Undiscovered Puglia: Finding My Family and Myself in Italy

This article was originally featured on Janbala.

I grew up 25 miles from Ellis Island in New York, and my Italian roots have always been an important part of my identity. Living in an area where so many families immigrated to the United States created a curiosity about my ancestry. I knew that many of my Italian relatives still lived over in Puglia, but it wasn’t until I traveled to that region of Italy that I discovered who I am.

Intrepid Travel

“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”

-David Mitchell

Puglia is an unspoiled area of Italy known for its incredible whitewashed coastline, an extensive history of invaders (perhaps why I have light eyes!), and the best food in all of Italy. Clearly, the latter is no small feat. Despite being on the water, the region is very much a desert. Cactus obstructs ocean views and the dry air warms like a blanket. Located in southeastern Italy, also known as the “heel of the boot,” this sun-swept region is gifted with warm weather, the aquamarine Adriatic Sea and no crowds. Well, at least not yet.

We flew over to Bari, the main city in Puglia, and there we were: 30 minutes away from meeting my long-lost family. When we arrived in the small town of Palo Del Colle, we were greeted with a warm Italian welcome: 10 family members started shouting, che faccia bella, (Italian for what a beautiful face), immediately followed by hugging, squeezing and kissing my cheeks. I forgot to mention one important thing: I just walked into a room where only one relative knew English. My American family does not speak Italian. Yet in the moment, it didn’t seem to matter. My tiny great aunts, no taller than 4’9,” instantly warmed to us and embraced us. Noting my height of 5’2,” my husband Scott joked, “Well, we know where you get your height from.” Short or tall, American or Italian, we were able to communicate via one language and that was love.

We flew over to Bari, and there we were: 30 minutes away from meeting my long-lost family.

puglia roamaroo

While I couldn’t understand the specifics of the language that day, our families communicated the true Italian way – through kisses, lots of hand gestures and of course, my personal favorite – food! Let me tell you, the food was flowing from the second we arrived. My two great aunts, 80- and 90-year-old spitfires – had prepared an epic meal together with my cousin. As I stuffed my face with homemade ricotta, fresh prosciutto, mouthwatering melon, and Primitivo – the local Puglian wine – my husband remarked, “save room for lunch, Collette!” Wait… I thought this was lunch? How did the inner Italian in me not realize that we are in Italy, and here meals include four courses over three hours. As I sat back and searched for a spare stomach, I smiled in awe. I was home.

As I sat back and searched for a spare stomach, I smiled in awe. I was home.

As a quick eating intermission, we embarked on a tour of Palo Del Colle and the region surrounding Bari. We walked through the central square and learned about all the different countries that invaded and inhabited this beautiful region over the years. From the Greeks to the Normans, the Franks to the Arabs, people from all over the world wanted a piece of Puglia.

After we walked around the square, it was time to do what we Italians know best: mangiare (to eat, duh!). My cousin Rafaelo told us we had a dinner to attend with family that night. At least that’s what I thought he said, as we clearly don’t speak the same language. I wasn’t that far off, but I didn’t realize how big this family dinner would be. As we pulled up to a restaurant in downtown Palo Del Colle, an unmissable melody of Italian voices roared down the street. Cautiously we entered a local trattoria, only to be greeted by 43 cousins, aunts and uncles that I never knew existed, all congregated together to meet my immediate family.

puglia

Tears of joy filled my eyes as I was embraced by complete strangers – people I now know as family.

The feeling of 40+ people greeting me with genuine love was completely overwhelming. Tears of joy instantly filled my eyes and warmth filled my heart as I was embraced by complete strangers – people I now know as family. The age range varied from infants to 90-years-old, but everyone effortlessly integrated into the family dynamic. My great aunts didn’t pale from old age, rather they ripened – telling stories around the table and drinking local red wine. The young children gathered to practice the English they were learning in school. It was a perfect snapshot of joy.

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For the rest of our time in Italy, we chose to explore the surrounding Puglian areas, including Brindisi, Bari, Monopoli, Alberobello and Polignano a Mare – all by bicycle.

puglia

The smell of olives permeated the air as we passed thousands of olive orchards lining the streets. After our sun-drenched, sea-side bike rides, we refueled with local delicacies such as homemade orecchiette pasta, amazing olive oil, crunchy frisella snacks and fresh seafood caught right in the Adriatic Sea. It’s a good thing we opted for bikes because man, oh man, did we eat! One ride took us to the trulli amazing town of Alberobello, a World Heritage Site, known for its trulli homes – an Apulian (from Puglia) dry stone hut with a conical roof. Inside a trulli, we took part in an authentic burrata and mozzarella cheese cooking lesson from a local mozzarella master chef, complete with Primitivo wine.

My trip to Puglia was one for the record books.

I’ll have to return soon, as I left my heart and my stomach on the shores of Puglia.

12 Comments

  1. Becky Moore February 2, 2017 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Great post on a great place, it seems like a very up-and-coming destination at the moment and from your photos I can see why! 🙂

    • Collette Stohler February 3, 2017 at 7:27 am - Reply

      Becky, It was a life-changing trip in more than one way. I would highly recommend visiting before the crowds take it. It may be the only untouched place left in Italy. Definitely visit Polignano A Mare!

  2. Victoria February 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    Wow what an incredible story!! We would love to travel to Puglia one day!

    • Collette Stohler February 6, 2017 at 6:16 pm - Reply

      It’s unspoiled Italy <3 hope you guys make it!

  3. Kelly | A Pair of Passports February 6, 2017 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    Such a beautiful story! I would love to track down some of my ancestors – especially the Irish ones since I’m already in love with Ireland!!

    • Collette Stohler February 6, 2017 at 6:17 pm - Reply

      You should do it! Sometimes we have to travel back in time to make sense of our future 🙂

  4. Alexis February 7, 2017 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    Sounds like a wonderful visit! Makes me wish I had a long lost Italian family!

  5. Amy (Two Drifters) February 7, 2017 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    Ah sounds so fabulous!! I’m 5’3″ —feel ya on the shortness haha.
    This trip sounds epic and makes me wish I were Italian too!! xx

  6. Kallsy February 8, 2017 at 4:56 am - Reply

    This brought tears to my eyes for you! I would love to be able to experience this for myself. I’m so glad you were able to be connect with them. 🙂

    • Collette Stohler February 8, 2017 at 10:39 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Kallsy. This was a super personal article so I’m glad that the passion behind it was able to shine through <3

  7. Rita April 20, 2017 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Loved reading your article. I live in Perth, Western Australia and I am first generation Australian. My parents both came from Puglia. I have visited a few times and still have a lot relatives living there. It’s a very special place. I’m glad you thought so too .

  8. Paul Dicioccio April 27, 2017 at 11:06 pm - Reply

    BEAUTIFUL STORY. Never been to Puglia, on my bucket list for Spring 2018, when I return to my own terra patria Abruzzo!

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