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Trip Report May in southern Italy--Sorrento/Capri and Puglia

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I love traveling in the shoulder season—moderate temperatures, fewer crowds, lower prices for accommodations. My husband, J, and I have traveled fairly extensively throughout the world, and we like to revisit favorite places every so often, but we still have a lengthy list of places we’ve never been to and really want to explore. So we were back and forth on where to go for the six weeks we had available for a spring trip this year, but we finally settled on southern Italy and the Greek islands--revisiting the Sorrentine Peninsula to catch some places we’d missed on a previous trip and then moving on to Puglia and then Greece, both new to us. I’ll post a separate report for the Greek portion (Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini, Athens) and confine this one to southern Italy. The Italy portion of our trip was decidedly low-key, but I figured I would post this report anyway in case it is helpful to someone else considering travel in these areas.

Our Italian itinerary:
Sorrento—6 nights
Capri—1 night
Naples—1 night
Matera—2 nights
Puglia (outside San Michele Salentino)—7 nights
Rome—2 nights

Monday, April 28, SFO to FRANKFURT

We had managed to obtain free frequent-flyer tickets for the flight from San Francisco to Naples and the return from Athens, but not without some compromises. One was a morning flight on United from San Francisco to Seattle, where we had a short layover before boarding the long (12 hours + a 9 hour time change) red-eye on Lufthansa bound for Frankfurt. But the food was decent, the wine was free (unlike on United’s international flights), and we were able to watch a few current movies that we’d missed in the theater, as well as getting a few hours of sleep.

Tuesday, April 29, FRANKFURT TO SORRENTO

After a long walk and a short layover in the large Frankfurt airport, we boarded another Lufthansa flight, to Naples, arriving around 1:00 PM. We were met by a driver who drove us to Sorrento, where we had rented an apartment for the week. A private driver isn’t cheap (80 euros), but as tired as we were, it sure beat figuring out buses and trains and started the trip off right with minimal hassle. We were dropped off in a parking lot on Via Correale in Sorrento, where tour buses congregate to wait for their day-trippers, and were quickly met there by the rental agent, who walked us down the street just a short way to the apartment, introducing us to the owner on the way.

Sorrento accommodation: Casa Correale, www.sorrentovacanze.com

Our apartment (874 euros for a week, plus nonrefundable 150 euro “consumption” fee), which we had arranged online through Vacasol, a German agency, was managed by the local group Sorrento Vacanze and was on the top floor of a small, three-floor residential building located right on the bluffs above the Bay of Naples. It was next door to the Grand Hotel Royal and just down the street from the Grand Excelsior. All these places, our apartment included, had gorgeous views across the Bay to Naples and Vesuvius (and Pompeii and Herculaneum, if you knew your geography) and to the steep cliffs to the east below Piano di Sorrento.

The apartment was a little funky, with a 1980s (?) look and some odd finishes, overwhelmingly predominantly white but with splashes of color from the many posters and paintings hanging on the walls. It had a nice large bathroom and a bedroom with a built-in queen-size bed, a very bright sitting room with a sliding door to the huge terrace, and a light-filled indoor breakfast room with big windows overlooking the terrace and the hillside and neighboring villa. The pictures we had seen on the Internet covered up the warts, but there was a certain odd charm, and plenty of room. We eventually rearranged the terrace furniture so we could enjoy light meals and wine at the seaward end of the terrace, where the views of Vesuvius and Ischia on a clear day were spectacular. The real downside of the apartment was the kitchen, a narrow, closet-like space with a sink, a two-burner stove, and few utensils. (We had missed the major clue about the kitchen on the website: no picture!) J, the cook in our family, managed to create a few simple meals in there, but it hardly inspired him to Iron Chef routines. But the apartment did have a great location, close to the bus and train stations, to Piazza Tasso and the center of town, and to the steep stairway down the cliffside to the harbor. Overall, if the kitchen had been a little larger and better equipped, the location alone would have made this a good value for Sorrento.

We had spent some time on the Amalfi Coast on a previous trip (from our base in Vietri sul Mare) but had never been to Sorrento, which is why we decided to give it a try on this trip. So after settling in and buying some basics at the local supermarket, we set off for an initial exploration of the town. Though Sorrento has its detractors, we found the town to be quite appealing. Pizza Tasso was loaded with tourists (even in the shoulder season!), but a couple of blocks down the narrow lanes of the old town led us to a much more charming area. We stopped at a small enoteca (La Vineria Bollicine) for a glass of white wine (a very good 2011 Furore from Marissa Cuomo that was on our list of wines to try). It was still early and not busy, so we had a good conversation at the bar with the young owner. We eventually strolled down to a smaller piazza next to the Hotel Bellevue Syrene and watched the setting sun light up the cliff and then go down over the sea—the first of many beautiful sunsets on this trip.

Dinner was a decent but unremarkable meal (lasagna and standard dishes) at a restaurant in the old town that had been recommended by our rental agent—the name escapes me. Aided by a bottle of wine and a glass of limoncello, we were asleep soon after we made our way back to the apartment.

Wednesday, April 30, SORRENTO

This was our “shoulder day,” where our intention was to take a relaxed look around more of Sorrento before heading off to Capri the next day for an overnight stay. On our previous trip to the area we had done day trips to the archaeological stars, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum, and had climbed Mt. Vesuvius, so this time we didn’t feel compelled to rush around. Instead we wanted to take our time and move at a relaxed pace to recover a bit after what had been a hectic spring for us. So after breakfast at the apartment we walked down the cliffside to the port (Marina Piccolo) to check out options for tomorrow’s boat trip. We stopped for cappuccini at a small café at the harbor and checked out the waterfront area. We saw some kayaks on the shore and longed to get in them and go out on the water, but the shop wasn’t yet open for the season so we were out of luck there (a downside of shoulder season travel). Sorrento hugs the top of the cliff, so getting to and from the marina requires going up and down. Back up we climbed--good exercise!

We spent the remainder of the day exploring the town and its shops but not buying anything, mainly since we didn’t want to have to carry stuff around with us for the next five and a half weeks. Lunch was at the highly recommended Inn Buffalito, which included a rich fava bean soup and excellent papardelle, washed down with aqua frizzante and a half liter of the house red. Later we had gin and tonics and watched the crowds passing by at an outside table at Fauno, which became our favorite bar in the Piazza Tasso and a place we enjoyed several times during our stay in Sorrento. As we looked around at the other tables we saw many customers sipping an orange-colored drink—what was that? We’ve made many trips to Italy in the past ten years and had never noticed it before. How could we have missed it? It would take a few days, but we did eventually find out what is was.

For dinner we found a small organic food store, Mondo Bio, where we purchased delicious cooked fennel, zucchini, and some olives to go with salami, cheese, and bread we had already bought to eat back at the apartment. A tasty dinner with no cooking—perfect for that tiny kitchen.

Thursday, May 1, CAPRI

Capri accommodation: Capri Wine Hotel, www.capriwinehotel.com

The morning ferry to Capri cost just under 30 euros each for the round trip. Even though we had the Sorrento apartment for the full week, we wanted to do an overnight on Capri to enjoy the island before and after the daytrippers arrived, so it was worth it to us to pay for a night's accommodations there. Capri is a stunningly beautiful place, but its pleasures are muted by the hordes of tourists, magnified on this May Day holiday. (We knew enough to avoid popular places on June 2, the national day, having made the mistake of visiting the Cinque Terre at that time, but we somehow forgot that May Day can be equally busy. Mistake!) Once we landed at Marina Grande, it took us a while to figure out the best way to get up the steep hill to the main town—bus? funicular? And where to get the tickets? While we dithered, the lines became longer and longer as lots additional visitors disembarked from arriving boats. Taking a convertible taxi, Capri’s specialty, was an option, but a ride up the hill would have cost 20 euros, more than we wanted to spend. So we finally decided to forgo the lines—which, for the bus, included the separate ticket line—because they would have eaten up much of the morning. Instead we set off on a walk up the hill, thinking that maybe it wasn’t much farther than from the port to the town in Sorrento. Wrong. The views back down to the port area were really beautiful, but the climb was steep and long.

We walked along the road, trying to stay out of the way of all the cars, for quite a ways before figuring out that there were accessible, paved pathways that were more direct and less dangerous.

Forty-five minutes later, our overnight bags weighing us down (even a small bag gets heavy after when you’re climbing up a hill), we emerged into the main square, more than ready for a gelato, a cappuccino, or something stronger. The number of tourists swarming the square made Sorrento look like a ghost town. We picked up a good map at the tourist office and instructions for how to get to our hotel, the lovely boutique Capri Wine Hotel, a short way back down the hill. (We had printed instructions about getting there by bus but that was now moot.) The small hotel, a converted family winery with a beautiful garden setting, has just a few rooms. Because ours (a “deluxe” room with small terrace, 157 euros) wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, we dropped our bags, asked the owners to recommend and reserve a place for lunch near Anacapri, and caught a bus to that town on the other end of the island. The bus ride was inexpensive and the views lovely as we skirted the steep hills for about fifteen minutes.

Our two primary goals in Anacapri were seeing the Villa San Michele and taking the chairlift to Monte Solaro. From the small square where the bus stops we walked up the steps (lots of tourist shops on either side) to the villa. The highlight here was the garden with its colorful plantings, statues, and striking views across and down onto Marina Grande and Capri town. Again, too many people crowding the relatively small grounds took away some of the enjoyment, but it was a pretty place nonetheless.

The country restaurant recommended by the Wine Hotel owners, Giorgio al Cucciolo, was not really walking distance from Anacapri town, so our reservation included a pickup by the restaurant’s driver at a petrol station nearby. He was a little late arriving but we stuck with plan and were glad we did. The driver had been to and loves San Francisco, so we had a nice chat. The restaurant, a 20-minute drive from Anacapri, stands atop the cliffs not far from the famous Blue Grotto. It is an idyllic spot with great views of the blue sea and excellent food as well; at our table on the patio we enjoyed one of the better meals we had on the Italian portion of our trip. (The Grotto, by the way, was closed to boats that day because of choppy seas.)

After the leisurely two-hour lunch, we were driven back to Anacapri, ready for one last adventure before returning to Capri town. We walked up the hill from the main square and took the chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro, the highest point on the island. It was quite cool on the way up in our individual chairs and at the top, but the gorgeous 360o views were worth a little chill. After a half hour or so, we were cold enough to head back down to Anacapri, where we visited Chiesa San Michele, a small church with an imaginative tiled floor that depicts the Garden of Eden. The tiles were interesting up close, but the best view was from the small second-floor balcony, which revealed a panorama of the whole scene. It was now quite late in the afternoon, so our walk back to the main square of Anacapri was magically tourist-free, as most visitors had left the area, and we enjoyed seeing the locals catch their breath and resume their daily activities after the onslaught.

The bus back to Capri town was still quite crowded, but we wedged ourselves in and made it back in one piece. Our lovely room was ready, and we relaxed on our terrace with a half bottle of Chianti (Castello di Ama riserva), which unfortunately was not in prime condition. All in all, it was a very enjoyable day.

Friday, May 2, CAPRI AND SORRENTO

Perhaps the best part of our experience at the Capri Wine Hotel was the excellent breakfast at a quiet table set among the vineyards with gorgeous views up to Monte Solaro and down to the sea. Pastries, blood orange juice, cheese, meat, and as many cappuccini as one desired (two in this case). Unfortunately, the weather had turned and our host told us that a hard rain would be arriving later in the morning. We had intended to walk up to the Temple of Jupiter and the Villa of Tiberius, high above Capri town, but about ten minutes into the walk the weather started to turn. Because we were without umbrellas and didn’t have much cover, we decided to head back to the hotel, where we picked up our gear, and then walked down to Marina Grande to catch the ferry back to Sorrento. The walk downhill was far more enjoyable than the uphill version!

The weather had indeed turned surly, so we hunkered down and spent much of the day reading back at the apartment, managing to sneak out for a drink in the square and to purchase the makings for a spaghetti dinner with all the necessary accoutrements.

Saturday, May 3, SORRENTO

The weather remained unsettled, throwing a wrench into our plans to do some walking on one of the trails outside Sorrento. I was also under the weather from a virus I’d caught—perhaps on the plane—and didn’t have a lot of energy. This was one more day than we had planned to spend in town, so all in all we began to feel a little confined. But we tried to make the best of it. We did a little shopping as we walked the old town yet again. To get out of the rain we ducked into a covered café for coffee, where we chatted with some cruise-ship day-trippers who were underdressed for the cool weather.

During a short break in the rainfall realized we were close to Inn Buffalito, where we had eaten a couple days earlier. We arrived a bit before the noon opening, but they let us sit down to get out of the rain. A delicious zuppa di fagiole, among other things, with a shared half liter of the house white wine, put us in a better mood. We really liked this restaurant.

Late in the afternoon the weather relented a little and we walked into town for a drink at Fauno. Again the most popular drink was the orange-colored concoction, and we asked the waiter what it was that everyone was drinking. We didn’t quite hear his response, so I tried to guess it from the menu descriptions but ended up with something different. We later learned that the drink is Aperol spritz (Aperol, Prosecco, a dash of soda, and an orange slice) and would enjoy it at several locations during our five weeks of travel. On our return to San Francisco we bought a bottle of Aperol and one of prosecco for festive drinks on our own patio.

By dinnertime the weather had improved a little and we headed to Ristorante Sant Antonino, perched atop a steep flight of stairs in the old town, for a shared caprese salad and some very good pizza with an excellent half bottle of Aglianico di Taburno. A low-key day, but not a total loss.

Sunday, May 4, RAVELLO VIA AMALFI

Although the weather was still spotty, it was time to get out of Sorrento, so we took the bus to Amalfi and Ravello, which, along with Positano, we had visited on our previous trip. The bus station was just up the hill from our apartment and there was a ticket seller located conveniently in front of the station. The bus was waiting and we were soon on the fairly lengthy journey over the pretty hills to the other side of the peninsula, with stunning views as we proceeded along the coast to the top of Positano and on to Amalfi, where we had to change buses to get to Ravello.

Amalfi is a charming place (with plenty of tourists) at the foot of impressive hills, so we walked up to the main piazza just below the steps to enjoy a cappuccino with a great view of the beautiful duomo (visited on the previous trip) before boarding the bus to Ravello. Finding the right bus was a little confusing, but helpful people directed us to the correct location and, after buying tickets onboard, we were shortly headed up to our destination.

The views from the main square in Ravello were as nice as we had remembered them. We enjoyed the ambiance of the square with coffees at Café Calci and then explored the area uphill from the town, where we happened upon the recommended, family-run Cumpa’ Cosimo. For lunch we shared antipasto, sparkling water and ½ liter of the house red and enjoyed main dishes of rabbit and crespelle. Complimentary limoncello to finish. It was a very good meal in a family atmosphere, with “Mama” being sure to visit every table. After lunch we rambled out to the Villa Cimbrone for the gardens and the fantastic views down the Amalfi coast. I remembered the gardens as being much more beautiful last time we visited—perhaps it had been too cool in April for them to develop well. But the views down to the sea were still stunning. The weather was beginning to turn better at last!

After we had had enough of Ravello we took the bus back to Amalfi, where we caught another bus to Sorrento. The bus lines were very crowded, even in early May. I was still under the weather and was lucky to snag a seat--many people had to stand most of the way back to Sorrento, and at some stops with people waiting for the bus the driver didn’t even bother to stop since nobody else could possibly fit on it. What’s it like in July and August? I won’t be trying that.

Back in Sorrento, I collapsed into bed and J decided to go into town to see if he could find something interesting for a supper on the terrace. After looking in several places, he found a small delicatessen in a quiet part of the old town and managed to communicate sufficiently to obtain a slice of cold vegetable pie, a really good, sharp cheese (which the store owner had let him taste), bread, and olives, which we enjoyed with a half bottle each of Piederosso and Aglianico del Taburno purchased at the best wine store we found in Sorrento. The weather was still cool but finally clear, and we had wonderful, crystal clear views of Vesuvius displaying details of its topography that had been hidden from us earlier.

Monday, May 5, CAPRI AGAIN

We had thought about going to Ischia on our final day on the peninsula but decided to return to Capri instead for the walk along the north coast of the island, which we had missed because of the rain a couple days earlier. This time we had the good sense to take the funicular from the port up to the main square. The crowds had thinned out a little now that the May 1 holiday weekend was over, so the experience was much more pleasant, and we didn’t waste time by hemming and hawing about which method we should use to get up the hill.

From the main square in Capri Town we headed westward and then downhill toward the Grotta di Matermania, along the coastal walk. It was steeper than anticipated, but there were some really nice views, and the weather was finally what one hopes for in early May. We walked steeply downhill on the Pizzolungo coastal path, past a natural arch and the impressive, rocky stacks of the Faraglioni. There was a recommended restaurant (Da Luigi) nestled in next to the rocks, but it was far below us and we had had enough of fairly strenuous up and down, so we eventually made our way back to town via the viewing platform at Punta Tragara, adjacent to the five-star hotel of the same name.

We looked for places to eat along the way into town but ended up settling for lunch at one of the many anonymous restaurants along the road leading to the main shopping street, regretting not having made the trek to Da Luigi or at least trying one of the small restaurants we had walked by on our way into the center. The sunshine was bright and the scene in the restaurant was busy, but the meal was merely adequate. Nonetheless, we had accomplished what we had set out to do on Capri, so we bid farewell to the island and took the funicular down to Marina Grande to board the next boat to Sorrento.

Back in town, we had a last drink at Fauno and then retired to our terrace with the spectacular bay/Vesuvius view, where we enjoyed a light supper of mushroom omelets, bread, and salad, washed down with a bottle of local red, as we watched the night sky descend. Our time in Sorrento had been quiet and relaxing, but we were ready for something new.

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    Tuesday, May 6: NAPLES

    Naples accommodation: Donna Regina B&B, www.discovernaples.net

    We were up reasonably early to catch the local (really local!) train to Naples. We met some nice people on the way--some going to Pompeii, others on to Naples. We managed to get off at the correct station (Garibaldi), which is essentially underneath the Stazione di Napoli Centrale, and, after looking around for ten minutes or so, found the taxi stand. The driver was familiar with the address we handed him and gave us a rundown on all the local sights along the way, including the famous pizza place (since 1870) Da Michele (“Down that block!”).

    Our room at the B & B Donna Regina (90 euros) on Via Settembrini in the historical center, not far from the Duomo, was in a fantastic setting. The street entrance was typical Naples. Once inside the building we took the small elevator up to the fourth floor where we were greeted by the owner in a room with 20 foot high ceilings and walls covered with dozens of interesting art pieces. Our room, one of four guest rooms, was spacious; the only oddity was that we had to ascend a curved wooden staircase to get to the small bathroom on the landing at the top of the room—not so easy at night. The history of the building turned out to be interesting. Construction began at the instruction of Charles of Anjou (Charles I of Naples) in 1278 and was originally part of a church/monastery complex. The building was later divided, and still later, in 1862, the monastery part where the B & B is located became a public building when Garibaldi united the Italians. It was placed on the market and purchased by an ancestor of the current owner. The owner’s grandfather and father were the artists who created many of the artworks on the walls. Very atmospheric!

    It also turned out that the owner was an expert on pizza, so much so that he runs pizza tours of Naples for clients. One of his guests owned a Chicago pizzeria and had come to Naples for ten days to learn about the current pizza scene. Since one of our primary reasons for coming to the city was to taste its famous pizza, we asked the owner to make some recommendations. He recommended several places, but the first one was Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, the “oldest pizzeria in Napoli.” The place he thought was now the best didn’t open until 6:00; Da Michele was close by and we were hungry. So we headed down a few side streets and came across a group of people waiting outside for tables (usually a good sign).

    We quickly figured out that we needed to step inside to take a number, and, after a 20-minute wait we were ushered into the restaurant to a shared table near the oven. It was impressive to watch the production line that created dozens of pizzas an hour (only margheritas and marinaras were on the menu), which we both ordered along with a ½ liter of local red.

    The pizzas came after another 20-minute wait, by which time we were famished. The first bites were really good, but as we continued to eat, we both recognized that the pies were too large and rather mundane, not a patch on the excellent margherita di buffala pizzas we’d been eating in our small town in New Jersey for years. They weren’t bad, but they fell well short of the high expectations we had on entering Da Michele. And we could have easily split one rather than ordering one each—I left more than half mine on the plate. They were so filling that our plans of trying out multiple pizza places over the course of our time in Naples went unfulfilled. Would love to try some of the other places our B&B host recommended!

    Full of pizza, we walked a considerable distance uphill to the National Archaeological Museum which houses many of the artifacts from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere. At first we couldn’t tell where the entrance was, and we even asked a guard, who gave us an answer in Italian that we couldn’t quite make out, but gradually it dawned on us that the museum was closed on Tuesdays. How disappointing, as this was the second major reason for coming to Naples.

    Undaunted, we headed off the take in some of the other highlights of Naples. Downhill toward the port area we came across the impressive Castle Nuovo, built in 1279-1282 at the behest of none other than Charles of Anjou, King Charles I of Naples (and at the time Sicily). We were ready to sit and found a small bakery/café not far away where we enjoyed cappuccini and some really good, small cannoli (we were NOT watching calories) at a streetside table. We then realized that we were close to the huge Piazza Plebiscito, so we walked over for a look. The piazza is where the culmination of the wars led to the official unification of the “two Silicies” and the creation of the Italian state in the early 1860s. It was very impressive in the way that large public spaces can be, surrounded by numerous palacios, churches, and a columned building patterned after the Pantheon. We explored the area and enjoyed the beautiful view down to the harbor from a shaded walkway not far from the piazza. On our way back to our B & B, we stumbled across the huge Galleria Umberto I, a beautiful covered shopping gallery built in the 1880s. Much of the space seemed strangely underutilized, but the soaring iron and glass space was elegant and impressive.

    After resting up and using the Internet (we finally had wifi, if only in the common room), we headed out to look for a light meal and found a very nice local osteria, Antica Osteria Pisano off Via Duomo, where we thoroughly enjoyed our informal meal of salad and pasta.

    Wednesday, May 7, NAPLES TO MATERA

    After a good night’s sleep, we woke up in time for an elaborate, high-quality breakfast in yet another high-ceilinged, superbly decorative room just off the sitting room of the B&B. The pizzeria guy from Chicago joined us (and brought along an assortment of local pastries to share), and he and the owner had a serious discussion about pizza--what else--including an appraisal by Chicago guy of Da Michele: “It’s awful” or something to that effect. So our disappointment with Da Michele was not baseless after all. Chicago guy blamed the quality of the ingredients, an opinion we could agree with.

    After breakfast we headed out with our bags and walked a short kilometer down the road to the train station where we were supposed to pick up our car from Hertz. After searching inside the station for the Hertz office, we found someone who told that it was “down the street,” so we headed in that direction, walking right past the office before realizing our mistake and backtracking to find it. (I must have asked four different people in various shops before we pinned down the precise location.) The agent behind the desk looked like he was in serious pain—motorbike accident?—but eventually got us the paperwork we needed and informed us that the actual pickup location was in a garage down yet another street. Fortunately, but that place was easier to find. We decided that we needed a GPS for the next nine days, since we were going into uncharted territory (for us) and we had forgotten to bring our own with us. Though we had a smart phone with us, we didn’t have an Italian SIM card so the data charges to use the GPS on the phone would have been outrageous. The first Hertz GPS didn’t work and the second one wasn’t set in English, but after fiddling we managed to find the language settings and were on our way. It turned out that, though pricey, it was definitely worthwhile getting the GPS.

    We had been concerned about driving through downtown Napoli on our way to the autostrada, but we turned out of the garage and 50m later saw a sign that led us directly onto the highway and eventually past Mt. Vesuvius as we headed west, then south toward Salerno, then west again. It took a while for the GPS to locate us properly, and we got “lost” once, missing a turnoff, but eventually we found ourselves on the correct route westward through the impressive hills and mountains of Basilicata.

    We were bound for the sassi town of Matera and arrived there shortly after 1:00 p.m. The GPS instructions brought us to the entrance to an underground parking lot, so we stopped outside while John scouted the area for the B&B La Fornaci, our intended destination. The B&B was soon located and Danielo, the young owner came down to meet us and show us how to park for free in the garage (using his parking card), after which he showed us to a tidy, modern, well-appointed room on the top floor of the small B&B and explained the breakfast situation to us. His English was rudimentary but much better than our baby Italian, and everything was clear. We even had use of a small terrace off the breakfast room if we wanted some outside time. A lovely, simple place.

    Matera accommodations: Le Fornaci B&B
    http://www.lefornacimatera.it/ (this site is in Italian; we booked through booking.com)

    The B&B was located just a five-minute walk from the main square in the new section of town, with a belvedere from which we got our initial views of the sassi carved into the hillside of a steep canyon below. A very impressive sight; Matera marked a turning point in our trip where we felt we were once again exploring new ground. There are two major sassi areas (Barisano and Caveoso) in Matera, and Danielo had recommended the latter as his favorite, so we walked south through several small piazzas on the rim of the canyon, before descending down steep paths into Sasso Caveoso. It was midafternoon by the time we got started, so we went only as far as the Chiesa San Pietro e Paolo, perched on a promontory overlooking the gorge. Nearby we climbed to a couple of the much older, sassi-style churches but decided to wait until the next day to explore them more thoroughly, hoping we could arrange a guided tour that could give us more background and insight. The views across the canyon to the green open spaces dotted with sassi were quite spectacular. On the way back, we climbed up a steep stairway that ended at the Duomo with its small square.

    Back in the new town, we stopped in a piazzetta for a glass of Prosecco at an outside table in a perfectly positioned bar (with the added bonus that it served almonds, crisps, and olives with each order). After enjoying the locals gather for the evening passegiata, we walked the short way to dinner at a small family-run restaurant, Il Cantuccio, where the owner is both the maitre d’ and the chef. The food (Caprese salad, two entrees) was pretty good but not fabulous, the norm for this trip to Italy. Our favorite part of the evening was observing the owner’s young son—maybe 10 years old?—doing his homework in a corner of the restaurant with a glass of red wine at his side. He eventually dozed off—perhaps on account of the wine? Or the boring homework? Not sure which.

    Thursday, May 8, MATERA

    The breakfast at Il Fornacci was excellent and varied. Well fortified, we decided to stop at the tourist office to try to arrange a tour of the sassi. But the tours seemed pricey and not that interesting, so we headed to the church at the north end of the old town and then down into the Sasso Barisano and beyond on our own. Mistake? Perhaps, but very enjoyable nonetheless. On our way down into the Sasso, we climbed a short distance uphill to visit an old cave church and a cistern system. Then we walked downhill past the Chiesa San Pietro e Paolo and visited two old sassi churches with partially preserved wall frescoes. Not as nice as the similar painted churches we saw carved out of the rock in Cappadoccia, Turkey, but fascinating nonetheless.

    We continued our exploration of the loop through Sasso Caveoso and back up the hill to the southern part of town, which took most of the afternoon, before stopping for a drink at our favorite outdoor bar/café and then heading back to the room. For dinner we decided to go to the Ristorante Caveoso in the Sasso of the same name. The setting, partially underground, was lovely. The food was very good, and more interesting than what we had had the night before.

    My photos of Naples and Matera: https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/6670

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    I'm guessing Aperol spritz. And I would like to treat you to one, and to dinner, after you've taken the time to write another of your marvelous reports. I am hungry for more....you are a treasure here on this forum!!

    Very interesting about Da Michele; you might enjoy this short article about a new place in Naples. Next time!!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/travel/restaurant-report-50-kalo-in-naples-italy.html?_r=0

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    Great report, can't wait for the rest. It is almost exactly the same itinerary as the trip we just returned from (July) (except the Greek portion). Like you, we had previously been to the Amalfi Coast, like you we had not been to Puglia. Your photos of Matera look almost exactly like mine except the grass was a tiny bit greener in your shot of the hillside. My trip report and photo posting are in the works. What kind of camera did you use?

    One thing you confirmed is that there is no advantage to traveling in May over July. You said "What’s it like in July and August?" I have been to the AC area twice, both times in June and I don't think it was as crowded as you experienced. Last time we took the bus Sorrento to Amalfi and always got a seat and never saw the bus not stop because it was too crowded. This time we only took the boat but we passed by the bus stops in a couple of places and they were not that bad. I had a conversation with a woman who owns the spice shop in Sorrento (did you find that, a real gem) and she said there's no difference in crowds from late April till late September - each month is pretty much the same. Much less crowded from March through April and in October. From Nov to Feb she closes (except Christmas season).

    Can't wait to hear about the Puglia portion.

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    Thanks for reading! I'm hoping the Puglia portion, which I'll finish up and post soon, will be more interesting--our week there was really nice.

    Isabel--I knew you were on a similar trip and am looking forward to your report. I was really surprised (and disappointed) about the number of tourists in early May. As you know, Puglia was very different, fortunately. For a camera I use a Canon EOS Rebel T3. I like it, but I have to change lenses for a good zoom, which can be a hassle. I'm looking for a lighter lens with a bigger range, in my price range. Not easy to find!

    ekscrunchy--You are my trip report hero, so it an honor to see you are reading this one. Thank you! I can't even approach the fabulous details you include about the food on your trips, so I'm not even trying. :-) Do you live in the Bay Area? Would love to have a drink/dinner with you! (And yes, it was Aperol spritz--what a festive drink)

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    I've just read through only half your report so far, but love your travel style. And Marisa Cuomo is one of my favorite wines! I had the great good fortune several years ago to tour the winery and met Andrea & Marisa Cuomo, lovely people! Looking forward to reading more. Thanks for taking the time to write. :-)

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    We're heading to Puglia in mid October.

    I've been reading the Puglia gospels - trip reports from Ekscrunchy and Franco - but I'm pleased to find there's another Evangelist posting on Fodors.

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    We are heading to Puglia Sept. 27th so am enjoying this very much.Thank you aprillilacs!
    We are very interested in seeing Matera and I think someone else on the forum recommended Nadia as a guide when there. I will try to book her for a tour.

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    It's great to see so many people headed to Puglia these days--it's such a lovely, low-key, reasonably priced area of Italy. I wouldn't say it's undiscovered, but it's vastly undervisited compared to so many of the other parts of Italy we have been to.

    LCI--regarding our travel style. it's certainly evolved over the years. Our first overseas journey (in 1972) was a 6-week drive around (all of) the British Isles--from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England, and all around Ireland. To state the obvious, we were on the go at all times. Ah, that was so fun. Over the years we've moved more to a slow travel approach, which is much more relaxed. Love those early memories, though!

    Here's the next installment. Finally got to Puglia:

    Friday, May 9, SAN MICHELE SALENTINO, PUGLIA

    Puglia accommodation: Villa Alcova, San Michele Salentino http://vacanzeinpuglia.it/en/appartamento/alcova (we booked on HomeAway.com)

    We were up fairly early to drive from Matera (in Basilicata) to San Vito dei Normanni (in Puglia, near Ostuni) for a noon appointment to pick up the keys for our weeklong rental in the countryside near San Michele Salentino. A short distance out of Matera we looked back for a stunning view of the city on the hill. The drive was very pretty, the wildflowers were in full bloom. When we got off the main highway we started see lots of fat red poppies—a precursor to the swathes of red we would soon see in fields and along the roadsides of Puglia.

    We arrived in San Vito an hour or so early, so we decided to park the car and explore the town. It turned out to be our only exploration of San Vito, which had a sizable piazza surrounded by old stone buildings and quiet streets, and a well-stocked roadside fruit and vegetable market. We had parked across the street from a cheese shop that turned out to be well-known locally for its mozzarella. We meant to stop in for some of fresh product but never managed to pass through town during opening hours so we missed out. Darn! (We quickly learned that in Puglia the afternoon closing hours are widely observed, so shopping and other business had to be done before 1:00 and after 5:00.)

    By the time we got to the rental agent’s office, Vacanze in Puglia, we had stocked up on fruits and vegetables and purchased essentials (milk, blood orange juice, cheese, eggs, bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) at the local market. We were greeted by our contact person, Ilaria, with whom we had corresponded about the rental and who seemed genuinely interested in our welfare. We signed the necessary papers and made a cash payment for the rental--only 380 euros for the week, plus a 50-euro cleaning fee and 15 euros for power use. Prices in Puglia were refreshingly lower than on the Sorrentine Peninsula!

    We really liked dealing with Vacanze in Puglia and highly recommend it. They were responsive to our questions before we arrived, and Ilaria was very helpful in giving us the rundown on what to do in the area, her favorite beaches, and some recommended restaurants in surrounding towns. She walked us around the town (the square especially) and at our request brought us to a local wine shop, where we purchased three bottles of local wines. When we got back to the office, the owner of our rental, Giuseppe (nicknamed Pino), had arrived and was ready to lead us into the countryside to the property we had rented for the week.

    Pino is a super sweet, middle-aged guy who lives in San Vito with his family and rents his country trullo for holiday visitors. He spoke very little English, so one of the people from the office who did speak English joined Pino in his car and we followed them in ours. We headed SW on the road toward the smaller town of San Michele Salentino and turned north on a road about ½ mile short of that town. We continued farther out into the countryside on smaller roads, into an area with olive groves, poppies galore, and an occasional house. Villa Alcova turned out to be truly idyllic trullo with both traditional and modern features. It had two bedrooms (each in its own trullo tower), a combination living/dining room decorated in traditional country style with a big dining room table, a decent, well-equipped kitchen (which seemed huge after the Sorrento closet), and a nice bathroom with a washing machine.

    Pino showed us around with pride, pointing out the pictures of his grandparents as well as the newly installed wifi. Everything was in perfect order. On the dining room table were a large pound cake baked by his mother (which became the core of our breakfasts for the week), a huge pile of fava beans in their shells (which we ate for dinner one night), and some wonderful thin loaves of scrumptious olive bread—all welcoming gifts from our host. Oh—and a big bottle of olive oil that came right from Pino’s groves. Wonderful! (We only regretted having purchased commercial olive oil at the store in San Vito, because that went unused, naturally.) When we returned from our trip to Ostuni the next day, an equally large bag of fresh peapods was hanging on the door. These became part of our meal a couple of days later. We were hooked on Puglian hospitality!

    The rest of the day was spent enjoying our new home, set in an expanse of olive groves, some with massive trees that must have been several hundred years old (the oldest in the region are some 3,000 years old). We lay in the hammock, read on rock benches near the outdoor pizza oven, lounged in lawn chairs, and sat at the table in front of the house, gazing across the olives. We also explored the property and the nearby area, taking pictures (oh those poppies against the stone walls!), and eventually we took a decent walk along the country lanes.

    In the evening, J cooked some sausages that we purchased at the supermarket in San Michele and served them with pan-fried potatoes, and fresh zucchini. We spent the quiet evening catching up on emails and some work we had brought with us. No nightlife (that we could perceive) in the olive groves!

    Saturday, May 10, OSTUNI

    After a leisurely breakfast of Pino’s cake, filter coffee, blood orange juice and fruit, we decided to head out on some back lanes toward the “white town on the hill” called Ostuni, about 15 km away. The countryside was beautiful, especially if you like olive orchards with scattered poppy fields and lovely farmhouses, many of them with trulli. Eventually we entered the outskirts of the city, with the typically unattractive cement houses that form the modern part of most towns in the area, and dead reckoned toward what we thought might be our destination. We decided to park in a small square whose location with respect to the old town was uncertain. It turned out to be the perfect place, as there was a convenient Bancomat and the tourist office in the main square (Piazza della Liberta) was only three or four blocks downhill. First we had cappuccini at Coffee and More, in a small square just below the piazza, and then we obtained a good map at the tourist office and headed through the main gate and up the winding streets of the old town. There was a wonderful church and a lookout area with views over the surrounding countryside all the way to the Aegean Sea. Lots of the usual tourist shops and quite a few tourists, but in no way overcrowded. It’s a fairly small area, which we explored over about an hour.

    As we completed the loop that brought us back to the piazza, we found ourselves back at Coffee and More (having had the coffee, we were ready for the more). We ordered light lunches, including an excellent nicoise salad with plenty of Italian tuna. We realized that the best views of Ostuni were from the plain on the east side of town, so we recovered the car and drove in that direction, trying to catch the perfect photo. Never quite got it, but the white walls of the city were impressive.

    Dinner was a stew of fava beans with some the sausage we had purchased, the remainder of the potatoes, some olive bread and a nice salad. Oh yes, and a bottle of red wine. The trullo bedroom was quiet and dark, so it was easy to sleep well all week.

    Sunday, May 11, TORRE GUACETO RESERVE

    Today we headed northeast toward the Adriatic to visit the beaches of the Torre Guaceto Nature Reserve, about 15 km away in the other direction than Ostuni. We were looking for a beach south of the tower with the intention of spending a good part of the day there and walking to the tower and back. It was a lovely day, probably the warmest we were to have in Puglia. The problem was that we didn’t know exactly how to get there. We got to the coast all right but were maybe 6 km north of the tower. The sea was shallow and displayed the most beautiful shade of light to dark blue. Since we had missed our mark, we backtracked inland, made a few turns and finally found a parking lot near the beach where we paid Є2 to park the car. We followed a dirt track and eventually saw signs for the reserve. The beach was nice and was being enjoyed by local families out for a day by the sea, but it wasn’t crowded. We found a spot and had a small picnic. It turned out we were still a couple of km north of the Torre Guaceto, so J walked south for 20 minutes or so to a place where he was able to at least get a good view of the tower, still 500 m away. Meanwhile, I found a tiny piece of shade and enjoyed relaxing by the beautiful water.

    When we left the beach we took the back roads home. Along the way we passed through the intriguing tiny village of Serranova, with its small castle, and just north of the village found the best poppy field we had seen so far. The light was not perfect for photography, but we took some nice pictures anyway. We intended to come back another day, but after seeing the poppy field along the road between Cisternino and Locorotondo later in the week we never felt compelled to do so.

    On our return to our Villa Alcova, we unlocked the nice bikes that Pino had left for us and took a ride along the country lanes in the general direction of San Vito. The countryside was beautiful, with its many trulli, gardens, olive/fig/almond trees, and poppies, but the bikes were not quite the right size for either of us, so we didn’t go too far. For dinner J cooked up some chicken in red wine and the wonderful local produce. What a life.

    Some photos of our first days in Puglia: https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/6704

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    Thanks for reading! Here's the rest of the Puglia portion.

    Monday, May 12, POLIGNANO A MARE AND ALBERELLO

    The weather was still nice, if a little more hazy, so after another cake-based breakfast and some quiet time in the hammock, we decided to drive father up the coast to Polignano a Mare. Our route took us along lovely country roads back through Ostuni and then NNE along the main road toward Fasano. Along that stretch we saw the biggest and likely oldest olive trees ever. Our guess is that some of these were more than 1,000 years old, as trees up to 3,000 years old have been reported. They had amazingly thick and gnarled trunks, and if we could have spoken Ent we would have done so. Just south of Fasano we joined the autostrada and zipped north past Monopoli until we saw signs for Polignano al Mare.

    Once off the autostrada we followed signs for the centro storico and found parking on its margins. Polignano turned out to be a great place, with narrow lanes passing between whitewashed buildings and eventually winding down to a cliffed seafront. The old town is fairly compact, so after having coffees in the central square, observing the café and restaurant workers setting up tables and locals enjoying the virtually tourist-free piazza, we did a little shopping and eventually found arrived at the seafront to the south of town. We came across the cave restaurant (Grotta Palazzese), carved into the cliffs, which once had some Michelin stars. There were two menus, one at Є80 and the other at Є100, so even though we were intrigued we decided to pass. The location was stunning and it might have been fun to see what all the fuss is about, but the reviews we read later online suggest that we made the right decision.

    Instead we found a small restaurant nearby with outdoor seating and a partial view of the sea, La Balconata, which was once recommended by Lonely Planet but turned out to not be very good. J ordered a pizza that was extremely disappointing--a cross between Tombstone and cardboard. I had better luck with some very large grilled prawns, but they were just OK. The wine was insipid. The best part was sitting in the sun and chatting with a couple of other visitors.

    Despite the disappointing lunch, we loved the centro storico of Polignano al Mare. From the wide piazza overlooking the sea on one end to the charming narrow lanes, many decorated with poetry, plants, and art, it was captivating. We came across a marble artist blasting a large sculpture overlooking the sea and watched him work for a while; he seemed like he was actually part of the sculpture. We also found the famous cove beach that we’d heard about from a friend, the Blue Flag beach. It’s a gorgeous small beach tucked between two cliffs that line a narrow inlet from the sea. Early in the season as we were, it wasn’t at all crowded so it was extra pretty. We were content to look down on it from the roadway above, but if the sea had been warmer we would definitely have been down at the beach and in the water. Polignano is also known for its statue of Domenico Modugno, who wrote the song Volare, but for some reason we weren’t moved to find it, so eventually we retrieved our car and headed to our next destination.

    We still had a lot of afternoon on hand, so we decided to drive inland up onto a plateau, past Castellana Grotte, to the famous trulli town of Alberobello. We had sort of been avoiding Alberobello because we had heard that it is truly a tourist Mecca. It’s famous for its huge concentration of trulli houses and buildings, but there are scads of trulli all over this part of Puglia, many in locations that still retain much of their charm. At any rate, Alberobello occupies two main hills and we were fortunate enough to find ourselves heading up the one that most tourists don’t go to (even though it has lots of trulli). We found free parking along the street and walked 50 m to a viewpoint from which we could see the second hill buzzing with hundreds of tourists winding up streets above a square crowded with tour buses. We decided not to go up the other hill since we had no interest in elbowing our way through the streets or shopping for trinkets. Instead we enjoyed decently priced capppuccini at a small outdoor café at the base of our hill with a view up to all the tourists and tourist shops. Afterward we beat a hasty retreat back to our car and returned to our home by another route.

    The great thing about having a car in Puglia is that the countryside is full of charming vistas and lovely trulli- and poppy-filled valleys. While it’s possible to rely on public transportation, I think we would have missed out on part of what for us made the area so special.

    Back at the farmhouse, we recuperated and then headed for the local market for pancetta and red wine. I made myself useful by shelling the mound of peas that Pino had delivered to us; J then cooked them with the pancetta and some milk to make a “mushy pea” stew which we enjoyed with bread and wine. Wonderful country fare, straight from the Villa Alcova fields and kitchen.

    Tuesday, May 13, LOCOROTONDO

    After a leisurely morning we drove north along more country roads to our destination for the day, the hilltop town of Locorotondo. On the way we went through the outskirts of Cisternino and then onto the highway that links it with Locorotondo. There were concentrations of trulli along the entire route. Along the way, on the north side of the road, was the most beautiful poppy field we had ever seen--way better than those in Tuscany or anywhere else that we saw in Puglia. We slammed on the brakes and I got out of the car to take picture after picture; soon we were joined by several other cars and their photo-snapping occupants. I didn’t want to intrude on private property but I did manage to edge myself into the field to get up close and personal with all that red. Absolutely stunning!

    On entering Locorotondo, which is slightly smaller than Polignano, we could see the old town uphill to the left but couldn’t figure out quite how to get there. So we did the usual: we parked the car and walked to the next major intersection, where we saw signs for the centro storico.

    As we walked up the hill it began to rain; a perfect time for a cappuccino in a low-key coffee bar along the street. The weather was spotty all day, but it didn’t keep us from concluding that Locorotondo was one of our favorite towns in Puglia. At the top of the hill is Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, adjacent to which is a small park with a terrace that has fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. Ho hum, another trullo. And another…and another!

    We crossed over into the old town with its narrow lanes, winding among whitewashed buildings down the hill to the north. The town seemed almost deserted, even in the late morning. We just wandered, allowing ourselves to get lost now and again, entering an occasional church, and taking lots of photos, even though there wasn’t enough sun for really good shots. Finally a few German tourists showed up, but not enough to destroy the genial tranquility of the place.

    We had read a great deal online about the famous antipasti of Puglia, and as luck would have it a chance to try some presented itself at the appropriate hour. On a back lane (well, they’re all back lanes) we found a small restaurant, Ai Tre Santi, that offered traditional Puglian antipasti, among other things. We sat down to a fantastic 14-course lunch: olives, grilled zucchini, grilled eggplant, stuffed eggplant, stuffed tomatoes, vegetable pie, fresh mozzarella, fresh ricotta, shrimps, calamari, anchovies, olives, tomato and cucumber salad…. The dishes came out over a period of time, a bit like tapas, and there was way more than we could do justice to. All washed down by the local wine. As I recall, we were the only diners. At the end we were brought a complimentary limoncello to wrap up one of the more interesting meals of our trip.

    We tried to take back roads on the drive home but ended up on the edge of Martina Franca, from where we took a main road back to the farmhouse. There we relaxed and recovered from our ordeal. No need for a big meal, so later in the evening we satisfied ourselves with some wine, crackers, cheese, and olives.

    Wednesday, May 14, LECCE

    The weather was better but still quite windy when we headed east toward Brindisi and south on the autostrada toward the famous baroque city of Lecce. When we arrived, we forgot our rule about not driving into the very center of cities and, following the GPS, I managed to drive down a road that was closed to vehicles and into the main square. Yikes! Fortunately, no one gave us a second look, and we extricated ourselves as quickly as we could. It wasn’t quite like the time we found ourselves driving almost to the steps of the Duomo in Florence, but it was embarrassing enough. Once safely through the large piazza we turned onto a street leading out of the center and after a couple of blocks squeezed into a free streetside parking place.

    The architecture of Lecce was impressive: lots of grand old Baroque buildings and fabulous churches, which have given the city a reputation as the “Florence of the South.” We walked back into the center through an open-air market and found ourselves walking in the main square (Piazza Sant'Oronzo) instead of driving—-much better. One impressive feature of this piazza is the statue of Sant’Oronzo, which sits atop a high pillar. Legend has it that when Sant’Oronzo cured the plague in Brindisi, that city gave one of the two pillars that marked the end of the Appian Way (from Rome to Brindisi) to the people of Brindisi. Another, located in the far SW corner of the piazza, is the excavated portion of the Roman Amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century CE.

    After exploring and photographing the piazza, we ducked north through an archway down a narrow street filled with tourists. Many were congregated in the area near the Chiesa di San Croce, whose construction was initiated in 1353. The façade was partially in scaffolding, but we could see many of the carved animals and “grotesques” for which it’s famous. Next door we walked through a passageway into what turned out to be the government palace, which occupies a former convent. Lots of spiffily dressed men being delivered in fancy cars. We also walked west, in the direction of the Duomo, but when we got to what we thought was the Duomo it was closed and we turned back. After noon we explored the back streets of Lecce while waiting for our recommended restaurant to open for lunch. It was worth the wait, as we had a very good lunch at Alle due Corte where my fried/unfried pasta with chick peas was both original and excellent. There were more diners in this restaurant than at any other we encountered in Puglia, and all seemed to be enjoying their meal.

    After lunch we were thinking that we had pretty much "done" Lecce but decided to stroll around some more since we weren’t quite ready to leave. It turned out to be an excellent decision because we had NOT seen the Duomo earlier. Passing the church we had seen, we soon came into the beautiful Piazza Duomo, for us the most remarkable site in Lecce: a masterpiece of Baroque (and earlier) architecture. The large square is enclosed on three sides by the Duomo with its five-story bell tower, the bishop’s palace, and a convent, all constructed from light-colored limestone blocks. We lingered here for quite a while, taking in the details of the building and the overall beauty of the square. From the Piazza Duomo, we continued west, past yet another lovely church all the way to the city’s west gate. Outside the gate was the modern town--not the stuff tourists come to see.

    Now it was time to return to the car, avoid driving into any restricted areas, and take the long drive back to Villa Alcova. A lovely day.

    Thursday, May 15, MARTINA FRANCA

    This was our last full day in Puglia, so we drove along back roads toward Martina Franca, one of the largest towns in the Valle d’Itria. We had driven on its outskirts several times during the week, but this time we would actually explore the town itself. Good choice.

    We parked the car on a square in the main town, paid 2 euros to the official who seemed to be monitoring the parking on the street (or perhaps he was just a resourceful resident?), and walked up hill to the tourist office, located just off the Piazza XX Septembre, at the entrance to one of the four gates of the walled city. The tourist map and information we got there were helpful.

    We passed through the gate and turned right toward the Palazzo Ducale, the town hall/museum. The top floor was an interesting array of rooms and a display of large photographs of life in Puglia around the turn of the twentieth century. There were also less interesting exhibits on wine growing, olive processing, the history of trulli and the important families in the area, many of whose members migrated to the United States.

    After we left the museum, we really enjoyed walking the narrow lanes of Martina Franca. There were relatively few tourists, lots of interesting buildings, and several decorative churches and public spaces, including the Pazza Plebiscito with its curved facades. We walked to the far end of the walled old town, then started looking for a place to have lunch, settling on a little place that specialized in small dishes. We sat next to a big window with a good view of the street and shared excellent mixed meats and some little things on bread. Nothing fancy—just good local food.

    The tourist office had information on a hiking area southwest of Marina Franca and the museum had a relief model of the same area, so we decided it would be fun to go there for a walk. Unfortunately, when we reached the one recognizable entrance, the gates were closed. We then tried to negotiate a cross-country route back to Villa Alcova but ended up going in circles, so eventually we had to settle on the main roads to get back. Sadly, our week in Puglia was almost over and we only had a couple days in Rome to look forward to(not too shabby) before leaving Italy and moving on to Greece.

    More Puglia photos: https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/6745

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    SO! much fun to read this! Haven't finished all of the Puglia portion yet. Want to come back with a glass of wine to really luxuriate in the armchair travelling. Thank you for all your beautiful pictures and fantastic details. Now planning for future trips!

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    Friday, May 16, PUGLIA TO ROME

    Today we had to leave our dream house in San Michele Salentino. Pino came to see us off and offered some heartfelt parting words and a big smile; we didn’t understand most of the words but the message was very clear--with his hand over his heart, he was hoping we would always carry Puglia in our own hearts. We assured him we would do so. What a beautiful memory!

    The long drive from San Michele to Rome was uneventful except for one GPS incident. For some reason it routed us into the center of Ostuni, and we blindly followed its instructions. We could see ourselves ending up in another pedestrian-only zone, so we decided to take things into our own hands and get out of there as quickly as possible, relying on our memory of the streets we had driven on earlier in the week. But we made a couple of wrong turns and ended up at the end of a VERY narrow alley with our progress blocked by a couple of low pillars jutting out from the buildings on either side—no doubt built there to stop crazies such as us from driving down the alley. I had no choice but to put the car in reverse and back my way out of the alley. Fortunately we made it out safely and entertained a few locals to boot before finally getting on the right road out of town. I breathed a sigh of relief as we headed straight to the autostrada and continued on toward Rome.

    We turned west before reaching Foggia and traveled through beautiful mountains on our way toward Naples. Near Fiano di Avellino, home to Campania’s most famous white wines, we stopped at an Autogrill and purchased a shared prosciutto and brie panini (a good idea) and our annual cylinder of paprika Pringles (a bad idea). We made very good time and reached Ciampino airport, where we were dropping the car, earlier than expected. Finding the rental agency was a little frustrating since it wasn’t well marked, but after circling the airport drive a couple of times we tried a side road and found all the car rental sites in one place. Bad news--we had to pay an extra Є150 to cover a small scratch on the back side of the mirror that we may have overlooked when we picked it up—who knows. We were upset with the charge but we had no choice but to pay the fee. No more renting from Hertz in Italy.

    We walked over to the taxi stand at the terminal to take a cab into Rome. A friendly young Chinese couple who were studying for the year in Europe were there as well, so we shared a cab into the city, saving a little money as a result. The driver took us right to the edge of Campo de Fiore, where we parted with couple, who walked on to search for their hotel. We were staying about half a block down the street, Via Dei Gubbonari, in B & B Campo de’ Fiore de Luca. We easily found the graffitied wooden door and took the tiny elevator up to floor 3.5, where we were met by the owner, a charming Sicilian woman. Her father had been an artist, and the main room of the B & B was decorated with paintings and antiques, mostly from the family in Sicily. She rented out her spare bedroom, which was comfortable and quiet and in a perfect location for seeing the parts of the city we wanted to see again, on this our fourth trip to Rome. We also had access to the sitting room, if we wanted it, and in fine weather the owner, Giovanna, serves breakfast on the small but lovely terrace. We paid 130 euros per night. (Note: there are several other accommodations with “Campo de Fiori” as part of their name, which apparently confuses some visitors.)

    Rome accommodation: B&B Campo de’ Fiori De Luca
    http://www.hotels.com/ho284767/b-b-casa-de-luca-a-campo-de-fiori-rome-italy/

    Since we had a decent part of the afternoon remaining and just a day and a half in the city, we decided to do the standard tourist stroll to some of our favorite sights in Rome. We walked through the Campo de Fiori where the market was closing up, then on to Piazza Navona with its crowds and fountains. After that we headed on a familiar route to the Pantheon (J’s favorite building in Rome), the Trevi Fountain (my favorite place), and Spanish Steps (which neither of us find all that exciting). Fortunately the Trevi Fountain was not yet scaffolded for its renovation, so it was the same delightful fountain I fell in love with on our first trip. On our way back we chanced across the Obika mozzarella bar in Piazza di Firenze, which specializes in dishes that feature mozarella di buffala from the Salerno region. We started with a first-class caprese and even better pizza margherita di buffala. This was without a doubt the best pizza we had on this trip and maybe as good as or better than the one at Aurelio’s in Salerno in 2009 that introduced us to buffalo mozzarella.

    We did have a little adventure with the wine. J (who knows his wines) asked the server for a recommendation, and she kindly brought two glasses for us to taste, an aglianico and a Pinot Nero. While the glasses passed between the two of us, she got them confused. J’s choice was the aglianico; she said it was the pinot nero. J smelled the other wine (the pinot nero) and asked her to smell it, because it had a classic pinot nose. She disagreed, and J and I agreed that whatever wine we got would be fine, though J was still unconvinced. A few minutes later the server came back to our table with the aglianico, admitting that the sommelier had smelled the two wines and agreed with J. All’s well that ends well, and she was very graceful about the whole thing. This turned out to be one of the best meals of our Italian leg. It was dark by the time we wandered back to the Campo de Fiore and took the lift up to our B & B. So nice to be back in Rome, which we love more every time we visit.

    Saturday, May 17, ROME

    After a simple breakfast and a good conversation with Giovanna about tourists, the amount of luggage many bring with them, and the dissatisfaction some display on realizing that the B&B is not a hotel (though it’s listed on hotels.com), we spent the day checking in on more of our favorites in Rome. Before we had gone far, we were enjoying our morning cappuccini at a sidewalk cafe. We paused at the Largo di Torre Argentina, an excavation site that exposes the remains of various Roman temples and the theatre of Pompeii on whose steps Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE. It is now the home of the cat sanctuary; a place called home by hundreds of felines. Cats seem to pop up everywhere among the ruins, and the more you look, the more there are.

    We steered back to the Pantheon for another quick visit in different light (never enough Pantheon!) and then walked toward the busy intersection in front of the much maligned Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (too big! too white!) and up the steps behind it to the Capitoline Hill. We passed the small statue of Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf and headed down the hill toward the Roman Forum. But the way was blocked and we had to go all the way around the Forum to the new entrance, created since our previous visit now that admission is charged (it was free before). We stood in line for at least half an hour, talking to an interesting young couple from Connecticut. The 12-euro ticket we finally picked up gives access to the Forum, the Palatine Hill, and the partially scaffolded Colosseum, but we weren’t interested in seeing the latter again so we turned left and walked up the Palatine Hill. We had last enjoyed this area on our very first trip to Rome in 2004. It was still interesting, had some fine views, and gave us a chance to stroll in the blooming garden. Perhaps not as thrilling as the first time we visited, but nice nonetheless.

    There were plenty of other tourists and it was starting to get fairly warm, so after about an hour we walked down into the Forum and partway up the Capitoline Hill to an exit. We walked past the art museum and next to the Forum of Trajan before having a fairly standard pasta lunch under umbrellas at a small restaurant we passed along a side street.

    We then took the long walk down the boulevard and across the Tiber (south of Hadrian’s Tomb/Castle Sant’Angelo) to the Vatican. It had been ten years since we’d been to the Vatican, so it seemed a good time to go. There was a fairly long line but we reached the entrance after about a half-hour wait. Inside, St. Peter’s was every bit as impressive as we remembered it. Unlike during our previous visit, photography is now allowed inside the basilica, which had its pluses and minuses. People were jockeying for position in front of the Pieta, trying to get the perfect photo, and one poor woman was almost knocked off her feet. The crowd thinned just a bit as we worked our way through the main part of the basilica and marveled at the immense size and ornate decoration of the place. One new thing we did was to take the steps down to the crypts below the main building. In the crypts are the remains dozens of saints and former popes with signs that convey information about them. We were glad we took the time to descend the steps.

    Although we were tired of walking, we decided to head down along the river Tiber to Trastevere, one of our favorite (now crowded) Roman neighborhoods. We paused for an hour or so at a lively outdoor café in Piazza Santa Maria, drinking Aperol spritz and watching street performers and a photo shoot that had an actress in spiked heels walking again and again across the cobblestoned piazza. She did NOT look happy! We had planned to have dinner in Trastevere, but nothing really struck our fancy until we had recrossed the river and spotted a Thai/Japanese n restaurant, which appealed to us as a nice break from things Italian. We were initially one of only two couples in the place but were later joined by a few more people. We avoided the sushi (not sure it would be fresh enough) and dined on decent pad thai, gyoza and papaya salad.

    The next morning we were up very early to head to the airport. Giovanna had arranged for a private limousine service to take us to Fiumicino airport for 35 euros, cheaper than a taxi. We flew Aegean Airlines from Rome to Athens and on to Mykonos, where we were to meet up with English friends and begin our two-plus weeks in the Greek islands. I’ll post that part of the trip in the Greece section and end this here with just a final word: Puglia—very special! In retrospect, we should have spent two weeks here rather than splitting our time between Sorrento and Puglia. So now we have a reason to return.

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