I currently live in the middle of an enormous tacco—HUGE: this tacco is about 50 kilometers from side to side. Stop smacking your lips—no, I am not tucked into a huge tortilla with onions and carnitas as neighbors. Notice the spelling: it is not t-a-c-o. But rather, t-a-c-c-o. In Italian, this is the word for “heel”, like the heel of a shoe…or better, the heel of a gigantic boot, which, of course, is the shape of this ancient country.
I currently live in Puglia which comprises the entirety of the tacco plus a bit of extra territory to the north which helps keep the heel firmly anchored onto the boot itself.
Yeah, you’ve probably never heard of Puglia, much less ever thought of visiting here. Alas, the allure of the Grand Tour of Florence-Rome-Venice is just too strong. But, until you’ve been here, you will have no idea what a splendor you are missing. This is a heel with real soul!
I first became truly aware of Puglia, albeit the northern section, above the tacco, in about 2004 when I stumbled upon a CD called I Maestri della Tarantella by the Cantori del Carpino which featured a handful of already very old singers of an old tradition called the tarantella del Gargano.
The music grabbed me from the first few minutes, compelling me to listen to the disc over and over for days on end. Then, to quench this new thirst, I started seeking out similar recordings from far-southern Italy—some were fantastic, others just so-so. But for over a decade I continued the search for more and more musica del sud, the music of the south. Each time I found a new jewel, I was in heaven, a kind of musical ecstasy! Very, very satisfying, I must say, the kind of satisfaction that makes some folks smoke a cigarette afterward! There is a lot of music to discuss, and I plan to offer in these pages a very thorough exploration of this music in the very near future. In the meantime, let’s discover the land that created this magical music.
After successive trips to Italy in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2014 failed to get me to the south, at long last, in 2016, during a two-month stay in this fascinating, complicated country, I managed to shoe horn in a few days south of Rome, commencing in Napoli, the northern-most section of the south, then to Matera, the oldest human habitation in Europe, and finally, to Lecce, almost at the very tip of the heel.
As soon as I stepped off the train at Lecce’s small stazione, I realized I was in a very different Italy from the one I had grown to know in the northern cities of Rome, Florence, Bologna, Alba, etcetera. Somehow the sky was a deeper blue, the air was fresher, the spaces less claustrophobic. It was, honestly, a case of love at first sight.
Unlike Florence, where all the buildings are constructed of a dark, ancient, almost oppressive stone, Lecce’s predominating construction material is a very bright, light tan, local limestone called pietra leccese, Lecce stone, that lends a lighter, more open aspect to the city than one feels in Rome, Florence or Venice.
Soon after my arrival, my Airbnb hosts shoved me head first into the agricultural and comestible reality of Lecce’s surrounding territory, called the Salento, and I began falling deeper under the spell of this extraordinarily enchanting land.
The pull was incredibly strong—soon after returning from that fateful trip, I resolved to leave the United States and make Lecce my new home, my last home. I’m 65, and I don’t want to move again. It was an arduous process of shedding the majority of my material possessions, and took about 16 months to complete, but I am now living in the heart of the Salento, the middle of the tacco, and I am as happy as a mussel…clams are not as common as mussels down here, and the infinite recipes for preparing these small black treasures of the sea reflect this abundance. But more on food later.
My life will never be the same. I am doing my best to live as the locals do, to blend in, to belong. And I am certain that finding that sense of belonging down here is one of the factors that led me to my decision. Somehow, deep inside, I feel I am home.
The Salento’s location plunges it deep into the Mediterranean at the extreme end of a minor, secondary peninsula appended to the tip of the larger Italian peninsula. This strategic position in the middle of ancient traffic lanes across this vast sea has made the Salento the target of invasions and occupations for more than 3,000 years. So, though most Americans have never heard of the Salento, it has been on the radar of diverse civilizations for thousands of years: Messiapians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Greeks again, Normans, Spain and several others, have all cast a heavy cultural shadow on the Salento.
The result is an area rich in varied and unique traditions not found any where else in Italy, nor in Europe. For example, around Lecce, there are still more than 50,000 speakers of Griko, a Greek-Italian dialect which even now finds its way into popular culture via a handful of active folk music groups who help keep this language alive in their performances.
A walk through Lecce punctuates this cultural plurality: the predominant style of architecture is the much-lauded Lecce Baroque, actually a product of the Spanish control of the Salento during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
But smack dab in the city’s center you encounter the monumental corpse of an enormous second-century Roman amphitheater resurrected straight out of the ground, surrounded by that opulent Spanish Baroque, truly a jarring juxtaposition. If that impressive, unexpected amphitheater isn’t enough, a few blocks away, hidden in a jungle of baroque palazzi, is another gem, the almost intact ruins of a Roman dramatic theater, complete with seating, stage and green room!
Fortunately, this structure is open in the mornings for exploration, and your ticket includes a small museum stocked with fascinating artifacts from Lecce’s Roman past. Sadly, it seems most tourists overlook this stunning, and inexpensive, time machine!
Another overlooked millennia-spanning display is the Faggiano Museum, a serendipitous discovery by an unsuspecting proprietor who simply wanted to repair some drainpipes before converting his old house into a trattoria. When he started digging under the floor, Signore Faggiano began discovering countless artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages, the Roman period, and even the Greek occupation. Eventually he discovered a network of underground tunnels, cisterns and burial chambers offering a glimpse of more than 2000 years of human occupation, a veritable Pandora’s Box hidden under what had previously been nothing more than a typical house in the center of Lecce’s Centro Storico, its historic center. This is another cheap ticket to the past, and well worth the hour, and the four Euros, it takes to explore. One walks away in awe of this humble, simple, and simply spectacular tribute to the history of this surprising city.
In time, we will explore all of the lovely churches in Lecce—there are dozens and dozens—but to start, we’ll look briefly at the centerpiece of the Lecce skyline, the Duomo of Lecce—the Cattedrale dell’Assunzione della Virgine, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Dating back to 1144, the structure was redone a couple of times, most recently in the late seventeenth century when the current explosive baroque façade and interior were constructed. This church is unique in that the main entrance is on the side of the building, flanked by a spectacular display of the Barroco Leccese, while, what would normally be the main portal at the beginning of the nave, is a minor, usually overlooked feature of this glorious example of Spanish-Salento architecture.
But the church is not really the principal attraction of the cathedral complex. What really captures the attention of the hordes of summer tourists is the campanille, or bell tower, and the expansive open space, the Piazza del Duomo, comprising the church, the bell tower, diocesan offices and an old seminary which now houses a museum on its ground floor. Interestingly, there is only a narrow, twenty-feet-wide entrance to this immense piazza, which helps increase the brazen drama when you walk through it to experience a grandiose visual surprise, the sudden, startling vision of this brilliantly conceived public space. Kudos to its genial designers.
Lecce was once, more or less, a walled city, and three of the old city gates still stand, and all are worth a peek. The current structures all date back to the 1500s (or later), and though not as old as, say, Firenze’s massive Porta Romana, they offer an enchanting glimpse of a city’s old methods of self-preservation. Don’t miss these: Porta Rudiae, Porta San Biagio and Porta Napoli.
Naturally, exploring the enchanting streets of Lecce consumes one’s fuel supply, but luckily, the city is studded with dozens of wonderful eateries ranging from simple pit stops with sandwiches and pizza, to full-blown multi-star restaurants, the white linen table cloth kind!
My personal preference favors the mom and pop osterias and trattorias which feature the simple, hearty cuisine the Salento is famous for. Expect to find culinary influences from many cultures, a reflection of the area’s storied past: Middle Eastern, Greek, and “standard” Italian, meaning pasta, tomatoes, olives, cheese and more. Prolific truck farms in the region supply Lecce’s tables with a bounty of gorgeous seasonal produce from mountains of healthy greens and tender artichokes to tomatoes, potatoes, and even prickly pear fruit.
Puglia is famous for its cheeses, rivaling nearby Campania for the title of Best Mozzarella in Italy.
You will also find several varieties of ricotta, including a very strong fermented one—ricotta forte—made from various combinations of cow and sheep’s milk. But the crown of Puglia’s cheese is the famous burrata. Forget any experience you may have had with burrata in the US, UK, Australia, wherever. The fresh—made within 24 hours of consumption—creamy burrata of Puglia cannot be equaled anywhere, and is a constant option on area appetizer menus—don’t ever pass it up! Burrata is a type of mozzarella filled with cream and ribbons of mozzarella shreds called stracciatelle. Boom! The explosion of flavor when you cut upon a fresh burrata is unforgettable, and should keep you coming back to the Salento for more, and more, and more!
Here is how burrata is made:
Some of my favorite places in Lecce include these gems: Trattoria da Nonna Tetti, Alle Due Corte, Osteria da Angiulino, and La Vecchia Osteria, all of which are run by multiple generations of local families: mom and pop, brothers, or sisters, cousins, and every other imaginable relative. The accompanying photos should make you drool.
In later posts, we’ll examine these places in detail, but local dishes on which to focus include ciceri e tria, a dish of chick peas and pasta with very clear Arabic origins; sagne ‘ncannulate, a twisty pasta usually served with tomato sauce topped with cheese, either a mild cacioricotta (ricotta salata), or the tangy fermented bite of ricotta forte; fave e cicorie, fava puree with boiled dandelions or other greens; and taieddha, an increasingly rare dish (in restaurants) of potatoes, rice and mussels, baked in the oven and delightfully yummy when done correctly.
You will almost never find any of these dishes outside the Salento, not even in Italy, so gobble up as much as you can!
I can’t stop writing about the Salento without a nod to the music, for it was the music that got me here in the first place. Future essays will delve more deeply into this hypnotic, and for me, captivating music, but let’s at least scratch the surface right now.
The predominant, and most famous style of music from the Salento is the pizzica, a kind of tarantella, a music with ancient origins tied in with mystical rituals and a kind of exorcism.
The ritual of old was supposed to help relieve the agony of the bite of local tarantulas, and thus, the origin of the word tarantella. The music can be trance-inducing, and the trance was supposed to send out the evil and pain injected by the spider bite. Of course these practices have mostly fallen by the wayside, but about forty years ago, the music was resuscitated by the same folk revival wave that produced such groups as Fairport Convention in the UK, Peter, Paul and Mary in the USA, and the Nuova Compagnia del Canto Populare in Italy, one of the main forces in the boot for the resurgence of the Pizzica/Tarantella.
The music, of a rapid pulse, is usually accompanied by various kinds of guitars, sometimes bagpipes, or other slightly discant double-reed wind instruments, and propelled by a large tambourine called tamborello which beats out the powerful syncopated rhythm, impossible not to dance to. Every summer finds live pizzica performances popping up all across the Salento which culminate in month-long series of migrating mini-festivals operating under the name La Notte della Taranta (The Night of the Spider) which finally explodes like a festering spider bite with a last huge concert in Melpignano, a small town outside Lecce, attracting well over 100,000 spectators and revelers. I hope to finally experience this group exorcism in August of 2018!
There are many fantastic performers of this music in and around Lecce, but one of my favorites is Enza Pagliara, a singer with deep roots in the music, who often sings in Griko, that old Italo-Greek dialect. I recently saw her perform with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Lecce which featured a composition heavily influenced by the pizzica and other local sources, but combined Enza’s pounding tamborello and strong, expressive voice to great effect—see the video below. It was a particularly magical evening! Soon I’ll delve deeper into Enza’s work, and that of other excellent musicians from the spell-binding Salento!
Enza Pagliara with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Lecce e del Salento, October 2017:
Stay tuned. In successive entries, we will examine Lecce’s surrounding countryside, punctuated as it is with vineyards, and olive groves, many of which nurture olive trees dating back fifteen centuries. And then we’ll weave along the encompassing sea coast and its pristine, clear blue waters, scrumptious seafood and even a Greek temple or two! And, of course, the music! Hang on, this is gonna be a fun ride!