DAY ONE September 19, 2007
We leave New York for Rome and then onto Trani, Italy on September 19th, 2007. The trip starts out in typical fashion with a less than enjoyable plane ride. We chose Eurofly, which is only marginally better than the major carriers. After little sleep we arrived in Rome and proceeded to the Avis counter where we encountered a delay of over an hour and a half before securing our rental car. We are finally on the road at 2:00 in the afternoon and take the arduous journey to Trani. After being fueled by more than a few espressos and a mediocre panini courtesy of Autogrill, we arrived at Trani at 7:00 p.m. In retrospect and advice to all future travelers, it would be better served to take the air shuttle from Rome to Bari and rent a car by the airport while traveling around this area. The trip on the Autostrada is long, boring and lacks any significant sights.
We arrived at the Hotel Royal, which is disappointing from its location. This hotel would be convenient if traveling by train as the station is mere blocks away, however, the town of Trani is really characterized by its port and the best hotel is located down in that area. In any event, the hotel is spartan, but clean, and is characterized by an inhospitable demeanor. Aside from that the rooms are okay, however, the air conditioner barely kept up in the mild weather we are having. The weather is approximately 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, 68 at night. Advice to any traveler who would come during the summer is that the air conditioner would probably not be able to keep up.
After our trip we set out to find some dinner and armed with several recommendations we set out towards the port area where the majority of the recommended restaurants are located. On the way we passed by a restaurant called LaGhiara. For some reason we decided to stop into this restaurant, and had one of the best meals we have had anywhere. It should be noted that in the restaurant we were not shown menus, rather the waiter came over and made suggestions. As we ate our meal we noticed that there were only Italians in the restaurant and that no one was shown menus. The waiter came over and suggested an antipasto of fresh fish, and we quickly assented. What came out was an unbelievable array of the freshest fish we have ever seen. The antipasto started with a dish of barbequed octopus, smoked salmon, smoked trout, a smoked fish of steakfish variety, and anchovies marinated in wonderful olive oil. We at that time thought that this was the end of the appetizer and upon finishing were presented with another round of dishes which included two types of mussels, two types of shrimp, fried and steamed, oysters, clams, sea urchin and little fish which we like to call killys, which are really small little bait fish which you eat the whole fish, bones and all.
This antipasto all was topped off by two delicious pieces of mozzarella and some fantastic bread. At this point we were almost sated but the waiter insisted that we have a pasta, which we were glad we did. A few minutes after finishing the antipasto two plates of cavatelli, homemade, appeared with an array of fish in a light tomato sauce. We cannot express how fresh the fish was. The pasta was homemade, the mozzarella was absolutely wonderful and the bread was delicious. We eschewed dessert and coffee as we were really stuffed. Along with the meal we drank two bottles of local wine and a bottle of spring water. Upon being presented with the bill we were astonished to learn that with a generous tip the bill came to 64 Euro. After the meal we returned to our room exhausted and settled in for a much needed rest.
DAY TWO September 20, 2007
We had a nice breakfast at Trani and made friends with a wonderful waiter, porter, bellman, everything man, named Tomaso. We headed north to the town of Barletta where we saw the cathedral, the castle and some other churches. The churches are not notable for their extravagance but are beautiful nonetheless.
We next visited Bitonto which is noted for it’s cathedral however the churches close at noon or one and then don’t open until three, four or even five o’clock.
We next traveled to Molfetta another seaside town which was quaint and quite charming. We have lunch at the port overlooking the Adriatic. We had an appetizer of some bruschetta and two orders of pasta with seafood. The fish is some of the freshest we’ve ever tasted and our tours of these towns includes the fish market where the local fisherman sell what they’ve caught earlier in the morning.
Next on to Bisceglie which is another charming seaside town with a beautiful church dedicated to St. Margaret. Out side of town are reputed to be some ruins dating to prehistoric times and after some difficulty we do find them. They are not well marked and appear to be several large stones forming a rudimentary house. This is thought to be some sort of burial place. The area is not well marked and demonstrates again that these towns are not yet really set up for tourists.
We return to Trani and tour the rest of the town. The port is quite beautiful and the cathedral set on the edge of the water is stunning as the sun sets.
We decide to have dinner at a local pizzeria as MaryAnn is aching for her first pizza. We are rewarded by this small restaurant run by a family and serving excellent pizza. We started with a small fish appetizer and had some wine to accompany the meal.
It is evident that the Italians eat grand meals at any time of the day. They routinely eat antipasti, first course, second course and dessert. We are having a tough time splitting an antipasti and each with a main course. The bread is everything they say about this region. It is dense and chewy and perfect with just about everything. We also learned that Puglia is noted as the biggest producer of wine in Italy. The wine is good and can be characterized as table wine. It is very drinkable, light and extremely easy on the budget.
We are exhausted but in a good way and collapse for a much needed night’s sleep.
DAY THREE September 21, 2007
We had a nice breakfast at Trani. Upon getting the car we saw that the driver's side front tire was extremely low and had a difficult time in finding a gas station. Finally after about 20 minutes of riding almost a flat tire we found a gas station, got some air and continued on our way. We then went to a lovely little town called Conversano where we parked easily and walked in and saw the cathedral. The cathedrals here are not really cathedrals. They are rather small churches with really no artwork and very little in terms of aesthetic beauty. We next headed to the Grotto de Castellano where we took a tour of the grotto which was quite interesting. The grotto which are extensive caverns boast some beautiful stalagmites and stalactites which, when using your imagination, form familiar animal and fish shapes. It lasted about 50 minutes, the tour guide being most informative.
We then headed off to Monopoli where we attempted to see the cathedral and had one of our typical experiences where we drove down into the center of the city down extremely narrow streets, and at one point ran out of real estate, wherein we asked the gentleman how to get out and he told us we had to back down that same narrow street. They all had a good laugh on us as we backed out slowly of the street. In any event, we parked the car eventually, walked to the cathedral and found that it was closed most days and only open for a couple of hours a day in the evening.
Next started our most interesting of adventures where the tire again was flat and we felt that we needed to get it changed. After many problems, including calling the United Stated to get Avis to help us, we were directed to an Avis office where of course they were at lunch until 3:00 and when the gentleman finally came he told us that he was unable to help us with a tire as he wasn't from around Monopoli. We made friends with some guys at a gas station who finally directed us to a tire repair place. We waited there for them to return from lunch and made two more friends in the tire place. They were extremely nice and spent a good long time repairing the tire. At the end of it the mechanic did not want to take any money from us, but we insisted on paying for it as Avis Rental Car would reimburse us.
At this point we were extremely frustrated and being around 4:00 we headed directly to Polignano a Mare. We checked into the hotel, which is absolutely breathtaking, right on the coast of the Adriatic with a beautiful room and two balconies overlooking the sea. We decided to set out and see the town, however, we had not eaten and being such a late hour we just took some small pieces of pizza and a calzone at a local bar.
We traveled to the old center of town and found a charming area in the center full of winding narrow streets and visited the Church of the Purgaturio and the Church of Santa Maria Assunta. Being after five, the churches were open and they were interesting, however, devoid of any art and real aesthetics. After the harrowing day we found a beautiful outdoor café and took some wine sitting in the piazza, which was extremely quiet except for the beautiful sound of a band that was playing for a wedding ceremony a couple of blocks away. The soft strains of the music really soothed us, and we finally deemed the day somewhat of a success.
We returned to the hotel, cleaned up and had dinner at the hotel restaurant called Il Bastione. This was reputed to be the best restaurant in town and proved itself to be. We had a beautiful dinner of assorted chesses from Puglia, which were absolutely delicious. We then had pasta with porcini mushrooms and a cavatelli-like pasta and an angliotti stuffed with spinach and cheese. We finished off the night with a wonderful lemon sorbet which was more like a granita.
The weather continues to be windy but clear and it amazes us that we traveled from Trani where you could clearly see the Albanian coast down to Polignano a Mare some 30 miles down where the sea opens up and you cannot see the other coastline. So far we are finding the towns to be extremely crowded. The drivers, however, are very confident and the only problem we are having is parking the car.
DAY FOUR September 22, 2007
We started out today for Alberbello. This area is famous for the truilli houses. These houses are conical shaped and made of slate that had no mortar in them. The tradition is that when the tax man came to collect the taxes they would take apart the houses and there would be no house to collect taxes on. We saw a great little church, San Damiano, and the town was setting up for a festival tomorrow. There are all beautiful lights and the streets were festooned with different ornaments.
From there we went to Locorotondo. The whole area we covered today was full of the truilli houses and beautiful olive groves. Locorotondo is one of the cities that they call "White Cities" because the buildings are made of limestone and then whitewashed white. They are quite beautiful. We saw a beautiful church there but the churches are indistinguishable because they do not contain any art or fancy accouterment, they are mostly basic functionary churches. The belvedere at the top of the town offered a beautiful view of the Itria Valley. From there you could see for miles around beautiful countryside and buildings.
We next visited Cisternino. This was much like Locorotondo with a beautiful belvedere where we overlooked the valley, the truilli houses and again city in white. We visited the Church of the Blessed Mother which again was quite pretty but nothing like other churches seen in Italy. From there we then visited a town called Martina Franca. There we visited yet another cathedral and the palazzo. We should note that the towns in general are very difficult to navigate through, and we found it much better off to park outside of the central district and walk in. It was quite a lot of walking but it saved a lot on our nerves.
The next town we hit was Ostuni. Here again this is another white city, what they call citta bianchi. We visited the piazza and the cathedral there. While all of these towns were very much the same, they all had quite a lot of character and quaint little alleyways that you could barely walk through. The houses are all very well kept with flowers and planters outside, and they do a wonderful job of keeping their city beautiful for tourists.
In Ostuni we visited a cathedral, which was of course closed, but we wanted to visit there so we took the opportunity to eat some lunch. We had great pizza in a restaurant which was literally two floors underground with no windows. The restaurant was literally fashioned from a cave.
From there we traveled to Egnazia, which is noted for ruins. These Greek ruins are set out in a field, which took some time to get to. The Egnazia ruins are really nothing to write home about. They were some cemetery ruins that were just holes in the ground that were not very distinguishable. We left there rather quickly after learning that there were snakes lurking about.
We then drove up the coast through Salvettre, which is a real small town where if you blink you miss it. There were no restaurants or any attractions in the town other than it was a nice seaside town. The same for Capitolo where there was really nothing to see other than a nice little port. We ran into a little trouble with our favorite town Monolpoli where we had a problem yesterday. It was getting to be later in the afternoon, about 6:30 on a Saturday, and everybody was out walking and driving. We had a couple of harrowing times in Monopoli and decided that we would head out of town as quickly as possibly, which we attempted and were ultimately successful. We got on the Autostrada, headed to Polignano a Mare, and back to the hotel.
Before we arrived back we stopped at Fasano and visited the Museum of Olive Oil. This consisted of a barn which showed the presses and the grindstones to make the paste. A nice elderly gentleman showed us around a beautiful villa which had its own church. While we were there they were setting up for a wedding reception that evening. All in all it was a lot of driving around from city to city, getting lost a little bit, but for the most part the roads were well marked and the drivers very competent.
As I speak now we are sitting on our balcony overlooking the Adriatic, drinking a bottle of wine. We decided not to go out this evening. We purchased some pizza and calzone and we are going to make our evening here just relaxing. Tomorrow off to Lecce.
DAY FIVE September 23, 2007
Today we left Polignano a Mare and the hotel Covo dei Saraceni. This Hotel was very nice and as stated in the day before’s journal had two balconies that faced out over the Adriatic. The room was very nicely appointed except for the world’s smallest shower stall. To put it nicely, a person of even modest girth could not fit in. We had a difficult time maneuvering in the shower and forget about reaching down to clean your feet. We found the bidet an adequate substitute for feet cleaning.
We have stayed in Hotels where breakfast is included and they are just to our taste. Breakfast buffets include croissants, stuffed sweet rolls, prosciutto, cheese, yogurt and pizza.
We drove along the coast south towards Lecce. The coastline is not really accessible. There are some roads that ride along the coast but for the most part you are confined to the Autostrada and making your way south. We did make a couple of detours and saw a couple of real small fishing villages and a couple of very nice beaches. All were virtually empty.
We arrived at Lecce with great difficulty. Our hotel is in the central district and after about a half an hour of driving around we stopped and asked directions only to learn that the street for our hotel is closed for traffic due to renovation. This necessitated us walking to the hotel and having the concierge drive us to the hotel. We finally parked the car and were shown to a room that was absolutely spectacular. The room on the third floor of the hotel is approximately 100 meters from the Basilica Santa Croce which is absolutely magnificent. From our window it almost seems like you can reach out and touch it.
The Patria Palace Hotel in Lecce is great. It is a businessman’s hotel and offered great amenities including bathrobes. The hotel room itself is typically smaller than U.S. hotel rooms but spacious by European standards. The shower is contained in a tub and offers room to clean yourself
We saw most of Lecce yesterday including several churches, monuments and a Greek amphitheater. We had an interesting time finding a restaurant that was recommended to us. Unfortunately, we passed the street three or four times before realizing that this was in fact the street we needed to go down for the restaurant. We did, however, have a great meal at the restaurant. I had orecchiette with tomato, pesto and pecorino cheese, and Maryann had cavatelli with mussels and clams. We split a half liter of wine and two coffees, and we were off. We continued touring for the day and visited the Duomo which aside from Santa Croce is the other major church in the City. Lecce certainly has their share of churches and it seemed at every corner there was a church of some significance. We also visited a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and where miracles were said to have occurred. The church was undergoing renovation however the inside was beautiful for it’s simplicity and grace. We had a couple of glasses of wine at an outdoor café and then ordered in a light dinner of smoked salmon and a club sandwich. Tomorrow we tour the southern regions of the Salentine Peninsula.
DAY SIX September 24, 2007
We are looking at another beautiful day in Lecce. We drove directly from Lecce down to San Marina de Leuca. This is the southernmost tip of the heel, only 500 miles from Africa, and we visited a pilgrimage site for the Blessed Mother which was quite beautiful and sat on a promontory high above where the Ionian Sea and Adriatic Sea meet. It is really amazing to see that you can actually see the difference between the two seas, one being kind of a really light blue and the other being more turbulent and darker blue. There was also a very beautiful lighthouse and from there we drove up the Adriatic coast on a road that offered beautiful vistas of the Adriatic and the beaches. The beaches were quite sandy, and we came upon several of them and stopped, took some pictures and in general enjoyed the morning.
We next visited the grotto of Zinzulusa. This is one of the few grottos that can be accessed by land. A set of steps leads you down into a huge opening which then leads you into a labyrinth of caves with stalagmites and stalactites abounding. The guided tour was in Italian, though easily understood.
From there we proceeded to Otranto. This is a beautiful seaside city. We parked the car down by the port and had a wonderful lunch. I had orrichette, which is a local specialty, and as you can tell quite a bit of, with broccoli rabe. Maryann had a penne dish with prosciuto and cheese. We started off before that with a wonderful plate of mozzarella and prosciuto. All in all the mozzarella is really quite mild and great, and the prosciuto is very light and lean.
In Otranto we saw one of the more beautiful cathedrals and a tremendous castle guarding the city. We attempted to make our way to archeological ruins, however, they proved too difficult to find. We decided to head back to Lecce and attempt to find our hotel. As I explained before, the streets leading up to our hotel are closed for renovation, which makes it quite tricky to get in and out. There is one way in, which is really a pedestrian zone, and we wanted to get back before the tourists came out from lunch. Miraculously we found the entrance to the street to the hotel quite easily, parked and decided to see the rest of Lecce.
Lecce is truly a beautiful city filled with many tourist sights. The “centro” is ringed by wonderful gates that were used to entrance the city. The City has several grand piazzas and world class shops. In Lecce as in every other city the towns people love their “passagiata” which is their stroll through the streets with family and friends. In the early evening before dinner the streets are clogged with people walking, talking and people-watching. It’s quite nice to get caught up in this and join the fray. Arm in arm you melt into the crowd and become one of the locals.
In our travels of Lecce we noted a lamppost which contained padlocks and initials on them. I had read before where lovers had placed padlocks on a bridge in Rome as a sign of their love, and it seems the phenomenon is spreading. In any event, we decided to try to purchase a padlock and join the rest. This proved not so easy, and we spent a good hour and a half walking around the city attempting to purchase a padlock. The word is simple enough, lucchetto, however, the store in which to find it proved more than difficult. We entered housewares stores, bicycle stores, motorcycle stores, and had largely resigned ourselves to asking the concierge to attempt to procure it for us when quite by accident when we were a little bit lost in the city we happened upon a hardware store where we explained our need and the gentleman had just what we ordered. Lock in hand, we intend to put the lock on the lamppost with the other lovers and take some photos for posterity.
After purchasing the lock we went back to the room, washed up and then set out for dinner. Not in the mood for a full blown dinner, we stopped in a little trattoria and shared an appetizer of pureed fava beans and chicory with some crostini and each had a small margarita pizza. The toll of touring is definitely taking upon us as we struggled back to the hotel, all aches and pains, and collapsed to sleep.
DAY SEVEN September 25, 2007
We started out for Manduria and after quite a ride found the town in the center, parked and saw a small little town that really kind of lacked any character and significance, although we did see quite a beautiful ceramic tile monument. It looked like they took all the broken dishes and vases from the town and put them together with some cement and made a monument.
We next traveled to Taranto, which is on the Ionian Sea. The weather today was partly cloudy and kind of cool. We arrived at Taranto and parked the car quite easily. The tour books warned against going inside the central district, indicating that they were quite dirty and grimy. We stuck to a tour that we found in our book and were quite pleased with the churches and monuments that we saw. An added bonus was that we got to see two young people get married. It is quite a thing that they do here where they decorate the church with all sorts of flowers and leaves, and they had some doves that they were going to let go afterward, and it is really quite nice. All in all though, Taranto is not a pretty town and certainly does not cater to tourists. The port which was probably beautiful at one time is now very industrial with factories and loading docks for commercial ships.
Upon leaving Taranto was when we encountered our biggest problem. We attempted to take the coast road down along the Ionian Sea to Gallioppi. This was a disaster as we tried to hug the coast, the road kept taking us back to the city of Taranto proper. After a while we became totally disoriented and after two hours we eventually found our way back to the main road and continued on our way. Nevertheless, this put us way behind schedule and we were forced to have a meager lunch in Nardo, which consisted of a mediocre sandwich and some mineral water. After this we got on the road and arrived at Gallioppi.
All in all the road signs are better than good. We learned that there are four different types of roads: there is the autostrada which is a grand highway heavily tolled but three lanes in each direction with virtually no speed limit. Then there is a lesser autostrada which is free but two lanes in each direction. Then there are main rural roads which connect towns that are one lane in each direction. The last are the narrow older roads. The main rural roads are the most picturesque but require the most concentration. Being one lane in each direction passing slower vehicles becomes a challenge. There are municipal vehicles commercial truck, buses and farm vehicles that use these roads. The constant dance in and out passing these vehicles can be grueling however you are rewarded with beautiful country scenery.
This town was built as a tourist center, however, it was more or less the same as Taranto where it was kind of dirty and not accessible to tourists, although the cathedral we visited was quite beautiful. It was undergoing restoration so that most of it was shrouded in scaffolding, but you could tell it was quite nice. In most towns, tourists are directed to significant sights by brown signs pointing the way. Sometimes these signs are also in yellow. For the most part, they accurately display the path to the sight to be seen. We found Taranto and Gallioppi to be nearly devoid of these essential signs. Left on our own we did manage to find most of the sights we intended.
With most of the day gone, we decided to come back to Lecce and regroup. We took the highway directly back and having purchased our lock from the day prior, affixed our lock to the lamppost and took some pictures. We then had a wonderful meal at the hotel restaurant which consisted of a softball sized buffalo milk mozzarella with beautiful prosciuto, and I had a puree of fava beans with hickory and crostini. Maryann had a linguine type pasta with clams and mussels, and I had a beautifully grilled swordfish. There was no room for dessert, and we again collapsed for the night.
DAY EIGHT September 26, 2007
Woke up in Lecce to a driving rainstorm and quickly had breakfast and headed out to Matera. We had to pass around Taranto on our way to Matera and dreaded having to encounter Taranto again, however, this time we made it rather easily through the maze of highways. On the way the weather changed and it became a beautiful day.
We arrived at the hilltop town of Matera and after navigating the maze of extremely narrow two-way streets we, by some miracle, found our hotel. Our hotel is built into the side of a mountain and the rooms are literally caves that have been made into accommodations. As you can imagine, there are a lot of steps, a lot of up and down, and all cobblestone and not uniform. The room itself is beautiful, carved out of the cave and has all the amenities. We then set out to see the city, which as I indicated is extremely mountainous and contains many stairs and hills. The city of Matera is known for its “sassi”, which are literally caves in the mountain, and from our hotel you can see the three churches that were built into the caves, which are quite beautiful. The churches are no longer consecrated however give a good idea of what worshipping was like in these churches. We also saw a recreation of typical “sassi” living. Literally living in a cave with the farm animals. We walked around for most of the day, had lunch at a beautiful terrace restaurant where I had a soup of grain and chickpeas with a salad. Maryann had some of my salad and had penne in a spicy tomato sauce. Maryann finally had her ice cream in the form of tartufo and coffee, and we were on our way again exploring.
The town itself is quite charming and for us a “must see”. The houses built into the mountain and the maze of narrow streets made for a wonderful day. The main church was closed for renovation however there were many churches that more than made up for this. Aside from the churches that are built into the mountain there are several churches that stand alone and are beautiful for their intricate work. In general the outside of churches are non descript with most having a mansard façade in the front. Inside you are rewarded by lavish and intricately carved altars. There are really no frescoes or important art in the churches but there is beauty in their simplicity. Perhaps the simplicity of the rest of the church only serves to draw attention to the intricate altars.
We ended up at the hotel and had some drinks before dinner. We had dinner in a great restaurant right down the street from the hotel called Il Baccanti. I had for starters a carpaccio of beef which was extremely delicate and tender, and Maryann had a selection of cheeses which were wonderful. I then had tagellioni in a wild boar sauce, and Maryann had linguine with lobster. We shared a bottle of wine, but we could eat no more and as a matter of fact didn't finish the portions that were given. It is a beautiful night with a full moon over the sassi, and we enjoyed a short stroll and back to the hotel completely exhausted. Tomorrow we are going to try to get to Salerno, which would be a bonus for us.
DAY NINE September 27, 2007
We woke up in Matera to rain on and off, left early and decided to try and see Salerno. We had planned on taking a half a day for leisure, however, we decided to press on and see this city as we didn't see it last year when we visited the Amalfi coast. The weather held up and by the time we got to Salerno it had turned into a beautiful, sunny day.
The town is quite large and different from Positano in that there is a significant amount of commerce at the bottom of the mountain. We found parking in a lot and set out to see the city. We mostly concentrated on just walking about and did not visit any churches or monuments.
The main drag is awash with people rushing about and loaded with shopping. What Positano is to quaint, Salerno is to commerce. There were name brand stores and loads of outlet stores. The town is obviously geared for tourists and lacks the charm of Poistano, Ravello etc. Nonetheless the views from the harbor out to sea and the views from the harbor inland to the mountains were spectacular.
During our walk we decided that we would pick up some food for dinner and went into a small salumeria where we had tastings of several foods and settled on some bread, pecorino cheese, mozzarella and sopresatta and olives. We had a nondescript lunch in Salerno and then pressed on to Rome. The traffic was light, we made good time, and as soon as we got to our hotel the rains came really heavy. We checked into the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport, which is a modern and quite nice hotel, and had some wine and our aforementioned goodies for dinner. We then again collapsed for the evening.
The Hilton Garden Inn is definitely a recommendation. It is a business man’s hotel and therefore a lot of amenities. We even had a towel warmer! Great room, fairly large with a great bathroom. It certainly felt good to relax before the arduous journey home.
The next day we traveled back to New York and no matter how you slice it, the trip back is long and uncomfortable. I managed to read an entire book on the way back and MaryAnn contented herself with several movies. We did manage to cobble together the leftovers from the night before and assemble two sandwiches and some extra cheese. This allowed for a good meal on the plane.
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DAY ONE September 19, 2007