Italy’s last wild steppe is seeing a renaissance

Italy’s last wild steppe is seeing a renaissance

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Published October 5, 2022

11 min read

On a scorching summer afternoon, Mariantonietta Scalera, a 32-year-old-shepherd, opened the gates to her farm in Altamura, a small town bordering Alta Murgia national park, 30 miles west of Bari, the capital of southern Italy’s Puglia region. A hundred and fifty sheep and goats, closely followed by seven mutts, raced past her toward the grazing grounds, sniffing for wild herbs and seeds.

Scalera inherited her father’s passion for tending to animals and making artisanal cheese at a young age. After spending a year in the Netherlands in 2019 for an agriculture exchange program, she decided to return home and take over the family farm rather than continue working abroad like many of her friends.

“When you go away, you see [home] from another perspective,” Scalera said.

One of Italy’s last remaining steppe landscapes, Puglia’s Alta Murgia encompasses 13 municipalities, each preserving little-known historical, cultural, and culinary gems. In Altamura, nearly 30,000 dinosaur footsteps cover the Pontrelli quarry. The town is also where the Altamura Man, a uniquely well-preserved skeleton of a Neanderthal man who lived approximately 150,000 years ago, was found. 

Karst sinkholes and ravines are natural features in Altamura, Laterza, and Gravina in Puglia, which once hosted wayfarers traveling along the ancient Roman Appian Way. Near the town of Andria, the towering Castel del Monte is known as Alta Murgia’s stone heart. And regional chefs use locally foraged and harvested ingredients such as wild thistles, cardoncelli mushrooms, lampascioni (small wild onions), durum wheat, almonds, grapes, and olives in their dishes. (Puglia produces almost 40 percent of the olive oil in Italy.)

(In Naples, what’s 2,000 years old is new again.)

Yet, Alta Murgia fell off the map as thousands of people abandoned the countryside to move to industrial cities looking for jobs and a better life. Over several decades, it became an illegal dumping ground for industrial waste, an alcove for outlaws, and the home to 10 U.S. nuclear missile launch facilities in the 1960s.

But this obscure corner of Puglia is experiencing a renaissance. Local volunteers, returning young entrepreneurs like Scalera, and city administrators are restoring areas previously covered in trash, showcasing local culture and cuisine, and opening archaeological sites once closed to the public. 

The collective effort to turn Alta Murgia from coarse to charming can be seen in blockbuster movies like No Time to Die, where international superspy James Bond drives across the Gravina bridge chased by villains, and in runway shows for fashion houses such as Gucci set against the otherworldly octagonal castle Castel del Monte, built by Emperor Frederik II in A.D. 1240.

“There is a desire for rebirth. There is excitement,” Scalera said. “People are coming back.”

While Puglia’s Salento beaches and Gargano coast have recently become some of Italy’s most traveled areas, attracting millions of visitors including celebrities like Helen Mirren, George Clooney, and Madonna, Alta Murgia remains true to its unique cultural and culinary traditions, offering to those who venture into its inner routes the unexpected taste of a place lost in time.

A region reborn

After decades of eluding tourists, Alta Murgia and its surrounding communities began an extensive rehabilitation headed by nonprofit organizations, local entrepreneurs, and politicians. Their efforts paid off in 2004 when the 261-square-mile flatlands became a national park. Francesco Tarantini, the park’s president, said this designation laid the groundwork for people like Scalera to return and invest in the land.

As Tarantini and I walked around the edge of the 164-feet-deep Bauxite Cave of Spinazzola, an abandoned bauxite quarry inside the park, the cicadas’ din echoed along the vermillion-hued cliffs. Tarantini said that once the bauxite extraction ended in the 1970s, the cave became an illegal dumping ground for industrial textile scraps. The cleanup took years, but the site reopened this summer to the public. 

Aiming to bring more attention to the park, Tarantini nominated Alta Murgia last November to become a UNESCO Global Geopark, a protected place of geological significance to be managed sustainably. Efforts to earn the designation include working with the regional towns to improve access and conservation of the park and creating multiday itineraries for visitors.

“We are a geologist’s paradise,” Tarantini said. “We want to share our heritage with the world.”

(This little-known Italian paradise is more than meets the eye.)

Nearby in Andria sits the crown jewel of the Alta Murgia region, Castel del Monte, a 13th-century octagonal fortress and designated UNESCO site that draws about 200,000 visitors each year. Elena Saponaro, Castel del Monte’s director since 2017, has been working to make the castle more interactive, including implementing a digital project that shows visitors sections of the building that cannot be visited, like the underground cisterns and the castle’s hydraulic system. The historical site also launched the HoloMuseum project in 2021 to allow visitors to discover the site with augmented reality.

“Castel del Monte possesses exceptional universal value for the perfection of its structure, the harmony and the fusion of cultural elements from northern Europe, the Muslim world, and classical antiquity,” Saponaro said.

Thirty miles from Andria, Francesco Mastromatteo, a historian and tour guide for Terre di Murge Experience, walked me through Gravina in Puglia’s Gravina Sotterranea, a labyrinth of underground tunnels, cellars, and aqueducts dug under the town out of solid rock.

“We need slowness,” said Mastromatteo, who welcomes innovative, inclusive projects like FlyOn that allow people with disabilities to view the town through images captured by a flying drone. “We do not want to become Disneyland, but [we] welcome a soft tourism.”

Past and present intertwine

The revival efforts of Alta Murgia can best be seen at the Masseria Jesce, a 16th-century farmhouse on the outskirts of Altamura. Once an ancient Roman Appian Way resting post, the farmhouse features a 14th-century frescoed crypt dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. It was bought by the municipality in the late 1980s, partly refurbished, but soon after abandoned.

(A Roman-era “superhighway” is disappearing. Italy has a plan to save it.)

Donato Laborante, a 67-year-old storyteller, takes care of Masseria Jesce with other volunteers. Laborante keeps the place alive by hosting theater events and art exhibitions. Currently the only way to visit this masseria (farmhouse) is to ring Laborante and hope he’s available.

Wearing a long peppery beard, a white t-shirt, and washed-out and patched blue pants, Laborante walked me to the upper floor of the masseria. He told me to wait in the first room as he sped ahead to open the next two doors, one after the other, letting the golden sunshine through.

“Why do people fall in love with these places? For the light,” said Laborante, pointing at the far window facing the wild Murgia steppe. “These places allow you, through silence, to get closer to your essence.”

Last year, when I moved back to Alta Murgia from New York, I thought I was looking for that part of myself I had left behind. In 1991, my parents bought an 18th-century masseria at the north entrance of Alta Murgia national park. They dreamed of turning the run-down structure along with its surrounding 500 acres of land into an olive grove alive with visitors. After nearly a decade of renovations led by my father, Pietro, the once dilapidated farmhouse now serves as the Biomasseria Lama di Luna, a sustainable 11-room boutique hotel featuring panoramic views over acres of organic olive and almond trees and grape vines.

Since my return, I have joined my father in battling the many hurdles farmers and entrepreneurs must overcome to succeed in this harsh but beautiful terrain. As I rode a light brown quarter horse following Antonella Urbano, a horseback riding instructor who taught me how to ride when I was a kid, I took in the sweet perfume of Alta Murgia’s wild mint and violet orchids. Cicadas serenaded the sun shying away in the distance behind Castel del Monte. The first stars shone brightly in the vast and empty skies.

I felt a shiver of calmness. I was home.

Agostino Petroni is a former Climate Science Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow and a book author. Follow him on Twitter.

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