Friday, November 18, 2011

Puglia: Ancient Stones, Modern Poltics

Trulli in Alberobello.jpg

Conical, slate-roofed houses called Trulli in the UNESCO world-herItage village of Alberobello. Below, an alleyway in the hilltop town of Ostuni

PUGLIA, Italy--The good news, it's safe to say, is that right-wing Berlusconi bimbo Michaela Vittoria Brambilla is no longer Italy's minister of tourism. The one-time TV reporter, known for her long legs, red hair and fiery disposition, had been roundly criticized for spending eight million euros on a useless website (, and was never able to articulate why Italy desperately needs to promote intself as a tourism destination. Some 20 years ago, in a public vote, self-satisfied Italians even voted to do away with a formal tourism agency, forgetting that vacation expenditures and taxes contributed by visitors provide essential funding for basic local nservices. Within a short time, Italy was overtaken by France as the world's most popular tourist destination, and tourism outside the Rome-Florence-Venice corridor has stagnated. Here in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, a 45-minute flight from Rome, it's mostly sun-bathing German families lying cheek by jowl along the sunny Adriatic beaches. There's hope--not a lot, but hope nonetheless--that the new guy, a 73-year-old industrial engineer without political experience named Piero Gnudi, will "get it," but Gnudi management career was running Italy's national electric utility, a classic top-down hierarchy that bears little resemblance to the "herding cats" model of international tourism. In fact, managing a state monopoly is poor preparation for the competition Italy faces in troubled economic times: it's probably the most expensive destination in the Mediterranean (compared with France, Spain, Croatia, Greece, or Turkey), although this corner of the country can at least boast that it's affordable. Compared to Tuscany, anyway.

Nichi Vendola, the popular governor of Puglia, has expressed cautious support for the new Monti administration. An earring-wearing member of the left-wing Green party, he has a wider vision than most: Puglia is a gateway to the eastern Mediterranean; its stones speak many languages, its olive trees outnumber its citizens by 12 to 1. His deputy for tourism, Silvia Godelli, speaks of the region's attractions: its light, its flavors and smells, its antiquities. But only 25,000 of Puglia's 4 million visitors are Americans; it's not an easy sell

Americans spent $80 billion on overseas vacations last year, and there isn't one who doesn't want to visit Italy (according to the polls, ideally within the next couple of years) And Italy meets the three top criteria for a foreign destination (safe, affordable, scenic). That's why Italy's national tourist board, ENIT, and the Italian Travel Promotion Council (an association of 19 American tour operators) have sponsored this symposium for travel agents: so they'll know more about Puglia and convince more of their clients to come here.

Alleyway in Ostuni.jpgAll this as prelude to the scenery.

Take Ostuni, for example. You look at the narrow streets, whitewashed walls, and bright blue sky, and you might think you're on a Greek island in the middle of the Aegian. But no, the water out there, less than five miles away, is the Adriatic. The town is called Ostuni, a fortified town in the Middle Ages atop a limestone cliff, settled since prehistoric times. The influence of Greek architecture is understandable, as are design elements from North Africa.

Half an hour away, atop the Murgia plain, you find several hundred peculiar cylindrical dwellings called Trulli, with cone-shaped roofs are built without mortar from slabs of limestone. They're not like teepees or the chimney-houses of eastern Turkey; there's a separate stack at the side to vent the kitchens. You can buy your own trullo, should you want to abide by the strict historic-preservation standards, for 100 grand. A studio in one of the white-washed buildings of Ostuny, on the other hand, runs about twice that.

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