Vol­un­teers re­store an­cient ru­ins

In­creas­ing num­bers of Cana­dian and Amer­i­can tourists are work­ing on un­der­ground set­tle­ments

Vancouver Sun - - Travel - BY LUCY HYS­LOP

PUGLIA, Italy — You spy them quite ef­fort­lessly. Amid the bar­ren, ochre-look­ing lime­stone and t u fa ro c k s t h at p o c k m a rk t h e land­scape of the Mur­gia hills of Puglia in south­ern Italy, green pock­ets of lush grass stand out.

Th­ese are where the masse­rias, or farm­houses, sit, but it’s what can be found be­neath the pock­ets of grass that’s most in­trigu­ing: A num­ber of ipogei or un­der­ground set­tle­ments — once used for hous­ing, shel­ter for live­stock and churches — all carved out of nat­u­ral caves and hol­lows around the town of Al­ta­mura. Some are up to 90 me­tres deep, and date from the 13th cen­tury.

While the stun­ning masse­ria of Jesce, some 12 kilo­me­tres from the town, was cre­ated later in the 14th cen­tury, it is re­garded as one of the most im­por­tant of the set­tle­ments. Lo­cal peas­ants flocked there and wor­shipped un­der­ground in a crypt that is ac­cessed via a stone path­way. Now be­ing re­stored, the crypt is dec­o­rated with Byzan­tine-in­flu­enced fres­coes in­clud­ing i m a ge s o f t h e Madonna and Child seated on a throne, Saint Ni­co­las the Pil­grim, Francis of As­sisi and Ar­changel Michael fight­ing the devil.

It’s easy to see why a num­ber of Cana­di­ans and Amer­i­cans h ave a l r e a d y swa p p e d b e i n g tourists for a stint vol­un­teer­ing along­side Euro­peans to re­pair th­ese sites. The Ital­ian Sin­ergie Co­op­er­a­tive’s Eutropia project co­or­di­nates the ef­fort.

Fo­cus­ing on stonework (an art that in­volves no mor­tar), sculp­tures and find­ing drainage sys­tems, for ex­am­ple, turns out to be a great way to be to­tally im­mersed in the cul­ture. As one such vol­un­teer, Van­cou­ver artist Jen­nifer Bell, com­mented, “It’s an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion to a re­gion for trav­ellers not ‘trav­el­ling with some­one,’ an in­ter­est­ing way to un­der­stand a cul­ture and its his­tory — and also to be im­me­di­ately in­tro­duced into the Puglia cul­ture, his­tory, its lo­cal peo­ple and their food.”

Need­less to say Bell’s oil paint­ings fre­quently re­flect her time at Jesce, which also has arche­o­log­i­cal finds dat­ing to Ne­olithic and Bronze ages.

(An ex­hi­bi­tion of her work will be show at Gallery Shoal Creek in Austin, Texas, from Nov. 15.)

Rest as­sured, the ipogei are even fur­ther off the beaten track for the rare tourists who jour­ney to this less-trav­elled part of Italy. Venice, Florence, Rome, this is not. You’ll find vir­tu­ally no postc a rd s o n sa l e h e re, n o to u r i s t stores of­fer­ing cheap, tacky sou­venirs. In their place come s t ra n ge b ut i n n o c u o u s s t a re s from the lo­cals, and even the odd hanky waved to­wards you by old men whose tooth- and den­ture­less faces are con­torted by fa­cial origami. It’s rare to stay in a place where tourists are still a nov­elty — es­pe­cially in Europe — and where the old, Felliniesque Italy can still be found.

For all of its seem­ingly stark vista — it is with good rea­son that old peo­ple are bent dou­ble from toil­ing a land con­sist­ing of 90 per cent stone — Puglia is also rich in olive trees (it is re­port­edly home to 50 mil­lion) as well as pomegranate and plum trees. (Al­though even th­ese fre­quently look arthrit­i­cally twisted as if in sy m pa t hy w i t h t h e wo rke rs . ) B l o u sy s u n f l owe rs a n d w i l d weeds are ran­domly scat­tered around, while small, tra­di­tion­ally

pruned oaks of­ten line farm drive­ways.

In the towns of Al­ta­mura and San­ter­amo, life op­er­ates on a strict timetable: You won’t f ind stores — or banks — open be­tween 1 and 5 p.m. On Sun­day af­ter­noons the cen­tres are eerily ghost­town-ish as the lo­cals feast over long cour­ses, fol­lowed by oblig­a­tory sies­tas. Yet stroll around the early evenings and un­threat­en­ing boys preen them­selves in front of the girls in town squares, men link arms, and kiss and hug each other with in­dis­crim­i­nate aban­don, while play­ing backgam­mon or chomp­ing on ice-creams (lo­cals swear by the hazel­nut flavour...). The hig­gledy-pig­gledy cob­bled streets guide you past peo­ple’s cel­lars filled with rows upon rows of tomato vines and bas­kets of wal­nuts, past 1,000-year-old churches and one with a lit-up neon Ave Maria guid­ing the faith­ful what­ever time of night.

And if you missed the fleet­ing open­ing hours in the morn­ing, the stores stay open un­til 9:15 p.m. It is the cus­tom for farm­ers to own a town­house as well, where they will sell their pro­duce af­ter a day’s labour. The noc­tur­nal buzz in San­ter­amo is of­ten, rather strangely, kick­started by a swarm of hawks and other birds nois­ily fill­ing the evening sky.

As you would ex­pect in such a rhyth- mi­cal set­ting and in the home of Slow Food, ev­ery­thing runs ac­cord­ing to the sea­sons. You’ll re­li­giously hear and see the trac­tors plough­ing at 6 a.m. — as the s u n r i s e s ; wa l n ut s a re h a r ve s te d — through­out the re­gion — on one spe­cific day in June; olives in early Novem­ber...

And con­tin­u­ing the theme of cave dwelling in this re­gion nat­u­rally takes you over to Basil­i­cata, on the border with Puglia, which is served by cheap flights from Lon­don to ei­ther Bari or Brin­disi. The pil­grim­age to Mat­era, the city built into the Stone Age rock, is an an­cient ‘in­tact ex­am­ple of a troglodyte set­tle­ment’ to bor­row Unesco’s de­scrip­tion when it awarded the city a World Her­itage sta­tus in the 90s. I defy you not to gasp when you f irst dip down the steps into the view­ing area above this labyrinth of 100-odd churches and tiny houses, still lived in by some 60,000 peo­ple — in­clud­ing a few her­mits in al­coves above the city. It is like a model vil­lage and rem­i­nis­cent of Jerusalem — no sur­prises, then, that film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Mel Gib­son in The Pas­sion of the Christ, have been com­ing here for years.

And, un­like Puglia, it also tellingly of­fered the first and only set of post­cards I saw for sale dur­ing my week-long trip.

Above: Puglia, Italy is an area

not yet dis­cov­ered by

most tourists. Right: A build­ing in Al­ta­mura, Puglia. You

won’t find post­cards or

tacky sou­venir items here.


A masse­ria, or farm­house, in Puglia. Many masse­rias have crypts be­neath them.

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