roadtripping Italy heel to toe: Puglia to Calabria via Basilicata to round out the 00s
27.12.2010—Mont Sant'Angelo, Puglia
we were thinking we'd loop around the spur of Gargano along the coast but the weather was dreary & the road windy & getting late (little daylight in these winter months) so about halfway across the peninsula we cut straight over the top through the Foresta Umbra. then it started to snow. who would've thunk. not what we were expecting from southern Italy. beautiful nonetheless.
a few times we saw these white dogs (wolves?) hanging out in the forest with no houses or people around. not sure what they were but they looked at us like they (or we) were some sort of sign.
we went down the mountain into rain & then back up another mountain into more snow into the town of Monte Sant'Angelo as it was getting to be dark. we started to walk into town but this guy from the hotel insisted on driving us. he dropped us off & we went into some sanctuary/church past an octagonal tower down a series of steps until we got to this underground chapel built into a pre-existing grotto. it was damp & cold & smelled of guano.
after walking around we had some time to kill before restaurants opened. all the cafes were full of men standing around. no women to be seen. we went into one cafe & it smelled like everyone had farted all at once right as we walked in the door. it was really a phenomena. there were dozens of men wearing jackets & only a few were actually drinking anything—as if they were all unemployed & had nothing better to do than sit around in cafes but no money to spend. it felt more like Morocco than anywhere else i've been to in Italy. and they were speaking some fucked-up dialect of Neapolitan or Latin (whatever it was wasn't Italian). as we were leaving the cafe the guy from our hotel pulled up. it felt like everyone in the town knew who we were & were notifying this guy of our whereabouts. he led us to some osteria ("del corso") that seemed to open up just for us. we ordered some things but the waiter/cook brought some other things completely different than what we ordered but it didn't matter because it was all pretty good. afterwards the waiter/cook insisted on driving us back to the hotel & when i asked who would tend to the customers (that had accumulated by then) one of the customers insisted on taking us. we managed to explain in our shitty Italian that we wanted to walk but they still called the guy from our hotel who came & picked us up as we were walking down the road. we must've seemed pathetic or masochistic (it was cold & blizzardy).
went through a bunch of swampy agricultural land between the spur & heel to a town called Trani famous mostly for some church on the sea. we climbed the bell tower & poked around the town.
then we headed on to Castel del Monte—an octagonal castle built by Frederic II with octagons at each corner & an octagonal courtyard. perhaps better appreciated if you were a crow flying over.
we continued on into Basilicata to Matera—one of the oldest settlements in Italy & the world (the cavernous sassi being some 9000 years old). as we were driving up there busloads of robed pilgrims appeared to be gearing up to do some sort of Nazareth re-enactment. cops were closing off the streets. we managed to park illegally and run down & check out the Sassi while there was still some daylight. need to come back & spend more time here for sure.
drove back into Puglia winding on backroads arriving to the town of Alberobello in the dark. Alberobello is famous for being the epicenter of Trulli architecture.
evidently they built the houses in such a fashion (originally without cement or mortar) to avoid taxation (they could quickly dismantle them if tax-payers came). not shown in these pics (except for the cross above) is that a lot of the roofs had occult or pagan symbols on them (see chart further down).
being that j's lineage can be traced back to Puglia this trip was of special interest. elsewhere in Italy people recognize her (both by looks & surname) as being from Puglia. i was thinking it might be like that scene in Being John Malkovich for her but i guess it wasn't nearly that dramatic.
we continued further into the heel to Otranto & had a seafood lunch & walked around the ramparts & harbor. then we went back stopping off in the town of Martina Franco. ate in Alberobello at a dungeoness place called Casa Nova. despite being famous for it's food we weren't so impressed in general with the cuisine in Puglia. then again maybe we are spoiled from Roman food. i did have a fava bean & chicory dish the night before i forget where that was decent & the wines weren't so bad.
stopped at some cafe along the coast (in the arch of the high heel) for a coffee & a pizzaroti (that sort of tastes like what it sounds like—a pizza roti) that was tasty. Basilicata is probably the most overlooked (& poorest) region of Italy. a few nights before we left we saw the movie Basilicata Coast to Coast which from what i could gather (from my limited Italian) is about these 4 musicians that travel across Basilicata coast to coast. duh. not quite the route we followed (& they did it on foot) but i made this video of road footage using the opening track from the movie (& it's sort of in reverse as the statue that looks like the one in Rio is actually on the west coast near Amalfi):
we continued along the coast in the arch of the heel occasionally popping over to see what the water was like. or to be lured up by hilltowns. had lunch at some random roadside place that was full of mafioso types but the food rocked. two small (but robust & round) guys next to us were having a heated (yet tender) disagreement their entire lunch (which consisted of at least 4 huge dishes each of pasta, fish, etc.). occasionally the waiters would have to moderate or be asked to weigh in. when we inquired what it was all about the waiter said they were partners in some sort of garment business & were disagreeing over what style of shirt was better. we saw no shirts & heard no specific descriptions (it all seemed philosophical) though in eavesdropping there were numerous references to soccer thrown in, though these could've been metaphoric. or maybe it was soccer garments that were under debate. we'll never know.
we proceeded to get sort of lost trying to find some sort of agriturismo place near the town of Rossano in Calabria. wound up desolate backroads into the mountains as the sun was setting. agriturismos are really popular in Italy. not sure what the deal is but they are everywhere—i'm guessing (or maybe i was told) that farms get some sort of tax break being an "agriturismo". the way it works is that old farmhouses are fixed up to provide accommodation like a B&B & food is theoretically supplied from the farm & you get to live like farmers, etc. i chose Giardino ITI because on their website they said they had some goats but in reality there were only 2 sad & mangy goats (one with a broken horn) standing around some dank pen along with a few other stray farm animals. nevertheless it wasn't such a bad place. their main product is oranges & citrus & there was plenty of that around.
a weird thing happened as we were walking around the grounds looking at the farm animals & whatnot. it was getting to be dark & i walked into this small courtyard & everything was still but i felt funny. i started looking around & saw these black shapes in the corner. they were shaped like puppies but were completely still & quiet & i thought maybe they were dead & didn't want to tell j at first. but upon investigation they weren't dead & when i leaned over to pick one up they started crawling through a hole in the wall. there was no mother in sight & it was getting to be really cold (below freezing). the puppy i did pick up was barely responsive. we went into ask about the puppies but the guy just brushed it off saying they were probably abandoned & when i asked where the mother was he said probably on "un giro". oh that's the other thing is that the people at Giardino ITI are really strange. after being lost in the hills & arriving in the dark we weren't sure we'd found the right place so we tentatively walked into this cold & dark farmhouse that seemed abandoned until we saw three bundled figures huddled near a fire eating a huge plate of tangerines. the guy was staring into the fire in deep contemplation & when he heard us he just looked at us like what the fuck. but perhaps this is Calabrian hospitality as they warmed up to us eventually once they realized we weren't the mob confiscating their farm or vampires there to kill them. he gave me a bic lighter & told me where the firewood was but the wood was green & i had no paper so it was no easy chore getting the fire going. but the more work you put into it the more you appreciate it once the fire rages (& the fire was definitely necessary). oh & the food was amazing. if i said we weren't impressed by the food in Puglia the food in Calabria exceeded all our expectations (though not as spicy as i was hoping). excellent seafood & sardines & cheeses & pasta. though i wasn't crazy about the finale of roasted goat mostly because i feel sort of cannibalistic eating goat.
in Puglia & Calabria a lot of houses & streets were adorned with strange & seemingly pagan symbols like the ones above. i can't find out too much about them online but here's a photo of a description i took in Puglia:
oh & the town we were staying nearest in Calabria (Rossano) is also famous as being home to the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis (a.k.a. the Rossana Gospels). i guess there's some original pages of it (the ones that didn't get burnt) in some museum but we weren't sure it was open & besides that's the beauty of the internet (it's a lot easier to navigate & park than the reality of Italian towns).
continued on over more mountains & snow (Calabria is surprisingly mountainous). circled back up north on the autostrade to another hilltown called Altomonte.
when we got back to our agriturismo we checked on the puppies & they were still there but they had gone into a cubbyhole where we couldn't get to them & still no sign of the bitch mama. but they were fat & healthy & playing. i had already decided to name one of them Darwin since i was reading The Origin of Species (more on that in the next post) & another one Jesus since we found them right after Christmas & the courtyard i stumbled on them in felt like some sort of eerie manger scene. but in the end common sense & selfishness got the better of us mostly being as we have travel plans for Benin, Kenya, Turkey & India in the next month or two & i would have to forego all that to clean up puppy shit. not to mention that we aren't supposed to have dogs in our place.
it was cold & we had no hot water so we took icy sponge baths near the fire & then went to eat almost forgetting it was New Year's (Capodanno to Italians). the dining room we ate in had been converted into a sort of banquet/party room with place settings for i'd guess 100+ people. it seems the Signora of Giardino Iti is renowned for being a great cook & thrower of parties & apparently Giardino ITI was the place to be for Capodanno. we were given a table right on the dance floor (though really just wanted one in some dark corner) so we had front row seats to the spectacle about to unfold. there was some DJ/Karaoke guy singing ballads in hilariously butchered English & as the evening progressed he played more dance numbers (most of which were Dominican or Puerto Rican & everyone knew the words in Spanish). i've never seen so much fur & designer glasses & silk shirts so tight the buttons were popping off. it was all beyond words but here i tried to capture some of it:
the next morning (& decade) we woke up early & pushed on through the mountains north towards Amalfi... .