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An Undiscovered Hill Town
|“We’re halfway to heaven!” I announced as I maneuvered our rental car around the hairpin turn. Above us was S'Agata di Puglia , a classic hill town in southern Italy. My wife and I had been here three years before; then we had ascended as passengers in a vintage Fiat bus with a two-speed transmission and a two-speed axle. The driver had zipped along the rural lanes, picking up and dropping off local farmers, finally assaulting the 700-meter mountain with the axle growling in low speed.
With renewed respect for the abilities of our bus driver of three years ago, I drove up the steep hill, past olive orchards and the cemetery, and--halfway to heaven--the penultimate switchback before entering S. Agata. We were returning with my wife’s parents to show them the town where my mother-in-law’s parents lived prior to emigrating to the Untied States in 1918. My wife and I had fallen in love with this isolated bit of rural Italy and we knew a few days here would help connect her mother with her roots. And this tiny village, if not free from artifice, was at least unencumbered by “tourism”; I looked forward to exploring it!
S. Agata is located in Apuglia, the southeastern province of Italy that for centuries was part of the Kingdom of Naples. With its flat terrain and long hot summers, Puglia (as the locals call it) is Italy’s breadbasket, producing much of its wheat and olives. On the east Puglia embraces the Adriatic while to the west the landscape morphs into the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, the spine of the Italian peninsula. An Italian travel map says that in Puglia “the sun is triumphant in every season”!
|Foggia, where we started our excursion, is an excellent hub for exploring Puglia. We arrived there on a through train from Milan; direct trains also connect Foggia to Rome. The city itself is relatively modern, having been founded only in about the year 1100. Its 700,000 residents enjoy a city center with a concentrated shopping area and requisite passeggiata, a reconstructed cathedral dating from the twelfth century and a park featuring remnants of a Romanesque castle of Frederick the Second. From Foggia it is an easy drive to attractions of the Gargano massif to the east: San Giovani Rotundo (Padre Pio’s church) and Vieste (a charming town at the eastern coast). Lacking a car, you can take an excursion bus to these sites or, if you are really adventurous, take the local bus as the natives do. One can even take a local bus to S.Agata as we did three years before; buses leave several times a day from near the train terminal for the 50-minute trip.|| |
|We stayed at at Albergo Ristorante La Cisterna, the only hotel in S. Agata, operated by Carmela Marzio. La Cisterna is a former hospital on one of the first streets at the base of S. Agata (also, one of the last streets accessible by car). For Carmela the lodging is an afterthought. She purchased the building for its kitchen and dining rooms. Her passion is cooking—not nuovo cuisine of northern Italy, but hearty country cooking in the style of Puglia. The hotel is the only facility in S. Agata large enough to be considered a restaurant. If a family event or holiday requires a meal at a restaurant, the town’s residents come to La Cisterna. When we first appeared for lunch, we found reservation cards on all the tables. Ours said simply: Americani. Ristorante La Cisterna is the only game in town, but we didn’t suffer for it. Everything was prepared fresh, the variety surprising and the prices very reasonable. We ate almost every meal here and were well satisfied with the variety.|
| || With a complete absence of tourists, no
MacDonald’s and few other intrusions of the modern world, it was easy to
imagine that we had been transported to Italy of another century. Our rooms had
no phones, television or room service. And the view!! Perched as La Cisterna is
on the edge of the town, from our tiny balcony we overlooked the tiled roof of
a building below us and then miles of hills and valleys in autumnal shades of
brown to the east.
Most of the streets of S. Agata are far too narrow to accommodate auto traffic and often the access to the next street above is by stairway. The homes were built long before there were cars and now there is no way to widen the streets. The village wraps almost completely around the hill; a small section on the west side is still forested, apparently too steep for building. A roadway climbs the edges of this section all the way to the castle Rocco at the summit, which makes it possible to drive one’s car to the streets ringing the village. While very small cars can navigate some of the streets, since there is nowhere to park, it is for deliveries only.
most cities grow up, S. Agata has the distinction of growing down. Crowning the
hill is one of the original structures of the village, the Castle “Roco” with
it Lombard walls, which provided the home for and protection of the ruling
family. Below it are the homes of the townspeople, built of stone and carved
into the mountain. As the town grew, more houses were added further down the
mountainside. The final spate of building occurred early in the last century
and the five-story commune building, the piazza, and the police
headquarters are all located on this lowest ring.
If there were a tourist circuit in S. Agata, it would certainly include a stop at the grounds of the historic Castle with its view of the surrounding valleys, and visits to the five churches, especially San Nicola, the “Mother Church”, dating from the 16th century, with its beautiful bronze doors.
|S. Agata has learned to be self-sufficient
of necessity. While I wasn’t surprised to see the stone faces of homes being
restored, it was a revelation late one afternoon to discover a working smithy.
Following a rhythmic clanging, I turned up a side street and found a blacksmith
in a cave, creating the very tools that the local stoneworkers’ used for
shaping stones and repairing the local homes. Using a forge with foot-operated
bellows, he could turn out one of the numerous steel chisels used in shaping
the stones in about 45 minutes. The sparks flew and the warm glow of the fire
bathed his small foundry with just enough light to watch him work. I could
imagine the oppressive heat during midday in the summer and didn’t envy his
I enjoyed the startling quiet in the early mornings, a stark contrast to every other morning in Italy when cars, delivery trucks and ubiquitous Vespa scooters scream past your window; the curtains in our room rustling lightly in the stirring air; then watching the sun come up, the morning light starting first at the castle and creeping its way down the roofs of the sleeping village, the blackbirds wheeling overhead in the rising air currents.
At midday with my father-in-law I stood at the walls of the castle watching through the still, hot air the farms and country roads in the valley below. Hardly anything moves; the more distance hills disappear into the haze. Walking down along the narrow streets and stairs the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread signals a bakery nearby. Following the scent we find a long, narrow bakery carved deep into the stone mountain. They are making a kind of pretzel bread stick that we have been served with each meal at La Cisterna.
WHERE TO STAY
Foggia. Cicolella Viale XXIV Maggio 60 (100m from train station) Rate 110-160 Euro; 106 rooms, Four star. We stayed a night here and were pleased with the air conditioning and remote electric controls for lights and even the window shutters. We were amused by the painting of young women in all the rooms (Cicolella is a polite Italian word for a young girl).
Hotel Europa Via Monfalcone 52. A modern building located close the the train station with 60 rooms; rates around 100 Euros.
S.Agata. La Cisterna, Via Santa Maria Delle Grazie 16. 30,000 lira pp . Built in 1868, this has been a hospital and a school at different times. Twelve rooms, all with private bath. No elevator and all rooms are on the second floor. No telephone, no television, no room service and splendid views of the valley around S.Agata.
WHERE TO EAT
La Cisterna. Hearty regional fare with very reasonable prices. Antipasto 8,000 lira, First course (pasta) 7000, Second Course (meat) 10-12,000, local wine 3000 per liter; pizzas 4500-7000.
HOW TO GET THERE
Direct trains connect Foggia to Rome and Milan. From Foggia take the main road south (toward Candela) and take the local road to S.Agata at the Ascoli exit; about 60km. Bus service is available from Foggia several times a day.