Drifting Through Puglia, Italy’s Heel


Sebastian Modak

I have to confess something. I arrived in Bari, the largest city in Puglia, tired — like, a no-amount-of-sleep-could-ever-be-enough kind of tired. It’s happened at a few points during this yearlong trip, seemingly at random. I hit an invisible wall and feel an intense fatigue that’s hard to fight through.

Luckily, in Puglia, I didn’t have to. The slow, hot days lent themselves to the pace of this temporarily laconic traveler. I drifted with the barely perceptible breeze from Bari down to Lecce, then back up to the stunning town of Martina Franca, built on a hill overlooking vineyards and olive trees. I put my lunch orders in the hands of waiters, shrugging, smiling, and agreeing to whatever the first recommendation was.

That’s how I dug into plates of orecchiette with broccoli rabe and fava bean curd with chicory, dishes that clearly were born out of tough times and taste like the surrounding countryside. For lunch, I ate plates of capocollo, a cold pork cut that in Martina Franca is smoked with herbs and almonds. I fell into food comas after each puccia, a pocket-like sandwich stuffed with a variety of different fillings, including, down in Lecce, horse meat.

In a dream state, I drifted across the region, taking back roads that led me down dirt paths to ghost towns and tiny villages where it was hard to find a person under the age of 70. I took exit ramps based on whimsy, making turns toward my best bet for where a beach might be. Often, I was right.

Puglia is deservedly known for its 500 miles of coastline; a sandy beach or a rocky shore is usually a short drive away. I heard one name repeated again and again: Polignano a Mare, a quaint seaside town famous for its white-pebble beach that’s framed by cliffs. I went on a weekend and found it too crowded, so I drove just two miles up the coast, to San Vito, where the crowds were thinner and the beach was filled with brightly colored fishing boats, all with an imposing 10th-century abbey as a backdrop.

Talk to a Pugliese for long enough and the subject of horses will invariably come up. Murgese horses, jet-black and hardy, have been bred in this part of Italy for at least 500 years and were valued for their versatility by farmhands and cavalry alike. Today, they seem to serve most of all as a point of pride.

Through a series of chance encounters, I wound up at a farm outside of Martina Franca run partly by the local police force, where they breed the horses. A stern officer, decked out in full uniform, showed off his stock to me, while regaling me with stories of falconers and King Ferdinand V’s favorite horses.

Just a few hours earlier, my departure from the trulli-filled masseria had been delayed as its owner read to me a poem about her own favorite Murgese, a tempermental stallion who was wont to roam the farm after dark, blending into the night sky.

Some places are worth traveling to just for the sake of geographic novelty, and Santa Maria di Leuca, right at the tip of the heel, where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, is one of them. In just an hour’s drive, you’re transported from landlocked Lecce, where the sun dances across limestone churches and streets paved in marble, to a quiet seaside town. There, the most important moment of the day is sunset, when people climb hundreds of steps to a lighthouse perched 300 feet above the sea.

Idyllic countryside and pristine coast; Baroque majesty and homey hospitality; cuisine that is complex on the taste buds but simple in its preparation. Puglia has a bit of everything, and six days was far too little time to properly digest it all. But it was the ideal opportunity to turn what could have been a sprint into a relaxed amble. Sometimes one’s hazy impressions, disjointed and amorphous, can carry an emotional resonance that will one day draw you back.



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