The province of Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy - it is the source of 80% of Europe's pasta. It is also home to half the Italian olive crop - very evident when travelling by train with kilometre after kilometre of olive groves, interspersed with vines. The land is harsh and rocky, very different to the green rolling hills of Tuscany and northern Italy. Poverty and harsh living conditions resulted in many southern Italians immigrating to Australia, the United States and other wealthy countries, especially post WW2. Now, somewhat ironically, southern Italy has become the home of new waves of immigrants and refugees, fleeing Libya, Algeria, Syria and other neighbouring countries - again, very obvious when travelling on local trains.
Lecce, where I have been based for five nights, is an oasis from the poverty and unemployment that characterises life in Puglia for many people. Lecce has been described as the Florence of the south - a city rich in art, beautifully carved Baroque churches, amazing bookstores, and cafes adorned with the quotes of famous writers. The town's many churches, palazzi and other grand buildings have been crafted from light-coloured stone which is apparently very easy to sculpt. As a result, churches and many buildings are festooned with cherubs, gargoyles, animals, fruits and other carvings. It is a town made for strolling and getting delightfully lost in - except that, unfortunately, there has been an unexpected winter chill for the last few days (12-14 degrees Celsius during the day). As well as wearing four layers of clothes, a woollen hat and scarf, I've been 'compensating' for the cold by eating hearty pasta dishes at lunchtime. One photo shows a local specialty - orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) with wild broccoli - quite tasty, although the addition of some anchovies (I think) made it too salty for me.
I have taken the opportunity to travel by train to some of the neighbouring towns, namely, Otranto and Gallipoli (the Italian town of Gallipoli, not the Turkish battlefields). The trains in southern Italy are not part of TrenItalia's national privatised network, but are run publicly and could almost be classified as vintage! Each of my two half-day trips involved a journey of about 50km - which took almost 1.5 hours. No danger of motion sickness travelling on these trains! I was pleasantly surprised that these little trains were well heated, providing a few hours of respite for me from the wintry cold weather. On two separate days, I chatted in Italian to a Japanese woman who was also sightseeing by travelling on the local trains - probably real culture shock for her, given the fast, modern trains that run with military precision in Japan. In contrast, the Italian trains often didn't have the destination on either the train or platform - I reassured myself where I was going by asking at least two sets of passengers (or one train inspector) each time. I have been complimented on my Italian several times, but even more interestingly, most people have guessed my nationality as Dutch (I obviously look like my fair-skinned, blonde mother).
Gallipoli is particularly charming - an old walled town on an island, connected by a bridge to the new town. I could see why it is apparently a very popular beach town in summer, with waterside cafes, fishing boats and a relaxed vibe. I continue to be amazed by how, in even the smallest of towns, there are multiple churches, each with an incredible wealth of art, elaborate altars and carved ceilings that is unlike any Australian church. I was particularly taken by the green confessional boxes with royal purple curtains in the Gallipoli cathedral.
In contrast, the Otranto cathedral has a macabre display of the skulls and bones of about 800 martyrs, killed in the mid 1400s by invading Turks. Speaking of death, look closely at one of the church photos for a very stylish and ornate hearse: fit for a king (I think Elvis would have liked it!). I've also been reading Italian death notices that are pasted up on large posters throughout the streets. But, don't worry that my Italian vocabulary is too focused on death. I have just bought an enchanting children's book (complete with pictures) that tells the local story of the tarantella dance, that originated in southern Italy. A fun way to continue improving my Italian!