Last Night In Ostuni

June 15, 2010, continued…

This wasn’t only our last night in Ostuni — it was our last night in Italia. At least for this trip. If it weren’t for the California wedding reception coming up in four days, I would be getting sad. But we still had one glorious evening left, and we were going to celebrate!

It looked like we weren't the only ones celebrating

Not far into the old part of Ostuni, we saw our daily bride. We called out “Auguri!” to the newlyweds, and in unison they responded, “Grazie!”

Just beyond, Gino veered us into a small artist’s workshop. It was filled with a collection of small, smooth rock slabs decorated with various scenes of Ostuni.

The artist explained and demonstrated how he delicately scratches intricate scenes onto pieces of stone slabs. It is quite labor intensive, but the result is incredibly beautiful. Gino, who has a discerning eye for art, could not resist taking a piece of this amazing art home. If you get to Ostuni, make sure to visit Bottega d’Arte di Croci Sisinni on Via Cattedrale.

Deeper into the old town we went, burning the images into our minds so we would never forget.

This huge painted vase would certainly
remind you of Ostuni

We came upon a wine bar and lounge called Gipas 111. Music with a Middle Eastern tinge emanated from the interior. That was enough to pull me in. We plopped ourselves on two of the black, poofy bean bag seats scattered about the small courtyard.

The outdoor bars in Ostuni have the coolest seats!

Look up from your drink and this is what you'll see

Last call!

All of a sudden, the wind came up, swooshing through a corridor and into the space where we sat. It was enough to not only snuff the candles on our drink table, but knock off a glass lantern on the other side of the walkway. The lantern fell, crashing loudly and spraying glass over the stones. A waiter rushed over with a broom and swept it up as best he could.

More of Ostuni's outdoor bar seating

Our steps slowed — not from weariness, but reticence. It was time to return to our hobbit house to prepare for our departure early the next morning. But instead of getting right to the task of packing up for the plane trip home, we took two glasses and the last of the Prosecco up to the rooftop terrace.

We sat there a long time, savoring the skyline views of Ostuni and contemplating the unsurpassed warmth and friendliness we had found in the people of Puglia. Then, with a sigh, we went inside to pack.

Our neighbor, an Italian dachshund,
to remind us of our own back home

But we won’t say goodbye yet! The next post is something you won’t want to miss!

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Masseria Asciano

After our excursion to the beach, we returned to our hobbit house. As we opened the door, a note fluttered out. It was from Tim, inviting us to come with him later to a nearby masseria (farmhouse) that produces its own olive oil. A friend of his would drive us all in her car — just meet them at Caffé Trieste on the corner of the piazza.

The excursion sounded fun. At the appointed place and time, we met Tim and his friend, an Italian woman who also spoke perfect English. She drove us to Masseria Asciano, an agriturismo a mere four kilometers (about two and a half miles) from Ostuni.

Agriturismo is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of agriculture and tourism. Farmhouses have been converted, renovated, or expanded to create farm “resorts” where guests can experience life in rural Italia. The food served at these houses is usually grown or produced right there on the farm. Often, they provide an opportunity for guests to participate in the activities of the farm.

Masseria Asciano was such a place. Not only does it offer accommodations in a peaceful, relaxing setting, it actively produces high quality olive oil. The grounds cover over 170 acres of olive trees — 12,500 of them! These gorgeous trees are the lords of this land: ancient, gnarled, knobby trunks topped with masses of silvery-green leaves. They are regal, worthy of great respect.

A young woman met us as we stepped out of the car. Although she spoke no English, she set about giving us an olive oil tasting tour. I was pleased to find I could understand most everything she said.

The masseria was lovely. A long portico lined with huge glossy terracotta urns led into the large tasting room. Inside, a table was set up with several bottles of different types of olive oil, a stack of tiny plastic cups alongside. Our host explained the production process, from tree to table. Then, describing the subtleties of the different varieties, had us taste each. The oil was sublime.

Olive oil containers

Imagine this on your dining table, filled with delicious oil

This was how the olives were crushed in the old days

Back in town after our brief tour, Gino and I said arrivederci to Tim and Angela, then made a beeline to the centro storico. This was where we wanted to spend our last evening in Italia.

Torre Pozzelle Beach

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Today we woke up with a bittersweet feeling. This was the last full day of our trip. But we still had a fun day at the ocean ahead of us. We hoofed it down to Annamaria’s bar for our prima colazione and to check email for a response  from Matera about my jacket.  Nothing yet.

Anna Maria (behind the bar) and her sister at Tito Schipa Bar

Annamaria suggested we stop by at lunchtime. They’d be making some good food. We thanked her but said we’d be at the beach by then. She suggested a couple of beaches to try. Back at the Hobbit House, we gathered a few things for the day and struck out.

Getting to the sea was a short, uncomplicated drive, and without any problem we found the beach we had picked from the map: Torre Pozzelle. This part of the Adriatic coastline is wild and unspoiled, a meandering line of small coves and inlets. Although stretches of the shores have patches of soft sand, they are mostly dotted with rough rocks and scraggly scrub brush.

There weren’t very many people on the beach, but it was still fairly early. Staking out a spot on some smooth rocks a bit away from the sandy beach, we spread out our towels and lazed in the sun. I had brought along a book I found on the shelf in our room: Chocolat. I loved the movie, and now the book was proving just as good.

Look at the color of that water! And the guy is pretty cute, too!

Gino ventured into the water, but when he got out, suggested we move to the sand since the rocks made it rather difficult to climb back up.

We had been told that there was a small bar at this beach where one could buy provisions. There was, but it was closed. Gino saw another one down a dirt lane and went to check it out while I stayed with our things. He returned with drinks and reported that we could get panini and all kinds of food there, which later we did.

After a couple of hours of swimming and reading, we decided to hike over to a crumbling stone tower down the coastline a bit. Although through reading I knew that this was Torre Pozzelle, there was no identifying sign other than Ingresso Vietato — pericolo di crollo, advising us to keep out since the tower was in danger of falling.

It is this tower that also lends its name to the beach. Now in a sorry state of neglect, this 500-year-old structure must have been imposing when it was first erected to defend the coastline against the repeated invasions that Puglia has suffered over the centuries.

We walked up close and circled it, imagining how it must have appeared in its glory days. I was heartened to learn that there is a movement afoot to save this historical monument and keep it from further deterioration. It hope it succeeds.

Wandering farther out onto one of the rocky reefs, we stooped over to watch a blow hole. Every time a wave came in, an explosion of water would gush up then recede, like a flushing toilet. We stood awhile gazing out to sea, marveling at the intense blue-green of the water glittering in the afternoon sun before returning to the car for the short jaunt back to Ostuni.

It had been a great day at the beach

The Restaurant of Lost Time

Although you can easily get lost amongst the twists and turns of the historic center, this area is not so large that you can’t eventually find what you’re looking for. And we found what we had been seeking: Osteria del Tempo Perso (Restaurant of Lost Time). It was an odd name name for an eating establishment, but when we stepped inside we understood why.

The entrance to Osteria del Tempo Perso

The exterior of the restaurant reminded me of the Minerva formations at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming: rounded terraces of marshmallowy travertine. The entrance to the Osteria seemed to have been scooped up from Minerva and plopped here.

Restaurant of Lost Time

Inside, the restaurant is separated into two main rooms: the grotto and the museum room. You can dine in the museum room while admiring walls now adorned with tools and items once used in daily Ostuni life. Or you can dine in the grotto, a cozy enclosure with curved ceilings, stony arches and alcoves.

Truly a grotto, this cave once served as a huge bakery dating back to 1500. The honey-colored walls are still rough-hewn, but the atmosphere is anything but rustic. Large terra cotta urns sit inside niches carved into the walls. Stone shelves are lined with rows of Pugliese wine. Soft lighting casts a golden glow over the room, creating an elegant, intimate atmosphere. You want to come in, sit down, and never leave.

From the menu, we chose dishes typical to this region, wanting to taste Puglia as well as see it. I couldn’t help but order a side dish of that fabulous fave e cicorie that I had enjoyed in Matera. We stuffed ourselves, all the way from antipasto to dessert. (I learned later that this restaurant is recommended by the Slow Food Association, and they are not wrong.)

During the meal, a table of boisterous Italians were seated nearby, obviously in vacanza like us. Their merry-making was infectious, and we lifted our glasses to each other more than once.

Well sated (more like stuffed), we lumbered back to the piazza. By now we could hear loud music and the swell of applause emanating from that direction. Crowds of people blocked our view until we weaseled our way closer. On the portable stage, a local talent show of sorts was in full swing.

Enthralled, we watched as modern dancers, two ballerinas, a hip-hop posse, a group of young fencers, and even a lone body-builder entertained us and the rest of Ostuni late into the evening. We stayed until the last wisps from the fog machine drifted away. Then we did, too.

Piazza della Liberta’

The heart of Ostuni is Piazza della Libertá. Sitting at the cusp of the old historic center and the “new” town, this square serves as the community living room where Ostuni’s inhabitants gather for events or just hang out, day or night.

A towering obelisk overlooks the piazza. Created by sculptor Giuseppe Creco in 1771, this column looks more like an elongated Baroque pyramid, sporting winged putti and topped by St. Oronzo, the patron saint of Ostuni. From his bird’s eye view, he can see everything in the piazza. And here is where all the action happens.

From the piazza, our apartment was but a five-minute walk. Back in our little hobbit house, we uncorked the chilled Prosecco and sat on the rooftop balcony, enjoying a glass or two of this Italian version of Champagne. The sun was sinking and we were getting hungry. We had seen plenty of restaurants to choose from during our walkabout.

The air was still warm. I wouldn’t need a coat tonight, I thought to myself. But where was my coat? Then I remembered. It was still tucked deep into the far corner of that armadio in our previous hotel…back in Matera. I was crestfallen. It was my favorite jacket! Oh well, too late now. I would email the hotel later and see if they could send it back to California for me.

From our rooftop terrace,
a view of the buildings that border the piazza

Ready for dinner, we wandered back towards the historic center, passing through Piazza della Libertá on our way. One end of the piazza was fenced off. Curious, we veered over to have a look. A few feet below, the crumbling remains of an ancient stone structure was slowly coming to light. What other treasures lie below, we wondered, just waiting for archaeologists to dig their way down and reveal them?

An archaeological excavation at the edge of Piazza della Liberta'

You just never know what lies beneath your feet!

Piazza della Liberta’ is dominated by the facade of the municipio
which is decorated with rows of statues such as this one

You can have a crepe while you people-watch

Piazza della Liberta' -- Ostuni's open-air living room

The action in the piazza was already picking up. A large stage was set up at one end with huge speakers off to the sides and lights pointing downward from tall poles. Something was definitely happening here tonight. And we had no intention of turning in early.

Doors of Ostuni: Inside and Out

After our tour with Tim, we understood the layout of the town and struck out on our own. One narrow passageway led to another, so we simply wandered, letting the spiraling streets unfold without any particular plan. I’ve mentioned before that I love quirky doors. In Ostuni, there were plenty and they came in all colors.

Down one of the alleys, we came upon a man sitting on a step, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wore bright red shorts and no shirt or shoes. “Buona sera,” we said to each other as we strolled past. But then he called us back. After we chatted a few minutes, he asked if we’d like to peek inside his home a few steps away to read about his famous mother. Of course, we said yes.

This was where he lived

An old newspaper article hung from the wall. It told how his then 87-year old mother had landed a bit part as an actress in a movie that had been filmed in Ostuni thirteen years ago: I Figli di Annibale — The Children of Hannibal. Words painted above the doorway stated that this was where the locally-famous “Nonna Vita” had lived.

Our impromptu host put his fingers to his lips. “Shh…” With an impish grin, he motioned for us to peer further into the home. Through a pretty archway was a bed, and in the bed, a sleeping woman — at least until she sensed someone was present.

Poking her head out from the covers, she realized the joke her husband was playing on her. As she started yelling indignantly at him, we quickly ducked back outside, our new friend right behind us, giggling.

His sleepy wife was not amused by her husband's practical joke

Stifling laughs and wishing him luck, we waved goodbye and hastened further down the alley, searching for more doors to admire. Feast your eyes.

Keep in mind I'm 4'11"

The door knockers were cool, too


Gino was still thinking he was in Mykonos

Ostuni — The White City

Tim, the owner of our Casa Esmeralda, arrived promptly at 4:00 to give us an orientation tour of the town.  First he walked us around the “new” part. Developed in the 18th and 19th century, the newer section has incorporated the architectural style of the older part, but with straighter streets. The houses and steps up to the houses were all white. I felt I was in Greece rather than Italy.

This arched alley led the way to our little street

A street in the "new" part of town

After showing us a couple of his favorite restaurants in this neighborhood, Tim led us around the outer edge of town, fortified by ancient stone walls. This vantage point offered a dramatic and sweeping vista onto the valley below. We learned this entire area had been home to a prehistoric population 50,000 years ago.

Then came the crowning jewel of this enchanting city: the atmospheric centro storico — the old historic center. By comparison, this part of town was really old. It had been established by the Greeks, which explains its Cycladic-style architecture. It was in the first century, B.C.E. that the Greeks gave this place its name. Ironically, they christened this old part of town astu-neon — “new city” — now pronounced Ostuni.

Although this area of town was anything but new, it was pristine. I saw little peeling paint and few crumbling facades, although I admit I find the delicate decay that I see in some parts of Italy quite enchanting. These walls, however, were well kept.

We followed Tim into a tangle of labyrinthine paths, curling alleys of dazzling white, punctuated by doors and windows in colors of Easter eggs and Greek-blue. Marshmallow stairways melted around corners, leading us up and down. Graceful arches curved overhead, shadowing the sun. I was breathless — and not from the walk.

 


For a minute, Gino thought he was in Mykonos.

I’ll have a Campari and soda with that view, please

Tim led us down one tucked-away alley strewn with plump plastic beanbag seats in lime green. “This is one of the happening bars,” he explained. Techno music was already wafting from the darkened interior, dimly lit by pinpoints of light. We walked in to get a better look. This would be a cool place to spend an evening.  But right now, there was too much to see outside.