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Trip Report From Vienna to Puglia and Back. Our Two Weeks in Italy.

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Travelers: DH, myself, DS and DD (Teenagers), and DDog
Travel Period: Last two weeks of June

Our itinerary included Ravenna (1 night); Puglia villa (6 nights); Trulli (2 nights); Umbria cottage (3 nights); Veneto farmhouse (2 nights). The Ravenna hotel was pleasant; our Puglia villa could have been a tiny bit cleaner and the kitchen a little better equipped; the Trulli was spectacular, even if the sloped shower ceiling required DH and DS (both over 2 meters) to duck; the Umbrian cottage promise of WiFi and laundry facilities was open to interpretation, but the balcony views of Lake Trasimeno lived up to promises; and DH got a crash course in Italian plumbing at the Veneto farmhouse while DDog had a little (safe) romance with an Italian border collie. Overall, the worst grade we would assign to any of the lodging would be a B+.

This was not a full-on, intensive holiday. Some reading this report may be appalled that we “only” spent three hours viewing mosaics in Ravenna, and missed seeing this, that, or the other. As this is likely the last summer that DS will join us on summer holidays (internships!), we found that making up the itinerary each day worked for us even if it meant we were missing a “must see.” No one was required to see anything; on a couple of occasions we parted from the teenagers and reconnected at lunch, a plan that pleased everyone. We have traveled to Tuscany, Florence, and Venice, so the second half of our holiday was intended more to see places and sights we had missed from previous travels and worked out surprisingly well.

We are not a hotel family at all, preferring self-catering and personal space whenever possible. On this holiday, though, our first night on travel warranted a hotel stay. Asking our fabulous Concierge Carlo where we might enjoy seafood in Ravenna, our Adriatic stop a couple of hours south of Venice, we were directed to a small trattoria with tables inside a church courtyard, serving up our first of many plates of the bounty of the sea. From the Branzino filled housemade ravioli to the macheroni with fresh clams, dinner was delicious.

Our daily itinerary on the holiday followed a pattern: dinners were at “home;” following a morning or so of sightseeing and lunch out, and the afternoon siesta by the pool in our rental villa, the only motivation left (temperatures were above 30°C every day) was to set the patio table for dinner and enjoy the fresh seafood or pasta we had found at the market on the way home. Add a late evening dip in the pool, and our days were perfect.

Though we are a family of food lovers, we gave up early on the sport of trying to find recommended restaurants or “best” places to eat lunch. On our first sightseeing day we walked from one restaurant to a second one that had been raved about on TripAdvisor, only to find, “vacanze chiuso” taped to the door. From that day on, we ate wherever the menu looked interesting and were never disappointed.

Two particular meals stand out, however. On our day in Ostuni we came upon a small grocer at about the time hunger was setting in. Inside the owner had homemade (and warm) olive bread, burrata and tomatoes for sale. We purchased portions of each, and when the owner discovered that we had plans to eat our treats at that time, not only did he set up a quick table and chairs outside his store, but poured plastic cups of wine for the four of us. I could not tell you the name of the grocer, nor how to find it; I can only write that our satisfying snack was among the best we ate on our holiday.

Similarly we found ourselves in Alberobello on a late Sunday afternoon, the grocers long closed. Wanting to relax in our rental trulli rather than schlepp around for dinner out, I walked into a seemingly touristy-store selling olive oil, pasta, and wine. When I asked the storekeeper where I might find groceries for dinner, she helped me select a pasta and some wine, and then left me in charge of her store while she dashed to her house for a plate of garlic, tomatoes, parsley, and pepperocini from her kitchen. Back at the trulli we remembered we had a salami, and in no time I prepared a delicious pasta dish (with a story!) that we enjoyed on our patio.

At lunch we ate seafood at almost every opportunity, usually as the antipasti before the main course. If it swam in the sea or crawled across the sand at the bottom of the sea, there is a good chance we ate it, and loved it. The fish market in Gallipoli offered fresh seafood for lunch; fried calamari and octopus were savored on the beach in San Cataldo; the Puglian pita sandwich, Pucce (quite good!) in one of the white cities; and we even found good pizza in the touristy Il Campo, all of which were happenstance.

Some Highlights.

The drive from Vienna to Ravenna, our first overnight, was largely unremarkable. Austria is green; Italy has the Alps and its expensive highway tolls, and that's about it. The city was the seat of the Roman Empire in the 4th or 5th century and then again in Byzantine Italy, and is noted for its mosaics. Certainly one could spend hours, if not a couple of days, studying each and every tile in each and every church. In fact, there were groups of (presumably) art history students and regular visitors enjoying in-depth discussions in every church we visited. We had about three hours to spare, and between mosaic-viewing, a gelato stop, and casual meandering before dinner, our time in Ravenna worked perfectly for us.

Lecce, in the heart of the heel of Italy's "boot," certainly has gorgeous and frothy constructions, but to assign it the nickname of the "Florence" of the South does not serve the 2.000 year-old city well. Lecce stands out on its own, with its sun-kissed, completely over-Baroqued limestone buildings and shouldn't be made to feel like Florence's little sister. We picked up a city map at a Tabak that included sights of interest and more or less followed that route, detouring if something appealed to one of us. Because no visit anywhere in Europe is complete without a major site under restoration and scaffolding, we could check that requirement off the list rather early with a visit to the scaffolding-covered Basilica di Sante Croce, as well.

After our first day in Puglia, we threw the itinerary to the Adriatic breezes and drew up the days' plan over breakfast each morning. Scheduled fun is not our idea of a holiday. On one particular day we headed due east from the villa until we reached "Via Adriatica," the coastal road stretching from Venice to the southern tip of Puglia. Once along the way, we stopped wherever something looked interesting, like…

…Torre dell'Orso. Along this sunken port city it is believed Octavian Augustus arrived from Greece upon news of the death of Caesar, on his way to Rome. We were mesmerized by the colors of the water and how one could simply walk across the ruins of the city.

Otranto's Cathedral of Santa Maria Anunziata. Part Byzantine, early Christian and Romanesque, and also home to the "Tree of Life" mosaic that runs the length of the nave, sanctuary, and apse. We lingered longer than expected. On this outing we also sought an artifact of interest (to me), the castle once belonging to the Duchess of Bari, Bona Sforza, also of the title, Queen of Poland. Let me write that I was a little disappointed not to see it looking a little more, well, castle-like.

To bring our Via Adriatica day to a close, we sought Colonne della Via Appia, the Roman column marking the southern end of the Appian Way, and a main departure point for the Crusades in Brindisi. Pretty cool, we all thought.

White Cities.

With one afternoon exception, our time in Puglia was all blue skies and hot sunshine, making the region's white cities a visual feast. To be honest, though, we found there was not much to "do" in these beautiful cities; aside from admiring the one or two, or more, Baroque churches, the real pleasures came from wandering the whitewashed lanes and soaking up the Mediterranean-like atmosphere.

Alberobello.

We had scheduled two nights in a trulli in Martina Franca, giving us time to take a guided tour in Matera and to tour Alberobello. Well, an entire day was lost while at our rental villa the week previous due to emergency service on our practically new vehicle (ugh!). The kind owner of the villa offered us an extra night gratis as the next guests were not expected for a couple of days, so we decided to save Matera for another time, and ended up with just one night in a trulli.

Our timing for visiting the “Hobbit Houses,” as the teenagers referred to them, was perfect, arriving in mid-afternoon as many of the tour buses were departing. The lanes were not crowded, and the afternoon light made for some of the prettiest photos of the holiday.

Assisi.

It was impossible not to be impressed as we approached Assisi. Though, we were less than impressed with the way the monitors in the Basilica stalked those of us with cameras (photo-taking is not permitted), to the point where we almost did not enjoy our visit. How disappointing. The commune of Assisi is quite photogenic, though, and we spent a fair amount of time wandering its streets before enjoying lunch in a main piazza.

Siena.

I love our family travel style. We don't believe in "bucket lists," and we're perfectly willing to change the itinerary if so moved, a philosophy that served us well on this holiday. We awoke on the second? third? morning in our cottage overlooking Lake Trasimeno, and the vote was for Siena, about an hour away. (Sorry, Perugia, we'll catch you the next time.) DH and I spent a week in Tuscany in 2004 sans the children, who were having their own little holiday with the grandparents. This time, rather than scurrying around snapping everything we "must" snap, we wandered the side lanes off Il Campo while the teenagers climbed the tower. We dropped into Italian paper stores to feed my habit; admired the curved architecture of some of the lanes, and appreciated all of those small scenes that escaped my 35mm film camera a decade ago.

The Rest.

The livestock traffic jams around our villa in Puglia were a regular occurrence, and DDog was fascinated with this sport, when he wasn’t asnooze beneath the lemon trees, that is. Another interesting sport was the unannounced, and uncontrolled burning of fields by our neighbors. One in particular was just across the road and near midnight; the owner of our villa didn't understand why we had rung him, saying, “This happens all the time. The firemen won’t bother to come.” We were not fascinated with this “sport.” In the daylight, and when not ablaze, Puglia's landscape is a harmonic balance of cactus, olive trees, grapevines, and limes. Fragrant and gorgeous.

There were scattered "abandoned" villas about the area, as well. Our owner explained that many families moved into the city (a relative term) for the services, but maintained the land for farming. These villas had a special charm all their own.

The morning spent in Gallipoli was the perfect amount of time to see the sights and enjoy a quick lunch before heading back home to the pool and the wrath of Zeus. I will note the fish market in Gallipoli not only for the freshness of its wares, but for the freshness of the fishmongers, too. ;)

Part of enjoying the little Puglia villages is wandering off the main streets. It was not my intention to peer into private homes, yet I was fascinated by the recurring theme of homes with the kitchen/living room that opened to the street. In almost every open house the older men were watching television while the women worked.

There are several cities in Puglia that work hard to maintain their Greek heritage. Classes are taught in the Greek language as well as in Italian, and the city signs are often in both languages, as well. The little village of Sternatia was near our villa, and we drove through en route home one day. Not much by way of Greek signs, but the village was a pretty detour nonetheless.

Breaking up the long drive home from Umbria, we spent two nights in a farmhouse in the Veneto, about 20 minutes from Venice, and gave DS a brief look at some of our favorite Venetian sights from the visit DH, DD, and I took last fall. The island of Murano was new to all of us on this holiday but we were not inspired; in fact, even the shopkeepers seemed sad and forlorn. We moved along to Burano after about 20 minutes for a much cheerier island experience.

The most interesting recurring theme on this holiday was that we were never identified as Americans. Our lodging proprietors assumed we were Austrian (that made sense), but in restaurants and shops we were taken for German, Dutch, British, and even French couple of times. We did not know what to make of that.

This holiday was the longest we have taken as a family, the previous record being 12 days in Japan a few years ago. Spanning 15 days; more than 3.500 kilometers on the road; shared bathrooms with teenagers; and one tantrum (mine), no matter the mood, be it, "I know I should appreciate this, but it looks like Florence!," to "Can we stay another day?," sitting for a meal, whether at a trattoria, along a side street, or in our personal lodging (the attempt at taco night in Umbria notwithstanding), the laughter and good family times flowed as easily as the wine. And really, isn't that what a holiday is all about?

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