There wasn’t a lot going on in Ostuni’s main piazza early Sunday morning. The few tourists that were up and about were heading for the centro storico and the locals who weren’t checking out the goods at the antique market – which, as I’d found out, was alive and well (previous post) – were probably at church.
I had a quick look at the map I’d picked up at the local IT, which stands for Informazioni Turistiche, not Instant Teller, and then did what I usually do in places like this. I put it away.
Having visited quite a few of Italy’s medieval centres I knew that trying to follow the map through the twisting alleys and dead ends would be molto seccante (seck-kahn-tay). Very drying out of the spirit. Besides, no matter which alley I took, I’d eventually come to a wall, part of the ancient fortifications against invaders. If I got really exasperated, it was just a matter of looking up and using the spires of one of the churches to take my bearings.
People have been living here for a long time. Since the Stone Age in fact. During the tour I took of an olive grove on the outskirts of Ostuni (next post), there was quite a bit of talk about some ancient people called i Messapii. The personable, young guide was so impressed by my knowledge about a rather delightful bit of trivia concerning the origin of the olive tree, I hated to disillusion him, so I decided to look them up later. I was relieved to see that although scholars are pretty sure the Messapians – I loved the meaning of their name – ‘Between the two Seas’ – arrived in Puglia in the 8th century B.C., they don’t know exactly where they came from. Whatever their origins – probably Greece – the original settlement was (as usual) destroyed and another group of Greeks arrived and built a new settlement, which they called Astu Neon (New Town). Ostuni.
Every Canadian who is lucky enough to have a cottage or lots of cottage-owning friends knows that there is one downfall to the season they have been longing for all winter. Mosquitoes. There are two main lines of defence against the wretched little vampires. Mosquitoes prefer dark colours, so you can try wearing light-coloured clothes – not a very practical option at the cottage – at least not the cottages I’ve been to – or, assuming you can get past the long list of nasty-looking ingredients, slather yourself with insect repellent. For those of us who spend most of our summer languishing in the city, mosquitoes aren’t much of a problem. Instead it’s the vast expanses of asphalt parking lots and dark-walled office towers that suck up the heat, making walking along the city streets almost as unbearable as in the depths of winter.
And what, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with Ostuni’s historic centre?
The answer lies in the dark days of the 17th century when one of the many plagues that regularly decimated populations throughout Europe swept through Ostuni. To help the barely living steer clear of the houses of the soon-to-be-dead, someone came up with the idea of painting the walls of the infected houses in a colour that was easily identifiable and that there was a good, handy supply of. As we saw in ‘It Doesn’t Exist!’ (July 17, 2016) one thing that is readily available in Puglia is limestone. The Ostunesi took the limestone, ground it into a fine dust, added water to create a milky wash and started painting. After a while of this practical, but perhaps ethically questionable practice, they noticed something strange. Many of the people in the painted houses did not die. They didn’t know it at the time of course, but their milky wash was calcium carbonate. Not the rock-dissolving type that creates lamas, but a form that is antibacterial. And a natural insect repellent.
Now that fighting plagues has given way to attracting tourists as a prime concern, the walls of the town are still kept a pristine white by generous government subsidies – homeowners are refunded 50% of the cost of white washing their walls every two years. And of course, unlike the dark-hued towers that seem all the rage with architects these days, those white walls reflect the glaring rays of the Puglian sun, making the city much cooler.
I was trying to get a shot of the entire cathedral – a challenge in the narrow spaces – when I heard a vaguely familiar voice. ‘Madame!’ I turned around and there was the French couple I’d met the day before. I had been about to pour another stash of coins into the parking machine when someone called out, ‘Attention madame! La machine ne marche pas!’ (The ticket machine isn’t working!) Now if there’s one thing that gets me riled up when I’m travelling, it’s other tourists who act as if their language is some kind of lingua franca understood by everyone else. English speakers are the worst offenders. And just because English is the closest we have in our time to a world language, that’s no excuse. When you’re in a country where your native language is not the language of that country, the least you can do is start off with the local version of ‘Hello’, or ‘Excuse me’, which in Ostuni would be Buon giorno or Scusi. Sometimes I pretend not to understand and answer in Italian, but the poor fellow – he was probably in his late 60’s – looked genuinely concerned and more than a bit frazzled, so putting aside this linguistic bestia nera (black monster), I said, en français, figuring my account with my guardian angel could probably do with a top up – Comment? (Pardon?)
He showed me the ticket the machine had printed out after he had inserted beaucoup de monnaie. The expiry time was 9,35. It was evening by now. Italy uses the 24-hour clock. His ticket expired at 9,35 am. Maybe he did have a point. I looked at the machine again. The time showing was 17,57. I didn’t have a watch on but that seemed about right. I looked at his ticket again. With all the attention focused on the offending 9,35, I hadn’t noticed another time entry at the top of the ticket – 17,55 – the time his ticket must have been printed. I was already pretty frazzled myself with the whole parking thing in Ostuni, and switching over to French definitely put a strain on the circuit board, so it took me a minute to figure out what was going on. After 20,00 (8 pm), parking in Ostuni, assuming you can find a spot, is free. The machines do not give change. However, any money you put in the machine that would cover past 8 pm goes towards the following day. In smaller letters under the expiry time was the expiry date – May 23. This was May 22. When they caught up with me at the cathedral, they looked totally relaxed. In fact madame had a twinkle in her eye. ‘Il faut que je vous raconte ce qu’on a fait.’ (I have to tell you what we did.) Before our encounter at the parking machine, they had driven up Via Cattedrale all the way to the cathedral, before it occurred to them they were in a pedestrian zone. No wonder they were frazzled. It was hard to know which was more amazing – that they would even think it was OK to drive up the narrow, congested lane or that they weren’t spotted by one of the wretched vigili.
The French couple and I were lucky we hadn’t decided to visit Ostuni in August when, according to an article in the Brindisi Report (Aug. 22, 2012), finding a parking spot is like finding un ago in un pagliaio (pal-yigh-oh). Christian Continelli, councillor of the Pdl – Popolo delle Libertà di Ostuni – was upset that his otherwise splendida Ostuni, the city with the largest number of tourists in the entire Brindisi province, could be so unwelcoming as to hit those tourists with hundreds and hundreds of parking fines, many of which were, in Consigliere Continelli’s opinion, of highly dubious merit. He also made a number of withering comments (which I quite enjoyed) about the ‘indisciplina stradale degli ostunesi (lack of road discipline of the locals) as well as the troppa toleranza (excessive tolerance) shown to them by the vigili compared to the tourists. No wonder the owner of the B&B hadn’t shared my worries about all the NO STOPPING signs.
L’Osteria del Tempo Perso looked like a lovely place for dinner, but I had other plans. I was going to have dinner on the B&B’s rooftop terrace.
I had put a bottle of vino bianco in the fridge earlier that day. The only thing left was to pick up dinner from the Friggitoria nearby. The ‘Frying Place’ was a combo fish market, deli, trattoria and take-out. While I was waiting for my pasta alle vongole a British couple arrived. They tentatively approached the counter. ‘We want to eat,’ the Brit said to the young fellow, ‘all’estero, ‘(al-less-teh-roh) . ‘No,no, no!’ the woman interrupted, all’estero means ‘abroad’. Complimenti, I thought. She was right. Then she turned to the young man and explained, ‘We want to eat fiori.'(fyoh-ree). We want to eat flowers. To his credit the young fellow didn’t show the slightest sign that anything was off, and even more impressively, rather than possibly embarrassing her by asking if they wanted to eat fuori (fwoh-ree), he used another expression. Volete mangiare all’esterno? (al-less-tair-no) You want to eat outside? They did. Now that where they were going to eat was settled, there was the matter of what. They wanted fish, which I thought was very adventuresome of them. There was an enormous selection to choose from. They examined the various fish closely, finely agreeing on a big, white one. Dorado. The young man asked how they wanted it cooked. Al forno?, he suggested. They didn’t have a clue and he apparently spoke not a word of English – not even simple terms like ‘baked’. I was on the verge of helping out, when they smiled and said that ‘Al forno’ would be wonderful. And Sì, sì, they also wanted some patate fritte.
It was such a pleasure to watch them navigate what can become a trying, daily ritual – I’ve seen many a couple who did not treat each other with anything remotely close to the patience and good-natured humour these two showed each other – that I was almost sorry when my order appeared. It was only later, as I was setting up my dinner on the rooftop terrace, that it occurred to me what they had ordered. Fish and chips.
Next – Athena’s Gift