For one day we felt like we took a break from Italy and teleported onto a remote Greek island, some 800 km away in the southern Aegean.
Whitewashed architecture, throngs of English-speaking tourists, the aroma of grilled octopus in the air -- this could easily have been Paros or perhaps Mykonos, only without the heavy bass of electronic club music in the background.
With a lazy spare day between magnificent Lecce and ancient city of Matera, we stopped for one night at evidently one of Southern Italy’s prettiest towns, la Citta Bianca -- the White City -- of Ostuni.
Located halfway between Lecce and Bari and blessed with a small station on the national rail network, Ostuni makes a logical stop-over for independent travelers like ourselves who wish to experience small town Puglia without a rental car.
Visitors stepping off the local train would be presented with a fitting first impression of Ostuni -- an imposing hill town of medieval residences perched on a knoll, overlooking the haphazard olive groves and the blue Adriatic in the distance. But it is too far to walk, and the community bus is not always timed to the arrival of the hourly train from Lecce.
The 20-seater community bus drops off at the Baroque square of Piazza della Liberta, graced with an elaborate plague column that has become the town’s main traffic roundabout.
This is also where 18th Century Italianate architecture ends and the famously medieval commune starts, just a few steps in the uphill direction.
Despite its origin as an ancient Greek outpost and architectural resemblance to the Aegean islands, Ostuni owes its lime washed houses to the Normans who built this coarsely circular fortress of heavy defensive walls, curvy narrow alleys and archaic rowhouses that seem to be amalgamated on top of one another.
Gracing the highest point is an impressive Gothic cathedral from the 1400’s, fit for a town many times this size and delighting every visitor with an intricately carved rose window.
While tourist number are already soaring during the summer, they could really skyrocket if the town’s application for UNESCO World Heritage status (as part of the Barocco Leccese bid) becomes accepted.
For a quick bite we went with the local favorite fast food, a massive panino crammed with chunks of chewy octopus tentacles and a generous wedge of Caciocavallo cheese, washed down with a Peroni Chill at the sandwich shop of Sapori d'Eccellenza. Adding a simple dish of orecchiette and a dessert of frozen almond creme from nearby Caffe Fanelli, and our cheap lunch came to 16 euros for two.
Bill for Two Persons
|Panino con Polpo e Caciocavallo||5.5 euros|
|Peroni Chill||2 euros|
|Orecchiette al Pomodoro||6 euros|
|Crema Fredda alle Mandorle||2.5 euros|
|TOTAL||16 euros (CAD$22.4)|
While we could have rented a scooter and lazed away our afternoon on the alluring beaches along the Adriatic coastline below, we found it much more interesting to navigate the labyrinth of entwined passageways that swirled around the hill and weaved past (and sometimes right underneath) the local residences.
Our preference should not surprise the thousands of Brits and Germans who routinely migrate to this far southern corner of Europe every summer, driving up prices of vacation properties in the Pugliese countryside and inflating the town’s population by three fold. There is just something inexplicably tempting about the sunshine and slow life at the heel of Italy.
Interestingly this small town seems to boast possibly the highest concentration of real estate agents -- all featuring advertisements in English -- anywhere we’ve traveled with the notable exception of property-crazy Hong Kong. While I had heard of the nickname of Salento-shire prior to arrival, it was still shocking to hear London accents everywhere in the historic quarter.
For one night we joined the armies of seasonal migrants, settling into one of these eccentrically shaped peasant dwellings dating from the Middle Ages, just a few steps up from the ramparts in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in town.
We rented our suite from a local operation called I Sette Archi, aptly named for the series of medieval arches in the proximity of its rental apartments. In fact the entrance to our suite (No. 93 on this winding alley) was conveniently located underneath one of these arches.
While the suite wasn’t overly spacious (especially compared with our apartment in Lecce the previous night), it was cosy and functional with a simple stovetop, coffee maker and bar fridge for keeping our breakfast Prosciutto and yogurt fresh.
Then there were the quirkier elements deriving from the house’s medieval origin: a bathroom and shower stall in the form of a dark grotto, and a loft underneath the vaulted ceiling that would easily turn this into a home for four. For its rock bottom rental price there was no air conditioning, but it wasn’t necessary with the old-fashioned insulation provided by the 2-feet thick stone walls.
A major advantage of an apartment in town was the luxury of an afternoon Riposo in the Italian custom, great for recharging our legs for that unmissible evening stroll when staying in such a charming historic neighborhood.
This was by far our favorite time of the day with the majority of visitors gone and the warm tavern lights reflecting off the town’s cobblestone streets, polished by seven centuries of foot traffic.
For dinner we originally had in mind a couple of restaurants inside the historic quarter, but decided to head for the regular blue collar neighborhoods in hope of finding something not entirely catered to tourists.
PESCHERIA IL DELFINO
Corso Garibaldi 1; on the east side of Parco Rimembranze
And I’m not sure if we succeeded. As much as we intended to stumble upon a hole-in-the-wall Trattoria for some Burrata and Orecchiette, we were quickly sidetracked when passing by this seemingly authentic Pescheria with no English menu. Pescheria Delfino’s fish counter was connected to two separate dining areas: one with a fancy ristorante-type setting, and one with an outdoor patio with plastic chairs. Seeing that there were no customers on the ristorante side, we took the hint and sat next to a table of Italians on the patio.
For antipasto we started with a dish of Carpaccio di Tonno, paper thin slices of red Mediterranean tuna steaks so heavily marinated with lemon juice that the acidity simply overpowered the sweetness one would expect from the raw tuna.
Infinitely better was our primo of the ubiquitous Tagliolini alle Vongole, served here with local Salentine clams of the freshest and most savory quality.
With the fish counter merely 10 steps away I went inside again to pick our secondi, the first of which came in the form of some scrumptious deep fried baby octopi, shrimp and white bait.
With everything else being quite reasonably priced, we decided to splurge on one of the most expensive dishes of our Italy trip -- nearly a full kilogram of grilled Scampi, a regional favorite here on Italy’s Adriatic coast. There must have been a dozen(!) or so large Scampi to be shared between the two of us, and while the meat wasn’t as briny and flavorsome as I had hoped, it was strangely gratifying sitting in an Italian version of the Japanese Izakaya or Hongkonger Dai Pai Dong, sucking shells after shells of Scampi meat and washing down with the local beer.
So much for our original wish for a blue collar Trattoria -- one antipasto, one primo, two secondi, a contorno, some drinks and we end up with the most expensive dinner bill of our 23-day trip. I can’t say it’s overpriced though, especially for that ginormous platter of Scampi that shall always rank among our favorite memories of Ostuni.
Bill for Two Persons
|Carpaccio di Tonno||12 euros|
|Tagliolini alle Vongole||10 euros|
|Pesce Misti||6 euros|
|Scampi ~0.8 kilo||17 euros|
|Verdure Grigliate||3 euros|
|Coperto x 2||FREE|
|TOTAL||51 euros (CAD$71.4)|
EPILOGUE: FICO D’INDIA
Fico d’India was the most unforgettable Italian term I learned on this trip.
After our dinner at Pescheria Delfino we went for dessert at Cremeria Borgo Antico, just off the side of the Duomo at the hilltop of the walled town. That was when I spotted a new flavor with no name labels, only represented by a peeled, orangy-pink fruit sitting on the gelato. “What is this called?” I asked, and the store clerk replied with a small sample for our tasting, “Fico d’India” (which I thought was “Figolindia”).
Curiosity overtook me and I ordered a cone of this mystery fruit, which was mildly sweet like watermelon but quite distinct from anything either of us had ever tasted. While the store clerk tried his hardest to explain the fruit to me, he spoke little English and I spoke next to no Italian. At the end asked me to follow him to a dark alley behind his shop ...
... and pointed to a small cactus tree. Ah! This brought back memories of the one time I had tiny cactus spines stuck on my tender lips when I came up with the worst method to peel the fruit after mom brought it home. This time the generous store clerk gave us this peeled prickly pear as a present, and taught us to peel the skin only after immersing it in hot water to soften the spines.
That’s the friendliness of the Pugliese people, and a memorable parting gift before our departure to neighboring Basilicata the next morning.