In this neck of the woods, weaving has always been referred to as “poor man’s art”. Artisan’s use the materials at hand: straw, branches and twigs from olive trees, and green, tender reeds from the bamboo plants which grow locally in the area. On closer inspection, weaving is not so much “poor man’s art” as it is a craft on the brink of becoming a “lost art”. Many of the artisans in three small cities along the Puglia region’s Adriatic coast – Carovigno, Ostuni and Mesagne – are doing what they can to ensure this traditional handicraft doesn’t get forgotten.
And YOU – as a traveller to Italy’s Southern coast – are in a great position to not only see this delicate and time-consuming craft up close, but you can also pick up several good deals on items you’ll no doubt treasure for years to come.
The first stop on our itinerary is the small town of Carovigno – one of the oldest towns in the Puglia region. Situated about 30 kilometers from the port city of Brindisi, and about 2 kilometers from the beach, the town of Carovigno had its golden years during the middle ages. In fact, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to place yourself back in that time while you stroll through the “Centro storico” or old town – complete with a well kept castle and narrow cobblestone streets.
Here the craftsmen are a dying breed – literally. Old and abrasive, you’ll see them huddled on street corners or in clusters of back alleys. Men and women who have eked out a living weaving straw mats but more importantly baskets made out of olive branches that are used by local fishermen. You’ve seen the type no doubt – conical in shape and in modern times made out of wire and net. But the traditional fishing baskets are made out of twigs and vines. As much an item still used to haul in sea urchins as it is a handmade keepsake, the fisherman’s basket is found no where else in these parts but Carovigno. You can pick up a basket of this type for about 25 euro – probably less if you barter a bit.
A scant 12 kilometers away to the north lies the equally medieval town of Ostuni. The locals call the city of Ostuni the “City of White” due to the fact that the locals “whitewash” their homes each spring in preparation for the hot summer months ahead. The big industry here – at least when it comes to weaving – are large straw mats that farmers use to dry out figs. The mats come in different sizes, run between 10 and 25 euro and are sturdy items that will make a fine addition to your kitchen. Especially if you have a fig tree. The craftsmen also do a creative job of wicker brooms.
In fact, every year in the city of Ostuni – from 15 -16 August – the art of weaving is celebrated with the “Sagra di Vecchi Tempi” or the “Salute to the old times” during this weekend celebration, artisans not only display this crafts, but demonstrate the handiwork involved in creating them. Everything from fabrics to rugs, mats and more are on display. Quite simply, it’s a way of working that is fast disappearing, yet accounts for the lively hood of a good many men and women.
Last on our weaving jaunt sits the medieval town of Mesagne – 15 kilometers inland from Carovigno and one of the most well-preserved of medieval towns in the area, the artisans devote their weaving expertise to place mats for the dinner table and floor mats in which to place wood by the fire. I’ve seen these mats used for a lot more – a place for your trusty canine to hang his head, a mat in which to place your dirty shoes before entering the house and more. To me, these mats are about the same as the ones used for drying figs, but when I inquired as much I was told “you want to dry figs…go to Ostuni..!” Well excuse the heck out of me! Anyway, prices vary, but nothing so expensive that it will put a dent in your savings.
So there you have it. Three towns, three examples of handicrafts that you don’t see too much of anymore and three quick trips you can squeeze in to one day the next time you make it down here to Southern Italy’s Puglia Region.
Do yourself a favor, pick up a woven handcraft. Even if you don’t really need it – you’ll sleep better knowing you’re doing your part to keep this age-old art alive.