The fashion for ‘vintage’ seems to grow all the time - clothes and home decor and hobbies that either are or have been made to look old. As someone who has always loved old buildings and old things and old stories, and the sense of something having its own personal history, I can quite understand the appeal. For others, this harking back is a reaction to today's instant, throwaway culture - the hurried transience that seems to afflict every aspect of our daily lives. The permanence and ‘authenticity’ of things that were ‘built to last’, in an era we can look back upon through the rose-tint of nostalgia, can be comforting. I noticed this happening everywhere I looked in Puglia, in the southern ‘heel’ of Italy, when I visited to research my novel, The Night Falling.
|Peasant wedding in Alberobello, 1920|
It’s well known that the economy in the south of Italy suffers in comparison to the more affluent north - it has for generations. I’d had no idea before I began my research just how poor the south had been, until very recently. But, today, tourism is helping to change things. Puglia’s climate is hot and dry; it has miles and miles of dramatic coastline, riddled with caves and long expanses of beach where the waters of the Adriatic are crystal clear. It has white-washed medieval towns clustered on the high ground inland; it has fantastic food and wine. Basically, it has everything it needs to tempt sun-starved northerners to visit. What was most interesting to me, as I explored and learnt, was how the remnants of Puglia’s hard, violent history have been incorporated into this new tourist expansion. And have, in their own way, been white-washed.
|The same street in Alberobello today|
The Night Falling is set in 1921, at a time when Puglia still suffered a repressive system of land ownership called latifundism. This basically meant that a single wealthy land owner - who often lived away in Rome or Paris - owned huge tracts of land, divided into farms that were run by tenant farmers - often also outsiders with no incentive to improve the land. The vast majority of Puglia’s population, the braccianti, had no opportunity to acquire land of their own. They lived in squalid towns and sold their labour for a daily rate, walking miles to wherever there was work before the day had even begun. The same landowners they worked for owned their apartments and rooms, and charged outrageous rents for even the dankest of cellars. In the town of Matera, huge numbers of people simply lived in caves. Even water had to be bought. In years of poor harvest - of which hard, bone-dry Puglia had many - large numbers of these peasant poor simply starved to death.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the same socialist movement that rocked much of Europe made tentative inroads into Puglia. For a short while there were workers’ registers, rosters, and fixed wages. However, almost immediately, the fledgling Fascist movement rose up in response, and crushed it. The armed brute squads with which the landlords had always intimidated upstart peasants now had official sanction, black shirts and emblems. Political corruption was so rife, and the police so partisan, that the peasant movement stood no real chance in Puglia. It fared slightly better elsewhere in Italy, but, by 1922, Mussolini was in supreme command.
|A ruined trullo, used to house the poor, to shelter animals, or the guards who watched the crops|
Once you know a bit about this history you can see traces of it everywhere. Puglia is riddled with trulli - the conical stone houses which served for the secure storage of grain and animals, as guards huts out in the fields, and also as housing for some of the poorest people. Now, they are being converted into holiday homes; and in Alberobello, which has the highest concentration of trulli, they have been quite literally white-washed, with many now selling souvenirs. At the other end of the property ladder are the masserie - the huge, imposing farmhouses of the tenant farmers and landowners. These are typically fortified, with high, impenetrable walls around an inner courtyard, where people and produce could be protected. Some of them look like castles. Why so fortified? Because they were built to withstand attack from generations of starving, desperate, despairing men. While I was there, I met several men whose grandparents and parents had spoken of the infamous Massacre at Marzagaglia, when unarmed peasants demanding to be paid were shot down by guards from behind the masseria walls. It was an outrage so heinous that it lives on in the oral history of an area overladen with outrages.
|The formidable walls of a masseria|
Puglia’s food, for which it is also developing a reputation, leans heavily towards the organic, the slow food movement, and the revival of peasant food. Black pasta - made from burnt wheat - is very popular. Why burn the wheat? The chefs I spoke to talked about the nutty, smoky taste it gives, but it dates back to when the poor would make flour from the charred grains they were allowed to scour the ground for once the stubble had been burnt. Chicory and beans is another favourite - beans being the only protein the poor could generally get, and chicory - or any other dark, bitter greens - that could be pulled up wild around the fields. Weeds, essentially. The peasants had no land to grow vegetables, and no money to buy from the market. Their food was scraped together, scavenged, desperately inadequate. One common meal so very meagre that it hasn’t been up-cycled by today’s restaurants is aqua sale - water, with a little salt and either a dash of olive oil or some chunks of stale bread in it. It would have astonished those peasants, I'm sure, that wealthy travellers would ever choose to eat such fare.
|Burnt wheat pasta, upcycled|
So, while I heartily approve of traditional cooking and recipes making a resurgence, and of old buildings being brought back to life, part of me also wishes that more was known of their origins, and their past. But then, it is a hard and dark history. Perhaps the people living there, the descendants of those who survived such times, are content to watch things moving on. And enjoying a trip to Puglia - or anywhere - does not, of course, rely on knowing anything at all about its history. But for me, it hugely enriches the experience of any travel.