Puglia's Prime

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 22, 2005

It was lunchtime in Lecce -- a period that actually stretches over four hours and shutters nearly every store, bank and church across the long heel of Italy's boot, until activity resumes at about 5.

We lingered inside the Syrbar, a cafe that looks onto the grand Piazza del Duomo, formed by the ornate baroque white stone cathedral, a 17th-century palazzo and a soaring campanile. The square, which our Michelin guide referred to as "one of the most remarkable in southern Italy," was deserted.

The busloads of cell phone-toting Italian schoolchildren from morning were gone, and the piazza was bathed in sharp light. A black-robed priest scurried through the seminary gate to his old Fiat -- no doubt on his way to a plate of pasta alla Pugliese .

In the still core of this city of about 100,000 people 220 miles southeast of Naples, it was hard not to notice what was missing from this picture: There were no restaurants with outdoor tables, trendy boutiques or even a single souvenir shop. Instead, there was a potter's studio, a papier-mache workshop specializing in Lecce's famed creche figurines and the Syrbar.

I turned to Nino, the silver-haired proprietor behind the bar, and asked him in Italian, "Why no souvenir stands?"

Nino pulled the unlit stub of a cigar from his mouth and responded in Italian, "Lecce doesn't have that many tourists yet. In five years, when there are more tourists, we'll have souvenir stands."

On a recent tour of Italy's Puglia region with my wife and 11-year-old son, we sensed that inevitability almost everywhere. In some places, tourists have already arrived; in others they were expected. We felt it the minute we arrived in Bari's new, sleek, high-tech airport terminal, opened March 31; sensed it in the buzz of renovation and masonry work; saw it in the freshly minted signs advertising "Bed and Breakfast" -- in English.

Don't Call It Tuscany

Glossy travel magazines have already labeled Puglia (pronounced POOL-ya) "the next Tuscany" -- a ridiculous tag that makes people in both places laugh or cringe.

Alberobello, Italy
Alberobello is the trulli capital of Italy, with more than a thousand years of structures laid out side by side.(Robert V. Camuto)
"The main difference" between the two regions, explained Alberto Giordano, who left his retirement project of a restaurant in Tuscany to join an architectural firm doing big things in his parents' birthplace in Matera (see story below), "is the people."

"Tuscany people are convinced they are the center of the world. Here, people are more humble. They were always poor, but proud of what they had."

Tuscany, of course, is the Renaissance -- high culture, language and art that spread from Florence to those country manors now occupied by Lord and Lady Somebody-or-other.

Puglia (population 4 million), deep in the Italian peasant south of Mezzogiorno, is one of the quirkiest regions of Italy, where it seems around every bend is another town with its own look, recipes, dialect and superstitions. There is no Puglia style from which to create a line of housewares, and that's the place's gritty charm. Jutting as vulnerably as it does into the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the 7,500-square-mile region has been prized for thousands of years by invaders and occupiers who contributed to the local stew: Greeks, Romans, Normans, Germans, Byzantines, Turks, Spaniards, French and nowadays the Italian holiday-makers who crowd its beaches in August.

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