There is a saying in my town specifically coined to yell at someone who is evidently and frustratingly not using their brain to its full potential. When you thus lose the last shred of patience in your being, you are allowed to ask with vehemence, in the local dialect for maximum effect: “Do you have tuff in your head?”
Ingrained in my mind, it is a struggle at times not to voice the curse. But then — although I still believe it is something quite terrible to say to someone — secretly, I have always found the expression rather refined.
A reminder of home, it never fails to make me smile as I wonder why, amid all the inanimate things in the world that could disparagingly be in the place of a brain to justify somebody’s momentary stupidity, it was the tuff, the object that was picked. As it happens, tuff in my area is something rather precious since it is, literally, the rock this region is built of. Not to mention on.This region is Puglia, in Italy, and the tuff quarried in the local caves is predominantly what gives its towns that characteristic and typically white, yellowish hue. It is the rock most houses and churches in the area were built of, the rock the castles towering above the towns were built of, high up on hills where originally were the Greek-Roman acropolis.
But most importantly, tuff in big bricks placed with rough accuracy one over the other, with soil made muddy by rare showers acting as cement, constitutes the low walls that define the border between one plot of land and the other in the Puglian countryside. Claiming property, they are glimpses of white amid the camouflage greens and browns of vineyards and centenary olive trees.
Puglia is the region that makes the heel of the Italian boot. It goes from the spur to the tip of the smaller peninsula, where you can watch the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea crash and merge together in Leuca, where Punta Meliso is the most Southerly point of the region.
It is a region where the sea dominates, where lighthouses are amid the most important constructions and the coast lasts for miles, more than in any other Italian region, from the mountainous shores in the Gargano with its deep and rocky seabed, to the white pristine sands in the southern Salento.
A region full of natural, stark beauty, of culture and tradition, of great food, however a region for decades inconspicuous in the scale of Italian regions per importance, with no precise identity nor peculiar characteristics to an outsiders’ eyes.
I believe, up until a few years ago, not even an Italian would have been able to name something relevant about Puglia, not even when allowed to fall into some sort of stereotype about food, stark personality traits or criminal organisations that might make some other Italian area more renowned.
It has been, for a long time — borrowing Dante’s description of the sinners of indifference in the Divine Comedy — a region without infamy or praise, made of breath-taking landscapes and people happy to keep it hushed, living their tranquil life and carrying on with their own traditions, all perfectly contained in the region’s borders.
The premise in explanation of Puglia’s anonymity serves the purpose to justify my surprise when, last summer, I was in my hometown, scrolling through Instagram, realising that the average Instagram influencer, blogger or celebrity was apparently on holiday in my ‘unknown’ region, taking oneiric but always glam pictures in floaty dresses or linen Bermuda shorts, posing smilingly against those aforementioned tuff walls, with a background of centuries-old olive trees looking a bit tested from the heat, captioned with the first results you get when you google ‘La Dolce Vita quotes’.
And while I was mere kilometres away, lying on the floor in the middle of the heatwave, mundanely hoping for death, I realised, that all of a sudden and surely for some reason, just as the olive groves and the tuff had become mainstream picture props, my region had acquired some sort of glamour appeal – it had become an Instagram destination.
In its still unassuming nature, Puglia, used to a dozy kind of tourism, has been invaded in the past years by an unexpected wave of visitors.
They have been appreciating the seaside as much as, unexpectedly, the towns of the hinterland, where the community is not accustomed to it and scratches its head at this celebration and curiosity towards something that, fundamentally, is to them, ordinary life, tradition, architecture and sceneries that have been thoroughly lived, streets walked on, on a daily basis.
In Bari, the capital of the region, the streets of the old town, with houses on the ground level, have become tourists’ hot spots for their buzzing activities. They are considered alleys, the living room of a bigger house that as soon as the temperatures reach the 10 degrees mark are populated by its inhabitants: chairs are taken outside to sit, chat and gossip, while peeling vegetables for lunch or hand-making pasta, sharing daily errands with a nonchalance that comes from habit.
Puglia has had, in the past, waves of tourism that mostly came from nearer regions, but it never managed to become a famous destination until now. Without exactly being prepared to handle it, out of the blue it has become a vogue locality, and its coastline and countryside suggested in guides and lists of the most beautiful beaches and in travel sections of lifestyle and glamour magazines.
It has meant more businesses catering to this kind of tourism, foreign-oriented, with the rise of a determinate type of structures and amenities for the delivering of holidays offering dreamy beaches and luxury, but also carefully typical accommodations such as picture-perfect masserie, Puglian refurbished farmhouses, to offer an Italian experience with a Puglian twist, a mixture that has contributed to generate the traffic and to make Puglia a sought-after place offering parties, fun and idyllic sceneries, but still maintaining tradition and authenticity.
“I think it’s been really interesting to see how tourism developed in the past years. People are curious because we aren’t really doing things differently, but tourists come here more now, and all the towns, especially in summer, get a crazy increase in population,” says Sara, a resident of Polignano.
Polignano, situated on the central part of Puglia’s coastline is one of the towns that most attract tourists for its crystalline waters and pretty views, its beaches becoming so crowded during summer months it proves to be incredibly hard to even find a spot to sunbathe.
“I get how it happens, like, with social media and brand promotion — I’m sure places here organise all-paid trips for bloggers to spread the voice and stuff, or with all the fashion people like Riccardo Tisci that come here and post about it – but the people here are traditional and often very elderly, especially in the old towns, and maybe they have never travelled and they don’t know about this stuff or do not know that there are other ways of living. They are just happy and amazed that people are interested in their life and come and photograph our buildings and our streets,” Sara tells us.There is then, this beautiful two-ways incommunicability social facet of a world that does not know globalisation yet, the world of Puglia’s old towns, whose tranquillity and beauty is being disrupted by tourism.
“I think for tourists it’s nice as well because people in the south are very friendly and family-oriented so they are open to sharing and they are happy and proud if someone photographs their house and they will probably invite them in for some coffee. But it’s also understandably strange that tourists come here and find it ‘pretty’ or ‘traditional’ to make pasta on a table outside, hang the clothes outside to dry, make dry vegetables or manually harvesting olives, because it’s things we do normally, not as some sort of entertainment. Imagine if someone went to them to photograph their house or them working,” says Sara.
You are likely to witness people pointing a camera at everything looking unusual in Puglia, and locals whose towns have been invaded looking sceptical, first, and then welcoming, with open arms, wanting to involve, to talk and to share for human nature: women teaching people how to make pasta, the artisans how to make wicker baskets, and, in Salento, locals eager to teach the popular dance Pizzica, this ancient but progressive couple tarantella in which it is usually the woman inviting the partner to start courting and which has even its own night dedicated to it, when people from all over the world gather in Taranto for a night of shared fun.
I have been treasuring this memory from a few months ago, of some foreign tourists in my town eagerly photographing a newsagent. Up until then, that little newsagent in the piazza, with the newest issues of magazines hanging outside the door, had been to me just the place whose owner I would be pestering for my magazines and nagging for never stacking Flash Art. The place I would enter with expectation when I was small, waiting for my Mickey Mouse comic that would always reach our forgotten town at a later date, and with annoyance now that I am used to finding things upon release in a bigger city, foreign to the slow rhythms of my native one.
It was when I suddenly had a vision, and like an Italian watching Journey to Italy – seeing the country with the eyes of a foreigner, I understood those tourists photographing a trivial newsagent because it was picturesque and different, with the same stupor I would feel upon seeing some especially modern and avant-garde business or apparatus the first time I visited London.
The stupor comes from what for us is normality, to preserve things as they were, as they were 40 years ago, because there is no need to renew, or maybe no money, or maybe we are really too attached to the past and to traditions, or maybe a mixture of all of these, that probably has become a bit of an unhealthy duty. But it makes Italy different, and different sometimes, apparently, appeals.You will find entire towns with no trace of modern buildings, laws in place forbidding from newly fabricating, businesses that never brought innovation and that build on the definition of ‘pretty’ and ‘characteristic’ while actually, they are soaked with culture.
There is always some conflict in understanding tourism as a local, and tourism, especially, in Italy has also brought the fascination with Italians’ tranquil and simple lives, something much truer to Puglia, still foreign to the gimmicks and the compromise choices made in the years by more touristic regions.
I have often felt anger at this patronisation and fetishisation of an attitude and of a lifestyle that often some tourists’ behaviour suggests, anger I like to measure on a scale that goes from appreciating Italian food to Italy’s portrayal in the Twilight movies, when we are painted as a population of happy and slightly whimsical peasants dressed in linen and living in these old renaissance buildings while the Americans arrive to bring action in leather jackets and Ferraris — these unknown objects to Italy.
With time, however, I, just as my region, have learned to see, understand, and appreciate the attempts to enjoy and even understand a culture, despite realising that, undeniably, Puglia has become a brand. It is the brand of olive trees and tuff perimeter walls, the brand of streets made of sanpietrini shown in Instagram stories, stepped on by leather roman sandals. And surely the Romans, with their flair for dramatic aesthetics, would have enjoyed this modern celebration of their work.
It is the brand of models and celebrities coming here, and Justin Timberlake unleashing millions of euros to get married amid the tuff in Borgo Egnazia, and an Instagram need for glamour of a life that flows slower on the windy terraces in summer, orange lights and salty air in an antique farmhouse, wine and extra-virgin oil, a view of a swimming pool in an olive grove.
It used to be considered the boring alternative, to stay in a farmhouse. Now, this sudden interest has brought to a surge in luxurious establishments and mainstreaming of all those rural settings in their peculiarity and history of agriculture and farming, transformed in no time in the most stylish and classy masserie and villas you will find in Italy; a tendency moulded on what had already been done in Tuscany.
It tied the holiday at the beach to cultural, gastronomic, and bucolic experiences, which helped de-seasonalise tourism but also meant a disconcerting increase in costs and affluence, turning accessible places in something becoming too exclusive even for the locals.“It’s really strange, when for years you have seen these beaches almost deserted,” says Veronica who is from Ostuni, in the southern part of Puglia, a town spread on a hill and renowned for its white houses and characteristic architecture.
“I mean it’s nice, but not that nice to justify what is happening. Maybe I say this because I have always lived here, though. It’s good that they reckon it’s beautiful here, but they act like they discovered it. No, it’s always been here. But then Emily Rataikovskij or whatever posts a picture on the bay and everybody thinks it’s suddenly the ‘it’ thing to come here. And now we have to fight to find a place on our beaches,” she says.
It is the reason why, in a brief period of time, towns which used to be good spots for a cheap and convenient getaway, offering calm and beautiful beaches or a dreamy countryside, became untouchable for the way they marketed themselves. It is the reason why Alberobello, the town famous for its houses, the trulli, round white buildings with conical self-supported stone roofs, Unesco heritage, has seen a tendency of refurbishing and luxury-equipping them to rent for exorbitant amounts of money.
Italy has turned its philosophy of life and of doing things in a kind of trademark, something which is happening to Puglia as well, starting from its food, which is now exported everywhere.
It is hard, while there is a plethora of Italian restaurants abroad, to see some specialised in regional cuisine, but only in London, in the past few months, I have spotted a few newly-opened restaurants offering exclusively Puglian specialities; a bold choice, especially considering how in Italy there are neat divisions between territorial food — every region has its own dishes they are proud of and only they know how to make properly — which become lost abroad, where everything is under the umbrella of Italian food and a restaurant will serve you both a risotto alla Milanese and a buffalo mozzarella, products belonging to places separated by about eight hundred kilometres.
This philosophy is also often a façade, a perception given from a week spent in this country that would probably start to fade on the eighth day. Once, a woman wanting to know where I had bought my shoes and informed they were from Italy, asked me “why are all the nice things from Italy?”
At the time, although pleased, it made me see how it was something that could not be further away from the truth. There are certain areas in which Italy has affirmed itself and managed to successfully export its values; however, the promising label ‘Made in Italy’ is often frustratingly tied to an inability to support these values with the right funding, education, not to mention openness to an input from other countries in stubborn patriotism. Italy has and still is slowly developing compared to other nations with higher industrialisation and innovation levels; it has been wavering economically for years, stagnant, damaged by corruption and the most disparate social issues.
It has been able, however, to export its most important principles, which apparently still hold some respect. Having lived in other countries, I can say with cognition: life in Italy is slower, made to be tasted, the cities are lived thoroughly, the steps of the churches are made to sit on with friends on a summer night, drinking spritz, every action is done to be savoured, and all of it ties well with tourism. We have managed to maintain, amid the problems, a halo of things that are beautiful and voluptuary, made with care for details and respect for traditions.
The accurate and slow production process that makes for Italy things like organic and natural products customary, has been thus translated to other sectors: we have coined the concept of slow food and we offer not holidays, but concepts of holidays, with the illusion of experiencing something exclusive.
Or maybe it truly is exclusive, but it is also not fairly representative of the area, like pictures in front of olive trees don’t say anything of the olives harvesting, cloths on the soil and poles to shake the trees branches, the time and hard work necessary, the worry of having a poor harvest, the prices in agriculture dropping.
The region is now trying harder to showcase this true personality, especially through the products it exports. Made of fields, Puglia is the first region in Italy for agricultural enterprises, and while its olive oil is one of the most sought-after, its wine and other products are gaining hype, and foods like burrata, panzerotti or hand-made pasta made with burnt wheat, and focaccia, which in Bari you eat to accompany urchins bought directly from fishermen in the port, are becoming staples of Italian cuisine.
Gerardo Inglese, who owns a business which produces gastronomical products from Puglian materia prima, has been trying to break into the British market with his brand. In May 2017, a festival of International food at the ExCel centre in London, where Gerardo showcased his products that gathered large approval from the English — and other — visitors.“Through a web of associations from Puglia which promote local products we took part in the ExCel event. Our objective is to make it big in the British market, considering how high is the demand for Italian products of a certain quality,” Gerardo explained.
“Visitors perceived the craftsmanship of our products, but especially the true made in Italy. I believe products and dishes from Puglia are now amid the most renowned and in demand because we finally have learned how to transform the incredible local sources, creating an added value, enhancing them and promoting them outside our own region,” he says.
“It creates an interesting economy, it creates revenue in the form of tourism, and this combination makes us, as a region and as an economy, acquire more confidence, more faith in what we can do and can offer. This set into motion a mechanism of development, education and internal competition, which I think is benefitting many businesses.”
An emblem of this concept is burrata, the cheese made in a specific area of Puglia, a very niche product which most foreign, especially European countries have recently become obsessed with, and which you can find in many even non-Italian restaurants. It has been said that London is sold more burrata than in the whole Puglia.
Burrata takes its name from burro, butter, for the consistency of its filling of stracciatella, mozzarella scraps mixed with cream, and I cannot think of anything more historically impregnated than these mozzarella pockets full of stracciatella, conserved in leaves of asphodel eaten as a treat on a Sunday; this a true representation of Puglia’s character, that even in the production of something ‘mainstream’ still cannot get rid of tradition.
“Puglia is becoming the territory in which the biggest businesses test their products from north to south of the region before marketing them, because of how diverse and varied it is. This diversity educated us and our palate and therefore influenced the preparation of the gastronomic excellence, from sea products to meats and cheese. If the product works in the whole region it will work in the whole of Italy, and for sure even abroad,” Gerardo says.
“We do not have to underestimate the importance of believing in what we do; sometimes we take it for granted and do not realise that it is essential to promote something to other people who do not know it.”
It is amusing, to think that we, the community, watch entertained and gloating, fuelled by this sudden interest, forgetting our indifference to a beauty that only an external input made us appreciate and start to share. Our coastline, now at its peak of popularity, has a history behind of wilderness and desertion, of violent fire and abandonment after it, of immigration.I remember, when I was small, going to the beaches in the Salento or on the Gargano promontory, at the extremities of Puglia, and finding them unexplored. Me and my sister would — extremely ungratefully, I realise — groan for the whole journey due to our disdain for the beach and for our parents’ stubbornness in sneakily booking, yearly, as part of our summer holidays, a “little week” in an apartment on a beach two hours away from our hometown, to enjoy an even slower life, to support our regional economy and appreciate our territory, the same mind-set, I suppose, that has brought my father to own his own small olive grove even though agriculture is not his job, worried about maintaining the tradition of making his own olive oil.
Our past selves, resigned at being forced to spend even more time in our region, finding excuses for Sunday family trips to a near town, uninterested at classmates recounting of holidays spent on a beach in Salento, would be baffled at people purposely coming to towns like Bari or Locorotondo, or spending thousands of euros to stay in a masseria, of all places, while our present selves are left annoyed at looking for a near getaway and finding our trusty places fully booked.
And we hide behind flattery the awareness that maybe this hype is getting out of hand; my mother, for example, is secretly pleased but feigning indignation, announcing in a shocked tone that the resort we had spent one week at for years had no apartments left for summer. In March.
“Not even one left,” she would say, shaking her head. And it is not as if the place was extremely refined or popular; one of those lidos, in Gallipoli, historically renowned in those all Italians in the 1960s when beach holidays started to gain popularity, one big white concrete building left as it was, with spacious porches like alleys where green doors lead to the apartments, and three steps down a thin strip of white sand that lasts for kilometres.
For this reason, my mother’s indignation was amplified. “Do you know how much they are asking for one week?” she asked. “Thrice what we used to pay. We could go to Greece with that money,” which was not an exaggeration and maybe a little unfair, that somehow it leaves with a feeling of being deprived of something.
Gallipoli is to me, the symbol of this not always positive glamourisation. A town that I used to know like the back of my hands, suitable for families and to a relaxed stay in an area that used to be affordable for everyone.
I have taken the opportunity to go back last summer, since it is now considered the go-to destination for holidays, but found a city that has been completely moulded for tourism and fun, aimed at under-25-year-olds, where it is impossibe to find a spot on those once-deserted beaches or a table at the restaurant of your childhood, while lidos charge you more than forty euros (£35) for a parasol and a sunbed.
A city crowded with some of the most famous nightclubs in Italy, their dance floors right on the sand, hosting the most in-demand DJs of our time. And rather than getting your relaxing stay on a towel on the beach, you will be awakened every 15 minutes by a PR person asking “guys, a table for Martin Garrix tonight or Sean Paul tomorrow?” Because apparently, Gallipoli became the new Ibiza, only more overpriced.
As beaches become prohibitive, town centres noted, traditions exported, what grows is the shock of seeing your home soil, that you found boring and that you left even though underneath you loved it to death, discovered by others.
And you are pleased, but struggle to understand, just as when I find buses of tourists parked in front of the Cathedral in my town, Canosa, that maybe used to be an important pole in the Roman Empire, on the bank of a river, core of the Second Punic War in 216 BC, but now is just a town unable to progress and to valorise its wealth.
And yet there are buses of tourists visiting, because it is the ‘town of archaeology’, and you watch them baffled as they have to enter your former high school to visit the catacombs underneath which every student loathed because they were under constant restoration and blocking access to the courtyard, or the ruins of the tuff castle on the hill, preferred place by the local youth, but only to hide and smoke the first cigarettes.
Tourism builds a façade we happily hide behind, for as soon as we have started to be recognised as a beautiful region we gloat and forget everything else, thinking we are the best regional entity there is, when truly we are swarmed with problems, and what gives us so much praise, tourism, we cannot even handle properly. It helped the crisis, tourism, it helped exportation, but we export, cater to visitors, and ignore what happens inside the borders.
And what happens inside is that despite tourism, unemployment spreads like a wine stain, and there are problems in health-care and transport, in institutions and infrastructure, in stagnant politics and inability to channel funds, while immigrants arrive and there are no suitable buildings to welcome them, and many end up working underpaid in the fields, and we prefer to swipe it like dust under the rug.
Because Meryl Streep loving it enough that she has bought a house in Salento is enough to forget, while we strut like peacocks because everybody seeks a holiday or a second house in our home towns for merits that mainly aren’t human, how before somebody else came and deemed our soil worthy of taking the camera out for a photo, we were blind to how special it is.
Featured Image by Alessio Milan via Flickr CC.
Slideshow Images and Video by Valentina Curci