Today I realised that I have now been in Puglia for 15 years, give or take a day or two. I moved here very fast, and on a complete impulse; I am still a thousand percent sure it was the right thing for me. It helped that I had a transferable business (journalism and running holidays for families) and that, having spent much of my childhood in Rome, I spoke Italian. It was still a huge leap of faith.
In my first couple of months, before my sons joined me, I spent large amounts of time wandering around Monopoli and the surrounding area – gazing in delight at the light falling on golden sandstone, the sea shading from deepest cobalt to palest aquamarine. It seemed incredible to me (and still does) that, at the end of January there were already wild flowers blooming and it was warm enough to sit outside and have a coffee in the sunshine.
In the local market I bought exaggerated quantities of the freshest produce and was surprised when it went bad in a few days, used as I was to London supermarket shopping and produce which had been picked and chilled before it developed any flavor and, doubtless, covered in preservatives as well. I am probably looking back through rose tinted glasses, but it seemed to me that the first few weeks were a sequence of perfectly blue and golden days. It must have rained sometimes, but I don’t remember it.
I do remember my first swim, in early March at the Porta Vecchia – Monopoli’s town beach. Nowadays, used to eccentric foreign visitors, no one would bat an eyelid, but I was both amused and very embarrassed by the fishermen who lined up along the sea wall to gawp at the unexpected spectacle. Making my way home I was confronted by assorted local women (who had known exactly who I was, and where I lived, within days of my arrival – again, somewhat startling to a Londoner.) They warned me sternly of the dangers of walking around with wet hair – at any time but especially ‘in winter’.
It certainly wasn’t the last time I made a public spectacle of myself – once I was watering the jasmine on my balcony, in a bikini, when a religious procession came round the corner and marched solemnly past, the accompanying, black clad, women averting their eyes in horror. My crouching down behind a pot rather than beating a hasty retreat probably didn’t improve matters at all. Jamie, my youngest son, added to the mix by going out to play with his friends without the requisite gloves, scarves, woolly hats and several layers topped by quilted jacket as, used to England, it seemed warm to him. It took my doing a lot of promotion for the town, writing a guide book for the provincia di Bari and appearing on local television to make some people really accept my presence there. I was both amused and irritated, the day after the book launch to be greeted by complete strangers the next day as I did my shopping with ‘Buongiorno Dottoressa’ . I had clearly arrived..
At the time very few people had even heard of Puglia and, if they had, possibly Alberobello or Ostuni but certainly not Monopoli. Over the summer I was back there for a few days and bumped into a man who sold vegetables from the back of his small van, then, and I was pleased to see, still. He greeted me as a long lost friend, embraced me warmly and told everyone in the surrounding area ‘this lady was the first, the first ‘straniera’ to come here!’.
Monopoli, today, is a very different place. Then, I was asked why on earth I wanted to live in the ‘centro storico’ as it was considered somewhat ‘rough’. Admittedly there were some areas with no street lighting and falling down houses but I loved it and even got used to being woken up very early on a Sunday morning by women calling from balcony to balcony to compare notes about what they were cooking for Sunday lunch. I don’t imagine the fishermen still sort out their catch under the archway as in the photo below and the whole centro storico has turned into holiday houses and b and bs, boutiques and bars. I wouldn’t live there any more, at least not in the historic centre, but, from most points of view, the town is far from ‘spoiled’ and is probably a much better holiday destination,more people who speak English, more to do, better infrastructure and more possibilities for holiday shopping,
I still think, out of season, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth, though I mourn the closing down of the daily market in the square in front of the medieval monastery (home, bizarrely, of the local carabinieri office). In many ways the restoration of the historic centre into something picture perfect is a good thing – the crumbling buildings, some of which were medieval, would have otherwise fallen down sooner or later.
There is now a living to be made from tourism and also from the incredible local produce and olive oil, meaning that young people are more likely to stay and maybe even open their own businesses rather than leaving the area through lack of work opportunities.
Nardò, where I moved four years ago, is beginning to go the same way. At the moment I see it as an improvement as it was smaller and sleepier than Monopoli ever was and there is now a far wider choice of places to eat and drink. Property prices are going up but the town is gradually being restored to its former glory.
In general many things have improved over the last 15 years – the beaches are kept cleaner much of the year, in fact streets and towns are cleaner generally, there is less corruption and people seem to have become less insular and more open minded, except perhaps in the smaller towns and villages. Seeing how much people from outside the area, including Italians, appreciate and value all the things Puglia has to offer has perhaps made the locals appreciate them more themselves rather than just taking them for granted.
Mercifully, much of Puglia (with the exception of the fore mentioned Alberobello, Gallipoli and, perhaps, Ostuni) has come so late to tourism that people have been able to learn from the mistakes of places such as Rimini. Development has taken the form of adding value and creating a market for what the area already has – beautiful architecture, amazing beaches, superlative food, wine and olive oil. Most foreign visitors come into the category of ‘cultural tourists’ and the increasing number of non Italians who choose to live here seem to make a real effort to learn the language and integrate with the locals. They will certainly have an easier time then I maybe did in the beginning as times have really changed. They won’t love it any more than I did and do though.
Looking back through photographs the essentials haven’t changed.. Then and more recently I took photos of the sea, the countryside, fabulous food and above all the light. I don’t have that many pictures from the first couple of years.. Smartphones and Instagram were not then a thing and I was far too busy wafting around in a ‘hello birds, hello sky’ sort of trance to take many pictures in any case. The pictures on this page span a 10-11 year period though and tell their own story…