The Duchess & The Fairy House

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Giuliana told us to visit to Ostuni.  “The white city”, she said, “is one of the most beautiful places in Puglia”.  So it is with their usual impeccable timing that our children have fallen asleep in the car by the time we reach this dazzling sugar lump of a town, glued to a hillside an hour’s drive from Lecce.  This leaves The Husband and I with no other choice than to reassure each other that we have seen enough of “one of the most beautiful places in Puglia” when we saw Ostuni a couple of miles away on the drive up (perspective is a great thing), and when we turned around at the mini roundabout on the outskirts of town.  It was a fabulous roundabout.  More important, though, is that it gives us time to take the slow road to the land of the trullo – our real reason for heading north today.

Scattered across the Murgia dei Trulli, a small region moulded from red clay and rock, and terraced with olive groves and vineyards, the trulli of Puglia are Italy’s most unusual and mysterious rural buildings.  Constructed of dry-stone and whitewashed, these cylindrical structures have chess piece-like spires and often feature painted-on symbols deemed magical, and which have references to Christianity, Paganism, primitive culture, and the Zodiac.  The Husband and I marketed them to Zippy and Roo this morning as ‘fairy houses’ because they are just that; shrouded in folklore, they sit in the landscape giving the impression that they have been put there to tell a story.  If The Brothers Grimm were architects, the trullo would be their masterpiece.

The children wake up on the road through the village of Cisternino, to a magical landscape of ‘fairy houses’ dotted amongst grazing goats and olive trees.  It’s then not long until we reach a tiny and incredibly pretty town perched on a hill overlooking the Valle d’Itria called Locorotondo.  It is love at first sight and we park up just by the entrance to the pedestrianised ‘Centro Storico’ (historic centre), currently guarded by a fistful of flat-capped elderly local men sitting on the steps of the old church.

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On the other side of the road there is a lovely square, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, planted with a variety of pine overlooking the valley below, so we stop to admire the view and creature watch.  We see our first hummingbird moth and possibly collect every species of pinecone growing in Puglia, and The Husband and I indulge in one of those perfect moments of each becoming our own excited inner child all over again with our own children.

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After bumbling around with basic botany we cross back over the road and into the old quarter.  Aside from the odd flat-capped local, the narrow white corridors and alleyways are deserted; it is almost midday but it could be six in the morning in this sleepy little town.  At Via Erai di Dogali we discover La Bortega di Alfredo, a small enoteca (wine shop) specialising in local and organic produce owned by an incredibly knowledgeable and kind man called Alfredo, of course.  He helps us to select two bottles of wine to serve Giuliana and The Sailor Man at dinner tomorrow night: Baroni Martucci’s ‘Caprice’, a Salento red made with the local negroamaro grape, and Vigna Pedale’s ‘Castel Del Monte’, a Puglian white.  (I have one of those middle-class moments of unabated joy when buying wine for a tenner in Europe, thinking that it’ll probably cost £6,000 in Waitrose.)  We buy some shower gel and cereal (seriously, this is the best offy), and then ask Alfredo for a recommendation for lunch.  Lucky for us, it just so happens that his good friend owns La Taverna del Duca (The Duke’s Tavern), a restaurant just around the corner on Via Papatodero.

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Although it’s still relatively early (for Italians) to have lunch, we find ourselves standing on the doorstep of La Taverna del Duca.  Behind a beaded curtain the place is empty and looks rather closed, but we try our luck anyway.  Thankfully I can use the bathroom – which is one of the nicest places I’ve ever weed in – and better still they are ready for the lunch service.  Part-cave part-domestic dwelling, this tiny restaurant with its curved ceiling, peeling plasterwork, stuffed bookshelves, beautiful handmade clay tableware, and an open kitchen that wouldn’t look out of place in a home featured in an interiors magazine, is both seductive and comforting.  The head chef, however, is not.  Unashamedly grumpy bordering on frightening, and not at all in the mood for having customers (ever ever EVER), El Duca – lets call her The Duchess – herself could only be described as a female Italian Basil Fawlty, but only with more contempt for her patrons.  It is her saving grace that she has a team of two terribly sweet waitresses who seem immune to her snarls, and that her food is totally amazingly gorgeously yumdiddlyscrumptious.

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Zippy and Roo seem very happy to be here, and The Duchess appears to be prepared for small children; she has brightly-coloured aprons for them to wear and plastic cups for their water.  Her repetitive wiping down of their seats whilst our children sit on them is a rather peculiar habit though (and not necessarily the most patron-friendly approach), but we allow this compulsive behaviour because the children think it’s a game and the complimentary appetiser is so good.

Having ordered the dishes that we are ALLOWED to order today (which is surely a nod to The Duchess’s association with the wonderful Slow Food movement rather than any dictatorial tendencies in this cucina republica), we are given a plate of delicious crostini, simply topped with the sweetest smokiest slipperiest roasted peppers.  Then comes our gigantic bowl of spaghetti with tomatoes and green beans, covered in a flurry of parmesan cheese, which is set in the middle of our table for us to spoon out to one another.  The pasta is perfect and the warm sauce of sugary, oily tomatoes and irony, earthy beans is unfeasibly good – this dish is one of the family’s holiday favourites so far.  The chicken leg, slow-cooked with brightly-coloured bell peppers, is also excellent.  However, the donkey in red wine is not.

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When I read aloud from the menu, Zippy, our four year-old daughter and lover of all creatures from the ‘One Hundred Aker Wood’, really wanted to order the donkey.  I had every hope that she would be a self-inflicted vegetarian by now – what with seeing Franz and Petra’s chicken getting slaughtered and all my bloody talking – but she has no interest (especially none in living out her mother’s neo-hippy bourgeois fantasies) and is quite comfortable in her meat-eating, animal-loving self.  She clearly has no qualms about gobbling up Pooh’s favourite melancholic chum, and no amount of my lecturing deters her from her curiosity.

Sadly, for both Zippy and the donkey, no amount of red wine deters donkey from tasting like donkey.  As a goat’s milk and cheese smell and taste like said goat – which, in adulthood, I find quite agreeable – so does donkey.  It’s not that it’s particularly awful, it’s just unappealing and unfortunately unappetising.  The Husband, a relatively kosher eater, enjoys this non-kosher dish very much.  It is the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and he asks himself if leaving a non cud-chewing animal uneaten (with its life in vain) is the right thing to do on this auspicious day… So he very graciously respects the donkey and licks the plate clean.  (I also wonder if he polishes off the dish so as not to face the wrath of The Duchess, which indeed puts his selfless act into question.  On the other hand, I think he may have saved us all from being turned into tomorrow’s lunchtime special.)

The other tables in the restaurant are now full of petrified-looking diners swooning at their plates, and somehow we manage to avoid being assaulted with copper pans when we pluck up the courage to ask for a couple of espressos, a tiramisu and a creme caramel, which are very delicious.  We pay and leave quickly, ducking on the way out.

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We head out of the Centro Storico and down the hilly Corso XX Settembre, stopping for a drink and a splash at a water fountain outside the town hall, before continuing through town to the train station a short walk away.  Zippy and Roo run ahead of us talking to each other in a made up ‘foreign’ language, and The Husband and I kvell at their attempts to assimilate, as any modern secular Jewish parents would.

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We explore the station’s playground – this is also the tour of Europe’s playgrounds, by the way – and dig pine nuts out of the enormous pinecones that we find loitering around by the swings and slide.  We pick a perfectly ripe fig from an overhanging tree.

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The station building itself is a nice example of midcentury architecture: simple, clean and functional.  The tracks beyond are much older still and are surrounded by decrepit steam engines and locomotive parts.  We stand in the shade on the platform, clinging to our 1 tickets, and guessing which direction the train will come from – we all hope it’ll arrive from the left so that we can perform that exciting, dangerous walk across the tracks.  Moments later, a small blue modern train arrives from the left and we bound across to climb up into one of only two carriages that ferries us one stop down the FSE line to Alberobello, the trulli capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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It is uphill from the station into the centre of Alberobello and we put the children on our shoulders, who are beginning to wilt.  They are doing so much exploring, walking, absorbing and adapting, and sometimes it is easy to forget that they are probably exhausted.

The centre of Alberobello is very pretty indeed – a succession of squares linked together by narrow winding streets that undulate across the hilly terrain – but it is also heaving with tourists.  I hear the first English accent (other than our own) in over two weeks, and it only now occurs to me how out-of-favour northern Hungary, Vienna, Bologna and most of Puglia are with British tourists.

Unable to resist the charms of a delicatessen’s window, we go in and explore the shop which has a tiny and simple dining room out back decorated with hanging cured legs of local pigs.  Had I not already eaten my body weight in food at the scary lady’s restaurant, I’d be ready to sit down and order a tasting platter and a glass of fortified wine.  But then I’d also be forgetting that a ham bar is probably one of the last places The Husband would choose to be, and he needn’t be more terrified after eating The Duchess’s illegal donkey.  We buy a pot piled high with local, freshly-cured olives – fat, bright green, juicy fruit called bella cerignola – and they are one of the most heavenly things that I have ever eaten.  Later, the four of us sit on a sunny bench in a square popping one after the other into our mouths, as if they were sweets.

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The trulli houses in Alberobello are mainly concentrated to one area – a sort of architectural Disneyesque theme park that is both delightful and incredibly annoying.  It is heaving with non-locals like us, most of the preserved trullo are souvenir shops, and most of the tourists are in my way.  But it is fantastic to see these fairytale houses close up, what with their cool interiors offering shelter in the heat of the afternoon and their mystical pinnacles and painted-on symbols.  A woman from a craft shop hands me a piece of paper explaining the motifs, which include the ‘Pierced Heart of Mary’, the ‘Greek letter “Omega” representing God’, the ‘prayer which rises from the earthly and hellish worlds to God’, the signs of the Zodiac, and the ‘Jewish candlestick’.  (Although it stumps me as to why a menorah would be hanging out on a trulli house.)

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After our jaunt around Alberobello we head back to the station and Locorotondo.  With the sun now deeply set in the Murgia dei Trulli, we end the day with ice creams and espressinos before the long drive home.

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