As some of you might know, I take August off and plan a vacation to explore a new region in Italy. Last year was Sicily. This year I decided to head to Messors Shepherds and Food Culture Workshop in Puglia I view these trips as my personal photo safari and with camera in hand, I love to have the luxury of just photographing everything.
Tonio and his wife Jennifer
I made my way out to the Puglian countryside, to the Messors Shepherds and Food Culture Workshop location to meet Messors Workshop hosts, Tonio and Jennifer Creanza. All the attendees and most of the staff are hosted at a friend’s large home near Matera. What once was a hunting lodge, now serves as a working masseria (farm).
Tonio Creanza leads the workshop along with his wife Jennifer. Jennifer has tireless energy; she is no doubt the driving force and support system for the 6-day workshop with a wide range of activities. All meals served at the house and all over the countryside are produced by her and a staff of close family and volunteers from all over the world. Truth is, I was surprised to meet her since there is no mention of her in the collateral about the workshop. But she’s truly the star of the show and the glue that holds their workshops together. Jennifer is originally from Vancouver (where the family resides in the winter months). She met Tonio at one of his restoration workshops. As she tells it, he courted her by serenading to her with his guitar under the stars.
They also include their charming 10-year-old son, August. I had the pleasure of sitting with him during dinner, and I must say he’s one of the most interesting 10-year-olds I have ever met. Normally I am not a fan of having kids at workshops. I like kids, don’t get me wrong, I just like it better when I am on vacation to have adults around. But August proved that I was wrong, and he was one of the most delightful parts of the workshop.
August with his Nonno (Grandfather)
Tonio is a restoration expert and currently has several projects resorting cave paintings in the Matera area. As part of the restoration project, Tonio and Jennifer have purchased a property, a primitive shepherd’s house, which has several caves on the property with amazing paintings. The caves include crypts and churches and dwellings. Tonio, along with a rotating team of restorers, plans to restore them to their former glory. The shepherd house is where the cheese demonstration took place, followed by lunch and then Tonio’s afternoon lecture in the caves on the property.
lecture in the caves
Tonio is deeply committed to restoring these beautiful cave paintings. He speaks passionately about his commitment to these projects. He views himself as an educator and throughout the workshop, there are many lectures about cave dwellings and paintings. He speaks about his connection to the land to the shepherds and the farmers and makers and to the caves. His core message is a good one. History should be respected, preserved and cherished, and ancient food traditions and preparations should be passed down through the generations and not forgotten, and I could not agree more. It’s a noble cause he’s chosen to share.
Breakfast was served outdoors, where sometimes Tonio drags his beloved chalk board to do a lecture about his feelings about food and food conservation in Italy. He has strong opinions which he shares by punctuating his points while drawing a map of Italy and writing all over his beloved chalkboard.
The night we all arrived, he even tried to teach a bit of Italian to the attendees. Which I found quite funny since many glasses of wine had been consumed. He even wrote Italian words on his chalkboard in the the darkness. He played the guitar, sang and whistled to us all. It was quite sweet.
Although Tonio did the brunt of the touring and talking, I was most impressed with the enormous effort that Jennifer put into dragging tables and chairs, dishes and flatware, wine and water and food all over the countryside. Since I do workshops, I am keenly aware of the monumental task she managed to pull off every day all with a lovely smile on her face. It is a mammoth effort on her part and the part of her hardworking team. So a big thank you to all of them.
Although there were some interesting attendees, the most interesting person was a volunteer helper, Allen, one of my favorites, an older gentleman from Canada, an ex soccer ref who has found the practice of meditation and yoga in his golden years. He was our driver, although he never knew where we were going, he was always funny and resourceful.
I loved talking to Melissa, a restoration student from Canada, trying to figure out her next moves. She was lovely and helpful and always so cheerful. I loved my conversations with them all.
Joe, employed by the homeowner, was a delightful young man from Ghana. He has immigrated to Italy and is trying to make a go of it. His story was poignant, and we had a few quiet conversations mainly about how he felt isolated and lonely. I took some photos of him to send home to his Mom. He was so grateful and happy.
Melissa- restoration intern
We visited one of the oldest bakeries in Altamura, known for its soft semolina bread. I think some of my best images are from here, as it was shaded, and we got an earlier start.
We did visit the Shepherd in the field, although full disclosure, I was disappointed that we got there too late to see the sheep close up and in good light. By the time we were trekking out into the vast fields it was 11:00 am, over 100 degrees and way too bright to get any good imagery. But with 15 people in tow, it’s hard to get everyone out the door by 7:30 am when the light is the best.
I think the biggest takeaway for me on this vacation was that group trips for a personal photo safari is probably not the best idea. The best bet is to travel alone or go to a photography-focused workshop. In fact, one of the attendees at lunch asked me, “Why are you taking so many pictures?” which made me giggle. I explained that I loved photography, that this is my passion, and that I loved to photograph. It was my vacation. Further proof that photography workshops are probably the best bet if you want great photos and want to be with like-minded people.
My impressions: Since I am in the business, I feel it’s important that I am honest with you.
It was an interesting trip, and I think Messors is a good choice if you want to have a no fuss, no muss experience. One Note* All the rooms are shared rooms, but I lucked out at getting my own private room, for which I was most grateful. Since it’s a working farm, be aware that it is not a luxury experience. Something that I was not fully prepared for. So always read about the location amenities if air conditioning and your own bathroom is important to you, this is probably not the location for you. If this sounds like it is for you…one word of advice is that if you’re sharing a room, and you snore let them know….but just in case your roommate snores or noise keeps you awake, make sure you bring noise canceling headphones for a better night’s sleep. I brought mine and it saved me, I slept like a log.
Now that I have experienced Puglia, and will definitely go back with Frank and get those photos I missed. x
Check out this documentary from 2015 about Tonio’s cave project.
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