The Spirit of Apulia: Polignano a Mare, Alberobello and Matera

Written by Desiree Kendrick
(A Runner-up entry in the Heritage Writing Competition.)

It wasn’t on my bucket list, yet I packed the suitcase, curiosity tucked into my handbag along with my valuables. Apulia: a diverse and lush region located in the heel of Italy’s boot.

Apulia: Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare

My itinerary in Apulia began in the port city of Bari. Our comfortable accommodation, del Covo del Saracceni, is a central spot in Polignano a Mare, well suited for day trips to nearby communities. Today, Lecce and Ostuni are on the agenda. Each excursion offers a diverse landscape, most roads lined with hundred-year-old olive trees. I’m not a fan of olives, but I won’t go hungry in Italy. The fresh seafood is addictive. Wines tempt your tongue with an aged confidence. Even a meal of pizza is mouth-watering heaven. Dare to be adventurous – try an octopus appetizer – the ocean seasons the shellfish with a distinct flavour.

Pulling back the breezy curtain of my balcony door, I embrace autumn’s warmth – morning sunrise divine. Be brave – risk travel cliché and request a room with a view. Mine includes the rocky
shoreline, statuesque buildings rising above the sea. A short walk takes me to a pebbled beach. I skip basking in the sun. At my age I have enough discolouration, thank you. Some welcome the natural dose of Vitamin D. Polignano is a quaint spot with walkable streets. Leave space in your bag for pottery and olive oil.

Trullis in Alberobello
Trullis in Alberobello

Visiting Alberobello, I’m astonished by the one thousand trulli dwellings. These are cone shaped houses, many constructed during the 15th Century. Legend suggests these UNESCO Heritage buildings were easily built and easy to tear down. When the tax man called, if your whitewashed stone dwelling was a pile of rocks and mortar, you paid no tax. I wonder if the term whitewashing originated in these hills. There’s no denying the dome houses look perfect for a Smurf community. Being petite I feel right at home. Local flavours found, handicrafts and food abound. Did I mention you can’t go wrong eating in Italy?

However, it is Matera, just to the west of Apulia, that steals my heart. An ancient city lost in time. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. This breathtaking destination is a collection of masterpiece cave lodgings. The labyrinth of stone houses perched on a hillside seems more intricate than a laboratory rat’s maze.

Apulia: Matera: An ancient city lost in time
Matera: An ancient city lost in time

I’ve come prepared. Water bottle, sunglasses. Check. Comfortable walking shoes. Check. Smartphone tucked into my bag for easy access. Though the multitudes of steps look overwhelming, I’m not deterred. A woman my age is more concerned about not twisting an ankle than posing for her Instagram account. A 12th Century marvel – the caves, not me.

There’s a biblical quality to the landscape. Our tour guide tells us, “Mel Gibson filmed the Passion of The Christ on these streets.” More than one hundred churches are carved into the soft rock. I imagine a monk tolled up the steps, a basket of sour grapes resting on his hip. An image of a lazy donkey, sniffing the sandals of his master, pokes my imagination. Wandering up a winding path I half expect a flock of sheep to come baa-ing in my direction, shepherd on their tail. But no, only herds of visitors sidestepping one another.

The view from my room
A room with a view

Still, a location of this size does not feel claustrophobic or crowded. Blue skies drape over the belfries and stone manors. Grassy moss dots more than one wall. “At night, when the sun sets, Matera rises in all its glory glowing like a treasured nativity scene,” claims our guide. Yet no one lives in the ruins.

In the 1950s the Italian government discovered thousands of residents living in squalor. Goats, pigs and donkeys shared accommodation with their owners. Disease and illness were rampant. The Sassi cave dwellers ordered evacuated. Sixteen thousand residents were provided newer homes, separate rooming for livestock. Matera, once a healthy and walled city with cutting-edge cisterns and vegetable gardens had crumbled with urban sprawl and overcrowding.

Apulia: Try an octopus appetiser
Try an octopus appetiser

Today, the sculptured homes sit empty. Yet there is beauty in the preservation of time. We walked up and down, in and around, savouring the narrowed lanes and absorbing the majestic views. A guided tour paints a medieval picture, worth descending downward to view the preserved religious sarcophagus.

My smartphone calculates I did over five thousand steps, but my accomplishment is in my photos. Memories tracked and recorded. I’m grateful for the opportunity to walk the same cobblestones of the Sassi people. Though the view is captivating, it is Matera’s history that leaves me feeling spiritual.

POSTED 24th APRIL 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of DESIREE KENDRICK. Photographs (other than that of Alberobello) were supplied by the author, after the competition had been judged.