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Puglia: Shepherding now and zen

“Out here, it’s just me and my brain,” shepherd Graziantonio Creanza proclaims via a translator, as he trills instructions to his 100-odd sheep high on the Murgia plateau near Altamura, Puglia. “I just empty my mind and live.”

Puglia: Shepherding now and zen
Image: Lucy Hyslop

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It’s slightly after sunrise, and we’ve disturbed the solitude of the 72-year-old pastore. Along with his Altamurana sheep, today he’s also herding our group of English, American, Italian and Canadian voluntourists — a new breed of traveller that marries sightseeing with volunteering (other days are spent helping to restore 15th-century frescoes by chipping away mud and other detritus).

In an era of breathless advancement, it’s the perfect antediluvian hit. Sure, his crook may have long been replaced by an umbrella — and his 1990s Nike trainers may seem a little incongruous — but his millennia-old role dovetails nicely with a region plump with Neolithic tombs and ancient crypts.

While tracking the darting flock as it chows down on the erba medica and centofoglie plants dotted among the ochre-hued moonscape of tufo limestone, our cameras soon fall to our waists as we adopt the shepherd’s Zen-like mindset. We join him foraging for wild rocket, while engulfed with the aroma of fennel and thyme.

Breaking our meditative meander, Creanza suddenly laughs about a gnarly-looking ram that’s misbehaving. “Mind him — he’s being moody,” he pipes up, pointing his Winston cigarette (smoking is an occupational hazard) towards an animal stubbornly ignoring his dogs. “He hates the rain.”

We share in his typical shepherd’s lunch — cialledde soup festooned with potatoes, tomatoes, onion, garlic, celery, olives, egg and Altamura bread, the latter having been granted Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU. (Part cookery course, our trip has taught us that it never goes mouldy thanks to its sourdough yeast.) “Buono,” he announces, simultaneously stroking his thumb down the side of his cheek in what turns out to be a southern Italian tick when describing anything good.

With the enthusiasm of a hermit who’s suddenly discovered he actually enjoys conversation, he regales us with tales. Like the time a wolf fatally attacked a ram during a rare moment he had allowed his flock to wander too far away, and how he started aged nine although only officially became a shepherd when he had his own flock at 26.

In the past, Creanza and the other shepherds — a role mainly taken up today by Albanians and Romanians (he may be third generation, but his three sons aren’t following suit) — would have retreated into the trulli, the conical stone huts pockmarking the countryside.

Now, however, he and his wife Maria rent a 17th-century farmhouse or masseria, where the sheep are kept inside a shed for the night and where, the next morning, he makes cheese. In a nearby outhouse, a gas burner warms up the morning’s milking in a giant vat into which Creanza nonchalantly plunges his hand to test the temperature. After a few minutes of stirring, his first batch of the hard cheese, Canestrato Pugliese, is turned out into the wicker baskets, followed by seconds-old ricotta that we devour.

As our party leaves, he signs off with the Puglia saying, “Apri gli occhi.” Meaning ‘be careful’, it directly translates as ‘open your eyes’ — all the more poignant, of course, coming from our watchful shepherd.

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