Tag Archives: Apulia

Penn Alumni Travel: Apulia

 Author: Anita L. Allen, Vice Provost for Faculty and Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law

The first thing you learn when you arrive in Apulia, is that the region occupying the heel of the boot of Italy is called “Puglia” by the Italians.  Until recently, it was difficult to get to Puglia from major cities outside of Italy. Today the “undiscovered” region is well-served by two modern airports. The Penn Alumni Travel group for which I served as a faculty host, September 17-26, 2013, arrived at one of them, Bari Airport. Along with an affable alumni group from Brown University who would be our travel companions for the week, we boarded a comfortable motor coach.  The 45 minute trip to our hotel in Polignano a Mare was narrated by AHI Travel’s campus host Mick and a local guide, Daniella.  Mick, a British expatriate, was in charge of logistics.  Daniella, a vivacious licensed guide and native of Pulgia, won us over with her detailed knowledge of history  and culture, peppered with the wit and wisdom of her  nona, her grandmother.


Hotel Covi dei Saraceni in Polignano a Mare was dramatically situated atop a bluff overlooking the turquoise and cobalt sea. From the private balcony off my antique-filled room I had a clear view the statue of Polignano a Mare’s native son Dominico Mugdana, famous for the upbeat ballard Americans my age know as “Volare.” Every so often someone would arrive at the statue, snap a few photos and then and break out in song.


To enjoy Polignano a Mare in September, one mostly strolls the streets of the medieval heart of the town for the unique scenery—elaborate flower boxes, stunning views of the sea, weathered doorways and modest churches.  Several ristorante occupy caves built into the bluffs.  But there is amore  traditionally sited osteria, trattoria, gelato stand and cafe on virtually every block.   The streets were not crowded and neither were the town’s several gift shops.   Many of us shopped and ate only, but some of the hardy Penn alums descended to the beach and swam in the chilly ocean every day.

Our first big outing was to central Bari.   Bari is a gorgeous city with an  air of affluence.  An impressive castle, a city gate, and winding streets impress. A personal highlight for me  was  watching ordinary people sitting in their doorways  making pasta by hand and drying it in the open air on large mesh trays.  The women of Bari are known for their version of the Puglian speciality, pasta orriechete, “little ears”. I tested out my dusty Italian on the pasta makers.


My basic skills served me very well in Bari and throughout Puglia, where fewer people speak fluent English than in Milan or Rome.   The linguistic diversity of Puglia contributes to its authenticity and reflects its history as a meeting point of Middle Eastern, African and western civilizations.  Many dialects and languages are spoken in Puglia.  Some communities even speak a form of Greek.  The pasta makers were warm and welcoming, as were the fruit vendors, who invited our Penn Alumni group to sample freely from their stands in a universal language of big smiles and even bigger gestures.

We visited The Basilica di San Niccola in Bari at an opportune time. Dozens of Russian pilgrims, women  in brightly colored modesty attire, packed into the crypt where which the relics of Saint Nicholas are interred. Lovely chanting and song celebrated the Saint.   Daniella sat us down in the main nave to tell us about the design of the church and the  complex story of Saint Nick,  a generous cleric whose bones were brought to Italy for safe-keeping.

Southern Italy produces delicious table wines.  One of our best days began with a tour of Castel del    Monte and ended with a trip to a family winery.  From the famous, centuries-old castle we enjoyed panoramic views of a hilly national park planted with evergreen trees.

It was in the octagonal courtyard of this castle that the Penn Alums paused for a group photograph.


We left the castle grounds for a nearby vineyard and a wine tasting.  Then, at the vineyard, the proprietor first took us on a tour of his thoroughly modern wine production room  and fields where we  tasted  delicious cabernet sauvignon  grapes straight from the vine.  They were dark, small, seeded and warmed by the sun.  On a shaded porch we were treated to a lunch and wine.

On a trip to Puglia, Daniella insisted, the dish that combines mussels, potato and rice is a must taste and the town of  Lecce is a must see.  Lecce is sometimes called the Florence of southern Italy.    The comparison is not especially apt.  Lecce centro is sunny, uncongested and unpretentious. Its ornately carved stone religious and secular architecture is the handiwork of locals without world reputations.


And there is nothing akin to the Uffizi in Lecce.  Daniella urged us to appreciate Lecce on its own terms:  consider that artisans cut off from cosmopolitan northern Italy without marble or  money, hand-carved Baroque, Gothic and Byzantine style  ornamentation from local materials to  create their own masterpieces for their own  communities of fisherman, farmers and merchants.


After soaking up Lecce’s architecture and its Roman ruins I took a few minutes to shop for souvenirs.  I was delighted to discover that tarantism, the subject of one of the two special lectures I had prepared for the trip to Puglia, was manifest in Lecce in the form of spiders on tee-shirts and spider-embellished  tambourines.  Tarantism began as a tradition of poor men and women farm workers claiming to have been bitten by  spiders developing  psychological and neurological-like illnesses treated by pizzica music,  manic dance and the intercession St. Paul.  Of course, I was relieved to find no souvenirs registering the reality of the topic of my other lecture: the pollution, cancer  and labor problems plaguing  the town of Taranta attributed to the Ilva steel plant.

The unique towns of Alberobello and Ostuni were both on the agenda for our penultimate day of group travel.  Both towns are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and deservedly so.  Alberobello is famous for its Trulli houses .




The Truli neighborhoods of whitewashed rounded houses with tall domed grey slate roofs, look like  something from a fairy tale. Cruder, haphazard versions of Trulli dot the landscape of Puglia north to south in large numbers. But it is only in Alberobello that one finds the well-kept Trulli as the dominate style of domestic architecture.  We took some time before leaving Alberobello to visit the lace makers for which the town is also famous


Ostuni is an ancient town with roots in the stone ages built inside and atop sandstones caves, some natural, some carved by hand. For centuries families and their farm animals—goats, mules and chickens– lived inside these cave homes.  After the Christian era, dozens of churches were also built into the rock.    In the 1950s the Italian government found it necessary for public health reasons to relocated the families of Ostuni to  new  housing  on the outskirts of town.  Today, the cave dwellings can be leased from the government for homes and commercial purposes under strict conditions that require a balance of modernization (such as toilets and running water) and historic preservation.  Numerous bed and breakfasts have popped up in the town, and tourism is on the rise. We visited a typical larger Ostuni  family home, now a small  museum of an earlier era.  It consisted of two sleeping areas, a kitchen and two cellars for storing  tools and food.   We also visited four churches that that been converted into wine presses,  vestiges of Byznantine era religious frescos  faintly visible on a few walls.

Our final day of group travel began with a visit to the town of Trani. Once, a wealthy shipping portal to the Adriatic,  today the town  can be enjoyed for its manicured, tree-lined  seaside park;  for views of  a commanding castle repurposed as prison and now a fine arts center;  and  for an active Roman Catholic Cathedral where pilgrims and  Crusaders once rested.  Law alumni in our group took special note of Trani’s role in the development of European maritime law and of the contemporary Italian Court of Appeals which shares a piazza with the main Cathedral.  An historic Jewish Quarter of beautiful winding streets and a vacated synagogue led us to pause for serious reflection.   Control over cultural properties from the Quarter are still a subject of active debate between Trani authorities and Jews now living in the nearby  town of  Barletta.

As we walked along a pier we stopped to chat with fisherman  selling unusual  fishes and  octopuses   to homemakers. We were startled to see how a baby octopus is prepared for market. The live creature was  flung repeatedly  against the bottom on the boat to kill and tenderize it,  then spun in a plastic tub of cold water to curl the tentacles into the shape preferred by local cooks.



Back on the motor coach we traveled only fifteen minutes from Trani to the small town of Bisceglie. There we were treated to a cold-pressed extra virgin oil tasting and a four-course al fresco lunch of regional specialities and rose wine.  Our host was the upscale oil mill “Galantino.” founded in 1926.  After a short video on the history of the Galantino mill in a cheerful subterranean cellar, our guide Massimo escorted us around to see how the mill’s completely natural prize-winning olive oils are produced.  We saw the weigh stations where each October to December truckloads of olives, black and green, shaken from ten thousand trees, are brought in from designated local groves for processing using age-old granite stone grinding techniques with a few high-tech flourishes to ensure hygiene and environmental integrity.  The gorgeous shaded patio under which we dined on dishes that included a fava bean and chicory paste and orriechete pasta, was surrounded by peach trees, grape vines and figs trees. The fruits of these plantings became our dessert along with fresh black cherry tarts, made from olive oil pastry (no butter!) and local cherries.

We were tired and sated when we returned to our hotel. But I headed out to attend an evening  mass celebrating  what happened to be the Feast Day of Padre  Pio, a sainted Capuchin friar associated with the Puglian town of Foggia.  Sickly all his life, Pio serves as the patron saint of people with seasonal depression and stress.  Pio is believed by the faithful to have received heavenly visions and the stigmata.  I enjoyed a moving worship service and was swept into a crowd as I emerged from the  chiesa.  About two hundred were there to process through the streets of Polignano , in the company of a  life-size statue of San Pio ornamented with sun flowers and electric lights. A brass band, a group of strong men bearing an enormous wooden  cross, and priests and young women carrying crucifixes on narrow poles were also part of the sacred parade. On the way back from the procession I ran into others from my  group and we wound up in a trattoria lingering over pizza con melanzana , branzio and insalta verde.

The last day of our journey to undiscovered Italy was totally free after a morning lecture on modern Italy. That evening we joined together for a final group dinner in the hotel to say our good byes and thank our most excellent hosts and guides.

[Interested in joining a Penn Alumni Travel trip? Check out our entire 2014 schedule here. Perhaps we’ll see you in Tuscany next October!]


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