for AFAR Magazine

When I got the phone call from the editor at AFAR Magazine asking me to document Puglia, the first thing she said was: “This might be tough. It’s not very dramatic.” The area is known for being quiet and sleepy–the place Italians go to vacation. Located far from the crowds of foreigners in Venice and Rome, the rocky crystal coasts are abound with Italian families, school kids, and boisterous old men and women.

There are mythical elements, including 3,000 year old olive trees that twist and turn and torturously grow toward the sky. You can also spot Conical-shaped Trulli Houses, seemingly straight out of The Shire, scattered throughout the farmlands. Imagine you live on the coast, hundreds of years ago, and suddenly the watchtowers ignite to warn the locals that pirates are about to attack. Where do you hide the children!? In a Masseria, of course. These white-walled farmhouse fortresses included everything the Puglians needed to live: bedrooms, courtyards, churches, markets, and more. Now that history has left pirates behind, many Masserias have been converted into Bed and Breakfasts where visitors can experience the living history of the Italian olive industry.

If you look at a map of boot-shaped Italy, the Puglia region is the heel. Upon arrival, my tour-guide for the region was a charming British ex-pat named Max. “Ten years ago my wife and I took a vacation to Ostuni and ate in a restaurant inside a cave. A cave! With rocky ceilings and everything.” We talked with the owner and I said, “You must make a killing from the summer crowds.” He looked at me funnily and said, “No, we close in the summer. It’s too busy, too stressful. We take the kids to the beach and sell ice cream out of a cart.”

Max and his wife lived in London at the time, where the culture would never prioritize family and leisure over the chance to have a more successful business. “That’s all it took, we decided to move the next year.” During my stay, I experienced the warmth of Puglian culture time and time again. Upon arrival at a seafood restaurant, within moments, the owner was dropping raw fish into my mouth as if I was family. I know of few other places where you can find this combination of beauty: a golden field next to a bright blue sea, with a Messapian city in the background, feeling at home when you’re 7,000 miles away.

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