In the deep south of Italy, surrounded by crystal-clear waters and 500 miles of Adriatic and Ionian coastline, is the enclave of Puglia that sits on the sun-baked heel of the Boot. I first visited years ago and fell in love with its sleepy whitewashed villages, colorful folk traditions, its unique trulli set amongst olive trees, endless plates of mouth-watering food and some of the most gracious people in all of Italy.
More than 800 of the gargantuan trees at the ancient olive farm, Antica Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni, are considered natural monuments. With their gnarled and knotted trunks, many are upwards of 3000 years old.
The city of Lecce dates back to Magna Graecia, but because of its exquisite Baroque architecture it is known as the Florence of the South. The architectural style in Lecce is so distinctive that it was given its own name – “Barocco Leccese.“ The city’s opulent palaces and churches are built with Lecce stone, which has been used since ancient times.
Food is a surefire way to get to the heart of a culture and makes travel to Puglia ever-rewarding. Puglia’s tradition of rustic “cucina povera” centers around freshness and simplicity. The cherries are amazing, as is the burrata, focaccia and the orecchiette con cima di rape (with broccoli rabe), just to mention a few.
Puglia has plenty of charming towns ideal for leisurely wandering including Martina Franca; the labyrinthine whitewashed streets of Locorotondo and Ostuni; and the hobbit-like trulli of Alberobello (along with the stunning seaside towns of Polignano a Mare, Otranto and Gallipoli).
The town of Polignano a Mare has dedicated a statue and waterfront to the great Italian singer Domenico (Mimmo) Modugno (popularly known as Mr. Volare) who was born there in 1928. Mimmo was a singer, songwriter, actor, parliamentarian and three-time Grammy award winner.
His song Nel Blu Dipinto De Blu, popularly known as Volare, became a huge international hit in 1958 and sold over 30 million records. It also won him his first Grammy award (and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show 😉
But what makes Puglia so appealing is its authenticity. Things move at a slower pace and people will always make time for you. Everyone is so proud of their region; they don’t mind when you take photos and are keen to help in any way they can.
The popular expression “dog days of summer” has exactly zero to do with the effects of intense summer heat on our canine friends. Both ancient and celestial in origin, the phrase was translated from Latin to English about five hundred years ago and has since morphed in meaning—a common tendency when people don’t know the true origin of a phrase and seek some plausible explanation … perhaps it comes from a day when the weather is so hot that dogs lie around panting and acting lifeless and lazy; or a day not fit for a dog; or a day so hot even mad dogs and Englishmen can’t handle it. The phrase lives on but the original meaning has been long forgotten.
During Roman times (and back to the time of the ancient Greeks as well) there was a period when the dog star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, rose and set with the sun. This phenomenon occurred for about forty days between early July and mid-August. The Romans thought the combination of the brightest light of the day, the sun, and what was normally the brightest star at night, Sirius, was responsible for the most extreme heat of the summer season. The star sometimes seemed to glow with other colors, and they believed its reddish radiance augmented the heat of the sun.
Geminus, a Greek astronomer from Rhodes, in 70 BCE had a more accurate view: “It is generally believed that Sirius produces the heat of the ‘dog days’ but this is an error, for the star merely marks a season of the year when the sun’s heat is at its greatest.”
Still, the contemporary interpretation of “dog days” has a certain resonance, maybe even appeal, especially in non-pandemic times when one could venture to the ball park on a summer afternoon: hot dogs anyone?!