Whiter Shade of Pale

Ostuni, Maze of Mystery

Old town © Alma Reyes
Old town © Alma Reyes
16 JAN 2017
by

And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first, just ghostly
turned a whiter shade of pale and the truth is plain to see.

(Whiter Shade of Pale, song by Procol Harum)

Stone… white… wall… purple door… olive tree… blue sea…

It was at that one particular moment of stillness I was standing at the foot of Vico Goffredo Mamelli street—its stone slabs thick, tough and forbearing; upfront looking huge and aged, then slowly shrinking at a distance into uneven patches of mosaic; becoming smaller and smaller as my eyes traveled along the rugged slope of this fragile, narrow alley that seems to be unable to protect itself from the shake of a tremor. My gaze slipped further until the far end where little steps, flanked by few pretty geranium pots, meet with the silent, whitewashed walls and the clear, blue Mediterranean sky—then, I could breathe the rustic fumes of Puglia’s haunting secrets, sealed within the rampart of this silvery white city of Ostuni.

On this unpolished street I made my “home” for half a week; on the grilled iron terrace of my apartment I looked out from above to find below my lady neighbor in her robust silhouette, waiting to greet me “Buongiorno!”; on such a chaste Southern morning of crisp espresso scents I leaned against the balcony railing, warmly observing my landlady across the building perform her immaculate chore of hanging laundry as she peeped cautiously behind the white sheets to ask me if I had slept well the night before—all these between mysterious exchanges of broken tongues, harmonized only by the saving grace of human telepathy. Here, language is not all about words.

If Giuseppe Tornatore should direct a new sequel to Cinema Paradiso or Baaria, it might as well take place on this alley, at that singular frame, with cello notes in your ears and the most natural ingredients of rural Italy on your palate daintily brewed in an impenetrable basin of a whiter shade of pale.

Ostuni, inhabited by Messapians, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, Greeks and Romans, and flourished from the year 1000 into an embellishment of monasteries, churches, sculptural icons, and the most complex maze of white-bathed buildings squeezed in a circular hill above the blue Adriatic, stands like a fortress incessantly desirous to be cushioned against novelty or velocity of time; it’s a retreat from the stifle of modern, bustling life, perhaps even the simple answers to lofty questions that no longer excite you. In the old medieval town, every lime-washed structure jutting out from a hidden pathway, each steep ascending stairway leading to another tread of descending steps, an alcove of Baroque ornaments, an unexpected corner bordered by bending cacti, or a sudden slim view of the sea and sky sandwiched between two houses—hit you by a surprising jolt, almost as devilish as the midnight moon. It is the heart-throbbing mystery of the web of alleys that keeps you wanting to discover more and more without having to guess what is to come or where it leads you, each revelation accelerating more stirringly than before, like an impatient child waiting to open more presents on Christmas day. Ghostly as the whiteness of its air, the aesthetics of the balcony curves, window frames, door handles and overall palette of olive trees of green and sparkling sea of blue complete the irony and contradiction of serenity and energy.

From the central Piazza della Libertà, the presence is equally exhilarating, as though the chock-full strings of buildings give way to a clear, unobstructed open space, splendored by the dominating Church of San Francesco. Trails of Pugliese savor: orecchiette with turnip tops, panzerotti, mashed beans with chicory, chick peas and cavatelli pasta, focaccia with onions (Have I wetted your appetite enough?) and a basket of Southern taralli that I myself have adopted as indispensable felicity—fill your nostrils with irresistible temptation. Every day I have spoilt myself with daily aroma of macchiato coffee, ricotta cheese and olives salads, amongst the safe company of white lounge chairs, red cushions, books, and contemporary music just adjacent to this piazza; townsfolk of every color—chatting, smoking, crafting wooden spoons, selling ceramic souvenirs or cleaning their store windows—a precious cast of players that offered me Ostuni’s theatre of delirious delight.

For every vast white is a speck of tint and shade, just as for every old, languished man that sits pensively on the piazza steps is a young, vibrant lad fiery on his Vespa bike, ready to conquer the world outside the city walls. Ostuni is such: a vision of bearable ivory, yet evoking a spirit of alchemistic chroma; a recipe of ancient secrets, yet boiling with expression; resisting to change, braving the labyrinth of daily life, clinging to the sensitivity of its beauty all on its own.

White… breathes the space
between you and the walls
between seas and skies
between roses and mint
hides beneath the sins of past…