The Deep South
Years ago we loaded our three children into our Volkswagen Westphalia camper and took off across the United States. From California to Washington, D.C., we drove for weeks and weeks under the summer sun alongside cornfields, deserts and a troubling proliferation of big box shopping malls. We visited the Corn Palace in South Dakota, Yellowstone National Park and just about every Frank Lloyd Wright building still standing. Now that we live in Italy, I sometimes think about this apocryphal family expedition and marvel at the vastness of the continental United States. The feeling is especially acute when we venture anywhere outside of our own region in southern Italy, Unlike the U.S., you only need to travel 50 miles to know that you’re in another world altogether.
We took a little day trip to the Salento, the southernmost tip of the heel of Italy’s boot yesterday. The Salento begins, more or less, where the hills of our Valle d’Itria end. From there, the land becomes a long, flat tongue that laps two seas: the Adriatic to the east, the Ionian to the west. Just an hour and half away on small roads that still route cars through each small town’s center, the air is different here, both ebullient and languid at the same time. The remains of Greek and Roman temples and pre-historic monuments are scattered all over the dry sierras, popping up amid cactuses, olive groves and wizened, head-pruned primitivo vines. And the sea is spectacular in Salento. From the southernmost tip near Leuca, running up the west coast to Gallipoli and beyond, is a non-stop strip of golden sand and transparent azure waters. To the east, the Adriatic coastline is more varied, offering sandy beaches, grottoes, chalky cliffs with caper bushes growing out of their fissures and salt-water lagoons.
Salento has deep traditions, even superstitions, that are expressed in an endless round of festivals and saints’ days. A cultural renaissance has reinvigorated the tradition of the pizzica, a fast and compelling rhythmic dance accompanied by accordion, violin, tambourine and often mournful vocals sung in Salentine dialect. Salentine musical groups like Canzoniere Greganico Salentino are making an impact on the world music scene with re-imagined renditions of these traditional pizzica arrangements. When passing through Salento, this music feels exactly right.
We visited Gallipoli on a rare stormy day, which made its centro storico appear all the more dramatic. Waves broke against the lungomare that encircles this ancient quarter, casting shadows on pastel palaces that now stand empty. Gallipoli has a kind of faded beauty, with the rough edges that come from a dependence on the fishing industry. Yet Gallipoli was once the center of the universe for olio lampante, the olive oil used to light northern Europe before gas became the fuel of choice. There are still more than 35 historic olive presses hand carved out of the rock and soil below noble palaces. One is open to the public today, but only if you can track down its caretaker.
Carved entirely out of stone, including the feeding troughs, these underground olive mills included stables that were home to the animals that kept the wheels in motion, so to speak, for the entire olive oil making process. At the other end of the cave-like space was the production facility, where two huge stone grinders with their giant wheels for crushing olives now sit silently with the well-worn tracks of the blindfolded animals carefully preserved in the stone floor. Several rooms to the sides held the vats for olives that were dropped in from above and a series of wells held the precious oil as it was pressed out of the olives. We learned that as many as 30 ships a day left the Gallipoli harbor during its prosperous years, bound for the north, their holds filled to the brim with sweet-smelling olive oil to light the lamps of Europe.
We headed inward to explore the small, surprisingly elegant towns of Galatina, Maglie and Nardo’. Salento has been home to countless conquering forces over the centuries, their traces evident in architectural details, language and even the faces of these towns’ residents. Galatina is an important wine-producing center and home to the exquisite Franciscan church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. And even on a dark, rainy day, Galatina exhibits a lovely, languid air that expresses itself in the rosy glow of the town’s noble palaces.
Our last stop of the day was Maglie, a bustling little city that is home to Maglio artisanal chocolates and Benedetto Cavaliere’s fifth generation artisanal pasta works. Maglie has a little more energy than its Salentine neighbors and it feels less bohemian than worldly Lecce to the north. Maglie is busy, prosperous and just a little self-satisfied. After a quick gelato infusion, we headed north, leaving Lecce, the grand dame of the Salento, for another day.
By the time we returned to Martina Franca, we had experienced the vestiges of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Norman and Aragonese civilizations in little more than a hundred miles. The crossroads of cultural exchange that is the Salento is thriving today, still serving as Italy’s porta d’Oriente, the door that opens from the Occident to the Orient, inviting new generations to share its particular charms.