Slowly sorting through the inbox after four days in Italy’s heel–a place that maybe more than anyplace else can claim to have seen better days. Because of its location it was a crossroads between the eastern and western empires, and there are cities throughout Puglia that can claim all kinds of visitors and trade with the most exotic parts of the orient. But that’s all long in the past, and today the region is mostly agricultural (really one big olive grove from top to bottom), though tourism is clearly a growing thing. We did our part.
That’s Matera to the left. The other fascinating thing about Puglia is its geology–the region sits atop limestone outcrops that have given it a really distinctive stone and good soil, but in this particular case it also gave settlers a 400-foot deep gorge with cliffs soft enough to dig into. So over the centuries Materans have gradually dug themselves caves, and built facades with the spoils.
There’s a new city on the top of the hill, and in the 1950s most of the cave-dwellers were relocated by regional authorities who were embarrassed by the primitivism that the caves implied. You can guess the rest–those same caves are now hotels, restaurants, and popular vacation houses. But the city is still an amazing space to be in, as you can see.
We also spent a day looking at the unique regional variant on the Baroque in Lecce, where a handful of builders used the same stone to achieve a really heavily modeled, deeply carved set of churches, all within a couple of generations. It doesn’t hurt that the light in this part of the world is crazy, crystal-clear Mediterranean sun, raking over these deep carvings and seeming to sink into the stonework. Hard to capture in a photo but weirdly rich.
The most surprising day, though, was the final, on-our-way-to-the-train stop in Canosa di Puglia. Never heard of it? Neither had most of us. But it was a major agricultural and political center in its day, and while it’s a nondescript city today, it has an active–and activist–archaeological community that has sidestepped the sclerotic national Soperintendenza and found ways to combine development with careful archaeology–and tourism. So this site, for example, is underneath a large condominium building; the community got the developer to agree to let them excavate, to design the building so that it would do the least damage to the ruins, and then to open it as a tourist site and amenity for the residents. Visiting Canosa? You call ahead and can arrange tours of this or several other sites. Full access, no lines, and you pay the folks who have actually been doing the work. Genius.
An amazing weekend, full of good sights, great food, amazing conversations. Exactly what this place is all about. And just for the record, in case there are colleagues out there wondering whether I’m actually doing any work or not, that there to the left has been my view more or less since we got back…