Discovering Undiscovered Italy

Ever since I was in middle school, when my two uncles traveled to Italy to study some of the world’s most important architecture and returned with towering stacks of photos, I have wanted to see Italy. Not only was I lucky enough to get the chance to visit last fall, but I was able to tour a part of the country few Americans visit, and to do so with a great group of my fellow Badgers.

We spent a week in the region of Apulia, located in the southeast, or “heel” of the boot-shaped nation, taking daily excursions to centuries-old churches, small towns and even a few castles. Here is a list of my top five experiences in Apulia:

1. La Cucina! Il Vino! (The Food! The Wine!)

I have never been so full in all my life, for so many days in a row.

After getting to know each other and our campus director, Chiara, a native of Tuscany, we settled in for dinner at the restaurant at our hotel overlooking the Adriatic Sea. That first night, we had artichoke pie in spinach cream, swordfish pasta, monkfish and dessert, plus an abundance of local red and white wines. Wow.

Fresh seafood and olives are an important part of Apulia’s regional cuisine, and we had lots of both. The people of Apulia also pride themselves on the little ear-shaped pasta shells known as orecchiette, which we were able to see being rolled by hand while on a tour of the capital city of Bari one day.

Apulia also produces more wine than any other Italian region and toward the end of our trip, we toured the vineyards and winery operation at Tenuta Pedale in Corato. Unfortunately it’s been difficult to find many from that area back here in the states, and the bottles carefully packed for safe transport to have long since been emptied.

2. Galantino Olive Mill

Apulia is well-known for its more than 50 million olive trees, which contribute to around 40 percent of Italy’s olive oil and we had the chance to learn how one local business processes its extra virgin olive oil for sale around the world.

On day five, we visited the family-run Galantino Olive Mill in Bisceglie, and were treated to a tasting of seven varieties of olive oil and a buffet lunch in their beautiful outdoor garden, under a bamboo awning and with the family’s German Shepherd, Perla, keeping watch over her guests. Most interesting to me: this mill uses a very simple process and doesn’t use any chemical additives or aroma to flavor their oils — instead, they’ll crush lemons or chilies or fresh basil right along with the olives.

3. Castel del Monte

It’s pretty cool to visit a castle. And this was no ordinary castle.

Designed by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century, it’s a much smaller castle than you’d typically find around Europe, but the architecture is incredibly unique: octagonal at its core, surrounded by eight octagonal columns, and inside, eight equal rooms on each of the two floors. Sadly, almost all the original marble, art and furniture was stolen soon after Frederick’s death, but restoration work has been ongoing since the mid-1900s to try and it’s now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And what a view, in every direction. Today, mostly farmland sits below the castle, but it’s easy to imagine the lush forests that our tour guide said used to surround it.

4. Sassi and Trulli

We traveled to two very unique sites on day six. First to Matera, where thousands of people lived, packed into caves with their families and livestock with no electricity or running water, until the late 1960s, when the government forced them to evacuate because of unsanitary living conditions.

The homes are dug into the rock, with streets and more homes piled on top of each other, and we were able to go inside one sassi that had been mocked up to look as it had only a few decades ago. Fun fact: this is also where Mel Gibson shot scenes for his 2003 film “The Passion of The Christ.”

Later that same day, we explored what Apulia is probably most famous for: its trulli. Trulli are small stone houses built out of limestone without any mortar or cement, and used mostly as a temporary shelter or home by farm workers, dotting fields across the countryside. But in Alberobello, you’ll find more than 1,400 trulli built side-by-side along cobblestone streets. Another fun fact: Meryl Streep owns her own trullo somewhere in Apulia.

5. Badger Bonding

I’ve worked at WAA for nearly three years now, and I know our travel program’s motto by heart: “Badger Bonding at its Best.” I’ve always appreciated the alliteration, but I never fully understood what that meant until I went on this trip with so many alumni and friends. It’s amazing how quickly you can get to know a total stranger when you’re able to break the ice by comparing which residence hall you lived in, rating the performance of the football team or swapping stories about Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (for some, his first term; for me, his third.) All of my Badgers were easy to talk to, had so many interesting stories, and had done amazing things with their degrees. I really felt proud to be among their company on this incredible trip.