Pizza and pomodoro in Puglia

My epitaph should read “survived 10 days in Italy without a car accident.”

For everything you read about driving in Italy, only the reality can bring it home. Little did I know that I would be taking my life – and my family’s – in my hands when I agreed to hire a car for our 10-day holiday in southern Italy this Summer; Puglia, to be precise. From the hour-long queue at Europcar at Bari Airport, to being given a 3 ½ seater car for five people (despite booking a 5-seater online), driving in Italy is an experience in itself. To be fair, I had help from four other people – cries of “nothing coming” as we negotiated the onramp onto the E16 (the motorway between Bari and Brinidisi which makes the German autobahns seem like a nursery playground), to the inner town roads of places like Ostuni, Ceglie Messapica (which quickly became known to us as ‘Cheggly Mess’ for reasons apparent), and Lecce where it took all four passengers as well as the driver to avoid battered cars and madly driven Vespas (often by youngsters who couldn’t have been more than 10) which come at you from all directions like vehicular bullets. Speed limits, road signs, pedestrian crossings – in fact, any type of rules of the road simply don’t exist in Italian drivers’ minds. As for white lines to indicate which side of the road one should be on (already a problem for us, coming from England) – well, they were non-existent. The reason for this was patently explained when, a few days into our stay, said lines suddenly appeared down our “main” road only to almost disappear a couple of days later. They were painted with such sub-standard paint that they only last a few days, before being annihilated by the kamikaze drivers, who take no notice of blind rises, sharp corners or oncoming cars while overtaking.

Puglia is not a place for the faint-hearted traveller. No package holiday groups here – you have to have an adventurous spirit, some like-minded travellers to encourage you, a couple of days to orientate yourself – and you will be in for a treat. Our base was in a villa 5km from Ostuni – the Citta de Bianca or White City – and, after one of those ubiquitous early morning flights from Stansted and the afore-mentioned queue at Europcar, we finally arrived on a Friday afternoon at 3pm. Pronzo time in Italy but our “landlord” had told us to ring him when we arrived at the “Agip” petrol station. Needless to say, it took him a while to answer our call but he met us within five minutes to guide us to our home. We begged him to drive slowly while we followed him through the run-down outskirts of Ostuni – he had obviously done this before as we almost went backwards, he drove so slowly!

It took us nearly two days to orientate ourselves, one of which was spent traversing most of Ostuni trying to find the “old city” and the weekly Saturday market. Various hand signals and bits of pidgin Italian eventually led us to the right place – and once again, it was worth the effort. Rows upon rows of fresh pomodoro, formaggio, olio, melone and anguria were spun in amongst a cornucopia of clothes, shoes, even pillows and mattresses. Markets like this (when you eventually find them) are a dime a dozen but never fail to disappoint. Neither did the osterias, pizzerias and tavernas we found for either lunch or dinner each day. Some are expensive but if you venture into the back streets, you can eat deliciously for 35 euro (for five of us). One memorable lunch occurred in the Centro Storico of Ostuni, in the midst of a rare tourist area. After wandering the white-washed alley ways and gasping at the sudden views across the valley to the azure sea, we came across Casa San Giacomo, and its owners, English-speaking Sicilian Giovanni and his Canadian wife, Laura. Settling in to the Italian way of doing things by now, we struck up a friendship with them and learnt much of the local traditions and delicacies. Giovanni and Laura conduct cooking lessons and we promptly booked ourselves in for an evening of learning how to produce home-made pasta, how to fillet a fish, and how to clean and cook mussels – followed by a five course meal, all for the princely sum of 55 euros per person. What can only be described as an event continued for about six hours, by which time the meter on our parking had run out. We were worried about receiving a fine, but Giovanni declared triumphantly: “This is Italy, who cares!”

Giovanni was also the one who guided us to our best find of the holiday – the coastline to the east of Taranto. You will find rocky outcrops and miles of white sandy beaches where the sea is warm and alluring – just drive eastwards anywhere between Lido Silvana all the way to Gallipoli and you will be spoilt for choice. Another seaside recommendation closer to home was Polignano e Mare, a pretty town that literally hangs over the cliffs and where the sea is pure joy to swim in. Watch out for the jellyfish and annoying jetskis though.

For those who prefer wandering the streets to wandering the beaches, consider visiting ancient towns such as Lecce (the Florence of the south, with its golden hued buildings and amazing baroque architecture), Locorotondo (literally, “round place”), Martina Franca (one of Puglia’s most attractive towns which also has a well-organised tourist office), Grottaglie (the centre of the ceramics industry in the south) and Alberobello. The latter breaks the non-touristy mould, being the centre of “trulli” culture. Trulli are strange, conical-shaped houses made of limestone bricks and are apparently found nowhere else in the world, apart from this area of Puglia. This claim to fame was, however, disputed by another local we met, Mimmo Patrizio Palmisano, who stated that trulli actually originated in Turkey. Mimmo was a font of local knowledge and drew us into his cool shop (Trulli e Puglia) to taste any number of local biscuits, liqueurs, almonds, pasta, etc. Do beware when you visit Alberobello, though, as there are hundreds of shops peddling the same wares – model trulli (“made of the original stone”) and other tat, but if you look carefully enough, you will find some gems that sell good quality items.

It is easy to see why northerners consider anywhere south of Rome to be a foreign country – there are no coach parties, no tourist signs on every corner, in fact, hardly any signs at all, but we did notice that this discrimination didn’t seem to stop the Italians from enjoying every last bit of the region during their annual holiday. The absolute colloquial feel of Puglia is its very attraction and the chaos, passion and romance of it can’t help but get under your skin. I can even boast some new Facebook friends!