A tour to discover Spongano, its traditions and its surroundings

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Have you ever heard of Salento? It’s an area of Puglia, Apulia, mainly known for its crystal waters and for being the heel of the Italian “boot”. Salento is a fascinating land: miles of olive groves alternate with small and surprising little baroque villages, full of charm. I had the chance to explore a little known village of Salento, Spongano, and its surroundings, mainly focusing on traditions and crafts.

At the end of the post you will find the video.

Spongano
Spongano

Manace to the olive trees

The olive trees situation saddened me. Some of them were hit by a deadly bacterium, called Xylella. The bacterium is ruining Apulia’s assets. Think that this region has about 60 millions olive trees, as many as Italy’s population. Some of them are centuries old. In order to defeat Xylella, people must cut down also healthy plants in a 100-metre radius. It is a huge problem that impacts highly on the local economy. The deputy major, lovely Maria Ada, told me for example that in Spongano almost every family owns a piece of land with about 200 olive trees. In the village they are experimenting with a new preventive treatment, which aims to strenghten the plants. Let’s hope it can solve the problem.

Spongano

Spongano is a little village, where everyone is connected. A village that is fighting to keep its traditions alive, from the ancient games, to the crafts.

  • For example we visited signora Antonella, who makes wickerwork objects. It was once one of the most ancient jobs in the area and a perfect expression of peasants mentality: to use everything nature has to offer. Now only 8 people in the area are still able to do it. Think that Antonella herself pics up the reeds once a year. Only in June, sometimes also July, reeds can be found in the sea shores, in a specific area. Years ago, dozens of men used to leave their houses for weeks to harvest the reeds. And they came home in wagons full of material. Now this crafts survives thanks to people like this keen lady.
  • Signora Lucia and her husband Sigismondo, a shepard with the name of a medieval lord. He guards their 25 goats. She uses the goats milk to prepare ricotta and other cheeses at home.
  • The Spongano nuns, who house in their spaces an embroidery association, Filo non più filo, trying to save this traditional craft thanks to courses attended by kids and teens of the village.

Palazzo Bacile and Frantoio Ipogeo

In the Middle Ages, Bacile di Castiglione family, from the Marche region, was given a feud and moved in Spongano, where they built several beautiful palazzi. They are still a property of the descendants, three brothers, if I remember correctly. One of them (he happens to be the village dentist, so he was all dress up for work) welcomed us and opened the gates of the Frantoio Ipogeo, Underground olive mill. There are several of these mills in Apulia. This particular mill dates back to 1600s and worked until the 1950s. Now it hosts concerts, because of the good acoustics. Underground mills were convenient because the underground environment ensured a better (and safer) conservation of the precious liquid.

Adjacent to the mill, stands Palazzo Bacile di Castiglione with its elegant portal and garden. The Baciles still live in a wing of the palazzo. While an entire area hosts rooms and apartments to be rented for holidays. The garden (with pool) and the halls are a beautiful venue to host weddings and ceremonies.

Lo spumone di Totò

A few feet away from the Palazzo, you can stop to taste a local speciality, the spumone, at Bar Vittoria. The place is very old fashioned but the kindness of the owner Umberto makes up for it. Spumone is a gelato of mixed flavors with a filling made of sponge cake soaked in liqueur, candied fruits or nougat. You will surely notice a poster of actor Totò and a writing: Lo spumone di Totò. Umberto’s father Antonio was a huge fan of Totò (which is a short form for Antonio, by the way). When he run the place, he used to close whenever a Totò movie was broadcasted to hurry home and watch it.

Lo spumone di Totò
Lo spumone di Totò

Le cementine

Another stop of our tour was a visit to Marti Ceramiche, a factory producing the so called cementine, lovely tiles made one at a time to create a sort of floor tapestry. They use marble and concrete graniglia plus pigments. The marble grains come from every Italian region: white from Carrara (Tuscany), black from Bergamo, red from Verona and Siena. The factory received commissions from all over the world. And it is indeed a flagship of the village.

Rizzello oil and wine

We also visited the Rizzello company. This is a family business: grandparents, sons and grandchildren, all working there. They produce good olive oil and refined wines (their nrgoamaro Taotor won a gold medal). You can visit their shop: there they sell their wines, extra virgin olive oil, local pasta (like orecchiette – meaning little ears), taralli (sort of local breadsticks in different flavours) and other specialities. Next to the shop there’s the olive mill, where they press their own olives and those of other local farmers. Funny anecdote. We briefly visited the mill. There, different crates held different families olives, ready to become olive oil. Therefore, each crate had a writing: Name of the family, and kilos of olives. Well, Lillino’s (the owner) uncle harvested so little olives that Lillino wrote on his crate: Uncle Pippi, shame on you, only 52 kg (the other crates had about 200kg olives each).


Other villages in the surrounding area

During our Apulian days we visited also other villages.

Poggiardo

Poggiardo was the village where we stayed. We strolled along its picturesque white alleys, admiring the baroque palazzi. And we visited the Wednesday market: fabrics, hats, scarfs, pans, linen, clothes and of course food. There, I bought many taralli to take home with me. They were delicious.

For a special dinner, I recommend La Piazza restaurant, located, as the name suggests, in the main square. It is a slow food restaurant, with local products and a very nice service.

Specchia

Specchia welcomed us with strong wind and heavy rain so we had just 10 minutes to take some pictures of the village and the market. Then we took refuge at the popular Caffé Martinucci, just past the main piazza. I thoroughly enjoyed my pasticciotto, a short pastry sweet treat filled with custard. Served warm, it is a local delicacy to try absolutely. During the tour I ated 4 different pasticciotti, but this was by far the best. Some of us preferred instead the rustico, a puff pastry savory merenda, filled with bechamel and tomato sauce. Specchia seemed very nice, pity for the heavy rain. It is definitely a village I would love to go and visit again in the future.

Corsano

Also the visit to Corsano festival was canceled. Since the rain decided not to stop, we reached the nearby chocolaterie Arome de Cacao, run by kind Salvatore Toma. Son of a pastry chef, he devoted his life to chocolate and consultancies. His specialties are chocolates of all kinds. But I asked him what was his family specialty. Well, it is called dolcetto della sposa, bride treat. A local sweet made of almond paste and covered in sugar fondant. It was once unmissable at wedding receptions.

Castro

Castro is a little gem. A lower part, the marina, with the dock and the beaches, and an upper part, the medieval town. The sight from the belvedere is wonderful: the archaeological excavations, and down below the blue sea. At the local museum, inside the medieval castle, you can admire the statue of Athena, part of a temple recently discovered. This finding confirms the theory, according to which, Castro would be the place where Aeneas first landed in Italy after the Trojan war. As a matter of fact, at the time of the Roman empire, the town’s name was Castrum Minervae, Athena’s camp.

Sadly, also in Castro the weather was not generous with us so our visit was brief and marked by strong winds. Luckily I always have with me my ridiculous but providential ear muffs. If you visit Castro, mind to visit the beautiful ceramics shop called L’Artefatto. You can’t miss it. All the exterior walls have lovely writings and ceramics bass-reliefs regarding the village, its plants and its sea. So cute!

Ceramics shop in Castro
Ceramics shop in Castro

In conclusion, during the tour I got a little taste of Salento and what it has to offer. Pity that, because of the weather and of some organization flaws, I could not experience it at its best.

I hope to have the chance to go back again, see more places, experience more activities and (well, you know me!), taste more local food.

Spongano tour video

Watch the YouTube video:

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