We stopped for a short visit in Gallipoli, a peninsula jutting into the sea, known for its old town, sandy beaches, The founding history is not clear, but suggests occupation by Cretes and Gauls, preceded by native peoples. The earliest written records show it was a city in ancient Greek times; they still speak a Greek dialect alongside Italian. Sacked by the Vandals and Goths, it later became part of the Byzantine Empire, then following the same general occupation history as the rest of the area, from Naples to Sicily.
After driving to the very tip of the heel of the boot, we headed north to Taranto, still on the Ionic Sea, through areas laden with vineyards, the grapes leaves just sprouting into the crisp early spring air. In earlier times workers in these vineyards, when stung by the Wolf spider, hopped about with the pain. From this developed a dance called the Tarantella, the Italian word for ‘tarantula,’ performed to this day. I could see them doing the dance in these lush fields, prancing about the short, gnarly grape plants.
Taranto was founded by the 8th century Spartans. It came to be a powerful city, home to philosophers, writers and athletes. By circa 500 BCE it was populated by some half million people, a huge number for that epoch. It is served by a large natural port that the Italian navy made its home in both WWI and WWII.
We have been staying in private apartments during this trip. This is quite a bit less expensive than hotels and there are kitchens. Or so they say. Here the apartment was divided in two. Although in the description it said there was kitchen access, in this otherwise lovely apartment the kitchen was not accessible to us. It is in a separate area which consisted of the kitchen with a bed in it. Not knowing it was occupied, one of us opened the door, to the surprise of another set of guests. Another oddity- in our area there were two bedrooms. The bathroom was accessible only from one of the bedrooms.
The lovely dining/living room area was shared with the kitchen occupants, though they never came there. The staff brought breakfast to us there: an excellent croissant, orange juice from those bright red oranges, and espresso, cafe latte or cappuccino. Here cappuccino seldom has anything to do with chocolate shavings, just steamed milk. Being too milky for my taste, I stick with the espresso. In Italy the espresso has very little water so it is quite strong. The other variations, cafe latte and cappucino, have the same amount of coffee, and thus the same amount of caffeine, contrary to what many believe and counter intuitive, given the strong flavor of espresso.
The best thing about our place is its location. It is about 10-15 minutes to the port and about the same to the modern center, where the Semana Santa processions take place starting the next day, Friday, and ending on Sunday.
Along the port in the old town the buildings are decrepit and mostly unoccupied. Many buildings are closed entirely, their windows and doors concreted shut. Others have occupants in buildings whose facades have not been kept up for decades if not centuries. Many businesses have long since moved elsewhere. One of the locals told us that the area is up for a complete face lift.
We eventually found a trattoria open for lunch. Attractively decorated and just a few meters from the sea, over-populated with staff who hover about, they served up some mighty fine seafood dishes.
They had a number of contorni (vegetable side dishes) on offer. They had this agro-dulce (sweet and sour) red onion dish so we gave it a try. A bit too agro-dulce for my taste.
They served a lovely dry white wine made from the Falangina, an ancient grape (5€). The wine in this region is very good. Puglia currently has 33 regulated wine regions, mostly concentrated in Salento, at the very heel of Italy’s boot. Most are red, encouraged by the hot dry climate, but there are some good whites as well, somewhat surprising as whites generally do better in cooler climates. This is why Germany, Belgium and the Alsace region of France produce far more white than red.
We are in Taranto during Holy Week celebrations. The night before the events started on the Friday we watched as two men in robes walked in the cold night without shoes. The next day they carried heavy crosses along with others, normally clad, accompanied by good brass bands playing dirges.
I have been to much more somber such events in Spain, though the shoe-less bit and the face covers are an interesting touch. It is quite cold so it can not be fun walking like this. The point is to suffer, in the imitation of Christ. Among Catholics there are still known instances of even more extreme self-inflicted pain, to this day. See this BBC report on Opus Dei http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8375174.stm
The crowd paid little attention to the procession, despite the gory statues, the somber shoe-less figures and the booming dirges. With the exception of the comparative few lining the path, the rest of the crowd was there to meet friends, have a drink and something to eat. I was not sure what to expect, given the holiday, but not given the 25% observance rate (they remain Catholics but do not pay much attention to religion) you find among the otherwise predominantly Roman Catholic country. See extensive statistics at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Italy
For a light dinner we twice visited a neat little bar called Don Crudo on Via XX Settembre. Our first choice for this evening was full. Don Crudo and staff were happy to see us. They make an excellent pinsa with a wide selection and piadini, thin hot sandwiches with much the same choice of ingredients. Pinsa, if you are not already familiar with it, it is a pizza dough that rises for 24 hours. This creates a very airy and crusty result.
T’was a fine ending to another chilly outing. We weaved our way through the crowd for the ten minute walk home in the chilly night air.