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Italy’s Secret Countryside

Author Marella Cracciolo and photographer Oberto Gili reveal the countryside’s best agriturismi, hotels, and villas.

By Maria Shollenbarger

My wife, Jo Anne, and I had decided to go to Rome with our new baby. She was seven weeks new. Lucia: bringer of light. She brought it in abundance, day and (alas) night. Every now and then, we needed a break. It came in the form of Piera Bonerba, a striking, big-hearted young woman from Puglia.

Piera scooped Lucia up and brought peace—and sleep—into our lives. One morning she also brought us a jar of tomatoes that her mother had grown, dried in the intense southern heat and preserved with her own capers and oil. They had an earthy complexity that made me want to slow down time.

“What makes these tomatoes so special?” I asked Piera.

“The place they come from,” she answered.

Piera said I was made for a visit to the Salento, the province in the heel of the boot at the very tip of the Italian peninsula that she considered the best expression of the Puglian character. Here I would find an Italy of 30, 40 years ago. Remote; behind, in the best sense; not trampled by tourists. Framed by the Adriatic to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west, it had the cleanest water, the most delicious food. The people were as open as its sky.

It took us a while, but the summer Lucia turned three, we went. We stayed at first with Piera and her family near Ugento, where I spent several beautiful hours on a pristine sandy beach, taking note of local ways: people swam in the morning and again in the evening; in the baking afternoons the beach was as deserted as any local piazza or city street. Not every Italian has the body of a god. Women liked to accessorize their bikinis with pearl necklaces. Lucia alone among the children wore a full-body SPF sunsuit, causing one young boy to inquire, “Ha freddo?”—is she cold? The macchia mediterranea—local scrub made up of oregano, rosemary, juniper—perfumed the air as crickets sang and sang.

In between swims I learned that the Salento’s obscurity extends even to English-speaking travelers’ accounts, which are minimal. There is no complete volume on the food of the Salento in English, only parts in Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s excellent book Flavors of Puglia and chapters scattered through Honey From a Weed, a highly original work by the English writer Patience Gray, who settled in 1970 in the Salento without running water or electricity and brought a scholarly focus, and almost witchlike intuition, to her cooking and her writing alike. The Salento does have its own filmmaker, Edoardo Winspeare, whose early movies (Pizzicata; Sangue Vivo) turn a sharp ethnographic eye on the character of the region.

I quickly discovered that the Salentine Peninsula was made for driving through—as long as you stick to the prettier secondary roads. Though it is an exceptionally varied place, the region is not vast: you can make it from the Adriatic coast to the Ionian in less than two hours. Driving also showed me how flat the landscape is and how densely the olive trees grow in it—Puglia is one of Italy’s most prolific producers of olive oil and wine. Every so often the olives and the grapes were interrupted by gates made of stone and wrought iron that marked long roads tomasserie, ranchlike complexes consisting of residences, barns, outbuildings, and workshops, that are the region’s indigenous architectural form. Many of the masserie have been abandoned, and their ghostly silhouettes contributed to the feeling I had that this was a landscape that has seen fortunes rise and fall many times over. But nothing stood out quite like the color of the earth, which was somewhere between blood and cinnamon and, when plowed, split into enormous, loamy chunks: it was like Mars, only fertile.

One morning I went to the fish market in Gallipoli, whose old Greek place-name, Kalè Polis, or beautiful city, seemed to me at least half correct: Gallipoli was indeed beautiful, though not quite my idea of a city. Its narrow, weblike streets spread out across a small island that once made its fortune manufacturing and exporting local olive oil, which was originally used for lighting lamps, not for cooking.

I had only to glance into the market before I made a new friend, Cosimo, who introduced himself as “un vero pescatore di Gallipoli” and persuaded me to buy more clams and mussels (at a fraction of New York prices but with a hundred times the flavor) than we could ever eat. While Cosimo packed up my purchases, I explored the town. Like much Salentine architecture, that of Gallipoli has a distinctly Baroque stamp even on some of its modest private houses, whose friezes of molded white plaster were relieved by flashes of yellow, persimmon, and gold. Everywhere I walked I saw fishermen repairing nets or older women leaning out of windows or sitting on small folding chairs in the streets, knitting and watching children. In a place without sidewalks or gardens and very few piazzas, the street itself was the de facto town square.

Another morning I set off to visit some of the towns of the entroterra. These inland places make up a small, secret world within the blue-green border of coastal Salento. In Maglie, the largest of them, I stopped at the delightful Pastificio Benedetto Cavalieri pasta factory, which has been producing spectacular pasta locally since 1918—think Willy Wonka with semolina in place of chocolate—before walking through the central streets, where there seemed to be a disproportionate number of bridal shops, underwear boutiques (for women and men), and pasticcerie.

Maglie was bustling and caloric; the towns of the Grecia Salentina, by contrast, were closed, stony, and mysterious. These 11 villages—Corigliano d’Otranto was my favorite—have Greek roots that may go back as far as the eighth century; by the 10th century, Greek refugees had settled in what was a de facto inland protectorate. Their language, clothing, food, and habits were entirely Greek; even now, a millennium later, an older generation still speaks a version of the Greek dialect.

So much about the Salento is specific to the province: the dialects; the food; the music (Alan Lomax visited in 1954 and made several notable recordings); and above all the tarantella, a dance whose origins are still in dispute, but which is believed to have originated in the 15th century around Taranto. Peasant women believed they were bitten by spiders and could only purge their bodies of the venom, and their souls of the accompanying hysteria, by whirling in frenetic circles. The tarantella, which was practiced well into the 1960’s, has undergone a revival in recent years and is celebrated at summer festivals in Melpignano and Galatina. I spent a Sunday morning in Galatina looking at the frescoes in the basilica of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, where Old and New Testament stories are given such a pungent specificity that the serpent in the Garden of Eden has long flowing tresses and an oddly coy, knowing grin, as though she alone was immune to the spider’s transforming bite.

The Salento is a place of many endings. The Romans ended the Appian Way in Brindisi. The main autostrada still branches to a secondary road there, as do the state railways. But the most dramatic ending of all is of the land itself: at Santa Maria di Leuca a sign in the empty windswept piazza reminds you—as if, surrounded by all that infinite sea, you needed reminding—that you have reached finibus terrae.

I came one afternoon to see water again, at the place where, or near where, the Adriatic and the Ionian seas merge. What a thing it was to stand at the very end of Italy, on a promontory that was once home to a brilliant white temple to Minerva and served as a famous guide to ancient sailors—everyone (the Mycenaeans and the Minoans, the Greeks, the Romans, and later the Byzantines, the Longobards, and the Saracens) having been through here. I searched for the fabled but, according to most geographers, apocryphal white line that marked the exact meeting point of these two seas, and then I climbed down to water level and rode in a boat operated by a boy who looked to be about 12. He took me and a scattering of other travelers on a tour of the Ionian coast; we putt-putted in and out of half a dozen caves, where the earth sweated and dripped and the boatswain pointed to rocks in the shape of a crocodile, an angry old man, and—who else?—a smiling Madonna.

After three days near Ugento we moved on to the Masseria Bernardini, near Nardò. Out of piles of yellow stone a Milanese architect and gallery owner has created seven suites, some with multiple bedrooms. The kitchens and artworks were contemporary, the gardens fragrant with lavender and rosemary, and the pool was a delight. I could have stayed forever.

I loved Nardò. The Baroque churches were full of women fanning themselves. The men were gathered in circoli,something akin to social clubs, playing cards and drinking beer. Or else they were in barbershops, leaning back to be shaved with straight razors. In the town’s well-curated crafts shop, I asked the young woman who helped me where all her peers were. “At the beach,” she answered, sighing.

Every meal we ate, whether at a beach bar or a swell restaurant, was handsomely presented, with flavors stronger, purer, deeper than I have eaten after decades of traveling and living in Italy. In Taviano we dined at A Casa tu Martinu, which specializes in such Salentine dishes as pure di fave e cicorie, a purée of fava beans served with wilted chicory, and ciceri e tria, a partly fried pasta tossed with chickpeas. In Lecce, our next destination, we ate three meals at Alle due Corti, a family-run place where the menu is in dialect (and English). Also while in Lecce I had a cooking lesson with the American-born Silvestro Silvestori, whose grandmother was Leccese and who has operated a culinary school there since 2003. Silvestori talked to me about the Salento’s push-and-pull relationship to tradition and change. Tradition: people still eat horsemeat, snails, breads of spelt and barley that are meatlike and sustaining; they are suspicious of outsiders; they dislike innovation. Yet change was undeniably in the air: local vintners, after years of trying to imitate northern-style wines, are learning to cherish their own varietals, among them Primitivo and Negroamaro; the town has an active tourist board; ugly macadam has been torn up and replaced with cobblestones; wine bars have been proliferating.

We were staying around the corner from Silvestori’s school at Suite 68, a small, chic B&B in a private palazzo so welcoming that when Lucia walked into the entry hall she looked around and asked if she could take off her shoes. The exceedingly affable Mary Rossi, who manages the B&B, told me that in the past five years or so Lecce had begun to “wake up and realize what it has”: a modestly scaled city with great food, a revived tradition of papier-mâché artisanship, a Roman amphitheater, a wonderful bookstore, and miles of Baroque architecture, much of it designed by Giuseppe Zimbalo, and almost all of it so insanely exuberant and over-the-top that my wife described it as drunk.

We had one more masseria, montelauro, just south of Otranto: another early complex of buildings, once home to 20 families, that had been redesigned by the fashionable owner Elisabetta Turgi Prosperi. Our room was the smallest we’d stayed in, but there were compensations: a long pool set in a dark, crunchy lawn; delicious breakfasts and lunches, both served all’aperto; and a clientele ranging from friendly children to voluble older women in large silver-framed glasses and linen shifts.

Otranto turned out to be the one place in all of the Salento that seemed all too awake to its tourists’ wants. It had the first (and 21st) T-shirt shop I’d seen on my trip, kitschy gewgaws, a boisterous carousel. This was Otranto by night, though; the next morning I found a more somber place, almost as if, by day, Otranto regularly woke up to the memory of the excruciating massacre perpetrated in 1480 by invading Turks, who beheaded 800 Otrantini when they refused to convert to Islam. Their bones are on display in the cathedral, which is also home to a set of masterfully worked mosaics completed in 1166, and several of the Turks’ granite cannonballs are still scattered in the streets. It felt as though they could have been shot there five hours instead of 530 years ago.

On my last afternoon I ended my trip as I began it: with a drive. I went south to see the menhirs and dolmens near Uggiano la Chiesa. These mysterious arrangements of stones, accessible by slender (if well-marked) dirt roads, were left by Bronze Age locals known as Messapians; they seemed to me to have dropped down into deserted fields like visitors from another planet. Afterward I went north to check out the Laghi Alimini, more spectacular Salentine water. On my way back to Montelauro, with the sun lowering and my memorable sun-soaked visit drawing to its close, I stopped at a farm stand where, alongside apricots, peaches, grapes, cherries, melons, and yards of greens, the farmer’s wife was selling her own dried tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini—which I’d never seen before—and capers. She scooped up a caper with a battered wooden spoon and held it out to me. I tasted sweet, I tasted salt, I felt a small pod of fruity liquor burst open in my mouth.

“Do you know what makes it so special?” she asked.

“Actually,” I told her, “I believe I do.”

Michael Frank’s writing has been anthologized in Italy: The Best Travel Writing from the New York Times. He is currently at work on a novel.