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Trip Report Puglia and Basilicata: impromptu trip & food report revisited

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Recently, on another thread, I've been asked to tell about my trip around Puglia and Basilicata, which grew into an impromptu trip report. Since it would be impossible to imagine, for future readers, that there is hidden a trip report inside that other thread, I thought it might be wise to post my report once again, separately and more easily traceable. I'm basically using the copy-and-paste method, but also taking the opportunity to smooth away several errors and omissions that I had corrected by and by in that original impromptu version, making it a heap of addenda, back references and corrections, confusingly mingled with the report's next installments.

Ok - this year's trip to Puglia and Basilicata (May and early June) had twelve legs, eight in Puglia and four in Basilicata.

Puglia first, from north to south:

1. Peschici, 2 nights at www.baiascirocco.it - basic rooms, but a splendid position above the sea, a very kind host, and one of the very best breakfasts I've ever had anywhere (actually, a breakfast for foodies, as commendable as a good restaurant).
Visits: Peschici, Vieste (reportedly overly touristy in summer, but I didn’t observe that in May), Monte S. Angelo, Siponto, S. Leonardo di Siponto - which means the Gargano. A rather beautiful part of Puglia, and its one and only mountainous part (driving needs a LOT of time on the twisting roads there). Monte S. Angelo and S. Leonardo di Siponto are among the greatest sights all over Puglia; in Monte S. Angelo, though, the greatest thing is not the famous grotto church of the archangel Michael, but the so-called Tomba di Rotari, or S. Giovanni in Tumba, a church nobody seems to have done serious scholarly research on so far. For a long time, the popular guess was that it be a tomb of a Langobardic prince, which has been proved nonsensical; now, guesses are "a fortified tower converted into a church" or, more widely accepted, "a baptistery from the early 12th century". Well, there was the portal added in the early 12th century, and obviously also the cupola vaulting completed (or rebuilt?) - but even for a complete amateur art historian like me, it's obvious that this is the layout and style of a Carolingian church (which is not as bizarre as it may seem on a first glance - Puglia was Longobardic, and Charlemagne became, as we all know, King of the Longobards in 774). Anyway, a really spectacular building that is completely overlooked by most of the visitors to Monte S. Angelo (pilgrims, mostly...).
Meals (other than those wonderful breakfasts): the first evening, Frà Stefano in Peschici, good enough but nothing special; the second evening, when I had wanted to dine at this famous agriturismo: www.agriturismolatorretaronna.com, their restaurant was unfortunately closed, and we returned to Peschici, to try La Taverna, which was slightly better than, but all in all pretty similar to Frà Stefano.

2. Lucera, just one night, very unfortunately, at Palazzo D'Auria Secondo, www.palazzodauriasecondo.it, a wonderful B&B, with an equally wonderful restaurant. No breakfast before 9.30, please, since the owners don't get up that early. Just one of the most likeable places I've ever been to!
Sightseeing: Lucera, Troia and - not quite - Foggia; not quite because the only sight there, the cathedral, was completely hidden behind scaffolding, and closed (I knew ahead that it was closed for restoration, but I didn't know about the scaffolding, and had hoped to see the exterior, which is more interesting than the interior anyway). The Troia cathedral is another really excellent sight; Lucera, this extraordinarily likeable town, doesn't unfortunately have any sights to write home about, but Puglia's best atmosphere (perhaps together with Lecce).
Food: two lunches and one dinner at Palazzo D'Auria Secondo - wonderful! Generally, this part of Puglia is kind of a food heaven... three more addresses: one, a (locally) famous butcher in Apricena, Michele Sabatino (Via Roma 50), who is one of the producers of a rare Slow Food presidium product: the musciska, jerky from beef or goat - traditional food for the shepherds during transhumance. Today, we don't gnaw at the jerky sticks, like the shepherds inevitably did - it's now usual to slice the musciska thinly, add rucola and/or some flakes of caciocavallo cheese (preferably from the milk of the podolica cows that are also providing the beef for the musciska) and first-rate olive oil: there's hardly any more delicious food on this planet. Those podolica cows are a wonderful breed, anyway; their milk (i.e. cheese) and beef are incredibly tasty and delicious, the beef is not quite compatible with contemporary taste, though: it's not at all tender, rather tough since these are true transhumance animals, up to this day (they're driven back and forth between the Gargano and the province of Matera) - which means that they are walking really long distances, and walking all day long (impossible to raise them in stables), so they're brawny, and you have to chew it. But the taste is really impressive. (Palazza D'Auria Secondo is an excellent place to sample this beef if you can't buy from Michele Sabatino and prepare it yourself. As far as musciska, no problem to take it home since this is food from the pre-fridge era, made for long storage.) Sabatino also has great pork from a local breed living, much like the podolica cows, in the woods of the Gargano.
Second address, pastries: Casoli, Via Regina Margherita 121, Troia (close beside the cathedral). Their most famous creation is the Passionata, a delicacy involving ricotta, marzipan, sponge and rosewater.
Third address, olive oil: Agricola Paglione, Contrada Perazzelle, Lucera, tel. 0881-521159 or 338-4168113 (don't try to find it on your own, have them give you directions). One of Puglia's best addresses; particularly recommended: Nasuta oil (the Nasuta being an old olive variety typical of Lucera). Other than that, they're also producing heavenly preserved green olives, and heavenly preserved tomatoes, excellent stuff to bring home in order to enhance your own cooking for the next few months.

3. Bitonto, 4 nights at www.palazzoanticaviaappia.it - perhaps the most beautiful accomodation we had in Puglia, for the laughable price of 80 Euros per night for a superior room (discounted as compared to the price given on their website). This early 19th century mansion has been splendidly restored by an antiques collector - and furnished with part of his own collection. Unusually for a B&B, it's staffed 24 hours, and the staff is incredibly nice (if lacking professionality - don't expect their wifi to work, for example). Obviously, the owner doesn't need to make money from this B&B; I guess he just needed more space for his collection (he himself doesn't even live in Bitonto), and didn't know what to do with the newly restored mansion. With that price, and the scarce number of tourists coming to Bitonto, the income can't even cover half of the expenses he has only for the staff, let alone the restoration.
Bitonto is still a somewhat problematic place, though. Once it was among Puglia's worst (and Puglia was probably Italy's most crime-ridden region, back then, in the 1980s and 1990s), and today, it's one of Puglia's relatively few towns and cities where that recent past (shaped by extreme poverty, petty crime, closed and crumbling sights, neglect and decay) can still be felt, though the whole historic center is now as brilliantly restored as that B&B. Generally, the change that Puglia has undergone, at an amazing speed, has to be seen to be believed. Twenty years ago, this was a region where it was almost impossible to get any pasta at any restaurant other than "al ragù" (minced meat & tomato), "al sugo" (tomato only) or "all'arrabbiata" (tomato & hot peppers) - people were simply to poor to eat at a restaurant, and thus was the restaurant scene. Bygone days, fortunately.
Places visited: Bitonto, Bari, Valenzano, Bitetto, Ruvo di Puglia, Castel del Monte, Giovinazzo, Molfetta, Bisceglie, Trani (which is beautiful, but one of the very few places in Puglia that have already started to become touristy in a negative sense – see, for example, my lunch experience detailed below), Barletta and Canosa di Puglia. As far as architecture (and sculpture), this is Puglia's best part. Particularly recommended, in this order: Castel del Monte, Bitonto, Bari, Trani, Valenzano, Molfetta - but there are wonderful Romanesque buildings in all of the places I visited; actually, just Ruvo is skipable. (Molfetta and Bari are two more places where you wouldn't want to explore the very darkest corners late at night, probably.) As far as Canosa, there are also fascinating archeological remains, but it doesn't make sense to visit them on your own; as regular readers of Fodor's probably know, I usually never use any guided tours, and actually abhor them, but the archeology of Canosa is definitely not self-explanatory (nor easily accessible), so you'd better make an appointment ahead with local Fondazione Archeologica, www.canusium.it - we had a really great tour guided by a graduated archeologist (who doesn't exercise this profession, though, due to lack of jobs in that sector): three and a half hours packed with outstandingly qualified and scholarly up-to-date information for, hold your breath, 16 Euros for two persons. I'm not sure, though, whether those excellent tours are available in any other language than Italian (and restaurant Italian will not be sufficient for that university level lecture).
Meals: one late-night (after restaurant hours) dinner at the B&B, where they offer to use the kitchen freely, with locally produced cheese - those caseifici (cheese manufacturers) are ubiquitous in Puglia, and absolutely worth trying at least once; they're specializing in fresh cheese like notably burrat, scamorza, fior di latte (here called nodini). One more dinner in Bitonto, where the ragù-sugo-or-arrabbiata age is still going on (we ended up having pizza, go figure). One wonderful dinner at Masseria Barbera, www.masseriabarbera.it: the food is great, the olive oil (see below) is heavenly, the owner and staff are extraordinarily nice, the place is prettily restored, and the prices are negligible. What else could we ask for? One dinner at Hostaria S. Domenico in Giovinazzo, a very nice restaurant unfortunately trying to serve inventive cuisine, something on which Italians almost always fail to succeed. Just three lunches (having had brunch before arriving in Bitonto): at UPEPIDDE in Ruvo di Puglia, www.upepidde.it - very good and commendable, though perhaps not as good as famous; in Barletta at Il Valentino (Piazza Plebiscito 53), a more than decent, honest, cheap, friendly place where the clerks from the neighbouring city hall have lunch; and in Trani... we first tried I Vizi Del Re, a restaurant that I had enjoyed many many many years ago. Though the place was almost empty, with many tables boasting a beautiful view of the castle (which is skipable, I agree, but nice enough as a lunch background), the waiter gave us the worst table of all, in front of the toilet doors and with no view at all. Though there is hardly any language barrier for me, it must have been obvious that we were the only tourists... we preferred to leave. Second try, La Banchina, a nice fish restaurant at the harbor. For lunch, my travel partner and I typically have just a primo each, mineral water and coffee (which is nowhere a problem in Italy, nowadays, I just explain it to the waiter up front - which often results in a larger helping of the primo to ensure we don't leave hungry, perhaps for 1 Euro more than on the menu). The typical Puglian price for such a lunch for two people is 22 Euros, with seafood perhaps 24. At La Banchina, the waiter, who had the discreet charm of a marriage impostor, continuously pressed us to order something else, antipasto, secondo, dolce... and the primo that we got was good, but such a laughable size that it was obvious that they were trying really hard to make us order a secondo. We didn't; and yet the bill was 36 or 38 Euros. (No worries, I didn't fail to tell the owner what I thought of his policy.)
Olive oil: Uliveti Barbera, www.ulivetibarbera.it, available also at Masseria Barbera (see above); the oil is produced by the father, the masseria run by the son. By the way, I liked the oil from winter 2009/2010 better than the 2010/2011 one, and according to dott. Barbera, the son & masseria owner, I'm by no means the only one. Unfortunately, I had no time for two other very interesting producers that I wanted to visit, Minervini in Molfetta and Masseria Pilapalucci near Toritto (where they are also growing Slow Food almonds).
Gelato: Antica Gelateria Gentile, Piazza Federico II di Svevia 33, Bari, is very good.
Opera: at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari, I saw Bellini’s “Norma”. This was a very particular occasion: in 1991, the Petruzzelli was burned down by the local mafia, and its reconstruction (reopening in 2009) has become a symbol of Puglia's recent recovery after so many decades of really unpleasant life; and the mafia arson happened the night after a performance of Norma. Well, precisely that Norma production has now been reconstructed, as well, same stage sets, same stage director, same conductor (Roberto Abbado, lackluster but reliable); a very symbolic occasion, thus. I attended the opening night, and it was perhaps too symbolic to allow for a really good, unconstrained performance - the whole approach was definitely more academic than one would expect in the Italian provinces. But the performance was still decent, which is certainly more than nothing when it comes to an opera as incredibly difficult as Norma. What is really unfortunate, though, is that the acoustics of the Petruzzelli are a nightmare (I've never been at the old Petruzzelli, so I don't know whether this is a problem of the reconstruction, or an original problem); you feel like inside the sounding box of a huge cello, with reverberations reminiscent of an indoor swimming pool. Carmela Remigio, who is an excellent Mozartian, is definitely too lyric for a heavy role like Norma; Andrea Carè, a very young Italian tenor, should urgently restudy - while he has an excellent, large, truly dramatic and heavy voice, his high register is so weak that he had to skip every high note throughout the evening, and literally left out entire phrases if they were too high for him. As it is, I can't even decide whether he is really a tenor, or rather should restudy as a baritone. Sonia Ganassi, probably the best-known of the singers involved, was a very secure, large-voiced Adalgisa, mastering also Bellini's style very well, even if lacking in delicacy. Giacomo Prestia, finally, made me wonder once more (actually, I've been wondering for many years) why and how such a coarse bass could make such a good international career. The building of the Petruzzelli is a gem, architecturally - the lounge in particular may well be the prettiest I've ever seen in any theater.

4. Altamura, one night at www.masserialacalcara.it; nice rooms on a real, hard-working farm in a poor (both culturally and economically) part of Puglia, really nice owners.
Sightseeing: Altamura, Gravina in Puglia, Laterza. You need more guided tours to see the grotto churches of Gravina and Laterza, which are otherwise inaccessible. The sights are rather modest, with the exception of the church of S. Vito Vecchio in Gravina, whose impressive Byzantine frescoes have been completely detached in order to save them from their original location's humidity, and the entire grotto church has been rebuilt in the (also otherwise charming and interesting) local museum of the Fondazione Pommarici Santomasi. I didn't like Gravina, though; there are hardly any travelers so far, and yet the locals already seem to have decided to rip them off. In just a few hours there, I've been cheated twice, just for a few Euros each, but what an enormous difference to the incredible generosity and hospitality that usually prevail in Puglia.
Meals: lunch at Trattoria Mamma Mia, www.trattoriamammamia.it - this was the most insolent rip-off all over Puglia, so hands off this restaurant (even if the food is quite good)!! They're offering a two-course lunch for 15 Euros: a selection (i.e. several plates) of antipasti, and one primo or secondo, a liter of mineral water and coffee included. Now, as you already know, we don't eat much for lunch, and my travel partner wasn't hungry at all that day, so wanted just ONE plate of antipasti - a small assortment, thus; and I ordered my usual primo, so the two-course lunch menu divided between two people. Of course, I expected to pay 15 Euros for the two of us (since we had coffee for two, but a smaller antipasto) - but the bill was 25!! Adding insult to injury, the owner even dared insisting on his policy, "justifying" it with the fact that we had had two glasses and two napkins (and no mention of the much smaller antipasto). Ten Euros for washing one glass, one fork and one napkin, that's certainly European record... Dinner, to return to enjoyable memories, at Masseria La Calcara, our hotel: excellent food in huge quantities, partly rustic-hearty and partly surprisingly delicious (and yes, for standard Puglian prices).

5. Casalini (near Cisternino), 5 nights at a trullo at www.acqua-rossa.com - nice accomodation but somewhat mixed between pretty old pieces and pretty cheap ones. Trulli, by the way, are generally nicer from outside than for living inside: almost no natural light can enter, and the roofs seem to leak inevitably. Breakfast at Acquarossa is wonderful, though.
Places visited: Conversano, Castellana Grotte, Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino, Ostuni, Martina Franca, Palagianello, Mottola, Massafra, Taranto and Grottaglie. The Valle d'Itria (the famous trulli area) is less nice than it could be: it has been heavily disfigured by modernization, and almost each and every trullo is now neighbouring an incredibly ugly 1970s/1980s concrete farmhouse; Locorotondo and notably Martina Franca have so brutally ugly faces glaring into the landscape (the modern quarters surrounding the - unspoiled - historical centers) that it's impossible not to think of Sicily's mafia-shaped areas, where organized crime has thrown up zillions of incredibly cheaply built, incredibly ugly structures, building speculation being one of the Cosa Nostra's main sources of revenue. Well, this seems also true for the Sacra Corona Unita, the Puglian mafia... Those problems are minor, however, in comparison with the province of Taranto. Taranto itself is the most problematic city I know all over Italy, incredibly poor, incredibly neglected, outright destroyed, thus incredibly ugly - and also pretty dangerous. It’s a place that makes you cry, though situated on the best and most beautiful natural harbour I've ever seen: a cove is separated from the open sea by two narrow tongues of land that almost encircle it, and between the two tongues, an island is actually closing the cove, leaving just two narrow straits - on that island, the old town of Taranto has been built, a historical center full of large baroque mansions. It could be such a splendid place... however, the whole bay and adjoining coast is littered with ruins of 1970s smokestack industries that have long ceased to work, and those baroque mansions have literally never been restored since they've been erected in the 17th or 18th century; a great many of them have no roofs anymore, shrubs are growing out of the windows, and the few still inhabited houses in between are in just slightly better condition - it doesn't feel like Europe, and even in a third world country, this would be a miserable city. What a shame, what a disgrace in a wealthy European state! Needless to say that the whole province (the pretty center of Martina Franca aside) is affected; the great Puglian recovery has not yet set in thereabouts, and signs are unfortunately very few that it ever will. All in all, not exactly an area inviting to stay.
Of the sights, Alberobello, Castellana Grotte and Mottola excel; Alberobello being the pretty tourist disneyland that it has already been for a long time, even when the rest of Puglia got no tourists at all, the cave of Castellana a dripstone marvel of rare beauty, and Mottola boasting some of the very best grotto church frescoes in late Byzantine style (at S. Nicola, the so-called Sistine Chapel of the Puglian cave civilization). For all grotto churches (Mottola, Palagianello, Massafra, Grottaglie), more guided tours are indispensable; organizing them is easy enough, except for Mottola, where the local tourism authority is totally unable to do this job properly (but it's worth enduring their incompetence in order to see S. Nicola).
Food: just two lunches due to the huge and excellent breakfast-brunches at Acquarossa, one lunch at La Luna nel Pozzo in Grottaglie, the other at Casa Mia in Locorotondo, both of them unremarkable. One dinner in Martina Franca at Osteria Piazzetta Garibaldi, no website, Piazza Garibaldi 17, tel. 080-4304900; Martina Franca is famous for its food, but also a dangerous place since "inventive" restaurants catering to tourists (Italians don't eat inventive cuisine) are already spreading up there, and some of them are even well-reputed. Well... this one is definitely not inventive, and it's the restaurant that is most famous with the locals - justly so.; great, and perhaps the very best antipasti feast we had all over Puglia - and extraordinarily friendly people. I wish we could have dined here once more. One dinner at Masseria Parco di Castro, www.masseriaparcodicastro.it; with the exception of one good secondo (grilled rabbit with laurel emulsion), I found the food really miserable there, the place's good reputation notwithstanding (we already got a bad start with the amuse bouche the kitchen sent: a - fortunately small - slice of COLD pizza; I mean, who would want to eat cold pizza??). Two dinners at the locally famous fornello Antico Borgo in Cisternino, www.rosticceria-lanticoborgo.it - if you haven't had dinner at a fornello, you haven't been to Puglia, and this one is the fornello you're looking for; you can guess how good it was since we went twice! Fornelli are typical Puglian eateries (particularly in the Valle d'Itria, and particularly in Cisternino): butchers who prepare their own meat, sausages and so on in a huge wood oven, the - yes - fornello. What you enter is actually a butcher's shop; you go to the counter, select your - raw - meat, it's sold by the weight, and then you sit down and wait for it to be cooked in the fornello. You do NOT eat any primi at a fornello (even if some may be available pro forma), just an antipasto (a small one, here) and a huge secondo, mixed to your own taste of grilled meat (at Antico Borgo, I particularly recommend the donkey tenderloin, if available), various fresh sausages, various stuffed rolls of meat and - another particular recommendation - gnumarieddi, or morsels of entrails wrapped in pig's caul, yummm. Actually, a good fornello is heaven for meat lovers! And all that for negligible prices... And last but by no means least, one dinner at La Strega in Palagianello, tel. 099-8444678 (call ahead - not because you'd need a reservation, but in order to determine whether they're still in Via Fratelli Bandiera 61 or already at a masseria in the vicinity where they're going to move in the course of this year). What an incredible place in so many respects! Usually, I don't hold Italian inventive cuisine in high esteem, as I've often said on Fodor's... well, this is the first restaurant in Italy that I found to serve not only good, but truly great inventive cuisine; it would easily stand its ground in France, as well (and it actually has a Michelin star, for what it's worth). Just one example: as an amuse-bouche, they served a sour marinated anchovy fillet on first-class, creamy burrata - just imagine: fish and cheese, certainly a less than easy combination, but what a memorable result! Just wonderful. The kitchen uses local products, but definitely without respecting local culinary traditions - this is a cuisine that is fantastic in the double sense of the word! An incredible place, this one, also because of the price: for a full meal for two persons (three and four courses, respectively), first-class ingredients only, a constant stupendous level of food preparation over the whole meal, with wine, water, coffee, I paid 90 Euros; of course, that's about half of what a restaurant like this would charge anywhere else. Yes, the location is another reason why this place is incredible: Palagianello is at the back of beyond, in the poor province of Taranto, in the middle of nowhere. And consequently, nobody seems to dine at La Strega; almost the entire evening, we were the only guests, just when we left at about 10.30, another couple came in. I just cannot imagine how they are able to maintain that level of quality if they have no customers; do they buy all that super-fresh fish (the choice on the menu is quite impressive!) day by day only to throw it away in the evening? Of course, La Strega has a reputation for being not only in the wrong place because Palagianello is not where anybody would expect such a restaurant, but even in the wrong place within Palagianello, in a barn-like, stunningly ugly 1970s building. I truly hope they'll fare better, economically, at their new masseria...
Olive oil: Vetrere near Grottaglie, www.vetrere.it; another absolutely terrific oil, produced by the Bruni sisters, who are also well-known for their white wine (surprising but true: yes, this is excellent South Italian white wine, particularly from the rare old Fiano Minutolo grape variety; the red, on the contrary, is skipable). And Masseria Ciura near Massafra, www.masseriaciura.it, a stunningly restored place that is unfortunately not quite geared to welcoming visitors (obtrusive people like yours truly, who manage to get inside nonetheless, are rewarded with absolutely amazing and unforgettable hospitality, though); but of course, you can buy their oil elsewhere and don't need to visit the masseria for that purpose. This large estate's manager is a true quality fanatic, and his oil is entrusted to everybody who likes very mild first-rate extra vergine olive oil (personally, I'm more into intense, fruity olive oil, and to my great pleasure, Masseria Ciura is offering, other than their mild standard blend, also a "fruttato intenso" oil that I liked very much).
Gelato: Conversano, an otherwise less than remarkable town, has very probably the best gelato that I've ever had in my life: at Caffè dell'Incontro, Piazza XX Settembre 2 (no website). This is a wonderfully old-fashioned, elegant café, and their gelato (which somehow reminded me of Turkish gelato, so I guess some honey goes into it) is very unusual in texture, and heavenly both in texture and taste. Definitely worth the detour to Conversano in and of itself.
Pastries: in seedy Massafra, there's a really good pastry shop with a variety of delicious soft cookies: Zanframundo Tonigel, Piazza Garibaldi 20.

6. Brindisi, one night at www.albergocolonna.it - our only classic hotel in Puglia, a four star, and the worst of our accomodations by far. It never ceases to amaze me just how bad those classic hotels are as compared to B&Bs or apartments, how tastelessly and impersonally furnished, how relatively dirty... There's a reason why Brindisi has a bad reputation: that city is really ugly, a fatal mix of Southern Italy and Germany - partly poor and decayed like large parts of Southern Italy (not that much of Puglia!) still are, partly terribly modernized in what I usually call the German pedestrian area style (with more concrete plaster and concrete slabs than one could possibly imagine). But for architecture buffs, it's nonetheless indispensable to visit Brindisi: there are two truly great (if small), well-restored Norman-Romanesque churches, S. Benedetto and S. Giovanni al Sepolcro.
Sightseeing: Brindisi of course, S. Vito dei Normanni (more precisely, the cave church of S. Biagio nearby), Oria. Other than those two Norman churches in Brindisi, no first-rate sights.
Food: Lunch en route at L'Incontro, Via Svevo Manfredi 43, Mesagne - an unassuming place, but really excellent pasta ai ricci di mare (sea urchins). Dinner at a Neapolitan restaurant in Brindisi (for lack of any faintly inviting Puglian restaurant): Sciuè Sciuè, Via Colonne 51 (no website) - very very good, though!
Olive oil: Stasi, Masseria Arciprete, Torre Santa Susanna, www.agricolestasi.it - another excellent producer, four different oils at surprisingly low prices.

7. Lecce, two nights at Palazzo Personè, www.dimoresalento.it, which is a wonderful, stylish and tasteful accomodation in a brilliantly restored, bustling town – and actually, in the greatest location within that town. The 16th century room we lived in had once been Lecce's synagogue. The recovery of Puglia is nowhere more obvious than in Lecce; it's now really difficult to imagine what a dreary, decayed and deserted place this was 20 years ago.
Sightseeing: Lecce, Santa Maria di Cerrate, Copertino, Galatina, Galatone, Nardò - Galatina and S. Maria di Cerrate being the places that excel as far as art and architecture. (Lecce is more about atmosphere and townscape; frankly, the barocco leccese is more entertaining than of any architectural importance, and its architecturally most significant example is the Santuario del Crocefisso in Galatone.)
Meals: lunch at www.borgoantico.it in Galatina was so good that we returned for dinner - which unfortunately didn't come up to then high expectations. One lunch at Locanda Rivoli in Lecce, inexpensive and unremarkable. Dinner at famous Le Zie in Lecce, www.lezie.it - I didn't quite understand the fame, though. Old-fashioned home cooking, grandma style; nice but nothing special.
Gelato: Natale at Via Trinchese 7 in Lecce is really stupendous: www.natalepasticceria.it (I suggest to skip the pastries, and stick to the memorable gelato).
Coffee: Lecce is the home of a truly excellent producer, Quarta, www.quartacaffe.com; available throughout (southern, in particular) Puglia, but be sure not to buy the cheap product line designed for domestic coffee makers, but the superior grades made for coffee bars (available for example at the Quarta shop in Via Casotti 31 in Lecce).

8. Otranto, three nights at www.palazzodemori.it, another really beautiful place (though somewhat lacking in organization), and good breakfasts. The southern Salento is Puglia's nicest part: no obvious poverty here anymore, kind people, happy villages large and small, where life seems blessed; plus, quite surprising after the totally flat interior, a steep, beautiful east coast. (Just Otranto proper is more touristy than you'd wish for, though very pretty.)
Places visited: Carpignano Salentino, Muro Leccese, Casarano, Specchia, Tricase, Patù, Giurdignano, Otranto, Poggiardo, Vaste, Santa Cesarea Terme. Most of those sights may not exactly be milestones in the history of art and architecture, but in combination with the particularly pleasant flair that the area has, it's strongly recommended to explore them, the best among which are certainly Carpignano Salentino (that one IS a milestone) and Giurdignano - but I particularly loved also Tricase and Muro Leccese.
Meals: One pretty bad lunch at La Pignata ("Otranto's best restaurant", guidebook fiction). One really good lunch at Corte degli Aranci in Specchia, no website, Via G. Matteotti 54, tel. 0833-535381. Unassuming appearance, excellent food. The very best pettole by far that I had anywhere in Puglia! Our first dinner was at Masseria Gattamora in Uggiano la Chiesa, www.gattamora.it - with very mixed results, but my primo and my travel companion's dolce were absolutely excellent, so we decided to give them another try. Definitely a mistake; other than those two dishes, everything we had was so-so at best, and outright bad the rest. The owners are among the nicest people I met all over Puglia, but very unfortunately, they have no idea about food, not even the one coming from their own kitchen. (For example, about a dish that involved mushrooms, I asked WHICH mushrooms. "Beh, prataioli normali", came the answer - which would be "normal" wild champignons. What actually went into the dish were cardoncelli, a famous Puglian specialty: king oyster mushrooms, excellent if wild, totally bland if cultivated. Needless to say that at Masseria Gattamora, they were cultivated.) Other than that, Masseria Gattamora was another proof that I just don't like inventive food in Italy. I would consider this place, though, as a hotel for a future stay, gladly dealing it for Otranto. The third dinner was at a locally well-reputed agriturismo, Il Contadino near the Alimini lakes north of Otranto. Quite good but not memorable either.

And now for the Basilicata part of this trip, which had four more legs. From north to south, once again:

9. Venosa, 2 nights at Agriturismo La Maddalena, www.agrilamaddalena.eu/cms/ - decent, basic accomodation in a moderately mountainous area that is less than overwhelming. Basilicata has always been a backwater, and thus are both the sights and, just for example, the roads - which is to say that it's a backwater up to this day, feeling very "northern" in respects of landscape and climate, but very "south Italian" as compared to Puglia. Signs of economic recovery are few here, to put it mildly; which is, among other problems, devastating for the sights, which are either in terrible condition or (perhaps even worse) terribly restored, with a breathtaking lack of knowledge, taste and quality.
Places visited: Venosa, Ripacandida, Melfi, Monticchio Laghi, Castel Lagopesole. The most interesting place in that area is Melfi, but since informations on Basilicata are definitely not easy to come by, I'm going to describe each place briefly (and not just the top sights as in Puglia). Venosa is a moderately pretty small town with a skipable castle; the main sight is an abbey that was important and influential back in Norman times; this abbey's church (11th century) is an example of devastating restoration, while its extension, which was begun in the 12th century but never finished, is still a picturesque church skeleton. Ripacandida has a parish church whose walls are covered with nice frescoes, Giotto style - from the 16th century, though (and thus no less than 200 years belated, speaking of backwater). Melfi has an important Frederick II castle that has been restored to the appearance of a 1980s social housing block (but is worth visiting, with clenched teeth, nonetheless: there's a surprisingly good and modern archeological museum inside, with one of the very best Roman sarcophagi ever unearthed); plus two well-restored cave churches with some good frescoes in late Byzantine style. (Plus Jewish catacombs that have been closed for restoration for many years.) Castel Lagopesole is another Frederick II castle, and another 1980s social housing block as it appears now. And Monticchio Laghi is a must-see for everybody who wants to make up for having missed traveling to Bulgaria or the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s - two small lakes in a beautiful environment, where everything man-made radiates the drab flair of a communist past that Italy never had - quite amazing! There's also an important pilgrimage church dedicated to Michael the archangel, with a monastery - reportedly baroque but recently restored, and now appearing as if erected three or four years ago at the most.
Meals: One lunch at a restaurant in Monticchio Laghi that shall go unnamed... I'm pretty sure that not just everything from the architecture to the waiter's suit has been designed in Bulgaria about 1966 (which is true for all the restaurants there), but that also the food came from the world's last stock of cans from communist Bulgaria, which the community of Monticchio Laghi must have purchased in 1989, certainly at a bargain price. One dinner at Agriturismo La Maddalena, quite good but unremarkable. One dinner at another surprising place: www.locandaaccademiadeipiacevoli.it - the second GOOD inventive restaurant of this trip!!!, after La Strega. Not quite La Strega's equal, but definitely another commendable place.
Butcher: Venosa is one of the most famous salami and sausage producing places all over Italy; and Venosa's most famous butcher is Sileno, www.salumisileno.it - really great stuff, particularly recommended: the pezzente, "the poor people's salami", made from pig's head and entrails, available spicy or not, and one of the very best dry sausages on this planet.

10. Acerenza, just one night, fortunately, at an agriturismo, www.loggiadelmonaco.it, which is as ugly as accomodations can possibly be, but there was hardly any choice: this area is even more backwatery than the Venosa-Melfi region, and accomodation is scarce.
Sightseeing: Acerenza, Cancellara, Oppido Lucano. No top sights here. The Norman cathedral of Acerenza is one of the worst examples of a historical building restored to death, absolutely incredible. Cancellara is one more example of rather bizarre guidebook fiction ("pretty, perfectly preserved medieval center"). Oppido Lucano, though a particularly ugly town, has interesting frescoes in the convent of S. Antonio, a sight that you won't probably find in any guidebook; those 16th century frescoes are by Giovanni and Girolamo Todisco (father and son), natives of Basilicata who were quite accomplished Renaissance painters, though suffering from backwater isolation - it seems obvious from their works that they had few opportunities to travel to important art regions, but on that condition, it's impressive what they achieved. (Any proper scholarly research on the Todiscos is sorely missing.) Recommended for people with a slightly crazy special interest in painting, like myself.
Food: one lunch at La Loggia del Monaco, "our" agriturismo, which is incomparably better as a restaurant than as a hotel (which isn't that difficult, either). One dinner at Osteria del Borgo Antico, Via Garibaldi 23, Cancellara; extraordinarily nice people, rustic food.
There would have been an interesting olive oil producer in Cancellara, www.frantoiobiscione.it - however, they were closed and didn't answer the phone on both our days in the area.

11. Matera, four nights at Residence S. Giorgio, www.sangiorgio.matera.it - certainly the top accomodation of this entire trip, Puglia included. Several small apartments scattered throughout the city center (most of them cave houses in the Sassi), with a centrally located reception staffed for several hours a day; brilliantly restored, tastefully furnished, extremely nice people, a gem. The region around Matera is Basilicata's most interesting part by far.
Places visited: Matera and the Parco della Murgia, the Cripta del Peccato Originale, Montescaglioso, Metaponto, Miglionico, Aliano, Tursi and Anglona; the top sights are Matera, the Cripta del Peccato Originale, and Metaponto. Matera is just stunningly beautiful now (here, again, it's hardly credible how much the place has changed; but it's the only such place in Basilicata); and yet, the recent past of the now excellently restored Sassi quarters, with its proverbial poverty and hardship beyond any imagination or description, is continuing to have an effect: absolutely no local wants to live in the Sassi, beautiful as they are now. They're entirely dedicated to hotels, or to second homes of wealthy aliens (Italians, mostly, but not from Basilicata), so have become a typical Potemkin village. The cave churches are of moderate quality - the beauty of Matera is the cityscape. (At least the cave churches that we could see; since the city of Matera is totally unable to organize access to those churches properly, and puts them out to tender not as a package, but individually, and always for one year maximum, the management of each church is continuously changing, sometimes every two months!!!, and some of them are inevitably closed and inaccessible at any given time - and so was S. Barbara when we were there, which is considered the most important cave church of Matera. Speaking of communal incompetence, the people at the tourist information had never heard of the existence of a church named S. Barbara.)
What I really recommend to skip, though, is the Parco della Murgia Materana, a major center of incredible indolence, incompetence, rip-off and neglect. The park is a huge natural reserve in a gorge full of ancient cave villages and churches; you absolutely need a guide to venture into it since there are no proper maps, no marked paths, and all the sights in the park unlocatable and/or locked. The regular guided tours that the park administration is organizing may be fine to see the landscape, but for art lovers less so since they don't include the more interesting churches, so you need an individual guide for, as to the park's tariff regulation for official guides, 100 Euros per day, independent from the number of participants. (Just compare with the tariff of the archeologist guide at Canosa di Puglia... Basilicata is a far poorer region than Puglia.) There's a list of official guides on the park's website, www.parcomurgia.it; calling the persons on the list, it's strange that almost none of them actually seems to work as a guide, though, and if you're lucky, you give up before achieving any result and don't see the park. (If you have bad luck, like me, one of those ex-guides recommends you an actual guide.) The reason why that guides directory is less than helpful is quite surprising: it hasn't been updated on the park's website for - 13 years. No mistake: thir-teen YEARS! On the web! Very probably world record... The hassle continued: the guide, with whom I had made the appointment weeks earlier, didn't show up: he had, of course without notifying me, decided to have a colleague step in for him, without providing that colleague with any useful information, not even the meeting point on which we had agreed; that colleague had not the faintest idea about art; one of the churches we had wanted to see is a private property, and the original guide had promised to procure the key, which he hadn't done, and the actual guide made us walk to that church to tell us only when we were already there that we couldn't enter; the greater part of the churches in the park don't even have a door, though, and are in corresponding (deplorable) state of preservation - which is not that bad, on the other hand, since those churches aren't of any particular artistic value, anyway, as it turned out only on site (hardly any pictures are available on the web or in guidebooks, with good reason, as I know only now). Last but not least, a great percentage of the paths in the park are trails trodden by goats and Podolica cows in a steep, rocky gorge, unsecured by any handrails, stairs or anything and pretty dangerous even for a rather practiced hiker like myself (but don't expect those guides to tell you ahead!). It didn't surprise me to learn, after that experience, that the last president of the Parco della Murgia was put on trial charged with unjust enrichment...
The Cripta del Peccato Originale, in marked contrast, is Basilicata's best sight IMO: a cave church with splendid frescoes from the 8th/9th century (!! - that's an age that saw hardly any frescoes painted anywhere in Europe), splendidly restored, access perfectly organized - no relation whatsoever to the city of Matera or any other political body, privately owned, privately restored without any public support...
Montescaglioso has a not even mediocre baroque monastery (another of those guidebook fiction "pretty" places), Miglionico an above-average castle and a very good polyptych by Cima da Conegliano, of all painters (don't ask me how and why this Venetian painter ever ventured as far south as Miglionico!). The famous Greek temple of Metaponto hardly needs further description. Aliano, immortalized as hopelessly poor and wretched "Gagliano" in one of the most important political essays of 20th century Italy, Carlo Levi's "Cristo si è fermato a Eboli", is still miserable and forlorn and for Levi fans only. Tursi has an old quarter going back to Saracen times (9th century), which is today as devastatingly destitute and ruinous as Matera must have been in the 1950s, a sad sight indeed. Anglona was a Byzantine town; all that remains today is the provincial but pretty 11th/12th century church of S. Maria.
Food: one dinner "at home" with local cheese and salami. One picnic lunch with the same stuff inside the park. One lunch at Hemingway, Via Ridola 44, Matera, nice place and above average food. One dinner at Le Botteghe in Matera, www.hotelamatera.it; very good but slightly overpriced. Two lunches and one dinner at I due sassi (no website), in Matera as well, Via Ospedale Vecchio 1 - also very good, even better than (more famous) Le Botteghe, but for "real" Basilicata prices - particularly recommended: local lamb baked in a clay pot, a memorable dish. One dinner at www.ortodilucania.it near Montescaglioso, an agriturismo; very good food there, as well, nice owners, and excellent preserves to take home (tomato purée, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil and so on).
Olive oil: another missed opportunity at www.olearianivuori.it near Montalbano Ionico. I had made an appointment with the owner weeks ahead, but he forgot it and was in Bari the day we wanted to visit his farm…

12. Two nights in Acquafredda, near Maratea, at Hotel Villa Cheta Elite, www.villacheta.it; culturally, this is a really poor part of Basilicata, but the landscape on the Maratea coast is stunning. There are surprisingly many tourists in Maratea, above all well-off American and British tourists; and Villa Cheta Elite is one of those tedious hotels that are made for people who absolutely want everybody to know and to understand that they are REALLY well-off, and oh soooooo posh.
Places visited: Maratea and Rivello. You wouldn't come to this part of Basilicata for its art and architecture; but the region is growing continuously more mountainous from east to west, and around Maratea, high mountains are suddenly dropping into the sea at an indented coast: so this stretch of coast is indeed extremely beautiful, even though prone to bad weather (the deep coves, the high mountains, a west coast, thus are the prerequisites for a high probability of rain). Attention, the uniformly steep, narrow and twisting roads in that region are for really brave drivers only! Rivello has another convent of S. Antonio, with more frescoes by father and son Todisco (see above for details).
Food: one lunch en route from Matera at Bar-Pizzeria Cosentino in San Brancato; decent at most, but how happy we were to find anything at all to eat in this forlorn country where every restaurant or bar (and there were pretty few of them) was closed, either without any obvious reason or forever. Two breakfast-brunches at Villa Cheta, for reasons of practicality rather than excellency. One dinner at Il Giardino di Epicuro in Maratea, good enough food but nightmare atmosphere; towards the end of the meal, the place turned into kind of a bazaar, with heavy pressure exerted on behalf of the owners to buy their overpriced and mediocre liqueurs or their home-made (horribly ugly) junk jewelry. Most other tourists (and there were tourists only at that restaurant) seemed to love it, though... One dinner at Trattoria Casareccia in Maratea, average food, but one of those now super-rare old-fashioned places where somebody is operating one room of his private house as a trattoria, cooking in his private kitchen - likeable and funny, and incredibly cheap.
Unusually for the undersigned, a beach recommendation: La Secca a few kilometers south of Marina di Maratea; expensive, but well-kept and in a stunningly beautiful setting. www.lasecca.com - they also have (less beautiful, obviously) apartments.
Very good salami: Azienda Agricola Il Golosone, Contrada Pietraferrata 41, Lauria.
And one last address: Azienda agricola Pennella near Senise, www.peperonipennella.it - one of the most famous producers of peperoni di Senise: dry sweet peppers, Basilicata's most typical produce. Pennella's peperoni are decidedly better than most others!

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