Skip to content

Open Air Museum

Thousand year old olive trees dot the golden landscape on the fertile Ostuni-Fasano plain.

Thousand year old olive trees dot the golden landscape on the fertile Ostuni-Fasano plain.

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.

The Costa Merlata in Puglia stretches from Ostuni to Monopoli and is characterized by the calcareous rock formations that decorate the coastline. a little like crenellated towers on castles (Photo credit: www.edenviaggi.it).

The Costa Merlata in Puglia stretches from Ostuni to Monopoli and is characterized by the calcareous rock formations that decorate the coastline, a little like the crenellated towers on castles (Photo credit: http://www.edenviaggi.it).

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.

Cycling on backrounds through olive groves is just one of the ways I Millenari di Puglia founders are connecting visitors with the natural landscape in Puglia.

Cycling on backrounds through olive groves is just one of the ways I Millenari di Puglia founders are connecting visitors with the natural landscape in Puglia (Photo credit: Enzo Suma; http://www.ulivisecolaridipuglia.com).

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.

These antique olive mills were carved out of the limestone and tufa rock underneath masserie, pressing the oil that lit the lamps of northern Europe before the Industrial Revolution.

These antique olive mills were carved out of the limestone and tufa rock underneath masserie, pressing the oil that lit the lamps of northern Europe before the Industrial Revolution (Photo credit: Enzo Suma; http://www.ulivisecolaridipuglia.com).

We joined one of I Millenari di Puglias 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.

Our hardy little group descended into the lama that leads straight to the sea.

Our hardy little group descended into a lama that leads straight to the sea.

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.

Enzo Suma, our guide and one of the founders of I Millenari di Puglia.

Enzo Suma, one of the founders of I Millenari di Puglia and our guide for the day.

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.

Just some of the masseria-made foods we'll sample next week at Masseria Morrone after a three hour walk through the Ostuni foothills.

Just some of the masseria-made foods we’ll sample next week at Masseria Morrone after a three hour walk through the Ostuni foothills (Photo credit: http://www.l’informare.it)..

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.

One of Puglia's most precious resources is now protected from transplanting and marginalization due to efforts by I Millenari di Puglia (Photo credit: Enzo Suma, www.ulivisecolaridipuglia.com).

One of Puglia’s most precious resources is now protected from transplanting and marginalization due to efforts by I Millenari di Puglia (Photo credit: Enzo Suma; http://www.ulivisecolaridipuglia.com).

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?

Advertisements
6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nancy Mead #

    Beautifully written, Catherine. I’m so sorry never to have visited this part of Italy. Sounds as tho’ it might well prove to be my most favorite area. Just the combination of elements I relate to. A bit of Santa Cruz, perhaps, plus the effects of centuries of habitation.

    September 17, 2013
    • Nancy, thank you so much for the very kind words about this post. As you can tell, we loved both the experience and the mission that drives the group that organized it. But why not come to Puglia now? You would love it, I promise. And you could encourage Jim and Paula to come, too, along with other friends. We’ll take care of everything on this end! We’re planning more week-long excursions for the spring of 2014 along with autumn 2014. Visit: http://www.pascarosa.com/content/8-visit-pascarosa. It would be wonderful to squire you about! Thanks again for reading–and for writing.

      September 17, 2013
  2. I am from Bari and I know well what you are saying. Miss it very much.

    September 17, 2013
  3. Cathey briggs #

    Catherine, I love your posts. We have had short stays in lecce, Ostuni, and Bari, but so much more to see.

    September 17, 2013
    • Hi Cathey–Thanks so much for the comments. You really must come visit the next time you’re in Italy. It’s not very far from Abruzzo, you know. I’d love to show you our favorite spots. Just let me know . . . we’d love to see you both.

      September 18, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The $tingy Sailor

DIY trailerable sailboat restoration and improvement without throwing your budget overboard

Gracefully Global Blog

Where travel adventures never begin with a trip to the local monument.

Italy....and Me

food. italy. wine. books genealogy. travel. wine. get. the. idea?

laavventura.wordpress.com/

photography, expat tales and short stories from a wandering waitress

Zester Daily

Zester Daily

Nancy Harmon Jenkins

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"

A different point of view on travelling, living and loving Italy.

In Puglia and Places

My experiences living in Puglia and other places

Girl in Florence

A Tuscan Texan immersed in Florentine life: passionate about food & wine | random moments | and travel

News : NPR

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Online Casinos

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Eater SF - All

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Eater Portland - All

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Food : NPR

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Chocolate & Zucchini

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Bon Vivant

Life's simple pleasures

Culinate Main Feed

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

stylishmews

A resource and running commentary on stylish London

Puglia Kitchen

sapori, profumi e visioni culinarie made in puglia

Cantine Menhir

News from Salento... where the sun warms the spirit, water refreshes the mind, food whets the palate, land feeds the soul, and the wine... awakens the passion.

What Katie Ate

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

A Cup of Jo

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Orangette

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

101 Cookbooks

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

%d bloggers like this: