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Trip Report A Three Week Drive through the Lesser Known Towns of Adriatic Italy

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A Three Week Drive through the Lesser Known
Towns of Adriatic Italy
May 21-June 11, 2013

My husband, myself and our cousins have been to Italy many times, but we have never visited the lesser known towns in the east of the country. After reading many books and articles, we developed our itinerary. We decided to rent a car and drive from the heel of the boot up the Adriatic coast, then head west to finish our trip in Cinque Terre. We shared the expenses of renting a Hyundai crossover (1260 euros + 440 euros for insurance). Since none of the cars with automatic transmission had a covered trunk, we decided to avoid stopping along the road in order to prevent theft. We therefore drove directly to each hotel, checked in and then drove off to see the sights. We flew American Airlines to Rome and then transferred to an AlItalia flight to Brindisi. For the return, we booked with Alitalia from Genoa to Rome and then transferred to American Airlines for our flight back to NY. ($3,400).

We picked up our car and arrived at the Hotel Colonna (255 euros for three nights). We chose all our hotels through Tripadvisor and all breakfasts were included. This was the only hotel without available parking and parking spots were at a premium here. We had to locate a spot and then feed euros into the parking meters, which was a real annoyance.

After we checked in, we walked down to the water. Brindisi was the home of Virgil and the end of the Appian Way. There is a staircase named for Virgil with Roman columns at the top. They are constructing a sea promenade (lungomare) which should be quite lovely when it is finished. We ate in the Antica Marina Restaurant (35 euros) and sampled the first of many meals of freshly caught fish and seafood, salad and grilled vegetables.

The next morning, we drove south along the craggy coast of the Adriatic past olive groves, vineyards and saw farmers bringing their produce to market on donkey carts. Our first stop was Otranto. We headed for the historic center (Citta Vecchio) of the walled city and visited a fort constructed in 1081 and a cathedral whose tower was built by the Normans in the 12th century. Otranto is clean, quaint, and full of winding streets and souvenir shops which occupy Renaissance houses. Everywhere there are bougainvilleas and lemon trees.

We passed the coastal village of Santa Cesarea Terme and stopped to ask a local about the beautiful basilica which dominated the landscape. He explained to us that it was not a basilica, but a palace (Palazza Stecchi) built by a wealthy man who came to the area in the early l700’s to enjoy the thermal springs.

The road was edged with rocky walls covered with flowers. We arrived in Leuca and admired the dramatic surf banging against the rocks. There are many spectacular palaces in Moorish, Chinese and other architectural styles.

The Baroque city of Lecce is known as “Italy’s best kept secret” and “The Florence of the South”. Its large square is built around Roman ruins, including an arena. There is so much to see around the square, including an unusual clock which appears to be made of black cast iron inlaid with blue, green and gold glass. Many of Lecce’s buildings have heavily ornamented facades, especially the Basilica di Santa Croce. Indoors is a beautiful altar piece with a matching ceiling painting of the golden rays of the sun. A walk in Lecce is an architectural treat.

We returned to Brindisi and had dinner in the Grotta Restaurant where we had fish soup with mussels, whole sea bass, a salad, grilled vegetables and a glass of wine (40 euros).

The next morning, we headed for Taranto. Three hours is just the right amount of time to see the town, the fort, walk along the promenade and wander through the streets, some of which are so narrow that you can reach out and fold your neighbor’s laundry. Many of the houses are as they were 500 years ago. Walking down the little stone alleyways, you forget that you are in the 21st century. We walked down to the water and watched the fishermen emptying their boats and setting up their stands in a little market. One of them offered me and my cousin an unrinsed mussel. It was delicious, but my mouth was puckering for an hour afterward!

We loved the drive to Cisternino along S 172 which is bursting with poppies and other wild flowers, but most interestingly, trullis, which are little white houses with cone shaped roofs. Cisternino fascinated me because no two houses are alike. The town is nestled on a hilltop that looks down over the valley. The people are fond of latticework which decorates the streets and archways. The most important church, St. Nicholas was built in the 10th century by monks. It is called the Chiesa Nova (new church).

We drove to Ostuni, known as the Bianca (white) city. Ostuni was our first view of a town with houses cascading down a hill. As we readied our cameras, the sun hit the sides of the houses, making a spectacular picture!

We returned to Brindisi for another dinner at La Grotta Restaurant.

The next morning before we left the town we visited the tower constructed by Mussolini which is in dominant view. We didn’t climb its many steps, but it has a great view of the harbor from the top.

We arrived in Bari and checked into the Romanazzi Carducci, a beautiful modern Mercure hotel on park like grounds near the railroad station. (381 euros for three nights) It isn’t located in the best part of town, but because of its secure grounds we didn’t find that to be a problem. We strolled its gardens decorated with statuary, flowers and fountains, then walked into old town, visited the thousand year old cathedral, passed an old fort and walked to the harbor. The pristine harbor is excellent for walking. I took some lovely shots of rooftops, churches and fishing boats on the water. We returned to the hotel for a superb, magnificently presented and delicious prix fixe meal which included several courses, dessert, water, coffee and wine. (29 euros per person).

Today we visited two of the most famous towns of eastern Italy – Alberobello and Matera. As I mentioned before, seeing the trullis of Alberobello is like walking in a fantasy land. Many of the little white houses were decorated with red flowers and the cone-shaped roofs were magnificent against the blue sky. On some of the roofs are symbols to ward off bad luck. We visited one house behind the church of San Antonia di Padua and climbed up a ladder into its cozy second floor. There are two parts to the town – about ¼ miles down the main street; the whole landscape is covered with hundreds of trullis.

Next, we visited the hillside town of Matera. Its abandoned houses were occupied by squatters until a government project in l950 began renovating the houses. They were electrified and the area became gentrified. It is now a captivating world heritage site, and we found it reminiscent of Mont San Michel in France. The countryside next to the town is dotted with prehistoric caves called sassis.

After an afternoon of hiking and stair climbing, we were most definitely ready to return to Bari for our “traditional” dinner of fish, salad and grilled vegetables, wine and water in the small family owned Falco D’Oro (38 euros), located close to our hotel.

Italy’s drivers are aggressive and impatient. Be careful – they won’t stop for you. We were very grateful for our talking GPS. Our cousins and we purchased a European package for our iphones at a cost of about $150 and it was such a relief to be able to rely on SIRI for our directions although her Italian pronunciation was atrocious! We were also glad that we purchased the extra collision insurance since we scraped the side of the car against a barrier.

Our first destination the next morning was the unusual octagonal Castel Del Monte which was built by Frederick II around 1200 to celebrate his establishment of a centrally governed kingdom of Sicily and southern Italy. Frederick was an avid patron of the arts and sciences. The castle has eight octagonal shaped turrets and eight rooms on each floor. Unfortunately, the dynasty collapsed after Frederick’s death. High on a hill, it offers a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.

My mother-in-law’s maiden name was Mitrani. In Hebrew it means “from Trani”, so we were very excited to explore my husband’s heritage. Until the Jews were expelled from Italy in 1530, Trani was a very vital community with four major synagogues. The synagogues were converted into churches, but as of late two have been re-established; one is functioning, while another is a museum. Although they were closed, we were able to wander the streets of Giudecca (the Jewish ghetto) and visualize 500 years of history. We then walked over to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas which is dramatically situated by the sea. Its windows are decorated with whimsical sculptures of animals and flowers and its bronze door has 32 panels depicting saints and their exploits. We drove back to Bari and enjoyed another meal in our hotel’s restaurant.

The three hour drive from Bari to Vieste on the Gargano Peninsula snakes through dangerous mountain roads, but there are breathtaking views of cliffs, surf hitting rocks and deep blue lagoons. We checked into our hotel, Il Castellino Relais (207 euros for three nights) located about a mile away from town. The lungomare is a beautiful walk to town along the beach. It has a coast with interesting rock formations, arches and grottoes. One of the most famous is a monolith known as Pizzomundo. Vieste has recently grown in popularity.
We ate dinner at a family restaurant called Paprika 2 owned by a man named Michele. He makes his own olive oil which imparted such flavor to the fish! This part of Italy is olive oil country and I intended to inquire about visiting an olive oil farm.

After a wonderful breakfast in the pretty dining room, we went on a 2 ½ hour boat ride (13 euros per senior citizens) to see the grottoes. The weather was absolutely perfect, so we were able to enter all nine of them. The views of the white town from the boat, the blue sky and the turquoise sea made for a fantastic must-see experience.

We planned to take a hike in the Foresta Umbria which was a short drive from our hotel, however we couldn’t find the entrance and there were no signs. The only wildlife we saw were donkeys and cows along the road, so we amused ourselves by stopping in a tiny farm indicated by a handwritten sign, “La Fattoria Filli Cariglia – tradizione di formaggi tipici local.” Out came a friendly lady who took us into her flower bedecked shed with 8 ramekins of goat cheese and 6 hanging balls of hard cacciocavale cheese weighing about 4 pounds each. Of course, we bought one to share. We knew we’d never finish it, but it was fun. Then her son approached me and took me around the farm to see one rooster, one chicken, one goose and two pigs. We drove with the windows open for a few hours due to the odor in the car from the pig sty and the cheese! We never finished the cheese, but it was a great experience.

We ate on the beach in a little shed called Lido Marilupe (35 euros) and had some grilled fish that the owner had caught that day.

The mountain road S89 from Vieste to Monte Sant Angelo is full of hairpin curves, each one revealing another breathtaking view of the multi-colored water and white cliffs. The Sanctuaria in Monte Sant Angelo dates back to the year 790. The altar is located in a grotto and there are many remains of medieval wall paintings. We walked around the ancient streets and bought ostie ripiene, a local specialty made from almonds, wafers, honey and lemon. We got back on the winding mountain road, this time toward Peschici. The town which is perched on a cliff looks down on a large harbor which is half beach and half marina. People here love floral displays which decorate the white and stone houses. I found that the narrow steps and the pretty houses made for some lovely photo ops. We saw a modern church, Sant Elia Profeta, which had new stained glass windows and sacred paintings by contemporary artists. Who knows? One of them could be the next Michelangelo!

The thermometer registered 65 degrees and fluffy clouds enhanced the blue sky as we drove along S152 back to our hotel. We walked into Old Town and ate in Padre Pio restaurant (55 euros).

After we said goodbye to our friendly concierge Paula, we headed northwest to Peschici, then around Lake Di Varano to Pescara. Since we were in no rush, we took the scenic route S 16 which runs closer to the coast. We passed numerous spectacular hill towns, got our first view of the snow capped Appenine Mountains, and arrived at the Carlton Hotel (99 euros per night) on the beach and around the corner from an upscale pedestrian shopping street. We stopped for a glass of wine at the Agora Café on the square and watched the children riding on a merry go round. We had an elegant meal in the pretty and classy Regina Elena Restaurant (50 euros).

En route to Aquila we saw olive groves, grape vines, rolling hills with a crazy quilt of different shades of green and gold, and the Appenines. The thought occurred to us how varied our experiences were. One day, the bluest grottoes, blue skies, turquoise water, 80 degree temperature, and the next day rain and snow capped mountains!

The town of Aquila was hit by an earthquake in 2009 and 2012 and is now in the process of recovery. All the buildings are covered in scaffolding. The basilica and the fort are closed, and the 99 spigots of fountain celebrating Frederick II’s unification of Italy are shut off. The evidence of the devastation was ubiquitous and it reminded us how cruel nature can be.

We headed for Castel Del Monte, a fortified city without external walls. It is approached by a steep road. To stave off enemy attack, people would block the narrow passageways and pour hot oil down the streets. With a population of 860, many of the stone houses are empty or used as second homes. The paths have recently been repaved with decorative stones in patterns that blend in with the atmosphere. We saw no one as we climbed the stairs.

We ate at Alcyon Restaurant (65 euros) across the road from our hotel and had a wonderful meal as we watched the sky turn pink over the water.

I wanted to visit an olive oil farm, and the concierge made arrangements for us to visit one. She gave us scanty directions, but advised us to “ask” people, because the farm was most definitely in the middle of nowhere. We asked and asked and FINALLY arrived at the farm. Out came a lovely young woman who had opened the house just for us. I excitedly greeted her and thanked her profusely for accommodating us. To my surprise, she informed me that this wasn’t an olive farm, but a winery! She was very generous with the pours, the wine was delicious and our cousins bought one bottle of Montepulciano de Abruzzo for 15 euros. (We never did find an olive oil farm.) Our next plan was to take a cable car up to the top of the Gran Sesso, a major mountain in the Appenine chain, but it was a long ride and we were running out of gas. Since it was Sunday the gas stations were closed and the station machines wouldn’t accept our credit card, we returned to Pescara and walked down the lungomare, over bridge and into the Citta Vecchia. The restaurants open at 7:30, so we walked around a flea market which sold items from little trinkets to beautiful antique furniture and jewelry. We then had delicious swordfish and very fresh pulpo in Osteria Del Miracolo (54 euros).

Le Marche, the area near Ancona, possesses, according to the New York Times, “Italianness. It is full of unspoiled hilltop towns and countryside reminiscent of what Tuscany must have been like before the publishing of Under the Tuscan Sun.” Our GPS, usually so reliable, struggled to find the location of our hotel because the address was wrong. We had to call ahead, but it was worth getting lost. The International Hotel (110 euros) is gorgeous. Its flower bedecked patio has a spectacular view of the bay below. Since it is far from town, we dropped off our luggage and drove off to tour Ancona. The cathedral is located on top of a hill and approached by about 100 steps, but you are rewarded with a great view of the busy ports with its ferries and cargo ships. We returned to our hotel for drinks, ate dinner and watched the sunset from its lovely restaurant (50 euros).

It was easy to find the wonderful Stresa Hotel (59 euros per night) in Rimini. Our concierge, Ines, was top notch. As we headed for Urbino we passed Federico Fellini Airport named for its native son. Urbino is a Renaissance town that boasts a wonderful ducal palace with Pietro Della Francesca’s great painting, Flagellation. Rafael was born here and some of his father’s paintings are in its cathedral. Urbino is a university town and is filled with students.

San Marino is “The Country on a Cliff.” The setting is magical! You can see it perched high on a mountaintop from miles away. What a fun time we had wandering through the world’s smallest country. We felt like we were on top of the world and could see for miles in every direction. They claim that on a clear day you can see Croatia, which is 60 miles away. The crenellated towers are visible around every turn. Both my cousin and I did some serious shopping here and purchased beautiful handbags which were made by a Milanese firm.

Back in Rimini, our concierge recommended that we eat in Del Toro Restaurant that night. She was right. We were treated like family. (58 euros).

On to Ravenna, a short drive along the coast from Rimini. This town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the magnificent 4th century Byzantine mosaics in many of its churches.

We checked into the Hotel Ravenna (75 euros) and walked to the center of town, just a few blocks away to see the breathtaking mosaics. The Ravenna Festival runs from March through June, but tonight’s event was an Italian story teller, so we took a rain check. We had a romantic al fresco dinner at Restaurant AL 45 in the courtyard of an old church (63 euros). We enjoyed the meal so much that we decided to return the next night.

En route to Ferrara along SP 15 we passed many farms and what appeared to be rice paddies. This area is the bread basket of Italy. Ferrara, another UNESCO World Heritage Town, has an interesting history. Antonioni was born here. Copernicus lived here. The Este family arrived in the 13th century and families vied for power for many years. The streets are lined with grand palazzos, including the huge, crenellated, fortress-like one which belonged to the Duke of Este. To everyone’s amusement its moat is stocked with fish that eagerly swallow whatever people throw into the water. The highly ornamented Duomo resembles the one in Milan. Ferrara is a university town and it is filled with many young people partying, and young and old riding their requisite bicycles. Jews lived peacefully here until they fell victim to the Nazis. The movie, “The Garden of the Finzi Continis” takes place here, and we visited the Jewish cemetery where we found gravestones of the Finzis and Continis. We wanted to visit the Hebrew Museum, but it was closed due to an earthquake. On its façade is a plaque dedicated to the 96 people who perished in the Holocaust. We did some shopping, purchased some fun jewelry, and bought a book in Italian for our granddaughter. It was a very interesting, fun-filled day, but THERE IS NO TORRONE FACTORY IN FERRARA!

We returned to Ravenna, rested up a bit and dined again in Restaurant AL 45.

On to western Italy and the Cinque Terre! The road A-1 had views of the Alpi Apuane, visible in various shades of blue-grey like a Chinese painting. We returned our car in La Spezia and took a taxi (40 euros) to La Zorza Hotel (140 euros per day) in Riomaggiore. Our room, approached by 36 steps, was in a 500 year old building. It had beamed ceilings and a stone wall. Our window looked out onto the main street of the town. Cinque Terre is composed of five isolated villages emerging from the hills that have been connected by foot paths and a railroad. It was crawling with college students, and we felt culture shock since for the past two weeks we had seen so few tourists. We took about a zillion pictures of the pastel houses, each on a different level, the locals sitting on their benches, the children playing, the fishermen and the huge mural in the square. We ate in Dau Cila Restaurant (73 euros) overlooking the fishing boats in the little cove.
We intended to hike between towns, but many of the paths were closed due to flood damage, so after breakfast we took the train to the picturesque town of Vernazza, admired its rocky curved bay and walked some of its hilly path for a better view.

We then caught the train for Monterosso which has a beautiful beach featuring an unusual rock formation. My romantic husband decided that it looked like two people kissing. We walked the long promenade and explored the old town. Then we took a boat (8 euros for seniors) back to Riomaggiore. From the water, the towns look like toy displays constructed of pastel legos.

The next day was, literally, a “lost day.” The train to Manarola didn’t stop at the station but went on to Vernazza, so we crossed over the station and took the train back to Corniglia. Even in the rain it was enchanting. We walked the 383 steps up to the town, and then followed a path recommended by Rick Steves through the wineries cut into the hills. There were breathtaking views at every turn. Wet but happy, we caught the train back to Riomaggiore. It stopped, but its doors didn’t open. We didn’t know that the stations are shorter than the trains so the last two cars remain in the tunnel, and, of course, that’s where we were. So we rode on to La Spezia and waited 1 ½ hours for the next train back to Riomaggiore. Lesson learned – ask questions of the locals, and it certainly helps to LEARN SOME ITALIAN!!

Our trip over, we made arrangements for a taxi (200 euros) to drive us to Best Western Hotel (99 euros) near the airport in Genoa. We decided to stay overnight in Genoa because our flight was at 7:00 AM and the trains don’t run at 4:30.) Since the street was not open to cars at the time we needed to leave, we lugged our luggage (so THAT’S why it’s called luggage…) about a half mile up the hill, not knowing that our driver was coming to help us. We certainly got enough exercise on this trip!

Flight home.

Our Italian adventure was varied, always beautiful, always fascinating and full of new experiences. We visited deserted, ancient cities, fought crowds in Cinque Terre, saw towns that survived floods and earthquakes. We ate great food and drank delicious wine. We walked an average of 5 hours a day. We saw green hills, snow capped mountains, beaches, caves and the bluest water. We saw olive groves and vineyards. At every turn we met friendly, helpful people with whom we communicated in our slowly improving Italian. Because eastern Italy is still not a prime tourist destination, travelers can experience beautiful unspoiled sights. It is what the Amalfi coast must have been like before tourism took over. It is a hidden treasure.

Expenses in euros
Hotels 2043
Restaurants 1470
Car insurance and additional driver charge (shared) 414
Gas (shared) 263
Parking (shared) 30
Tolls (shared) 43
Taxis (shared) 400

Expenses in dollars
Airfare $3,400
Car rental (shared) $1260

Mileage: 1933 miles

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