Puglia: The White City of Ostuni [travel]

18 Apr , 2011  

The bril­liant white town of Ostuni has attrac­ted vis­it­ors for cen­tur­ies but has always been con­sidered a little off the beaten track. That all looks set to change.

Puglia: Architecture near Ostuni

Down on Italy’s heel, Puglia has never been on most people’s hol­i­day radar although pop­u­lar with Italian fam­il­ies who come here to relax, eat good simple food and gen­er­ally get away from it all. A sort of anti­dote to la bella figura. It has a chequered his­tory, either being fought over by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Longobards, Arabs and Normans, or simply being left to its own, mainly agri­cul­tural, devices. Now, Puglia has seen dra­matic growth as a poten­tial south­ern coun­ter­part of Tuscan Chiantishire, fuelled by Ryanair’s cheap flights to Bari and Brindisi, the lure of its incred­ible archi­tec­ture and unique, vibrant cul­ture.

The dra­matic con­ical stone trulli are the region’s visual icons, thought to have been developed for tax eva­sion in the 16thC so that own­ers could dis­mantle their tax­able struc­tures, leav­ing only a pile of lime­stone for the King’s agent to eval­u­ate. In 1797 the tax laws were eased but the trullo con­tin­ued, lat­terly strengthened into per­man­ent homes by mor­tar between the stone. A visit to Alberobello will help you to decide if you love them or if the sight of hun­dreds of trulli packed over two hills is just too much. Puglia is also home to some of the most Baroque archi­tec­tural flour­ishes you are likely to see any­where in Italy —  Lecce is nick­named ‘Florence of the Baroque’ — and even the smal­lest towns can throw the biggest sur­prises. And you won’t be jost­ling with hordes of tour­ists, this place is a bit of a traveller’s secret.

Ostuni, Puglia
Ryanair flights arrive in the even­ing, so we drove straight for Ostuni along the fast but rather dull E55, stop­ping at La Vela in Villanova for deli­cious, and inex­pens­ive, sea bass (spigola) and sea bream (orata). One is sup­posed to approach Ostuni in the blind­ing sun­light, but we arrive late at the gleam­ing white town, perched on its steep hill, the wind­ing road guarded by a giant, neon-lit cru­ci­fix, and duly set off the alarm while fum­bling with the door keys. Ostuni is a stun­ner. Established in the 1stC AD, the old town is almost too good to be true: it is an ideal­ised fusion of cobbled alleys wind­ing through white­washed houses, charm­ing 15thC cathed­ral, and buzz­ing social scene, centered on Colonna di S. Oronzo, a fine 18thC obelisk, at the Piazza della Libertà. Ostuni’s lofty pos­i­tion must beckon the coun­tryside because every­one seems to be meet­ing up, young and old.

The res­taur­ants are very good (try Vecchia Ostuni, just off Piazza della Libertà, Ristorante Porta Nova, via G. Petrarolo 38, or L’Osteria del Tempo Perso, via Tanzarella 47), and the bars do actu­ally echo with laughter. Although you won’t come to Puglia just for the shops, Ostuni is sur­pris­ingly well stocked, from lingerie to power tools. The nearby beaches aren’t world-class, but there’s lots of sand and a refresh­ing breeze dur­ing the sum­mer heat. Torre Guaceto has 7km of beach front­ing a 1000 hec­tare nature reserve. Rosa Marina is good for wind surf­ing, canoe­ing and boo­gie board­ing. If you feel in need of some ser­i­ous relax­a­tion try the Torre Canne thermal spa. The spring water is good for arth­ritis, and I’m told they do an excel­lent cel­lulite body mas­sage.

We go explor­ing the next day and are instantly seduced. I’m sure all the hol­i­day guides use the word ‘rugged’ a lot, but that doesn’t quite cap­ture the earth­i­ness you find here, nor the sense of his­tory behind the crumb­ing trulli and sun-faded paint­work. Ancient olives trees are abund­ant and there are very strict rules about tam­per­ing or mov­ing them, even on your own land. This has been for cen­tur­ies a cul­tiv­ated land, centered on agri­cul­ture and the popu­lace are refresh­ingly down to earth and wel­com­ing, with few airs or graces and a fond­ness for fun.

Ostuni's white alleys can be peaceful out of season

June: Saint John’s Night, Ostuni. Family, food and yet more food in the little alleys of Ostuni old town.
Early July: Octopus Festival, Torre Canne, Fasano and Mola. Organised by local fishermen.
Late July: Divingusto, Ceglie. Wine and food festival.
July to August: Martina Franca, near Ostuni. Opera Festival.
August 26th: La Calvalcata, Ostuni. Patron Saint Oronzo’s feast day with uniformed horsemen.

During the sum­mer the area is prac­tic­ally over-run with cel­eb­ra­tions, both reli­gious and sec­u­lar, fairs, fest­ivals and con­certs, many doing the rounds from one town to the next. We visit Pascarosa, which can’t have more than a dozen houses but has its own fest­ival in August. An even­ing walk through lovely little Ceglie is a delight. We watch the piazza being dressed with bunt­ing for the next fest­ival (which fea­tures local ball­room dan­cing) when we are inter­cep­ted by Mimmo, pro­pri­etor and musi­cian at Trattoria Messapica, just off the piazza. We are per­suaded, and sit down to a suc­ces­sion of dishes served one after another, while the young cli­en­tele sing Italian songs. Some time around dessert, pretty much the whole res­taur­ant is dan­cing with each other, and with the aged waiter, while Mimmo presides over his accor­dion. A more act­ive night­life can be found at Capitolo, on the coast just south of Monopoli, which has good night clubs and bars, gen­er­ally com­ing to life after 9pm and stay open until 4–5am. Entrance is often free but drinks can be pricey.

Just  a few miles inland from Ostuni, Martina Franca is a Baroque archi­tec­tural con­fec­tion which makes a good sta­ging post for a tour of the local towns and vil­lages. The Basilica di S. Martino has a fine 18thC façade and there are fres­coes by Domenico Carella in the Palazzo Ducale. There is also a large antiques mar­ket every 3rd Saturday of the month. From here you can eas­ily reach Locorotondo and Alberobello, or strike fur­ther north to Fasano and Monopoli. On the coast just north of Monopoli, Polignano is worth a detour for a spot of lunch (Donna Gina, via Cala Porto 7–9, over­looks the har­bour and would also make a romantic choice for din­ner).

Afternoon teatime in Ceglie, near Ostuni, Puglia
There are some great oddit­ies here, too. Frederick II of Swabia (nick­name Stupor Mundi) built over two hun­dred fort­resses in Puglia, but none weirder than the brood­ing Castel del Monte, eight tall octa­gonal towers sur­round­ing an octa­gonal court­yard, schol­ars are at a loss to explain its pur­pose since it has no defens­ive fea­tures. When the sun gets too hot, go under­ground in the Castellana grot­toes near Putignano; 1 or 3km tours, in English and Italian, take you through a spec­tac­u­lar cave sys­tem – wear grippy shoes. If you’ve worked up an appet­ite, a reviv­ing meal with a twist may help: Macelleria di Antonio Soleti in Casalini, between Ostuni and Cistenino, is a butcher com­bined with a barbe­que. Simply choose your cuts of meat and they barbe­que it, serving it out­doors on paper plates. And if that’s too red-blooded, the L’Oasi del Riccio (C. da Forcatella just north of Torre Canne) spe­cial­ises in sea urchins, cracked open and eaten raw with a glass of local wine. Your squeam­ish com­pan­ions may choose the excel­lent sea­food altern­at­ives. It’s good value, and very pop­u­lar with the loc­als.

It is easy to see why the region has become pop­u­lar for over­seas buy­ers. Art dealer John Dabney vis­ited Puglia in 2001 after being put off by the astro­nom­ical prop­erty prices in Tuscany. Instantly smit­ten and search­ing for the right loc­a­tion, he was intro­duced to Bettina Marksteiner and Villa Santoro.

They had a com­bin­a­tion of the per­fect site and the expert­ise to make it hap­pen on time and within budget, which saved me a great deal of effort. The site was lovely but the trulli needed to be com­pletely rebuilt, stone by stone. This is com­mon, espe­cially with struc­tures over 100 years old. I would strongly advise using local build­ers and crafts­men; they really know what they are doing.’ It costs £2500–3000 per sq m to restore a typ­ical trullo. ‘Take some time to net­work in the area; I’ve found the loc­als very friendly if you attempt a few words of Italian, and it’s good to make as many con­tacts as you can. Also, find out about local cus­toms. We were com­pre­hens­ively burgled last winter – I mean, includ­ing the sinks – but I’ve now employed a local private secur­ity com­pany and feel much more com­fort­able. The whole pro­ject was done in 13 months and I’m delighted with the res­ults and with the book­ings!’

Masseria Cupina was built in 1780 by a Taranto noble­man for his only daugh­ter when she fell in love with a local farmer. The house was a ruin, but that didn’t put off Helena Winter who had been look­ing for a villa in Sardinia but fell in love with Puglia – and the prices were more afford­able.

Masseria Cupina, near Ceglie, Ostuni, Puglia

We found archi­tect Ado Franchini and he did so much to put the pro­ject together, includ­ing most of the trans­lat­ing! The crafts­men weren’t cheap but were very skilled and, import­antly, very reli­able. The team was pas­sion­ate about their res­tor­a­tion work, which required total remod­el­ing, espe­cially the ground floor of the main build­ing which had been for the live­stock. The build­ing work took just over a year. We found an agent and had guests stay­ing three months later.”

We think Puglia is one to watch. But don’t wait too long before you visit. The wel­come is warm, the food is won­der­ful and you may find a lot more there than you bar­gained for.

Words & Photos: © 2011 Ken Sparkes. First published Sept 2006. All Rights Reserved


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2 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    Look at the villa

  2. […] This is an excerpt from ‘The White City of Ostuni’ first pub­lished by Spaces magazine. Read the whole art­icle on […]

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