Monday, December 18, 2006

from the sole of Italy: a rocky day with warm glows

Sunshine on my shoulder, dogs jumping to greet me, it is morning at Agriturismo San Teodoro Nuovo.

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Maria is the owner of the property. Does that make her a farmer? Maria is a woman of class. I am dowdy next to her.

She has just come back from Milano, where her daughter was getting married. Her son lives in London. But she has been here, in this southernmost point of Italy, just about all her life. Her grandmother owned this land and now Maria is churning out the organic fruits – oranges and table grapes, she tells me. Plus just enough olives to make olive oil for the family. Yes, of course I can have some to take home.

It’s suppose to be a light driving day, a big walking day, alternating with much sitting and sipping of espressino’s. It’s never as you think it will be.

There are things that slow you down…

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…and major roads turn into wisps of thin ribbon when they pass through town centers. The only way to make it through without a dent is to close your eyes and forge ahead.

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Destination for the day: Locorotondo (five vowels, all “o.” Now that’s Italian!). It is, I read, at the center of the rural trulli. What are trulli? Here, they look like this:

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And they are unique to Puglia. Why here and why the conical dome? I don’t know. More importantly, the guide book doesn’t know and it is its job to know. But there are, truly, trulli, evident on the drive in to Locorotondo and prominent as you look down, across the fields, from town center.

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Locorotondo itself is no village. I thought it would be nice and rural, an Ed kind of place, but it’s really a small town, though one with a big personality. Whitewashed, cobbled and genuinely pretty, it lures us even more than the trulli do.

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And there’s another reason why we are happy as anything to pause here. We find a great pastry shop–café–bar. Immediately I order a cappuccino and a plateful of cookies (hey, the latter is for the both of us).

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They are uniquely wonderful. And the thing about wonderful cookies is that you are not satisfied with just a plateful. Within the hour, we stop by in the same café-bar for another plateful (this time with the espressino I notice others ordering).

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Ah, café life. I sit back and happily engage in far' niente ("do nothing") and people watching... (children are walking home from Saturday morning school)

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... Ed is pretending to read the Italian newspaper (he’ll read anything – even things written in languages he does not understand). I point to the men standing at the bar – see how content men are to get together in the middle of the day over a prosecco (Italian champagne)? What are they munching on? Oh, aperitif type things – crostini, olives, nuts... We should do that! We have just come here twice in one hour, ordering cappuccino, expressino and cookies to feed a family! We can’t now order proseccos and tidbits!

We order prosecco and tidbits.

We sip it like the Italians, except we are not Italians and we do not have their expression, their shout, their touch. Still, I am happy to pick up their habits, especially if they include ordering aperitifs in the middle of the day, espressino and cookies notwithstanding.

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Call it an overload of refreshments. Ah well, food and sunshine have this way of putting one in a good mood. So we get lost on the small roads again, so what. It’s pretty in this part of the country. Sort of Celtic looking, no?

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Stone, so much stone! Gotta love stone to live here. And the trulli, carrying the stone theme to an extreme.

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But we have a destination still and so dallying too much is not an option.

In one guide book I read that if you can visit only one (small) city in southern Italy, it should be Matera. (UNESCO agrees, for it is now a protected heritage site.) Up until recently, not many had heard of Matera. But lo, it is the place chosen by Mel Gibson for his Passion of Christ film and so now it has that reputation to contend with as well.

In my mind, Matera is… spooky. Its age has something to do with it. Inhabited since before recorded history, it consists of every conceivable dwelling, built right into the cliffs. This includes caves, crumbling stone houses and something that is a combination of the two – the so called sassi: cave like structures where people lived (for centuries, up until just a few decades ago) in abject poverty, along with their pigs and chickens and what have you.

To look at all this is overwhelming.

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and sassi

We hike into the belly of the ancient city. Matera has a lively, more accessible central core, filled with lovely squares and stylish stores. But the old crumbling structures across the ravine are the magnet for visitors. Of course it’s all rather empty now. It is December, the week before Christmas. We see maybe a handful of others strolling through this crumbling mass of inhabited (the grander houses are partly restored) rock.

And then, something happens. The sun sets and it becomes dark. Matera is the one city that is visually harmed by sunlight. In the evening, the grim façade is turned into something of great charm – a town of twinkling lights and warm glows. Can you believe it – this is the same mountainside, photographed above but now looking entirely different:

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Lights. It is no wonder that we light up streets and houses with additional twinkley things in December. The Christmas gift to somber towns and villages is the addition of lights that, at night, transform the streets into something out of a holiday greeting card. The road that we hiked, wet, encrusted with the grime of the centuries, becomes a story-book path of great loveliness.

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We eat dinner late again. We are used to this by now. I write, it takes longer than I want it to, we finally set out, hoping to still find food near midnight and always we find it and always it is tasty. There is never a menu, just food. This time, we eat in a family-run trattoria and our meal of antipasti, pasta, fish and cookies comes to half the price of the previous dinners. I’ll end with a photo of the pasta dish – a staple of the southern table. Pasta, beans and mussels. The common person’s food, warm, nourishing food. A proper ending to a stay in Basilicata.

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On Sunday morning we leave for Paris.