Into the Mezzogiorno

We pressed on through the lonely streets of Brindisi, the noon hour approaching, the sun high in the sky, and I wouldn’t stop, driven maniacally forward on my mission. The variegated pavers passed below our sore feet in alternating hues, ranging from glistening white marble, to cracking aged stone, to black rock. At intervals the surface was patched with shabby mounds of asphalt that the workmen hadn’t even bothered to level out. The buildings around us appeared to house businesses, but they were quiet, and few seemed to be open. A rare Italian grandmother passed us a fleeting glance and then continued on her way.

D wanted to stop, but I just wasn’t ready – we had been sitting all day. We spent the morning in the air, flying from Rome to Brindisi where the airport is being rebuilt, but isn’t yet complete. That doesn’t matter to the Italians, though. They’re still using it anyway.

 

At the airport we had picked up our car, a diminutive Fiat 500, with a large window in the roof. The only respite it offers comes in the form of  a retractable screen that we attempt to deploy, but it hardly does anything to temper the harsh Mediterranean glare.

And now that we didn’t have to stay seated I wanted to move. But I didn’t want to go down the pristine avenue of marble, gilded with palm trees, like a Mediterranean fantasy come to life. 

And I didn’t want to stop in the park. Instead, I insisted on going uphill, into ugly, empty streets that might really be just glorified alleyways.

We are in Puglia, far south in Italy. This is the heel of the boot, and it is well into the Mezzogiorno, a term that literally means “midday.” It is a term that implies much more than that, however: the Mezzogiorno begins roughly south of Rome, and these are the less affluent parts of Italy. This is where the trains aren’t as extensive, if existent at all, and this is where life is perhaps a bit slower. Traveling here is challenging, but purportedly rewarding. 

D saw it first, and pointed it out to me. We crested a small hill and there they were. These two columns were erected here to mark the end of the Appian Way. Yes, the famous Roman road that begins in The Eternal City at one time ended here, and this is where I needed to be today, at this moment. There is only one column still standing, the second having fallen in the 16th century, its remains given to the nearby town of Lecce after a saint spared Brindisi from the plague. One column remains after thousands of years, a sentinel of time and place. 

And I was here to see it, and it felt right, a bookend on my travels in Italy, and the juxtaposition to Rome left behind.

Now, at last I permit us to sit and take a rest, the cool sea air blowing off of the deep azure harbor offering us at least a bit of midday reprieve. What we really need isn’t just rest, however – what we really need is food. 

With that in mind we plunge back into the narrow byways of Brindisi. Tripadvisor has a suggestion, so I go for it. We pass ponderous ruins and modern buildings. We see the proud footprint of the EU even at this distant outpost.

The first place we come to is closed, and I understand the value of internet recommendations in remote locales during the off-season. The next option that appeals to me is listed as being very expensive, but it is nearby and we are fading so I acquiesce.

 

We step in, the only guests in the place on our arrival. The menu features local Pugliese cuisine, which is one of the reasons we came here.

 

They bring us crostini with a dish of tomatoes in oil and some ricotta forte. The tomatoes are fresh and flavorful, a simple yet perfect mate to the bread. And the ricotta is remarkable. It is salty and funky and unique.

 

D has orecchiette for lunch, while I have fava puree with chicory. It is sprinkled with toasted cubes of bread and a drizzle of olive oil. This is the ultimate in cucina povera. Simple, balanced, and filling, using the ingredients at hand. It may not be the prettiest dish in the world but it is a beautiful meal.

My very expensive lunch cost €6. This may in fact be expensive by local standards, but to our eye it is a bargain. I guess everything is relative.

From Brindisi we head north to the masseria where we are staying. The masserie are farmhouses, and all over Puglia old farmhouses  are being renovated in order to rent our their rooms to travelers. 

 

The masseria where we are staying, like most, has been whitewashed against baking heat of the unrestrained sun.

 

Sitting on the deck, we can see far across the countryside. Below us is a swimming pool, although neither of us has a suit.

This is the dining room, where we will later have dinner. Here, they also offer us the produce of their farm, including oil from their olives and fruits from their trees. 

We have come here for a bucolic repast, far from the hustle and bustle of the Italian cities, hidden back in the Pugliese countryside. It is our toehold in the region, from which we can go forth to explore the local area and get a taste of some of the local flavors and meet some of the local people. It is absolutely lovely in every way imaginable.

And I feel welcome in Puglia.

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