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Trip Report Discovering the Undiscovered Italy

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I am the cousin of PartyPoet and am writing a report of our trip from a different perspective. She, the family poet, writes with more of a flair and detail than I do - so refer to her report for prices and specifics when needed.

After an exhausting and much delayed flight from NJ, we finally met our cousins at the gate in Rome for our flight to Brindisi, Italy in May 2013.

We are all fairly well-traveled and wanted to discover the "undiscovered" Italy, the heel of the boot and up the Adriatic. Most Americans have never heard of many of the towns in this area and rarely come here - so we had the places mostly to ourselves. It was a delight!

After picking up our rental car, a Hyundai, at the Brindisi airport, we drove the short distance to the Hotel Colonna. Staff was friendly, room was small, not up to American standards but adequate. Parking was a chore as we had to find a spot on the street and feed the meter. However, it was free from 8 pm to 8 am and we were usually out by 9 am.
The meter system was user-friendly as we could put in, for example, 3 euros at 6 pm and that would take us to 9 am the following day.

Puglia, as the region is called, has not yet been hit by the tourist trade. We spent the next 2 full days visiting Santa Cesarea Terme (a Moorish looking town on the rocky coast), Lecce (the "Florence of the South"), Leuca (the most southern tip), Otranto (a town that was under the Byzantine, Norman and Turkish domination), Taranto (a dramatic old town), Cisternino (a charming town of individually-styled housing) and Ostino (a medieval town called the "white city" because of the white houses and churches). With each bend in the road we came upon another beautiful view of small villages, lush olive orchards and the gorgeous blue of the Adriatic. It was a photographer's delight!!

We skipped lunch daily so as not to miss a moment of discovery. Usually we would be back at the hotel with just enough time to clean up for dinner.
The men shared the driving and we shared the navigating. Even though we relied on our i-Phone GPS systems, maps and eagle-eyes, tempers flared at times as we tried to find our way!! The narrow, often 1-way streets proved a driving challenge! Occasionally we made a wrong turn and had to navigate the maze of old towns street, but that's all part of the experience!!!

After spending 3 nights in Brindisi we drove north along the coast to Bari, the largest city in the area. We stayed at the Mercure Bari V Romanazzi - an oasis near the train station. Parking was free, adequate and the room and staff were outstanding. We walked 30 minutes to the old town and continued walking around the city. Dinner at the hotel was an unexpected treat - a price fixed menu at 29 euros included wine, water, scrumptious tagliatelle in basis sauce, tender chicken, vegetables, fresh fruit for dessert and coffee. It was so good we came back for our last meal (veal was substituted for the chicken).

In addition to walking around old Bari, we spent 2 full days visiting Alberobello (full of Trulli-style architecture), Matera ( a World Heritage site dominated by sassi - rock formed houses that were once cave homes), Castel del Monte (an octagonal shaped castle built by Frederick II in the 13th century set high on a hill with expansive views of the surrounding area) and Trani (where our cousin has maternal roots going back 500 years).

The old part of these towns all share a similar look - narrow streets with colorful flowers on the window sills and laundry hanging out and yet each has its own individuality. During the siesta, usually from 12 - 4 or 5, shops were closed denying us the opportunity to part with some of our euros. A good thing? Maybe - I'm not sure!!!

Italy is shaped like a boot with a spur. This "spur" is the Gargano Promontory and is quite mountainous. We drove the narrow, winding roads until we arrived at Vieste. We checked into the Hotel Castellino Relais - a charming hotel set back from the road with beautiful views of the Adriatic. There was a long promenade (luongo de mare) along the water leading into the old town. This 30-minute walk was so pleasurable as we saw the empty beaches and imagined how they would fill up once the warmer weather came and tourists invaded.

We took a 3-hour cruise on a spectacular sunny day along the coast to see the many grottoes. The good weather afforded us the opportunity to enter them and our jaws dropped at the sheer beauty. This was surely one of the highlights of the trip!!

We then attempted to hike in the Umbra Forest but couldn't find a trail that was safe. Instead we parked the car, walked for about 30 minutes and came back out. The trees all started to look alike and we began to feel uncomfortable. On the way back we stopped at a farm and bought some cheese. The farmers were happy to see us and welcomed us in . Another adventure!!

The other places we visited were Mont Sant' Angelo (the sanctuary of San Michele is over a grotto) and Peschici (another seaside town overlooking the water).

Continuing along the coastal road we arrived in Pescara and checked in to the Hotel Carlton, also facing the beach. We walked across the pedestrian bridge and into their old town which is not much more that 3 short streets. We wanted to visit an olive oil farm but were mistakingly directed to a winery, although we didn't know it at the time. It was nearly impossible to find. We couldn't program the GPS so we just stopped and asked locals if the knew where it was. Finally we found it - and what a find it was!! Slightly disappointed that it wasn't the olive oil place we originally were hoping for, we quickly fell in love with Antonella who graciously opened the place, Marchese di Cordano for us on Sunday. She not only showed us around, but put out quite a spread of cheese and other goodies for us as she generously poured wines for our tasting. We bought one bottle to take with us. It was delightful! The location couldn't have been more dramatic - set high in the hills with vineyards all around.

We also visited Castel di Monte (a village without external walls) where our car made contact with a guard rail (thank goodness for collision insurance) and L'Aquila, a university town that was hit hard by an earthquake a year ago. Doorways were still propped up by old wooden beams to prevent further damage.

Our next stop was Ancona - but unknowingly we had booked a hotel outside of town. It took forever to find as our GPS was as confused as we were. However, we finally arrived at the Hotel Internazionale, a small hilltop chateau with a view to die for. As we sat on the veranda sipping the wine we bought, we relished the view. We thought we would visit 2 additional towns but they turned out to be further that we thought and therefore decided to drive into Ancona and walk the city. A wise choice. The narrow cobblestone street and wide piazzas proved to be another interesting and undiscovered part of Italy.

The next day we left for Rimini, the birthplace of Frederico Fellini. We arrived at the small Hotel Stresa and were greeted by Ines, a chatty and personable hostess who promptly brought out iced tea and cookies for us as she explained every amenity our room had to offer. It was an adorable room that had bunk beds in addition to our queen bed - a good place for our luggage. She was a pip! Extolled her own virtues as the absolute best driver in all of Italy!! We got settled in and then embarked on our journey to the smallest country in the world - the country on a cliff - San Marino (see my separate trip report). What an extraordinary delight it was - with a view of what I thought to be the top of the world!! Miles and miles of hills, villages, roads and the Adriatic in the distance for as far your eyes could see.
We then drove to Urbino, a university town also with lots of narrow streets and many churches and antiquities.

Ines recommended that we have dinner at El Toro, a few minutes walk from our hotel. Not only was the food good (the waiter did a first-class job of deboning my fish) but we were treated to a romance in the making. We watched an attractive young woman dine alone. Before she finished her meal a single gentleman was seated next to her. He later make his move - and before you know it he was drinking from her bottle of wine and leaning in to her in a most suggestive manner. Who knows how the evening would end!!??

Our next stop was Ravenna - the city of mosaics!! We stayed in the Hotel Ravenna - near the train station with free parking and a great location - just minutes from old town. We walked into the town and bought a ticket that entitled us to see 5 sights - each more magnificent than the previous one. The ceilings, walls and floors are decorated with the most jaw-dropping mosaic art ever!! What artisans!! And there are many studios where this artistry is taught and mastered.

The sour-pussed woman who greeted (?) us upon arrival really didn't offer much in the way of help but another woman in her broken English recommended a wonderful restaurant - Restaurant AL 45. It was in a church courtyard surrounded by flowers. Dino, our waiter was funny and helpful. We liked it so much we returned the next night.

Our full day of sightseeing took us to Ferrara - a UNESCO World Heritage city loaded with history of the Estes family as well as the Sephardic Jews who were exiled from Spain. The book and movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was said to reflect these people. Upon visiting an old Jewish cemetery we saw the graves of these 2 families.

Our next adventure was the long drive across the country from the Adriatic Sea on the east to the Ligurian Sea on the western coast of Italy. We dropped off our car in La Spezia and got a taxi to drive us to Riomaggiore, the first of the 5 towns of Cinque Terre. (I must digress for a moment. The title of this post is "Discovering the Undiscovered Italy", however Cinque Terre is by no means "undiscovered". But it is an area of Italy that we wanted to visit - and so we ended our trip there.)

The towns of CT are mostly closed to traffic during the day - however out taxi was able to drop us in front of the Hotel Zorza, right on the main (only?) street. Guido from the hotel carried our bags up the many steps to our room for the next 4 nights. This hotel is in an ancient building - our room had what seemed to be original stone walls ( fortunately the plumbing was more recent!).

We walked along the area and had dinner overlooking the water at the restaurant Dau Cila where the homemade pasta was divine. The next day, since the footpaths were closed, we took the train to 2 other towns - Vernazza and Monterossa, each beautiful in its own way. Coming back we took a boat which offered us sensational views of the 5 towns.

The following day was another kind of adventure. We planned to take the train to the next towns of Manarola and Corniglia but got on an express train by mistake. We realized this as we sped by the towns. Oh well! We got off at Monterossa and got back on going in the opposite direction. It was raining so we visited Corniglia (the only one of the 5 towns without a harbor) and Manarola in the pouring rain. It was cold and windy but we managed to take an enchanting walk along the vineyard high in the hills overlooking the town. A picture postcard!!

We finally had enough of the nasty weather so we decided to take the train back. We walked down the 383 steps to the station platform and waited for the train. After just a few minutes of riding it stopped. Then we realized why! It arrived at the Riomaggiore station but the doors wouldn't open because we were in the back of the train and therefore in the tunnel!! We continued on to La Spezia where we had to wait an hour for the train back. This ordeal soured us so much that we decided not to stay the additional day and forsake another train ride. Instead we made last minute plans for the taxi driver to take us to Genoa the following day. We got a hotel at the airport, hung out for a while before dinner, ate, went to bed and flew home the next day.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip with our wonderful cousins. We experienced the blue waters, snow-capped Apennine mountains, grottoes, churches, colorful flowers, cemeteries, narrow cobble-stone streets, ancient towns, beaches, wonderful food and wine, hill-topped villages, magnificent vistas and can say now - we have discovered the Italy!!

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