Visiting Puglia? Don't forget your pickax

Visiting Puglia? Don't forget your pickax
A volunteer cleans tufo, a porous rock, from a limestone block for a cistern as others re-tile a roof in Altamura. (Ward Lauren)
I could imagine the ghosts of Capuchin monks looking down on me from the upper floor of the weathered building as we drove into the courtyard. The historic dwelling, known as Cappuccini for the monks who lived here in the 16th century, would be my home for the next two weeks.

I had come to the hilltop city of Altamura in southeastern Italy for a working vacation. It turned out to provide more historical and cultural enrichment than a month of guided tours.

I would be working with the grass-roots nonprofit organization Sinergie, a group of young Altamurans — archeologists, artists and musicians — dedicated to revitalizing historic sites in Puglia, a province on the Adriatic coast.

The group, with government and museum backing, sponsors cultural exchanges. Volunteers travel to Altamura to work on restoration projects, paying a minimal fee of $630 for 12 days in return for room, board and occasional sightseeing and educational tours.

The group's first international working camp, Eutropia, was formed in 1995 and brought together dozens of volunteers from many parts of the world. Camps have been conducted twice yearly since. I attended a 12-day July session two years ago.

Much of the Puglia region, like neighboring Basilicata, is pockmarked with caves formed in the porous rock strata known as tufo beneath the gently rolling farmland that extends down into the heel of the boot that is Italy. Under the softer tufo lies hardened limestone that formed about 2 million years ago and provided paving and building blocks for the hilltop cities and fortified farms in ancient and medieval times.

One of our group's field trips was to nearby Matera, where over the centuries, houses were built atop caves originally inhabited during prehistoric times. Today, Matera has more than 100 rock-hewn churches.

Many of the region's caves were used for shelter and later became burial places or were used through the centuries for storage or religious purposes. Early Christian frescoes, deteriorating from the salt and moisture in the soil, can still be seen in some of them. The ravages of time and neglect also have left many majestic farm structures and fortifications crumbling.

My fellow Eutropians hailed mainly from Europe, trickling in over a 24-hour period from various places. There were 17 men and women from the Netherlands, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Slovakia and Sweden, and eight from the U.S. We were multinational and multigenerational.

At 77, I was by far the senior member. Shona McLaren, a 17-year-old from Edinburgh, Scotland, was the youngest. A variety of native tongues was represented, with English our common language, much to the relief of us provincial Americans.

We were assigned rooms in groups of two or three, divided by gender. Cappuccini has been updated with modern facilities, so it was much like living in a coed dormitory. We ate together in the large dining hall on the main floor. Everyone took turns helping to prepare and clean up after meals supervised by no-nonsense cook Lucia.

On our first morning, Tonio Creanza, the project director, and geologist Giovanni Ragone, our team leader, outlined our 12-day program. Activities were divided between work sessions and free time, which included conducted tours and occasional evening parties.

Some days, we would have a work session in the morning; other days, in the afternoon. On two of the days, work camps were scheduled morning and afternoon, with lunch brought to the site. Some days, no work was scheduled, and we were on our own. But every day included a two- to three-hour after-lunch siesta.

The first day, we visited our project: Masseria Jesce (the Jesce farmhouse), about six miles from Altamura, which once was a medieval agricultural center. The massive stone structure, fortified to defend the surrounding countryside, was built in stages between 1400 and 1550. Nearby, a modern highway follows the route of the Roman Via Appia, the ancient trade route leading to Brindisi, port of departure to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

Masseria Jesce and the surrounding property are owned by the city of Altamura, which values its archeological significance not only for its place in history, but also for its tourism potential. The restored structure, courtyards and frescoed caves could be useful for housing seminars, exhibitions and festivals.

The work begins

WHEN we started work at Jesce, we were loosely divided into groups with specific tasks: rebuilding a rock wall, digging out an overgrown yard enclosure, shoring up an ancient cistern, cleaning and rebuilding a stone goat house. This was pick-and-shovel, sledgehammer and wheelbarrow work.

Team leader Ragone emphasized that no one was keeping score; there were no time cards. If you didn't like what you were doing, you could do something else or do nothing. But given the hard work everyone else was doing, I never felt completely comfortable sitting down — even when I was pooped.

Nevertheless, I was pleased when project director Creanza called me aside a couple of days later and said he had a special assignment for me. Because I had been studying sculpture for the last three years, Creanza asked whether I would sculpt a couple of pieces out of tufo to be mounted on the twin stone gateposts at the entrance to the masseria. He said I could fashion them any way I chose as long as they were in keeping with the style and time period of Jesce.

I accepted the challenge — and found it to be just that. I had no idea what to carve. And I didn't have the nerve — for fear of losing what promised to be a fun project — to tell Creanza that I had never carved stone before. I had worked only in clay, molding figures to be fired in a kiln.

I started sketching ideas and by our next work session had come up with a design, then went to work. As the end of our session neared, I was still chipping away on the second piece, so Creanza assigned a partner to assist me. I was grateful, because time was running out. I had by then also acquired a creator's love for his work, so the idea of leaving my sculptures for someone else to finish was unthinkable.

Meanwhile, an unseasonable rain began. Privately grateful for the chance to do absolutely nothing, I lay on my bed most of the day, listening to the gentle rainfall and mentally picturing strength flowing back into my legs and feet. After several trips to Altamura, walking uphill over the uneven limestone-block streets and scrambling among the rocks at Jesce, my body had developed a whole new set of complaints.

My sack time did the trick, and I felt up to joining the party planned for that night, despite the rain. The festa was in a small, privately owned masseria a few miles from town. Most of our group joined in, as did several local residents, "friends of Sinergie" I was told, who were often seen at Cappuccini. Arriving with several cases of Peroni beer and large jugs of local vino di tavola (table wine), they were greeted warmly.

Ragone came in with a stack of CDs and set up the stereo. He put on a favorite local folk-rock group, playing a lively tarantella that in verve and volume overrode the Babel that filled the two small rooms we had packed.

Ragone is shy and reserved, highly competent in his technical profession but not given to exuberant expression. So I gaped when, out of the mob of us wedged into the kitchen, he seemed to explode into the yard, spinning and jumping in time to the music. That memory is one of the most enduring, and endearing, of my stay in Altamura.

The last day of our Eutropia work session gave us a feeling of accomplishment as tasks were completed. We had extended the rock wall along the main entrance road by 40 feet; cleared an overgrown yard and heightened its containing wall; cleaned, strengthened and re-covered the ancient cistern; repaired a small tile roof; and rebuilt the tumbled-down goat pen.

In the final task of the day, Creanza mortared my sculptures into place atop the stone pillars at the entrance gate. It became almost a closing ceremony as he gathered our group together between the posts for a commemorative photograph.

I know none of us will ever forget the 12 days we spent at Altamura, despite the aches, sweat, heat, thirst and blisters. It was more than a simple vacation. We'd formed strong attachments.

There were wet eyes and quivering lips as people began leaving. But we all departed with a deep sense of pride, knowing we had helped preserve a bit of history. And more than that, we were now part of it.



In Altamura


From LAX, Lufthansa, Delta, Northwest, British, American, Continental, Air France and US Airways have connecting flights (change of plane) to Rome. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $740 until Oct. 31.


Cooperativa Sinergie,
17 Via Trapini, 70022 Altamura (Ba), Italy; 011-39-338-454-7519, or e-mail Sessions are $630 for 12 days, including room, board and sightseeing excursions.

— Ward Lauren