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    Travel: Hoofing it around cultural sites in the heel of Italy’s boot
    • October 25, 2023

    In Italy’s heel of the boot, elves must’ve been afoot throughout the fairytale village of Alberobello, the world’s only enclave of 1,500 hobbit-like, stone trulli houses seemingly painted in white powdered sugar and capped with roofs resembling pointy gray party hats. To magically ward off demons, some trulli are marked with symbols, such as an arrow-speared heart.

    Built centuries ago, the whimsical abodes brim with trulli-centric life: I sipped the local Primitivo in trulli wine bars, ate nonna’s pasta in trulli trattorias, shopped in trulli that sold trulli-shaped bottles of limoncello and teeny trulli earrings, and slept in a trullo (singular of trulli) as bells chimed from a church holding hallowed bone fragments of Alberobello’s patron saints. Surprisingly my neighbors weren’t Smurfs but six elderly Italian couples who, in a long-standing tradition, sat on plastic chairs outside their trulli to exuberantly socialize in the late afternoon.

    Soon I waved arrivederci to Alberobello, moved to an Apulian farmhouse and hiked to the haunting burial site of a 28,000-year-old pregnant woman dubbed “the world’s oldest mother.” Later on, I spent three nights in a cave. That occurred in the spellbinding rock-chiseled town of Matera, where James Bond thrillingly careened his Aston Martin through serpentine streets while chased by bad dudes in the 2021 movie, “No Time to Die.”

    A view of the rock-hewn UNESCO-listed town of Matera, as seen from an ancient cave on the Murgia mountainside. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    What’s great is I didn’t have to plan any of this juicy jaunt. Along with five wonderful strangers-turned-besties from Britain, I was on an eight-day Exodus Travels walking trip, the inaugural “Paths of Puglia & Matera — Premium Adventure” ( Our eldest group member was a zesty 77 and our two longest treks each eight miles. You gotta feel la dolce vita when strolling by lush acres of grape-blooming Puglia vineyards and groves of silvery-green olive trees up to 3,000 years old.

    The opulent busy facade of Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce has both been praised as a masterpiece and criticized as a lunatic’s nightmare. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Also on our southeast Italy itinerary: gallivanting through the glorious medieval  “White City” of Ostuni, taking a train to scrutinize insanely ornate Baroque curiosities in Lecce, and nonstop pigging out on regional dishes such as orecchiette pasta with turnip tops sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. (Mangia! Mangia!)

    It’s easy to get lost in the serene, winding alleyways of Ostuni’s white-washed old town. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    “Tourists always go to Florence or Rome, but this is an area to be discovered,” said Puglia native and Exodus guide Ioana Misino, 38. Leading our entire journey, the patient, informative Ioana beautifully rolled her “r’s” and warmed us with tales about her typical worrying Italian mother. (“Ahh, Mamma,” she would sigh with a smile when her cell phone rang once again.)

    Alberobello is known for its 1,500 storybook trulli homes, well-preserved and still used as residences or businesses centuries after they were built. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    We started our escapades in Alberobello, which like Matera is a stunningly preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. Alberobello’s beehive trulli date from the mid-14th century on, were contrived from nearby limestone boulders, stacked without mortar, and crowned with conical roofs topped with decorative pinnacles. A main perk was the dry-stone construction could be sneakily dismantled to avoid paying property taxes to the then-king.

    I’ll detail more about our overall voyage, but first the breathtaking, see-it-can’t-believe-it grand finale of Matera, honeycombed with 9,000-year-old cave dwellings still inhabited by humans and gripping hillsides teetering over a steep, gaping ravine.

    On the Murgia plateau and canyon side, scores of mysterious holes are actually caves once inhabited by prehistoric people and later used as Byzantine rock churches by hermit monks. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    “Welcome to the Flintstones city,” enthused our local guide, Barbara Russo. “Matera is the largest sculpture in the world carved by hand.” She had just arrived at our boutique Wi-Fi-enabled cave hotel, not far from where 007 knocked out henchman Cyclop’s bionic eye.

    Matera’s history is extremely rocky. Once an ancient settlement, by the mid-20th century Matera had deteriorated into a wretched slum, still without running water or electricity and plagued by malaria, dysentery and soaring infant mortality. Large peasant families shared enlarged cave homes with donkeys and chickens; human and animal waste mixed in streets. After Matera was labeled “the shame of Italy,” the Italian government evicted its 16,000 residents to newer housing in the 1950s, leaving a seedy ghost town attracting junkies and thieves.

    Chiseled into a rock in Matera, the dramatic Church of Santa Maria De Idris juts from a hill and overlooks a cathedral, piazza and ravine. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    In the 1980s, redevelopment began and citizens started returning; in 1993 UNESCO listed Matera’s millennia-old two Sassi (meaning “stones”) districts comprised of more than 1,000 dwellings, in addition to 150 rock churches on a vast craggy outcrop. Hollywood came calling: Jesus was crucified in Matera (a stand-in for Jerusalem) in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ.”  Across the Gravina River, we hiked along the rugged Murgia plateau, peering into spooky grottoes that sheltered Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and later became Byzantine cave churches for reclusive monks.

    wilderness hike across the gorge from Matera’s town center brings trekkers to some simple cave churches dating from the eighth century on.(Photo by Norma Meyer)

    On that trek, we scrambled over rocks, although our trip’s five planned walks — altogether totaling 30 miles — were generally easy on flatter ground. Of course we logged many more miles hoofing about hill towns since our Exodus agenda offered plenty to do.

    With a sense of humor, chef Tommaso Perrucci teaches pasta-making at his Kapunto cafe in Matera. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Like pasta-making. In Matera’s Kapunto cafe, along with my hairnet-clad, amusing travel mates (two husband-and-wife couples and a solo woman), I mixed my dough, robustly stretched my dough, cut my dough and felt like a dodo when as instructed I pushed three fingers into small bits of dough to roll them into indented pea pod-shaped capunti. Mamma mia. Next, after trying with a knife tip to create orecchiette “little ears” I produced noses on my pastry board. Gesturing with his hands, chef Tommaso Perrucci — who perfected his passionate pasta skills watching his mama — surveyed my work and assured,  “Not a disaster.” He paused. “BUT a disaster.” Then he kiddingly (OK, maybe not) told me, “In order to have enough time to learn to make pasta, you will need to get a visa and have residency here.”

    Every day, eating was an extravaganza  — and often a surprise. One time for dessert, a server carried in a tray of roundish puffy pastries and in a thick Italian accent, animatedly explained something about “boobs.” We all laughingly bellowed, “What?” He elaborated: “Nun’s boobs.”

    Seriously, that’s the real name of Italian cream-filled spongy cakes which resemble  mammary glands complete with nipples. According to legend, monastery nuns first created and sold the delicacies centuries ago, possibly to honor a tortured female saint whose breasts were ripped off with pincers.

    Backing up now, before Matera we explored the “White City” of Ostuni, where our local guide described olive oil as “the gold of Puglia,” vendors cracked prized almonds with hammers, and buildings, just like in the Middle Ages, are regularly coated with gleaming white limestone to blunt the hot sun. From there, we ambled on a rural road alongside antiquated, gnarled, personality-laden olive trees to a secluded ominous cavern that is Delia’s ritualistic burial site. Delia is the moniker given by archeologists to a Cro-Magnon woman who died around 28,000 years ago at age 20, was eight months pregnant and in death donned a headdress and bracelets made of seashells and deer teeth. I had chills staring at the re-creation of her and her baby’s skeletons laying on the cave floor; the actual remains are in an Ostuni museum.

    The re-created skeleton of an eight-months pregnant woman lies in Agnano Archaeological Park where she was buried 28,000 years ago. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    That evening, in Ostuni’s countryside, we stayed in an 18th-century “masseria” (fortified farmhouse) and I lathered myself with complimentary mini-vials of olive oil shower gel. Just a note here about Exodus Travels —  on its 500-plus itineraries worldwide, the company is all about family-run lodging and restaurants. (Also, I’m a big fan of the down-to-earth small-group adventure company. This was my sixth international trip with Exodus over years and my fellow travelers have always been multi-repeat customers too.)

    Like other decor in Lecce, two figures outside a private mansion were carved centuries ago from “Lecce stone,” a unique limestone found in the area. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    The next morning, we rode a train to “Florence of the South” Lecce, a dizzying, dazzling city of lavish Baroque architecture. (You’d swear the designers were on psychedelics.) The magnificent façade of the Basilica of Santa Croce danced amok with figurines —  she-wolves, Turkish prisoners of war, dragons, cherubs, mythical lion-eagles, pomegranates. Lecce is also famous for its papier-maché workshops — a lightweight, life-size Virgin Mary loitered outside of one. I also noticed a regional specialty on a pub menu — pezzeti di cavallo, which translates to “pieces of horse.” A waitress said she didn’t know which parts.

    Hiking through the Itria Valley puts walkers up close with verdant vineyards and age-old olive groves — and works off all those consumed carbs. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

    Our week blew by. I knew it’d be intriguing when my first morning, at an Alberobello trulli trattoria, 24-year-old Nicolas Mentz fixed me a cappuccino, garnished it with a frothy heart and kindly welcomed me to “Cinderella’s town.” At our final destination, Matera’s past engulfed us while life colorfully carried on: A woodworker crafted initialized bread stamps in his cave shop so residents can recognize their loaves baked in communal ovens; artisans displayed cucu rooster whistles, Matera’s good-luck charms; a tabby cat festooned with a red bow tie lounged near a hip cave bistro. Except for two T-shirt sellers, there wasn’t much indicating that Matera was where Daniel Craig’s Bond romanced and lividly dumped his on-screen girlfriend, wildly vaulted his motorcycle into a crowded piazza, and fiercely spun doughnuts in his machine gun-firing Aston Martin, among other action scenes.

    But I did spot a banner affixed to a rustic balcony and imploring, “Siate Gentili Con I Sassi.” It means “Be Gentle With The Stones.”

    If you go

    Exodus’ eight-day “Paths of Puglia & Matera — Premium Adventure,” includes accommodations, all meals except two, wine-tastings, local tours, train tickets, and more. Rates for 2024 start at $3,920 but prices are often discounted.  A similar trip, “Walking in Puglia & Matera,” includes different hotels, and fewer meals and activities, from $1,885.

    ​ Orange County Register