Italy’s famous città bianca may look charmingly archaic but it’s also vibrantly alive, discovers Lee Marshall.
Viewed from the coastal plain below, Ostuni shimmers like a mirage. It’s not so much a town as a hill entirely clothed in whitewashed houses, at their densest and palest in the oldest section near the top, which locals simply call La Terra or “Earth”. From this distance, it’s hard to see how there could be room for details such as streets or piazzas.
Soon enough, I’m inside the walls, in one of those piazzas, watching a local dressed all in black, with a flat cap, filling three glass flagons from an iron drinking fountain. Outlined against the rough blanched wall of a house that holds randomly placed windows and doors, he appears like a character from a folktale.
Located in Italy’s Puglia region, about four hours drive east of Naples, Ostuni encourages such fantasies. The entire town is like a puzzle picture by Escher, a maze of tunnels, steps and buttresses, its houses fused together in a harmonious jostle of doors, windows and cast-iron balconies. Lanes curl around the whorl of the city’s shell, meandering up and down.
Passing a young hipster wearing a T-shirt bearing two Italian sentences that translate as “I’m not going to work today. Or tomorrow”, I duck into a little bar a friend has told me about. “Don’t be put off by the name,” he said. He’s right: being a terrible Italy snob, I would have turned my nose up at a place called Coffee & More (Piazza della Libertà 14, +39 328 271 1189). But if I had, I’d never have met the friendly young owners, Orsola and Gabriele.
I tell them that I don’t really want anything to eat as I’m lunching elsewhere. The most I can manage, I say, is a snack with a glass of wine. Five minutes later, a huge platter of food arrives, accompanied by a lovely, citrusy fiano minutolo made by Miali, a local wine producer. Rapidly recalibrating my lunch plans, I tuck into a warm, tangy ricotta, a sapid sheep’s cheese spiked with turmeric and walnut, meltingly good grilled peppers and aubergines and a bowl of crumbly, peppery homemade taralli biscuits.
Ostuni makes Orsola and Gabriele’s job easy – the food and wine sourcing part of it at least. To the east, at the foot of la città bianca, a coastal strip eight kilometres wide is covered in gnarled olive trees rooted in a deep russet soil. To the west, towards Cisternino, vineyards, vegetable gardens and more olive groves are interrupted by sudden outbreaks of those Puglian dwellings known as trulli, with their cone-shaped roofs. Whichever route you choose, nature seems to be turbo-charged.
Other towns and villages in Puglia have whitewashed houses, too, but only in Ostuni has the brush been applied to almost every built surface – with the exception of a few striking Gothic or Baroque churches and palazzo façades in sandstone. Slaked lime, the main ingredient of whitewash, is abundant and cheap in this corner of the region. It was originally used for more important reasons than mere prettification: as a disinfectant, it protected against the spread of infectious diseases. This may be why Ostuni, alone among the area’s major towns, was spared the plague that raged here in the mid-17th century. The city certainly takes its hue very seriously: in May 2015, the mayor issued a stern ordinance to the townsfolk, telling them that he’d noticed Ostuni was looking a bit, well, yellow. He reminded them they were obliged by law to whitewash their houses at least once every two years.
After my delicious lunch-that-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-lunch, I head down into the sea of olives for dinner at a converted masseria (fortified farm) called Il Frantoio, about 10 minutes’ drive from town. Book for dinner and you buy into an experience that begins with a guided tour of the property by the owner, Armando Balestrazzi, who leads us around his 16th-century farmhouse’s rustic, elegant interior, underground olive press and walled citrus garden.
The meal delves deep into the local peasant tradition with dishes that include a mouth-watering dessert of saffron-spiked goat’s cheese soufflé served with San Giovanni pears and a glass of late-harvest passito wine. Much of what you eat here is grown or produced on the masseria estate.
Il Frantoio has 19 rooms scattered around the property, decorated with vintage charm. But I’m looking for something more contemporary so I check into Masseria Moroseta, a converted farmhouse that opened in 2016. Here, architect Andrew Trotter has created a six-room eco-friendly country hotel that feels both authentically local and refreshingly modern, a cool, white refuge replete with deeply Instagrammable style details. Trotter was aiming, he tells me, for “a masseria that people can’t place as old or new”, one that is “light and fresh… yet also belongs to the farmland that surrounds it”.
It’s the kind of place where a house-party vibe tends to apply but of the most relaxed variety (nobody minds if you opt out and just read a book under the olive trees). Moroseta is no slouch on the food front either. Talented resident chef Giorgia Goggi uses fresh local ingredients in the sumptuous breakfast spread and the dinners she conjures up three times a week. Simpatico owner Carlo Lanzini, who lived in London for many years, insists on keeping the other four evenings free so his guests can explore the area’s many dining highlights.
He gives me a fantastic tip: Il Principe del Mare at Torre Canne beach in nearby Fasano (Contrada La Forcatella, +39 339 639 6304). This is one of the terrific Puglian seafront bar-restaurants where straight-off-the-boat, great-value seafood is served on plastic plates to huge, chattering family groups.
Back in Ostuni itself, in a 16th-century palazzo at the top of the town’s hill of houses, is my next berth, La Sommità Relais. When it opened in 2003, this hotel was almost too cool for its own good, a slice of the air-kissing Milan fashion world transplanted to Puglia. Since then, it’s warmed and mellowed without losing its air of privileged seclusion.
My favourite feature is the walled orange garden, the trees providing the fruit for the Relais’ breakfast marmalade. The hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Cielo, moves out here in summer. For fans of really adventurous cuisine that keeps one foot firmly planted in its land of origin, the menu of young Puglian chef Andrea Cannalire will not disappoint. You may smile, as I did, when one of his signature dishes is served: the “creamed salted cod, yellow and red peppers and polenta” takes the form of an upturned ice-cream cone dropped by a distraught kid. But the sight gag turns out to conceal an utterly persuasive meld of flavours.
Steps lead up from the orange garden to a series of balconies with views over the roofs of the old town to the sea. Life has worse moments than this: lounging on the Relais terrace over a glass of Locorotondo white wine, while nest-building swifts wheel overhead and the setting sun touches the white city with gold.