Bertha had clocked up 1,868 miles when we gave her a rest and collected a hire car to tour the back roads and crazy highways of Puglia.
We met Mum at Bari airport and headed in a nervous convoy down the notoriously fast and difficult roads to the south of Italy and our home for the next 10 days – a ‘trullo’ deep in the Puglian valley of Itria.
Having joked with Mum that she was going to be staying in a peasant’s hut we were delighted by the gorgeous little domed home that we found after some difficulty getting lost in the picturesque but narrow and confusing lanes.
The origins of the architectural style of the trulli are unknown but they effectively keep cool in summer and warm in winter with their fetching domed roves and circular walls. Ours was well kitted out with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, lounge and dining area and the bonus of a washing machine – which was gratefully put to use!
Less welcome were the nightly visitors of small scorpions and large and leggy millipedes. Thankfully we were sleeping in Bertha outside!
The surrounding Puglian towns were all a treat to visit and spend time just wandering about in. All featured white washed trulli homes as well as many elegant 17th and 18th century mansion houses and churches.
Our nearest, Locorotondo, Cisternino and Martina Franca were breezy hill top towns that had grand central squares and narrow side streets, cool in the heat of a blasting sun under clear blue skies.
We quickly declared our favourite to be Cisternino and enjoyed several visits to sip sunset drinks on the town’s terraced garden admiring the panoramic views of the valley below us, as well as shopping for shoes in a fabulous (and cheap!) boutique store tucked into the walls of the 11thcentury porto or gateway into the old town.
Whilst lunching a mournful funeral procession passed by with a hundred or so black-clad people holding tubular lillies and led by a solitary bell.
Alberobello, the main tourist town boasts more than 1000 trulli tumbling down the sides of a forested hill. Early enough to beat the imagined chaos of the coach touring season we all enjoyed the curious collection of homes and shops in the old town.
Unlike the trulli in the open countryside of the valley, the town’s trulli bore distinctive markings on their slate roofs. Whether religious, superstitious or simply decorative it was impossible to tell.
Miles beneath the valley floor is the subterranean complex of Castellana Grotte – a series of cave systems, chasms and canyons discovered in the early 20th century and previously thought to have been the mouth of hell by generations of frightened locals.
We took a guided tour to admire the mysterious formations of stalactites and stalagmites created over millions of years.
Photographs were not allowed once past the mouth of the cave (that is the entry point) but the sights of crystal white grottoes and mysterious pools of green water thrilled.
Back on terra firma we were rewarded with a sea view on the balcony at pretty Polignare a Mare, munching fresh baked pizza and reflecting on the mind-blowing course of time the grottoes caused us to consider.
Along the coastline Ostuni is called the ‘pearl’ of the south as it sits brightly white and high up on the cliffs overlooking the blue Mediterranean waters crashing along the rocky and coved coast.
A fruitless search for an amphitheatre in the olive groves beneath the town gave us several views of its spired and domed skyline after we had wandered around the winding town walls and peeked into designer hotels and restaurants. Ostuni is the Puglian playground of the rich and famous!
Venturing further afield we drove down almost to the heel of Italy to spend a day meandering around the ’Florence of the South’ – beautiful baroque Lecce.
Hot and dusty the town’s streets wound past grandly decaying palazzo’s and churches and under decorative balconies and struts that featured flowers, gargoyles, angels, dolphins and dancing horses.
More than forty towering churches and basilica dominated piazzas and courtyards causing us to wonder just what the baroque Leccese had to atone for when not building their beautiful city!
The poor kitchen, as it’s roughly translated, explores traditions of the region and he produced some stunning dinners based on the bountiful fresh vegetables, seafood, meats and delicious cheeses which were all cheaply available in the area which produces 80% of Italy’s pasta and bread products.
Variously invited “with upturned noses” to enjoy the region’s architecture, we were advised that our “gaze would be raped” by such sights as “nervous and wavy balconies”, a “virgin coming from the east” and that we would encounter the “people who stared but never said a word” and would travel across the creations of “communities of ants”.
Most bizarrely we were told that we would see “the scallop of old blankets” – which we never in fact found but enjoyed the notion of anyway!
Thankfully neither of us was involved in any accidents whilst driving the hire car whose sharp breaks were appreciated when negotiating hair-pin bends, lawless junctions, universally ignored traffic lights, street markets and grumpy Italians.
We did however witness the aftermath and subsequent dramas of several small shunts.
Countless times we were overtaken into oncoming traffic and we learned to expect the unexpected by the driver of the car in front, behind and out of the blue.
It was a relief to return the car and contemplate taking Bertha on the toll roads north!