Sunday, April 28, 2019
Arriving late last night, I wrote about our hurried dinner. This morning, with more time, I can tell you a little more about the place we are staying, Masseria Stefanodelconte.
Once upon a time, a masseria was a fortified farm, fortified to protect the family and the workers from marauders and bandits as much as from invading armies. Today, many rent out rooms to tourists. Think of the masserie as the agriturismi of Puglia.
Our room is plain and very elegant. I do not know what this room was used for when the masseria was a big farm, but it is perfectly adapted to its new role as tourist-harborer.
The hotel is very pretty. There is a lovely pool area and many common areas decorated in a rustic, Italian-country style.
Once again on Sunday morning, I was up and out early, going for a walk and to explore the masseria and the surrounding areas. Our farm is surrounded by 500 to 600-year old olive trees. They are endlessly fascinating. From a distance, the fields look like they are dotted with so many trolls carrying heavy loads of leafy branches on their hunched backs. Up close, the gnarly profiles have lumps and hoary bumps, and ragged cracks and jags. There is so much to look at and study it was hard to take my eyes away. Walking around the farmhouse, in the olive groves I saw that tomatoes planted under one section of trees. What I thought was grass under others, turns out to be wheat. Wheat is another plant cultivated for personal use on the farm, as well as for sale.
The trees in this area are themselves a UNESCO World Patrimony and all are numbered, each bearing a little tag, attesting to their importance. I have no idea who keeps track of the trees and their numbers… The plains between Ostuni, Fasano and Carovigno are the nexus of the World patrimony area. The area was proposed and accepted into the list because of its historical significance as one of the oldest agricultural regions in human history. In fact, though we did not see them, there are purported to be trees in this valley that are 3,000 years old! And, they are still producing olives! (I would learn later that these ancient trees produce very small fruits and their olives are not used in the production of the extra-virgin oils.)
[Later in this trip, we would stay at a masseria with trees that were nearly 1,000 years old. I wrote a special blog post just on the olive trees of Puglia. You can read it, but basically revel in the pictures of the trees, here.]
I walked out of our property and followed the road a little way, discovering a chapel (mass at 6:30 pm on Saturdays) and a little settlement of houses, some quite grand, all with olive groves. Here, too, there are plenty of wildflowers. Cars speed by on the narrow roads. What’s the hurry on a Sunday morning?
I was back at the masseria for breakfast. A feast of pastries (cheesecake, cake, tarts and more) was presented with fruit and home-made cheese and cold cuts. We were able to eat outside on a little enclosed terrace where two ancient olive trees provided shade.
Saying goodbye to our hostess Mariantonetta, we are headed to Alberobello, a Puglia town famous for its trulli, cone-shaped dwellings with an old history. The place is crawling with tourists, but the otherworldly trulli captivate just the same. On the way into town we saw one here and one there, nestled in the tall grass of a field and remarked that, but for their white color, they look like some place the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings might live. Bunched together in the town, they are very impressive.
Trying to get pictures is a challenge – but everyone is good-natured – (trulli-inspired?). It’s a good Sunday morning outing before a big Sunday lunch, for sure. There were lots of Italians enjoying the scenery right along with the foreign tourists.
The houses were built this way initially because they were constructed without mortar. The conical shape was easy to rebuild, when the house had to be dismantled before the arrival of the tax assessor, who apparently assigned taxes based on buildings. The landowner didn’t want to pay the taxes, so the buildings had to be easy to assemble and disassemble. The law was eventually changed and the house were then built with mortar. Often the roof has a special ornament…the meanings and uses of the ornaments isn’t well understood, but you can imagine them as protective symbols, and you’ll agree with some of the experts!
To get away from the crowd, we went to Savelletri on the coast for lunch. We hadn’t thought to make reservations, and as a result we couldn’t get a table. We did convince the owner of the Osteria del Porto (recommended by everyone) to save us a table at 3:00 pm. It was only 1:30 so we killed time taking pictures in the port and then sitting in a bar, enjoying a little pre-prandial companionship. We were seated by 3:00, accepting a table in the sun. Our lunch was delicious – lots of fresh fish.
After lunch, feeling a need to walk off some of the fish and rice and pasta, we went to walk in the Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiera del Torre Canne. It wasn’t that easy to get to, and the “visitors center” doesn’t open until May 1st, so we walked the path along the saltwater pools behind the beach dunes, seeing a lot of interesting plants but nary an animal or bird.
Tonight, we will be in Ostuni, so instead of lingering, we went to our rendezvous with the driver from the Relais La Sommita at the Stella parking lot. Here again, we have to leave the car and take our luggage to the hotel. Fortunately, we will have a ride and a driver to help with the luggage.
The hotel is lovely. We are in the shadow of the cathedral, in a maze of narrow streets lined by whitewashed buildings. Cars cannot drive these streets as they are full of steps to get you between levels and barely an arms-spread apart. The view from our window is to the east. We are high enough in the city that we can see the expanse of the valley below us all the way to the sea. Interestingly, the valley is covered with round, leafy tree tops – the hundreds of olives trees that the region is famous for.
Before I continue with my narrative, it’s important to realize, as you can easily see from the photos, that though this area is part of the Val d’Itria, it does not have a typical valley shape. It is actually more of a plain. The Val d’Itria is sometimes referred to as the Valle dei Trulli, and encompasses the towns of Alberobello, Cisternino, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Fasano and Ceglie Messapia. We visited Cisternino and Locorotondo in Part II of this trip.
On this particular Sunday evening in Ostuni, I was too tired and overfed from a heavy lunch at 3 in the afternoon to anything in the evening. I went to bed early and Gerry, Galina and Jon had wine and cheese, cold cuts and bread for a light supper.
Monday, April 29
I bet you can guess what I did when I woke up! Only, surprise, surprise! Gerry went with me. We didn’t encounter a single other human being on our dawn walk around the streets of Ostuni, the “white city.” It was so relaxing to explore without any curb on our curiosity and to take pictures with no tourists in them. We actually got out before the blue hour, which precedes dawn and stayed out well beyond. At first it was almost too dark to take pictures and I actually had to check the dates and times to make sure I hadn’t gone out the night before to take them. Ostuni is not a town where the locals get up early … breakfast was just starting when we made it back to the hotel.
After breakfast in the hotel, we met up with Jon and Galina in the big Piazza della Libertá, with Saint Oronzo preciding, and then walked around the outside of the city walls. It is a pretty day, warm in the sun, and cooler than you’d think in the shade. Views up to the city above us, reveal lots of white buildings, odd little medieval remnants around windows, battlements and more. Below us stretches the Val d’Istria famed for its olives. The trees appear as so many little puffballs carpeting the valley. Dotted among all that green, one sees little white buildings – from here we cannot tell if they are just tiny storage buildings or sprawling masserie.
We visited the Cathedral and afterwards went to the History of the Murgia Museum to see Delia, aka Ostuni 1. Delia is a skeleton of a woman, aged about 18-20, who was 8 months pregnant when she died. Archeologists found her burial. She was a large woman, easily the height of modern American women. She was buried on her side, one arm under her head and the other cradling her belly. The skeleton is about 25,000 years old. Yup, all those zeros are not a mistake! Isn’t it interesting to know that there were people in this part of Italy all those millenia ago?
We had pizza for lunch – delicious! A far cry from the thing we call pizza in the US. After lunch, we relaxed, like true Pugliesi. About 4:30 pm, Galina and I walked in the shopping area (where locals shop, not tourists.) It was fun, and I finally got to try more than a single word of Italian, talking to the shop keepers. We were quite an oddity though. We saw no other tourists there.
We rendevoused with Gerry and Jon back in the piazza of this morning. They were busy drinking and oogling women… (typical useless passtime of middle-aged men…)
Tonight we enjoyed a very fancy and elegant dinner in the restaurant of la Sommita, called “Cielo” (one Michelin star). Gerry and I tried the tasting menus, and paired that with wine tastings. His menu was focus on meat and mine on fish. Absolutely delicious! You do not need to be a guest of the hotel to eat at this restaurant, but I did notice that you can get a “deal” booking a stay and a meal…
So, a word (or three…) about the hotel. I mentioned the location and the view. Our room was very large and very comfortable with lots of closet space and places to sit and enjoy being there. Each evening we found a little surprise waiting for us – hotel-produced sparkling water, chocolate, fruit or pastries. There we many common areas to enjoy, and bar service would come to you wherever you chose to sit – In fact, the bar itself had no seating area but was strategically located to service multiple areas (the entrance, the dining rooms, the common rooms upstairs). The decor was minimalist – the honey-white stone and marble and glass – the palette allvery beige and neutral. Breakfast was a buffet of all you would expect – cold cuts, cheeses, fruit and pastries but you could also order eggs from the kitchen. They pushed the bacon very hard…maybe it was special?
Ostuni, (heck, all of Puglia!) is the place to broaden your cheese vocabulary. So much cheese is made here – by individuals and small farms – that you really cannot go wrong. The names are pretty confusing though. Here’s a really helpful poster we found outside on of many cheese stores we could have shopped in. See how many you know! Mind you, these are the cheese made in Puglia. A similar poster in Abruzzo, Lazio of Tuscany might look very different!
Tomorrow morning, April 30th we will move on to Lecce where we will stay for three nights. The journal will pick up there. Suffice it to say that the morning of the 30th, we checked out late because we made a stop at the art gallery just around the corner. The galley was supplying much of the art in the hotel and the gallery was like a gold mine for more of the same.
Leaving Ostuni was an inverse trip of our arrival: We walked to where the driver could pick us and our luggage up, and then drove us out of town to the Stella parking lot where we reclaimed our car and our mobility.