Stymied by a Saint

I had just arrived in Gallipoli (gal-lee-poh-lee).  Not the Gallipoli in Turkey that was the site of one of the most disastrous, and futile military campaigns of World War I.  This Gallipoli is on the south-west coast of Puglia.  Almost at the sole of the heel.  I had made my way through a confusing tangle of narrow alleys to an enormous piazza overlooking the sea.  In the middle of the piazza was a peculiar sight – a lone bench, that bizarrely faced away from the sea.

The narrow, twisting alleys were the legacy of the town’s Moorish conquerors.  Although it was spared the horrors of its Turkish namesake, Gallipoli suffered a by now familiar succession of invaders eager to capitalize on its climate and strategic location – Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, Angevins, Aragons. As well as a few marauding Gothic tribes now and then.  Luckily for today’s tourists, the various rulers left the layout of its centro storico largely intact and since it’s a peninsula – actually it’s an island, joined to the mainland by a bridge – you can’t get lost for long.  Sooner or later you’ll come to the sea.

The paraphernalia of the local fishermen decorates a shop.

The range of shutters and door styles in Italy is seemingly endless. One of my favourites (photo below) is also one of the most popular in southern Italy.  If you want a bit of fresh air, all you have to do is open the top shutters – which make a great rack for hanging the wash out to dry – and a simple curtain keeps the interior private.

The lower shutters keep toddlers in and stray animals out.

Was it wash day?

Along one of the alleys was an Alimentari (a-lee-men-tah-ree) from the Latin alimentum which somehow comes from alere – to nurture.  A mini grocery store. By the entrance was a bin of something called chiappiri.

A local specialty with a local name.

I went over to see what these chiappiri were.  No wonder I couldn’t understand the locals when they talked with one another. In the ‘Tuscan’ Italian I had learned, the pea-sized things are called acciughe (atch-choo-gay).

Chiappiri aka acciughe. Anchovies.

When I came around the corner past the chiappiri the last thing I expected to see was an enormous, ornately decorated church. Gallipoli’s cathedral. The alleys around are so tight and narrow – made even narrower because of the street vendors along the front –  it’s impossible to get back far enough to get a good view, let alone a good shot of the whole thing.

On the narrow lane it shares with street vendors hawking the usual tourist trinkets, Gallipoli’s Cathedral of Saint Agatha.

One of the vendors tries to entice passersby with a whimsical sponge sculpture.

To get a more frontal shot you can bend over backwards or – much safer – sit down on the pavement.

If location of the cathedral came as a surprise, the interior was even more so.  The walls above the altars along the nave are covered with enormous paintings that have a strongly secular – almost art gallery feel about them. Not at all like the frescoes in the churches of nearby Nardò (previous post).

Adoration of the Magi.

Above the next altar, the miracles of the hermit monk, St. Francis of Paola,were portrayed. Without the explanatory panel next to the candelabras I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. The saint has just liberated a woman possessed of demons.  I think it’s fair to say that nowadays the whole notion of exorcism is highly controversial.  But a couple of centuries after the painting was finished, it wasn’t the subject matter was controversial.  It was the abdomen – the clearly protruding abdomen of the woman in the red dress.  Which was naked.  That the viewer was meant to notice this detail is confirmed by the child at her feet reaching up to it. However, a couple of centuries later, the Ecclesiastic Board of Censure, having determined that the naked bit of anatomy was disdicevole (deez-dee-chay-voh-lay) – unbecoming, ordered an intervento.  The offensive area was painted over.  Which is why (you have to look closely to see this) the shade of red covering her abdomen doesn’t quite match the rest of her dress.

The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (1653). Despite the highly devotional subject matter, Giovanni Coppola was not satisfied to remain its anonymous creator. The figure to the right of the woman in the red dress is a self-portrait of the artist.

Coppola also produced the Trinità con le Anime del Purgatorio, a work he was particularly fond of, in fact so fond that in an era when it was still unusual for artists to sign their works, he displayed his name – preceded by the honorific Dottore – as well as the year of execution along the sword of the angel on the left.  I can’t really make it out but I’ll take the word of the scholar who wrote the explanatory panel.

This work was also subject to an intervento. The wings of the angel in the centre were lengthened to cover the lower abdomen area of the purified souls as they ascend to Heaven.

Close to the explanatory panel was another, less official-looking notice. IT IS ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED TO MOVE THE CANDELABRA FROM THEIR PLACE. ESPECIALLY TO TAKE PHOTOS.

At the Toronto Botanical Gardens I regularly see visitors in the middle of the gardens taking photos, having stepped over one of many signs asking them to PLEASE DO NOT STEP INTO THE GARDEN.  Apparently the same type of people have also visited Gallipoli’s cathedral.

With so much going on behind it, the Crucifix almost seems to melt into the painting.

In a large area close to the main altar was a statue I initially took to be of the Virgin Mary. I later learned and should have known – after all the cathedral is called La Cattedrale di Sant’Agata – it was Saint Agatha, the beautiful and chaste young woman whose refusal to abandon a life dedicated to her Lord and rejection of the advances of a powerful suitor resulted in imprisonment in a brothel, then in a real prison (which may have been somewhat of a relief after the brothel), torture on the rack and a few other indignities before the enraged suitor ordered her breasts cut off.

Saint Agatha, holding two lovely little bouquets instead of the chopped off breasts she is usually portrayed holding. I would – to my dismay – be seeing more of her later that day.

From the cathedral I threaded my way along the narrow alleys towards the sea and landed in the piazza at the beginning of this post.  The one with the oddly positioned bench.

The view that the bench turns its back on.

After you’ve seen the cathedral and walked around the old town a while, the positioning of the bench makes a little more sense.  It faces not one, but two of the small centre’s many churches.

On the left Santissimo Crocifisso and on the right San Domenico al Rosario, founded by the town’s master tailors.

While I stood there pondering the bench and the churches and the (to me) irresistible view of the sea, I began to notice some activity by the wall.  A woman had arrived with a plastic bag which she handed to her companion, who then proceeded to climb down the rampart wall. As he approached ground level a bunch of cats appeared as if from nowhere.

Instead of a cat lady, Gallipoli apparently had a cat man.

The glass skyscraper marks the beginning of Gallipoli’s ‘New Town’.

Further along the shore, Santa Maria della Purità

Santa Maria degli Angeli

… and at the end of the peninsula, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Visitors in the know grab a table early at the bar on the ramparts. It’s the best place in town for a sunset aperitivo.

For those who aren’t in the know, the view further along the rampart wall is also very good.

At breakfast the owners of the B&B had been very insistent that I have a dinner reservation.  There was going to be a lot of movimento that night and the restaurants were going to be very crowded.  I was surprised.  It was a Monday night.  The tourist season hadn’t yet begun. But they had been right about Nardò so I agreed.  They promised to call and make a reservation as soon as the restaurant opened. When I went back to the B&B to freshen up, I found a note. I had a reservation for 19:30 and I was to be sure to arrive on time.  This struck me as a bit extreme.  In any event, more because I didn’t want to make them look bad, than because I thought it was necessary, I was careful to arrive right on time.  The restaurant was virtually empty.  And as much as I like blue, I don’t find blue lighting conducive to eating under.

The VERY blue Angolo Blu.

What with the empty tables, blue lighting and that semi-formal vibe I find so dissonant in seaside towns, I debated walking out.  But then I thought of my hosts.  So, not for the first time – hadn’t I done the same thing just the day before? – instead of leaving I ordered some wine.   As usual, the label made for a fascinating read.  ‘The line, Fregi Barocchi (Baroque Friezes) represents our day to day wine, omnipresent like the friezes that decorate the houses and follow you in the alleyways of the town. In your glass you will find the great vineyards of the Salento, made from young, aromatic and pleasant vines in which are present the emotions, aromas and taste that only the art of the baroque can give.’  Salute!

Fregi Barocchi.  Poetry and a rather delicious vino bianco.

The menu, like the decor, was much more sophisticated than I would have expected my hosts to recommend.  They were lovely, warm and caring, but like the B&B itself, simple and down to earth.  I had expected something more in keeping with their style.  It’s an assumption, a paradigm, I carry with me and that has tripped me up more than once.  You would think I would learn.  I ordered the seafood pasta.  It too was sophisticated. And delicious.

Even under the blue lighting the pasta was deliziosa.

While I ate – I’m a notoriously slow eater – the restaurant started to fill and before I was finished, the hostess was turning people away.  I asked for il conto (be careful not to ask for il conte – the count), paid my bill and headed for the door.  And that is when I caught my first glimpse of the movimento my B&B hosts had been so concerned about.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the movimento would be caused by the locals.

I waited until the procession passed and then darted across the lane and down another alley hoping to get in front of them.  But I didn’t quite make it and ended up in front of the saint who, for my purposes, was going the wrong way.

I couldn’t help feeling that going against the flow would land me in Purgatory. At best.

I retraced my steps and raced down a couple more alleys, but it was no use. This time I came out behind the saint. In the end I just stood there and watched the procession.  It’s probably a good thing I had no idea that later in my trip, when instead of a pleasant walk, I had a long drive back to my hotel along a narrow, unlit country road, I would get trapped in a much bigger procession.

Next – Beauty at the Bottom of the Heel




The Town of a Thousand Churches

I don’t know which is worse.  To be lost or not to be lost, but think you are.  I drove round and round the traffic circle. Then I gave up and parked down a side street close to the fountain.  In front of one of those hole-in-the-wall operations.   A music store.  The kind of music store frequented by people many decades younger than I.  The young man at the counter was the model of graciousness as he explained that what I was looking for – il centro storico di Nardò – was right in front of me.  Just past the lamp post to the right of the castle.   I put more money in the meter and headed over.


Hidden in plain view.  The lane to the historic centre of Nardò starts at the castle.

I may have mentioned this before, but since it’s one of those easily forgotten quirks, before we go on, a word about that accent at the end of the town’s name.  Unlike French, which, as even the linguistically challenged among you will probably remember from High School, has two of these apostrophe-like accents, Italian has only one.  And, you’ll probably be pleased to know, it’s much more user-friendly than the French ones.  It always points down to the right, is only ever found at the end of a word and has only one function – to let you know that the stress goes on that last syllable. Nar-doh.


On my way over to the castle, I passed a group of men standing in the shade of a tree.  A Moreton Bay Fig, aka Australian Banyan Tree.  It was rather small as these trees go – I have a post in the wings with a spectacular one in the Botanical Gardens of Palermo – but it still had the characteristic, octopus-like base.  In front of which was a plaque.


To Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and all the victims of the Mafia on the twentieth anniversary of the massacres of Capaci and Via d’Amelio.

On May 23, 1992 Giovanni Falcone, the chief prosecutor in the anti-Mafia campaign, flew down from Rome accompanied by his wife and three body guards.  They landed at the Punta Raisi airport at 17:48, and within a few minutes were on the A29 heading to Palermo.  At 17:58, close to the off-ramp for Capaci, a few kilometres from Palermo, 500 kilograms of explosives hidden in a drain pipe under the highway, went off, killing all five of them.

Paolo Borsellino, who had worked closely with Falcone and considered him his mentor, led the funeral service.  Fifty-seven days later, on July 19, 1992, while on his way to visit his mother  – despite countless death threats he refused to give up this Sunday ritual – a bomb in a car parked in front of his mother’s building exploded, killing Borsellino and his five body guards.   In the preceding months those very body guards, believing that the narrowness of Via d’Amelio added to the level of danger, had repeatedly requested that the Palermo authorities prohibit parking in front of the building.


In front of the castle another of nature’s wonders, a Jacaranda Tree still in bloom.

The castle, built by the Aragonese rulers, is now the Villa Comunale.  The villa of the comune (coh-moo-nay). Town Hall.   I discovered this when I walked in expecting to see a sumptuous interior and found only uninspiring admin offices.  I suspect the upper floor – off-limits to the public – is quite different.


The pink and cream variety of lantana is much harder to find in nurseries back home than the orange, but to my mind well worth the hunt.

In the 18oo’s, the Aragon rulers long gone, the fortress castle was transformed into a sumptuous residence and the moat filled in, except along the west side.  Here they created a lush, private giardino inglese, the so-called English Garden that was all the rage across Europe at the time. I thought I recognized the tree hanging over the garden wall.


Tree ID is not my forte, but not many trees have red flowers like this one so when I first saw it – in the Vatican Gardens of all places – I looked it up.  (The guide wasn’t good on tree ID either.  Her focus was the Vatican.)


Erythrina cristina galli, aka Cockspur Coral Tree, the national flower and tree of Argentina. As exotic today as it would have been In the 19th century.

Like many gardens, this one had been neglected in the difficult post-war period and eventually was closed to the public. But recently the town had found the will and, even more of a challenge, the funds to restore the garden.  The goal was to recreate the original ‘giardino dello stupore‘ while respecting the stratificazioni nobili.  I have no idea what the ancient class structure had to do with anything, but as for the ‘wonder, that referred to another 19th century craze – exotica from far-off places.  I’m all in favour of such endeavours and was curious to have a look.  But – and maybe this was because I’d just come from La Cutura (previous post) – I struggled to feel the stupore.  Or maybe, as the gardener who was sweeping up put it, the garden wasn’t at its best right then.  I continued along the lane towards Piazza Salandra.


Not for the first time, I had to remind myself I wasn’t in Sicily. This baroque entrance was so like the ones I’d seen in  the baroque hilltop towns of the Val di Noto.

Along the way I passed by the first of many churches.


The church of St. Joseph. Mid 1700’s.

Except for where they widened into little piazzas in front of the churches, the lanes were so narrow the sun had a time time reaching down to ground level.  This was no problem for the plant lovers who lived on the upper floors.


I wonder, before buying all those geraniums does the gardener take home a petal or two to make sure it matches the wall?


Here’s a nice railing for your plants. Although I probably would have gone for something a bit splashier.


Detail of La Chiesa di San Domenico.

Beyond the church dedicated to San Domenico, the spires of another church were visible.


Coming around the corner, I felt as if I had stumbled on the stage setting for a movie.


Piazza Salandra.  The social and political centre of the town.

Towering almost 20 meters over the piazza is the Guglia dell’Immacolata.  I’m not even sure what we call such a structure in English.  ‘Spire’ doesn’t sound right, but it seems that’s all we have.  Back in the 1700’s, when Nardò’s guglia was built – per volontà popolare (by will of the people) – building monuments like this was a popular form of devotion in the south of Puglia.


At the very top, a statue of the Virgin mounted on a globe.  How has she survived all the earthquakes and bombings – World War II especially?  And how did they get her up there in the first place?

Around the spire are all the important religious and administrative buildings that even a small village needs.  I thought the loveliest was the Chiesa di San Trifone, built in the 18th century, also per volontà popolare, in gratitude to San Trifone, protector of the crops, for having miraculously ended a particularly severe locust invasion.


La Chiesa di San Trifone, protector of the crops.

Continuing clock-wise around the piazza the next official-looking building was a rather plain, boxy affair dominated by a large arch.  I was happy to learn that notwithstanding the statues on top it was not a church, but the local Tourist Office, although here, as in many places in Italy, it is confusingly called the Pro Loco. (Or maybe not so confusingly, given that loco – I know, I’m mixing languages here – is how you often feel while you’re looking for these places.)


There are no signs or posters in front of Il Sedile.  Nothing at all to detract from the building’s 13th century façade.  Or to let visitors know the tourist office is inside.

On top of the Sedile was the typical kind of ornamentation you find on buildings all over southern Italy.  Arricchito di contaminazioni rococò is how one visitor put it. I’m not sure what ‘enriched with contaminations’, Rococo or otherwise means, but in any event, what was not typical and what I paid no attention to at the time (which is why I (sigh) don’t have a close-up) were the two medallions below.  They symbolize the heads of a group of peasants and six priests who, after a 17-year reign of terror and cruelty, had rebelled against Il Guercio di Puglia, the one-eyed Spanish governor, who according to one commentator seemed to be un impasto (dough or mixture) of religion and ferocity, who while he took pride in his name being prominently displayed above the church altars, also had no qualms about chopping off the heads of unruly citizens, clergy included, come se si fosse trattato di scapare acciughe.  As if he were chopping off the heads of anchovies.

The rebels’ demands were, of course, the usual modest ones – the abolition of exorbitant taxes on essentials like bread, flour and salt; the right to a more dignified life – and by this they meant the abolition of nefarious customs such as jus primae noctis, which I suspect is more commonly referred to in English by the French expression, le droit du seigneur.  (As if  medieval English lords didn’t engage in such foul behaviour.)

While the piazza was still flowing with the blood of the decapitated wretches, Il Guercio ordered that the heads of the priests be mounted on spikes in front of the Sedile, where, in the service of giustizia. (joo-steets-see-uh), they were to remain for 72 days.


When I took this photo I had no idea what I was looking at. Ignorance sometimes really is bliss.

I was surprised when the young woman at the Pro Loco handed me a rather faded, flimsy piece of paper – one side only – when I asked for a piantina.  Usually, even in the smallest of centres, you get a lovely, full-colour pamphlet on high quality paper with photos and descriptions of all the sights and a nice, big map that even travellers of a certain age can read without a magnifying lens. In any event, I was glad for the map such as it was.  Nardò is not one of those medieval centres a first-time visitor can just wander around at will.  It doesn’t have the typical, circular labyrinth pattern of the hilltop towns.  Was more like a star.  It had been easy enough to find Piazza Salandra.  There were lots of signs.  But from here, without the map, there was no way of knowing which of the narrow alleys around the piazza to take.  I certainly would never have guessed that one of the narrowest and least promising-looking, the one to the right of the Sedile, led to the cathedral.


Does this look like it leads to a grand cathedral? Via Duomo.

And if it hadn’t been for the little church icon and the barely legible legend on my little map, I probably would have kept on walking right past the cathedral.  It looked like just one more of the town’s many churches.  By the way, there aren’t thousands of course, but with one seemingly around every corner, you begin to wonder how many there are.  And why there are so many.


La Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. In a region where extravagant baroque is the norm, the façade of Nardò’s cathedral seems especially austere.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say.  Well sometimes, especially in ancient settlements like Nardò, which may have been founded as early as the 7th century BC,  it’s a good idea not to judge a cathedral by its façade.  Especially when it’s the result of centuries of rimaneggiamenti (ree-mah-nayj-jah-men-tee) – a fabulous word with a slightly pejorative note that perfectly captures the modifications, repairs and ’embellishments’ wrought by successive conquerors and religious denominations. And a few earthquakes.

When the Normans arrived in 1055 and drove out the Saracens, who were in the process of destroying the town after having driven out the previous invaders, who in turn had driven out the Byzantines, who had taken over the town after the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire in 476, which had been preceded by centuries of domination by the Romans, who had driven out the Greeks and on and on into the mists of time.  Back to the Normans.   Once the Saracens had been dispatched, like most conquerors, the next item on the Normans’ agenda was to build something to commemorate their victory.  Since the most powerful symbol in those days was a church, they scouted around and soon found a suitable site.  And in one of those twists of irony that history is full of, the site they chose was an abbey that had been built by Basilian monks who had fled persecution during the Iconoclastic Period when religious images – icons – were prohibited by the leaders of the Byzantine aka Eastern Roman Church.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Nardò.  In fact, before the owner of the B&B I was staying at in Gallipoli mentioned it, despite my usual extensive (excessive?) research, I hadn’t even heard of the town.  But she was very insistent.  Really, it would be well worth my while.  There were some magnificent frescoes in the churches.  Especially the cathedral.

She was right.  The columns and walls were covered with frescoes.


On one of the columns La Madonna del Giglio (mid 14th century) portrays the Christ Child reaching out for the giglio (fleur-de-lis), symbol of the Angevin (aka House of Anjou) rulers.


Detail of a 14th century triptych of the Madonna with Child, Mary Magdalene and St. Nicholas.


Saint Anthony. 14th century.

Some things about human nature, it seems, never change.  One of them is the urge to update.  Our kitchens.  Our bathroom.  Our faces.  Our cars.   And worst of all, our devices.  Every time I finally give in and agree to install one of those updates that I am promised will ensure my computer continues to work (relatively) glitch-free, the havoc that ensues in the few programs I know how to use makes me swear I will never do it again. In any event, back in the early 1700’s, the governors of Nardò decided that the Norman façade of the cathedral needed to be updated. Fortunately their ambitions did not extend to the interior of the cathedral, so before the demolition crew got going, items close to the façade were moved.  One of them was the Altare delle Anime del Purgatorio (Altar of the Souls of Purgatory).  However, although it survived the demolition crew intact, it did not fare so well during the transfer and ornate as it is, the altar we see today is in parte decurtato from the original.


The chopped off, yet still remarkably ornate Altar of the Souls in Purgatory.


Altar of The Archangel Saint Michael. 1647

There was so much to see I missed several note-worthy items, one of which was a Black Crucifix carved out of black cedar which, although officially from the 13th century, is particularly venerated because of a tradition according to which it started to bleed when some ‘Turks’ tried to steal it. In the 6th century.


Later on in my trip I saw statues like this carried in solemn processions through towns like Nardò.

I read later that the altar is rather special too, but at the time I hardly glanced at it. There was too much going on behind and above it.




Above the altar an enormous fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Back in Piazza Salandra, a couple of tourists – the only ones I’d seen all morning – were standing in front of an arch.  I went over to have a look.


La Fontana del Toro.  The (now waterless) Fountain of the Bull.

Even though it was the newest monument in the piazza, after the centuries of architectural pastiches I’d seen so far, the fountain didn’t look at all out of place.  Or maybe I’m showing the limits of my architectural knowledge.  In any event, it was created in 1930 to fill the empty space left when the office of the clerk responsible for lighting the town’s gas street lights became redundant.  It portrays a much loved legend of the ancient origins of the town, according to which a toro, with a single blow of its paw, had caused water to gush forth from the rocky ground.


The toro is also a symbol of the powerful Aragon families who once ruled the area. In the arch surrounding the mighty beast, writhing eels symbolize the purity of the water.


To make sure everyone got the point, on the right, another bull, wearing a Spanish crown, paws the earth.

When I got up close to take a photo of the crowned bull, I noticed the inscription.  Since it had a Latinate feel about it, I initially read the ‘V’s’  as ‘U’s’. But somehow I also inverted the V/U and the O in the third word and read TAURO NON BUOI.  And immediately up popped – who knows how these things happen? – a memory.  A highly disagreeable one.  This was not one of Proust’s lovely madeleines-inspired memories.  It was of a proverb that had been explained to me decades earlier.  Mogli e buoi dei paesi tuoi.    Wives and oxen from your own villages.  It means exactly what you’re thinking.  In the old days, when oxen were used to plough the fields and perform all sorts of hard labour, everyone knew that it was important that the oxen, who always worked in pairs, were compatible. Therefore, to minimize the risk of an unhappy marriage, the wise peasant looked no further than his own village for a wife.

The actual inscription reads TAURO NON BOVI.   Toro non bue.  Bull not ox.  Apparently the distinction is an important one. It was time to explore the rest of the town.  I set off along another of the alleys around Piazza Salandra.  I soon came to another charming little piazza.


Chiesa di Sant’Antonio da Padova in the very lovely and very quiet Piazza di… Sant’Antonio.

The façade was lovely, but simple.  Not surprising, given that the town’s cathedral was only a few blocks away.  I stepped inside thinking to find a simple interior to match.


Not at all what I expected.


There were more churches, but by now I felt I’d got the gist of things here.  Besides, I was hungry.  But since I’d spent a lot more time than I’d anticipated, before I started looking at places to eat, I went back to put more money in the meter. I needn’t have worried.  It turned out that while it may not be as well known as some places, Nardò is one of those beacons of civilization where parking is free during the generously long, lunch break.  Since the young man in the music store wasn’t busy, I asked him if there was a place nearby where the food was semplice e genuina.   Sì, signora!  He knew the perfect place for me.  The owners were wonderful.  The food was exquisite, beautifully prepared.  It was the best restaurant in the region. I began to be concerned.  It may have been genuina, but it was not sounding at all semplice. I was not to preoccupare myself.  No worries Signora, you will not be disappointed.  He got up and pointed past the Banyan tree to a small alley on the right.  All I had to do was turn right at the first alley I came to and after a few hundred metres I’d be there. It seemed ungrateful not to check it out.


Even if the restaurant wasn’t as simple and genuine as I hoped, the walk along the alley was worth it. I walked back and forth under this Bougainvillea trying to see what was holding it up.

When I got to the Hostaria Corte Santa Lucia, well past 1 pm, a respectable hour even for the south, all the tables in the corte (courtyard) were empty.  Not a good sign.  But it was hot and I was hungry.  The warm greeting of the young woman who would be my waitress was all it took to make up my mind.  It was cooler, she suggested, in the sala interna – an enormous, beautifully decorated room, obviously the main eating area – but after a long Canadian winter I was craving sunlight.


It was mid May. The tourist season wouldn’t begin for a few weeks at least. Even so it was surprisingly hot. I sat down at a table in the shade.

I began to have second thoughts when she brought the menu.  It was one of those tomes you typically find in upscale restaurants. Not in a simple ostaria or trattoria.  Or at least what those words used to represent.  Nowadays you can’t always rely on the old hierarchy – expensive, elegant ristoranti at the top; inexpensive, simple trattorias at the bottom.   Maybe it started with young chefs who wanted to create high quality food without the stuffiness of the formal restaurant.  In any event, having sat down, I found I had no desire to get up.  Instead I ordered un quarto di vino bianco locale (1/4 litre of local white wine).     Then I started to explore the menu.  There were lots of dishes I would have liked to try if I had been staying in town and if this was dinner.  But since it was lunch and since I had to drive back to Gallipoli, I turned to the page with the Piatti del giorno.  Specialties of the day.   I ordered Burrata artigianale e Capocollo di Martina Franca.  Artisanal burrata (a Pugliese specialty similar to, but creamier than the mozzarella di bufalà produced in the Amalfic Coast area) and capocollo from Martina Franca, a town in northern Puglia.


Burrata and capocollo.  Two Pugliese specialties.

The burrata and capocollo were so good I had to try a dish made by the chef.  Even though the grigliata mista was tempting, from past experience I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to eat it all and then the waitress would be worried I hadn’t liked it, so I decided on the pasta del giorno.  I love fresh pasta and I love trying local specialities.  To make pasta alla chitarra, the dough is rolled out in sheets, then placed on wires strung along the length of a rectangular wood frame – the guitar – and pressed through the wires with a rolling pin.

While  I waited for my pasta to arrive I took a closer look at the menu.  There were a lot of words I didn’t recognize – spunziali and stanati were probably either a local delicacy or dialect.  The type of things even Italians from other regions wouldn’t know.  And then there was a word that appeared in several items that I did know, but had a hard time believing it was what I knew it was.  Amongst the Piatti del giorno was an entry for something called ‘Pezzetti’ di cavallo al sugo and among the secondi (main courses) was a meat dish called Miero e cavallo.  I’d seen cavallo for sale in markets in Sicily as well as in Puglia, but I did not expect to see it on the menu of a high-end restaurant.  Cavallo means horse.

Apart from a few locals, who arrived shortly after me, there were no other customers, so the second time the manager walked by my table, as if looking for something to do, I asked him what the words meant.  He was delighted to enlighten me.  Spunziali is dialect for green onions.  It comes from spuntare, standard Italian for ‘to sprout’.  Stanati are the grandi padelle (enormous pans) used for preparing many traditional local dishes.  And, I asked hesitantly, cavallo? By now it was obvious that despite not knowing a few local terms, I had no difficulty with italiano.  It was also obvious that I knew what cavallo, a standard Italian word, meant.  He looked at me, rather intently, and then, to my relief, said, ‘Siccome Lei è curiosa.. Since I was  curious, he was going to indulge me and explain.  Miero, from the Latin merus meaning schietto (pure, unadulterated) was a local word for the extremely strong red wines of Puglia.  If you wanted your wine less strong – ‘tagliato‘ (cut) – you could of course add water, but water has always been scarce in the Salento.  In the past, since pigs need lots of water, there were very few peasants who could afford to raise them.  Even sheep were expensive.  So most peasants only kept horses, which they used to transport them to and from their often distant fields.  When the horses were too old to work, they were slaughtered and twice a year the peasant and his family ate meat.  In the mid 1800’s an English doctor visiting the Salento was amazed to discover that notwithstanding the obviously hard life, the average lifespan of the local peasants was much longer than in his native country. Eventually he linked the longevity and extremely good health of those peasants to their diet which consisted of lots of vegetables, fish, pasta, miero and very little red meat. It was the original Mediterranean Diet.  And, my instructor concluded,  Miero e cavallo was the peasants’ twice yearly feast of horse meat stewed in red wine.



Thick, squarish spaghetti in a tomato-free (in bianco) seafood sauce. Deliziosi!

I managed to eat all the guitar pasta, but as tempting as it was, I could not find room for the dessert of the day – panna cotta with coffee and almond cream.  I ordered an espresso and when I couldn’t put it off any longer, I left the cool courtyard and went out into the now blistering afternoon sun and headed back to my car.

As I walked past the Banyan Tree again, I thought of all the men and women who had died in the seemingly endless war against the mafia.  When asked how, despite all the people who had been murdered, many of them close friends and colleagues, and despite all the death threats he continued to receive, he found the courage – and the will – to go on, Falconi would refer to an old saying:

‘Chi tace e chi piega la testa muore ogni volta che lo fa,/Chi parla e chi cammina a testa alta muore una volta sola.’  Those who remain silent and look the other way die every time they do so,/Those who speak up and walk with their heads held high die only once.


In the distance, Gallipoli.


Simples, a Controversial Cactus and a Black Swan in a Quarry Garden

It’s time for a garden visit.  Even the most passionate gardener needs a break from poring over all those seed catalogues.  Admittedly Puglia, with its long, dry summers and all that limestone is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of gardens, but after a bit of digging around I found one that rivals anything I’ve seen in Tuscany or Italy’s northern Lake District.

I was a little worried about finding it. The hotel staff in Lecce, only 30 k to the north, didn’t seem to know anything about it and the website directions were not encouraging.  The on ramp to the SS16, the most direct route, was closed. PER CAUSE “SCONOSCIUTE”.  The quotations marks around ‘unknown’ struck me as vaguely ominous.


The garden is still something of an undiscovered treasure. As I drove along the isolated country roads I began to wonder.

It’s called La Cutura, from cute (coo-tay), local dialect for pietra (pyay-truh).  Stone.  The first time I saw the name, I did that misreading thing where we unconsciously ‘correct’ typos.  ‘Why do we make mistakes?  Blame your brain, the original autocorrector’ is a wonderfully entertaining rant/explanation by Yuka Igarashi about how our brains fool us into seeing things that aren’t there and unseeing things that are, all in an effort to help us comprehend the world around us (The Guardian, Aug. 9, 2013).   In case you think you’re immune, try ‘reading’ the following:  I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mind.   Surprised?  I was.  And also unnerved.  Although I was glad to learn I’m not the only one who yells at her computer.  Who wants to think they have anything in common with the generation that used to yell at their TV?  In fairness, those TV’s didn’t have Autocorrect, which, after much yelling and jabbing the keys, seems to have finally resigned itself to the fact that Igarashi’s first name is not Luka. There was also something perversely reassuring about Igarashi’s contention that ‘Anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfunctioning human’.  Something to keep in mind the next time, after I’ve gone over and over a post, I still find a couple of typos lingering around.

In any event, on my first read, I – or rather my brain – had added an ‘l’ and I had ‘seen’ La Cultura.  Culture.   As things turned out, my mistake was of the felicitous kind.


The austere entrance – the courtyard of an 18th century masseria (fortified farmhouse) – gives little hint of the garden beyond.

I was somewhat sceptical of the website’s description of the garden.  Such things tend to be on the florid side in Italian, but this one was especially so.   La Cutura is not just a garden, but a museum of life that stimulates the visitor’s most hidden senses, awakening a profound desire to learn not felt since childhood. A place born in stone where the visitor is overwhelmed by the marvel of existence and the perfect harmony of nature and pleasure.

I decided to take things easy and start with the Giardino dei Semplici.  Garden of the Simples.


The cows and their calves who once grazed within the walls have long been replaced by a variety of ‘simples’.  Plants like sage, artemisia, lavender and mint, all the herbs and medicinal plants of the medieval convent garden.


Hidden amongst the roses and other showy perennials apparently there are some herbs.

Comparisons are odious, I know, but as I walked around the walled garden – which frankly looked more like a rose garden than an herb garden – I couldn’t help thinking of another garden of ‘simples’ I’d visited.  The Jardin des Simples at the Château de Villandry in the Loire.  (‘Of Cabbages and Kings, Aug. 17, 2014) With its extravagant topiary and geometrically clipped borders, it was hard to see how the French garden had anything in common with the one I was in right now.


Those medieval monks must have used a lot of rose water in their tinctures. Or maybe they made a lot of rose hip tea.

Here the plants were allowed to grow freely, to all appearances untouched by human hands.  If the herb garden was any indication, this was not like any botanical garden I’d ever visited. I headed to the Giardino Roccioso. The Rock Garden.


Was it the ancient walls that added to the sense you really were on a voyage of discovery?

If I hadn’t been following the guide I would never have guessed I was in a rock garden. The first thing that hits you is the Opuntia.  50 varieties of it and all absolutely gorgeous.


In May the Opuntia, aka Prickly Pear, looks like it’s covered in roses.

I’d always associated rock gardens with pristine, somewhat austere, alpine settings.  Or minimalist scree-type creations.


It’s hard to see the rocks for the Opuntia. Which is more amazing – the blooms or the thorns?

I tore myself away from the Opuntia to an area that looked more like a traditional rock garden.  Although even here the rocks were overshadowed by a fabulous collection of artfully half-buried amphoras.


Looking for some more atmosphere in your garden? Try a cleverly half-buried amphora or two.

The Rock Garden was designed to recreate the landscapes of South America where many of these plants originate. In addition to the Opuntia, there are 80 varieties of Agave and ‘numerous’ varieties of cacti.


As this Agave unfolds, the spikes leave a fascinating pattern.

It was the botanical equivalent of being a kid in a candy jar.


And when you remembered to look up, there were more of nature’s diversità affascinanti.


With so much going on a ground level it’s easy to miss the plants towering above.


Peppino, the owner of Giardino Il Ravino on Ischia had called these colour variations ‘anomalies’.

There are 11 gardens in all, so you have to push on if you want to see the whole thing.  Next to the so-called Rock Garden is La  Serra  (sair-ruh) di Piante Grasse e Tropicali.  The Greenhouse of  Succulents and Tropical Plants.  Note the double ‘r’ in serra.  You don’t want to be caught wishing someone a pleasant greenhouse.   (Buona sera – Good Evening – has only one ‘r’.  Bwoh-nuh seh-ruh)

In any event the outdoor gardens were so captivating I wasn’t keen on ‘wasting’ time in the greenhouse.  That would have been a BIG mistake.  Luckily, on one of my visits I managed to join a guided visit led by Dr. Salvatore Cezzi, the creator of La Cutura.


The greenhouse is enormous.  It has to be to contain the 2,000 or so succulents and tropical plants that Dr. Cezzi had collected over the previous four decades.


Despite his reputation as a world-renowned expert in the genre, Dr. Cezzi was a surprisingly low-key guide. Maybe he knew the plants would speak for themselves.


In all the confusion and amidst all those thorns it’s a wonder this plant managed to pull off even one bloom. Yet look at all those buds.


The essence of ‘higgledy-piggledy’.


I wonder if fashion designers visit places like this for inspiration.


Good thing they move so fast. I was so focused on the plants I might have stepped on one of them.


Most of the flowers were red, but there were a few pink ones.


A shoe shot. In case you thought the pink flower was one of those little gems.

Some of the plants were just plain unbelievable.


Looks so soft and furry.


They say seeing is believing, but even as I stood staring at it and even as I look back on my own (unadulterated) photo I have a hard time believing this is for real.

And then there were the monsters and the crests.  Those are actually the accepted botanical terms for what we were looking at.  The bizarre shapes are a result of a disruption in the normal function of the apical meristem, which, for the initiated like me, is the plant’s growth centre.  Its HQ.  In a nutshell, this is how it goes.  In the normal course of events the apical meristem produces new cells from a single point and the new cells push the older cells outward in a more or less symmetrical pattern.  Which is why stems and branches are roundish.  But now and then something comes along – a change in light intensity, bacteria, hail, an insect infestation, some well-meaning person over-waters the plant – and the cells start growing along a line instead of from a single point.  Now, instead of expanding outward in all directions, the plant starts to flatten, resulting in fans and crest-like protuberances.  Not surprisingly – remember the striped aberrations that went for astronomical prices during the 17th century Tulip mania? – the mutations have become coveted collectors’ items.


A modern – or is it post-modern? – sculpture by Mother Nature. Myrtilocactus geometrizan crestato.

Personally, I’m not into mutants.  As much as I love the striped tulips – especially the pale green, pink and white ones – there is something creepy about beauty caused by a virus or a bacterial infection.  A bit further on was a gorgeous, more or less normal clump – I’m not sure if the upright bits are part of the snaking thing at its base – that had sprouted flowers in my favourite colour.


With all the strange and wonderful things grabbing our attention, the group started to splinter.  Some of us fell behind while others went on ahead.  Dr. Cezzi didn’t seem at all fazed by this until, all of a sudden he got molto agitato and in a tone that was markedly at odds with the laid-back approach we’d seen so far, called us over to where he was standing.  Next to a plant we had barely glanced at.


There is more to this plant than meets the eye.

The unassuming-looking little plant is called Hoodia gordonii and Dr. Cezzi was so agitated because it is at the centre of one of the most egregious cases of biopiracy in recent times.  Nomadic Bushmen, who have long known of its ability to suppress appetite, eat the stems to stave off hunger during long hunting trips to the deserts of South Africa and Namibia, its natural habitat.  But when agents from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research learned of its appetite suppressing qualities, they saw not a plant that helps humans survive extremely harsh conditions, but a plant that in the multi-million dollar weight-loss industry would make them a lot of money.  They lost no time patenting the plant and then sold the rights to Unilever, one of the largest packaged-food firms in the world, who began a world-wide campaign marketing hoodia products as an all-natural, easy way to lose weight.   Even the BBC (in 2003) and 60 Minutes (Nov. 21, 2004) aired shows on the miracle plant.  Many of the Bushmen had their land confiscated and taken over by outsiders eager to cash in on the craze.  As collectors and growers poached the plant in its natural habitat, the Bushmen found fewer and fewer on their hunting trips and it ended up on the (ever-growing) list of endangered plants.  Despite numerous lawsuits and controversies as to its effectiveness and safety as a weight loss tool, hoodia products are still being sold.

Chastened, we followed Dr. Cezzi outside.  There was no gradual transition.  We went straight from the desert to a lush, tropical pond.


The lily pad pond is topped up with water from a cistern that stores rain water.

Nearby was Il Bosco.  It was like we were on a mini tour of the world through its trees.  A couple of spiky ones really caught my attention.


The spiky trunk of the Silk Floss Tree from the tropical and subtropical forests of South America.

Unlike the Silk Floss Tree, which while impressive didn’t pose any real danger – unless I suppose you tripped and fell onto its trunk, a tree close by was another matter.  As we approached it, Dr. Cezzi warned us not to get too close.  The thorns coming out of the trunk of this tree were more like miniature lances.  Get impaled on one of these and you’d be in serious trouble.  Its official name is Acacia erioloba, but it’s more commonly known as the Giraffe Thorn Tree.


This native to the drier parts of southern Africa can grow up to 17 meters tall.  Perfect for a giraffe.


Somehow giraffes, who go crazy for the leaves, manage to get their tongues around the long thorns without getting stabbed.

As I learned more about La Cutura, it began to have a surprisingly familiar ring.  La Cutura was created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  There is a garden on Canada’s west coast that was also created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  Dr. Cezzi, who had created La Cutura, was an ex-banker.  The woman who was largely responsible for creating the garden in Canada was the wife of a retired cement mogul.  Close enough.  If they’d lived in the same country, they would undoubtedly have travelled in the same social circles.   And, a final serendipitous touch, the Canadians called their haven Benvenuto,  Italian for ‘Welcome’.  Although nowadays – many of you will already have guessed – the world knows it as Butchart Gardens.

At the far edge of the property was the newest addition to the gardens – the Roseto (roh-zay-toe).  Rose Garden.


Il Roseto, ‘born’ in 2010.  Dr. Cezzi was not happy. There had been a heavy rain the night before and the roses were sciupate (shoe-pah-tay). Ruined.


I thought they looked lovely.

Often, as I walk through the gardens of Italy – and France – I’ve noticed that after a while I begin to lose that sense of being in a foreign country.  In any country really.  Even if the plants and design are quite different from those back home. Even if the people around me are not all speaking English. Maybe it has something to do with some universal quality of gardens.  Or maybe with the daily exposure to languages from all over the world that are part of living in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto.  In any event, the view beyond the garden fence – the vegetables, poppies, grape vines and the huge olive trees – left no doubt as to where I was.


A classic farmer’s field in Puglia.

What did seem strange – out of place almost – was the Giardino all’Italiana.


The clipped boxwood and yew and the formal geometry of the (so-called) classic Italian garden.

It had the strangest effect on me.  As if I’d been transported back to Tuscany. The only other time this had happened was in the Giardini Giusti in Verona, where a homesick exile from Tuscany had created a garden to remind of his homeland. (In the City of Star-Crossed Lovers, Apr. 5, 2016)  The Pugliesi are very proud of their region.  Somehow I got the feeling this garden was less about a longing for somewhere else, than a desire to show that the (oft-maligned) ‘heel’ of Italy could produce a garden that rivalled those of the much more famous – and much more visited region in the north.


Way off to one side was an enormous fenced off area.  Signs reminded visitors to ensure the gates were firmly closed behind them.  This was the realm of the fauna – over 100 animali da cortile e ornamentali.  I recognized the screeching of one of the ornamental animals long before I reached the gate.


The peacock is a well-loved symbol of immortality throughout southern Italy. And it seems to know it.


I had to wait quite a while before it deigned to turn around.

There were all sorts of ‘courtyard’ animals too.


There have to be a couple of eyes in there somewhere. Love the foot covers.


Having a bad hair day?

Off to one side was a fenced area with a large pond.  Sitting on the island in the middle of the pond was the symbol of all things that cannot be, that should not be.  But, now and then are.  A black swan.  The creature that up until the end of the 17th century, when Dutch explorers ‘discovered’ them in western Australian, was believed to be as real as the unicorn. Not long before this trip I had read a fascinating book about black swans.  Only the swans in this book were of a featherless nature. They were the highly improbable, highly impactful events or circumstances that according to the author, Nassim Taleb, have been responsible for almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments in the history of mankind and the world.  And will continue to do so.

It’s pretty heady stuff, but it’s not as heavy going as you might think.  Taleb, clearly seeking to attract as wide a readership as possible, writes in a surprisingly un-expert style and breaks concepts down into easily digestible bits like ‘How to Learn from the Turkey’, ‘Remembrance of Things Not Quite Past’, ‘To Be Wrong with Infinite Precision’ and one of my favourites – ‘Learning from Mother Nature, the Oldest and the Wisest.’  The book is called “The Black Swan:  The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE.”  Irresistible.


Enterprising explorers brought back black swans – the feathered variety – to England where private collectors paid handsome prices for the ‘exotics’, but over the years many of them escaped and headed to more natural habitats, where they now pose a serious threat – they are extremely aggressive, even apparently to humans – to the white natives.


When the black swan got up and headed for the water, I thought, Uh oh!,  but he and his two white companions seem to have reached some sort of détente.  Not a feather was ruffled.

It was a long walk back to the entrance, which gave me lots of time to notice things I’d missed earlier and to think about what a wonderful experience it had been.  And one I had just stumbled on by chance.  Why wasn’t La Cutura better known?  Why wasn’t it more crowded? (Not that I didn’t mind having so much of it to myself.)  In comparison, close to a million visitors go to Canada’s Butchart Gardens, every year.  Granted, and I feel safe I’m not being swayed by national pride when I say this, the gardens at Butchart are on a grander scale.  But still.  Perhaps La Cutura shares the same fate as many of Italy’s wonderful gardens. Even those in Tuscany.  There are just too many other, must-see sites vying for the tourist’s limited time.  Maybe, as more of us Slow Travellers hit the roads, there will be more visitors to lesser known treasures like La Cutura.