What a thing it was to stand at the very end of Italy, on a promontory that was once home to a brilliant white temple to Minerva and served as a famous guide to ancient sailors—everyone (the Mycenaeans and the Minoans, the Greeks, the Romans, and later the Byzantines, the Longobards, and the Saracens) having been through here. I searched for the fabled but, according to most geographers, apocryphal white line that marked the exact meeting point of these two seas, and then I climbed down to water level and rode in a boat operated by a boy who looked to be about 12. He took me and a scattering of other travelers on a tour of the Ionian coast; we putt-putted in and out of half a dozen caves, where the earth sweated and dripped and the boatswain pointed to rocks in the shape of a crocodile, an angry old man, and—who else?—a smiling Madonna.

After three days near Ugento we moved on to the Masseria Bernardini, near Nardò. Out of piles of yellow stone a Milanese architect and gallery owner has created seven suites, some with multiple bedrooms. The kitchens and artworks were contemporary, the gardens fragrant with lavender and rosemary, and the pool was a delight. I could have stayed forever.

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