Open Air Museum
Years ago, a visiting art historian friend of ours let us know that nothing really important happened artistically in 16th century Puglia during the explosion of cultural creativity known as the Renaissance in present day Tuscany. She’s right, of course, but many of Puglia’s most intriguing artistic achievements predate Florence’s Renaissance achievements. And when Florence and its surrounding countryside entered into a period of significant decline in the 18th century due to poor management on the part of its succession of grand dukes, Puglia’s Baroque period was in full flower. From the cathedrals and churches of Lecce to the noble villas of wealthy Barese merchants, there is still plenty to recommend an architectural tour here. But Puglia shines brightest in the countryside. From more than 450 miles of coastline facing aquamarine seas to fields of gnarled, ancient olive trees twisting against a backdrop of shimmering golden grain, the Pugliese landscape is bewitching.
Lately the region seems to have awakened to the realization that Puglia’s bountiful agrarian tradition is its strongest calling card. There is growing awareness that tourism focused only on the seaside during the summer season ignores the incredible treasures offered just a few miles inland. Wineries, olive mills, organic farms, limestone caverns and grottoes and meandering pathways are all accessible to visitors if they only knew how and where to find them. Enter Puglia’s wildly popular governor Nichi Vendola, one of Italy’s first openly gay national politicians. His administration has begun to focus on Puglia’s incredible physical strengths, offering start-up funding to young entrepreneurs who propose tourism-related projects that are sustainable, focus on Puglia’s natural landscape and its preservation and value Puglia and its agricultural products.
Through a friend, we connected with an organization here called I Millenari di Puglia (The Thousand-Year-Old Olive Trees of Puglia) that recently prevailed among over 2,100 competitors to receive coveted regional funding for its program of nature-focused excursions through our area of Puglia. From guided walking tours of ancient, underground olive mills to bicycle rides through olive groves alongside the Adriatic sea, these young University of Bari environmental studies graduates are passionate about this land and have big plans for the future. They hope to involve their guests in olive harvest and olive milling activities in an effort to preserve these thousand year-old olive trees, developing an organic olive oil that will help fund land preservation here.
We joined one of I Millenari di Puglia’s founders, Enzo Suma, on a walk last Sunday through olive groves and farms near a little town called Montalbano just up the coast from Ostuni. Along with the rest of our group of 20, we gathered at Masseria Difesa di Malta, a prototypical fortified farmhouse set squarely in a vast field of olive trees, grain fields and row crops bordered by meter-thick limestone walls. Our fellow walkers were all Italian, but not local, which appears to be the target audience for these tours. All of them were enthusiastic participants filled with questions, insight and incredibly good humor.
The morning was extraordinary: blue, blue skies and a gentle breeze with enough sun to remind us that summer is still hanging on here. Enzo gathered us together, providing a framework for the day. We would walk through nearby agricultural fields to an abandoned masseria complete with caves and grottoes used as stalls for the animals. From there, we would descend into a lama, a cavern formed in the limestone bedrock by water coursing down from the Murge hills above. Then we would return to Masseria Difesa di Malta to taste the family’s exquisite preserved fruits, vegetables and other treats.
Apart from the scenery, the history and the gorgeous weather, my take away was that Italians make terrific expedition companions. Everyone was totally engaged in the activity, offering insights and cracking mildly off-color jokes. And the period of reticence that normally accompanies groups of unknown fellow travelers is remarkably short with Italians. By the end of the three-hour excursion, we had made plans to visit two different groups of people for meals and had shared contact information with three more. And even better, the two couples from nearby Bari brought a thermos of sweet, hot espresso and doled it out to all of us in tiny little espresso cups. I’d go just about anywhere with this group.
We came away from our trek with reservations for next Sunday’s walk and the conviction that this kind of tourism offers the best hope for the sustainable preservation of this place we have come to adore. By connecting visitors to the heart of the land, there is an implied sense of responsibility for its sustenance that is transmitted through the air, the horizon and the scent of the Mediterranean flora and fauna that lingers faintly on one’s clothes.
For now, I Millenari di Puglia offers these guided excursions in Italian only. They haven’t been able to find agronomists, historians and naturalists with enough of a command of other languages to deliver the same high quality experience that Italians are enjoying. But as Puglia’s foreign tourism increases—this year by 5% alone—it will become even more important to include non-Italian-speaking visitors in these alternative tourist activities. Threatened natural environments like this one, along with its ancient olive trees, depend upon enlightened decision makers. And what better way to become acquainted than a morning’s stroll through one of the world’s most engaging places?