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No sooner did we return home from our Puglia jaunt last fall then I began planning a return to this captivating region deep in Italy’s far south. The treasures of Puglia are spread over a wide area and it is impossible to see them all in only one week, or even in two weeks. My usual travel partner, who would also be the sole driver, and I would begin with a two-day stay in a masseria hotel near the food mecca of Montegrosso di Andria, not far from Trani. From there, we would penetrate a corner of the remote region of Basilicata to spend two nights in Matera. Finally, we would luxuriate for three nights during a return visit to Masseria Torre Maizza, near Savelletri di Fasano and within reach of the gleaming white towns and trulli landscapes of the Valle d’Itria.

Our flights were on Alitalia, which has improved greatly since the dark days of a few years back, from JFK to Bari with connection in Rome.

We rented an automatic car through the broker, AutoEurope, finding the lowest prices, by far, on their Italian website, The actual booking was done in a phone call to their US office, which granted me the price I found on the Italian site: 390 euro per week for a Mercedes B-180 automatic. This worked out to US$548 with all fees; the exchange rate at the time of our visit was very unfavorable to those with US dollars. Payment is in advance, but cancellations and changes are possible.

The flight from JFK to Rome was relatively painless, even in coach. I brought my own dinner (frittatas travel very well) but my partner found the food to be just fine. After an hour's layover in Rome (our flight arrived a few minutes late due to late takeoff from JFK) and second flight, which took about an hour, we landed in Bari at 10:20am. Since we had no checked luggage to wait for, it took no more than a few minutes before we were on the way in our white Mercedes, bound for our first masseria-hotel, outside the hamlet of Montegrosso di Andria, in the Upper Murge region of Puglia.

The hotel’s directions instructed us to take the autostrada from Bari to Andria. Since we remembered the roads in Puglia to be generally well marked, I neglected to study my map (no GPS for the two of us!), figuring that we would follow the signs from the airport to the autostrada. The folly of that plan became quickly apparent when we failed to find any signs directing us to the desired highway. No problem, this navigator cried!! Who wants the boring old autostrada when we can get there on smaller parallel roads!? Suffice to say that we soon found ourselves snarled in traffic in the midst of sprawling Bitonto. We finally found a sign for the autostrada, only to find that the Bitonto entrances were blocked by construction. After lots of wrong turns, and much help from kindly locals, we were finally on our way. We were not out of the airport more than 20 minutes when we began to pass open trucks piled with artichokes and fava beans for sale along the roadside. I broke out into a big smile! I was so happy to be back in Puglia!

A sight that I did not expect was the sequined, mini-skirted young woman, looking as if she had stepped out of one of Berlusconi’s television variety shows but standing, instead, at the edge of a olive grove. Very dressed up for a Sunday morning, I remarked to my companion. I did not realize that May 1 was such a celebratory holiday. Look, there’s another woman. She’s dressed up, too! Are they really picking olives in that getup? I began to regret my choice of casual clothing for this trip before I realized why these women, and many like them that we would see along the roads near Bari, were so bedazzlingly, and scantily, outfitted.

Sometime after noon, we finally arrived at the imposing iron gates of our destination, the Masseria Lama di Luna, 3.5 km from tiny Montegrosso. Lama di Luna, which means “blade of the moon,” began life in as a fortified farm in the late 18th Century, worked by entire families of sharecroppers who lived on the premises. The forest of chimneys sprouting from the low-rise building ringing the central courtyard attests to the original tenants of what are now the guest rooms. The rambling complex, set amidst olive groves, vineyards, plots of vegetables and cereals, and almond and cherry orchards, has been impeccably restored by the cultured and genteel owner, Pietro Petroni, who hails from nearby Canosa di Puglia and who bought the property in 1991. Pietro speaks English well and his love for his home region is readily apparent.

We had booked a Murgia room, the larger of the two room categories. The hotel houses 9 guest rooms and a couple of suites. An exquisite brass bed, embellished with bronze cupids, dominated our large room, which also had a massive fireplace. The vaulted ceiling was sheathed with pierced round terra cotta cylinders of a hundred different shades of pink, orange and rose, designed to allow air flow and ventilation for the cooking and heating fires of the families who once lived here. It is probably the most beautiful hotel ceiling I’ve ever slept beneath! There was an amply-sized bathroom, a mini-bar and a television with about a thousand channels in a hundred languages. A free-form swimming pool has an astounding view of the sweeping countryside but the weather during our stay was too chilly and cloudy to even contemplate a dip.

We had only an hour or so to relax before setting out for lunch. On previous trips, we have preferred to relax after our long trans-Atlantic flights, before setting out for late afternoon sightseeing and dinner. But this being not only a Sunday, but also a holiday, I had had difficulty finding a restaurant within a half-hour's drive that was open for dinner. I pored over the guides, but everyplace nearby was closed, or so it seemed. And I could not think of asking my partner to drive an hour in the dark on our first night, to the restaurant I found that would be open.

And so we decided to have lunch on that Sunday of arrival, instead of dinner. (For the long saga of how we settled on our first restaurant of the week, with the gracious assistance of Franco, to whom I will forever be indebted, see the entries beginning with the post of April 16, 2011, on this thread:

The immediate environs of Lama di Luna enjoy a reputation as a center for great eating, with no less than 5 highly esteem eateries (that I am aware of; there may well be more) located within a 10 minute drive of the hotel. Our goal on that afternoon was Masseria Barbera, where we arrived after a drive of about 10 minutes.

MASSERIA BARBERA (outside Minervino Murge)

A couple of kms south of the Canosa-Andria road, north of the town of Minervino Murge, Masseria Barbara encompasses a complex of farm buildings set amidst the rolling green farmland of the Upper Murge plateau. We expected to turn off the road and down a narrow lane to find a simple farmhouse. What we did not expect to find was a parking lot filled to the brim and manned by frenzied attendants waving their arms this way and that, attempting to squeeze the cars of stragglers like us into the last remaining centimeters of available parking space.

After depositing our rental car, we followed a pathway lined with massive terra cotta pots overflowing with flowers, to the rambling building housing the restaurant. Passing through the giant wooden doorway we entered into a festive celebration in full force. Long tables packed to the brim with chattering diners clad in their Sunday best, flotillas of baby carriages over which peered doting parents and grandparents, toddlers racing about underfoot, waiters pouring forth from the kitchen bearing aloft platters laden with enticements. This was Sunday lunch on the first of May, but our waiter later told us that this was the usual scene on Sundays.

We were shown to one of the smallest tables, where two lonely-looking diners were already seated. Together with our two dining companions, a Kiwi/UK couple, repeat visitors to Puglia like us, we looked to be the only other non-locals in the house on that day. In fact we saw no menu, just a printed sheet with a brief description of the courses that began to arrive soon after we sat down. (I suspect that during the week a regular menu is available) On the table already were water, a basket heaped with the ring-shaped Pugliese biscuits known as taralli, and slices of the superb bread for which this region is known throughout Italy, and a bottle of the house wine, Rubino di Murgia, a DOP red from nearby Castel del Monte.

This was our second trip to Puglia so we were already accustomed to the lavish display that constitutes the typical Pugliese antipasti spread. Nevertheless, we were astounded by the goodness and the plethora of courses served to us that afternoon.

Among the antipasti dishes were the following:

Fried fava beans

Pettole, the Pugliese spheres of fried dough mixed, in this case, with lampascioni, or Muscari racemosum, wild hyacinth bulbs

Fresh ricotta

Nodino, or knots, of mozzarella

Focaccia di grano arso (grano arso is the grain left in the fields after the seasonal burning and was a staple of the poor in this wheat-growing area of Puglia)

Cardoncelli mushrooms baked with bread crumbs

Baccala with tomato sauce and black olives

A platter of local Minervino sausage (salciccia di Minervino) accompanied by chunks of ricotta salata and aged ricotta

The quality was uniformly excellent. This was the southern Italian Sunday lunch of my dreams!

Once the (empty in most cases) antipasti dishes were cleared from the table, a pair of pasta dishes were brought out in succession:

The first: “Maritati in Crudiola di Melanzane con pesto di basilico,” (a mix, or “marriage” of white orechiette and cavatelli di grano arso, with eggplant cubes, cherry tomatoes and basil pesto

The second: “Troccoli alla Campagnola con Formaggio dei Poveri,” a long, thick pasta with oven-roasted tomatoes and bread crumb.

The two secondi were as follows: A platter of mixed meats—tiny baby lamb chops and char-grilled strips of donkey which was tender and sweeter than beef. I hestitated for about one second before digging in. The donkey was Incredibly delicious!

The second main course was Salciccia in Cartoccio, a paper parcel that opened to reveal sausage in a light meat broth with a spicy kick.

Along with the meats, we had Patate sotto Cenere, or roast potatoes cooked in the ashes of a fire.

Once the meat platters had been demolished, a plate of raw vegetables—carrots and baby fennel—took their place, as per local custom. Then came a bowl of mixed fresh fruits—melon, strawberries, and kiwi.

And finally: House-made cookies, glazed strips of orange rind, and candied almonds.

The total for this feast was 80 euro for two persons. Next year the owner, Sr. Barbera, plans to open rooms for overnight guests.

Closed Sunday night and Monday. No English spoken and no English menu. SlowFood pick. Highly recommended. Worth the detour.

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    I forgot to mention, in the review above, that we spoke to Sr. Barbera, who told us that the masseria will begin to receive overnight guests next year. This would be an excellent place from which to cover the sights of the region. The property is beautiful. Were it not for the luggage restrictions, I would have bought a few bottles of their estate olive oil, and a few of the other products for sale in the front room.

    I also forgot to mention that I was on the trail of the dried red peppers from Senise (Basilicata), which are the centerpiece of a favorite pasta dish and one that I make at home, when I can get the ingredients. I asked the waiter if they ever used similar peppers in their dishes and if so, where I could buy them. He told me that no one would buy them because people here grow them in their gardens and dry them on strings in their kitchens. With that, he disappeared for a minute and returned with a paper bag filled with gorgeous scarlet beauties. This is why I love Puglia!

    We had an easy drive back to the masseria, and a great sleep on very comfortable beds.

    The next morning the skies were grey; rain was in the forecast and we would, indeed, have some rain on and off for that day and the next, before the skies cleared. I quickly realized that my plans for a swim in the pool had been laughingly optimistic. Note for next time: For early May visits, pack something warmer than a cotton pullover and feather-light rain jacket.

    The verandah of a stone outbuilding, overlooking the pastoral green landscape dotted with olive groves, with the low-rise sprawl of Andria in the distance, makes a film-worthy setting for the masseria’s breakfasts, included in the room rate. (The verandah is fitted with a giant stone hearth where pizza is made on summer evenings)

    Simple breakfasts, began with peach nectar (alas, not fresh in early May) and continued with two types of pecorino from a neighbor’s farm; I had never considered myself a pecorino fancier until I tasted these cheeses, which were outstanding. Fresh ricotta was also divine, as was the freshly made yogurt, which we drizzled with local honey. (No plastic containers of supermarket yogurt at Lama di Luna!) To complete the spread: Bruschetta with chopped tomatoes; almond cake; and home-made crostata with fruit marmelade, and very good coffee. The city of Andria was the birthplace of burrata cheese (which came into local production as recently as the 1950s) and I was disappointed that there was none on the table, but the fact that the day before had been a Sunday holiday may have impacted the selection. In any case, we would have plenty of opportunity to sample burrata in the days ahead.

    After breakfast, we set off for the 37 km drive to Trani, one of a string of medieval port towns that lines the coast north of Bari and dubbed by more than one guidebook, “The Pearl of Puglia.” We skirted the urban sprawl of Andria and headed south along the coast, passing what seems like dozens of stone yards announcing “Marmi di Trani.” The marble and stone of Trani is famous throughout Italy and beyond and we would behold its gorgeous application in the paving stones and facades of the charming seaport that gave it is name. Following the signs to “centro,” we passed a small bridge and entered the commercial center of town, where we followed signs to “Cattedrale,” before finding a spacious parking lot on the sea within site of the famous cathedral. The lot was free but, not being sure of correct etiquette, I gave a euro to the uniformed elderly “parking attendant” who guided us to a spot.

    From there it was just a few steps to the famous Romanesque Cathedral of San Nicolas the Pilgrim which occupies a vast piazza at the water’s edge and attests to Trani’s importance as a merchant city in the early Medieval age. The gorgeous bronze doors, which now stand in a protected spot in the interior, are among the celebrated ecclesiastical relief panels crafted by Barisano da Trani in the 12th Century; others guard the entrances to the cathedrals of Ravello and Monreale. Sheathing the floor near the altar is a 12th-entury mosaic depicting Adam and Eve.

    From the Cathedral, we wandered along the arc of the harbor, past colorful fishing boats displaying the day’s catch, old men mending nets, and a string of marine-goods shops, cafes, and seafood restaurants. Just behind the port, the gleaming white tangle of streets comprising the old city drew us next. We found the old Jewish ghetto, and two churches that had been synagogues until the Spaniards expelled the town’s Jewish residents in the 1500s.

    Then it was on to the 19th-Century sector of town, where we peeked into a couple of food shops and latterias. In my pre-trip reading I had come across a number of foods that I had never sampled and was delighted to encounter one of these: Cicerchie, in a local alimentari and I promptly purchased a half kilo.

    Cicerchie is an ancient type of pulse that will grow in conditions where other pulses and vegetables will not. Once common to Umbria, Campania, Le Marche, and northern Puglia and associated with the cuisine of poverty, its cultivation began to be abandoned with the areas’ increasing affluence. Like many heirloom foods verging on extinction, cicerchie have returned to favor with the advent of the SlowFood movement and the emphasis on heritage foods.

    Trani is absolutely lovely and I would like to return for an overnight visit to enjoy the seafood restaurants and the evening passegiata.

    From Trani, we headed for Castel del Monte but after missing the correct turnoff in the vicinity of Andria, we found ourselves passing the ocean of stands comprising the town's Monday market. We stopped briefly in the hopes of finding the food section but after walking what seemed like 2 kilometers past vendors hawking cheap sunglasses, sequined jeans, and garish tablecloths, we gave up and continued on our way in the car, eventually extricating ourselves from the clogged streets of lunch hour and heading out to the countryside once more, bound for one of the most celebrated sights of Puglia, Castel del Monte.

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    oh no, not eating donkey! My "boys" would be very distressed.

    great report, ek.

    the lavishness and generosity of the italians when it comes to food is wonderful, isn't it?

    looking forward to more!

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    Ann, that is so true. And nowhere have I encountered this generosity more than in the deep south.

    I am sorry about the donkey. My partner would not touch it and I was squeamish. I thought it would be tough and gamey but it was neither.

    Now get back to your studies!

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    I am so enjoying "travelling along with you", ekscrunchy. It is wonderful that you were able to return Puglia this spring.
    Speaking of donkey, I had some meat one time while in Italy but I didn't know what the meat was as our Italian friends ordered the food. The meat was quite good, in fact I commented how good it was but I asked what it was. Uhm, it was donkey. I almost got ill at the table, lol. My husband gave me a teasing bad time afterwards as he reminded me I love venison and rabbit etc. But there was something about eating donkey meat as good as it was that made me rather squeamish even though I enjoyed it at the time. Thanks for sharing your delightful trip, I look forward to the next installment!

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    The N170 passes through gentle green agricultural lands as it ascends from the coastal plan to the Murge Plateau; we all but gasped with delight at our first glimpse of the famed silhouette of Castel del Monte looming at the edge of the plateau. Built in the 13th Century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who reportedly was inspired by castles he viewed during the Sixth Crusade, the Castel del Monte has probably perplexed visitors ever since due to its mysterious octagonal form, repetitive angles and proportions, and geometric alignment with other ancient temples, castles and towers. There is an entire literature devoted to the supposedly mystical symbolism of the octagonal design and the possible meaning of the number 8 which is repeated throughout th design: There are 8 sides;8 towers; 8 rooms on each of the two floors, etc etc. One of the multitude of theories posits that the castle marks the intersection between the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, and between Jerusalem and Mont St.Michel. the original function of the building has never been determined, although many historians appear to have settled on the idea that it was built as a hunting lodge.

    From the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:

    One scholarly interpretation:

    There is no parking at the base of the castle. Visitors can either park in a paid lot and take the shuttle (fee with parking ticket), or park in the free lot and walk to the site; most of the walk is along the roadside. We opted to take the shuttle; the charge for parking is 6 euro, which includes the shuttle but not the admission to the castle.

    The admission to the site is 3 euro per person; there is no charge for seniors. I had hoped that there might be a guided tour but there was none at the time of our visit. A good thing to keep in mind is that the castle remains through the afternoon break, when many sights and shops in the area are closed.

    We were astounded by the Castel del Monte’s severe beauty. The setting at the edge of the plateau also affords a sweeping vista over the plain below, which stretches beyond Andria to the Adriatic. I will not delve into a more detailed description here, but you can read the history, and see a few photos, on the official site:

    As an added bonus (although the castle alone is more than enough to merit a long detour) a Giorgio de Chirico exhibition in the gallery will run through August, 2011:

    After our visit to the castle, with the time inside lasting about an hour as the structure is not large, we treated ourselves to a bag of dragees (3 euro) chocolate spheres encasing a range of flavors from coconut to almond to coffee, from the tiny outpost of the famed Andria candy maker Mario Mucci that sits at the edge of the pay parking lot. Do not miss this little shop if you have a sweet tooth.

    From the Castle we returned to the hotel for some relaxation; the weather had turned very windy, and it had begun to rain by the time we set out for our long-awaited dinner at one of the most well-known restaurants in the region.

    ANTICHI SAPORI (Montegrosso di Andria)

    Montegrosso is a tiny (two streets) hamlet. But it has garnered considerable fame in Italian food circles because of this restaurant. Bookings must be made weeks in advance. From the SlowFood guide: “Eating here, you’ll really appreciate the quality and freshness of the raw ingredients that are used.” Simply put, and completely accurate.

    The first thing that greets diners upon entering the small, rustically appointed dining room, is a blackboard highlighting ingredients from the orchard of Owner Pietro Zito that will be used in the night’s menu.
    There is a tasting menu, which I believe cost 35 euro, and a la carte options.

    We chose the a la carte, opting to begin the meal with the house antipasti misti, and what followed was simply fabulous. The importance of impeccable materie prime, simply prepared, shone forth in a manner that I’ve rarely experienced before. I was especially glad to see both artichokes and cardoons featured prominently both in the antipasti and in the primi; I had never tasted cardoons, which have now joined artichokes at the top of my vegetable pantheon.

    These were some of the dishes that arrived at our table; for 12 euro per person, this has to be one of the better restaurant values in Italy:

    Bruschetta with mixed herbs

    Salciccia di Minervino Murge, sausage from nearby Minervino

    Mostarda di sedano=a sweet celery confection that was a standout; served with sheep’s milk ricotta (recipe can be found in the cookbook, Lidia’s Italy)

    Riccotine di mucca=cow milk ricotta, and local mozzarella

    Cardoons with shreds of goat cheese (cardi con formaggio di capra)

    Fava beans with the house olive oil

    Carciofi sotto olio-artichokes “under oil,” or preserved in olive oil

    Carciofi sotto Cenere=artichokes cooked in the ashes of the fire

    Cippolotti di Margherita=baked onion halves topped with oregano-spiked bread crumbs

    Focaccia di grano arso, made from the “burned grain,” that I described in the report about Masseria Barbera.

    Each of these dishes was outstanding in its simplicity and in the way the kitchen allowed the impeccable raw material to shine.

    For primi (7 euro) I asked for the waiter’s recommendation and was served “Grano Duro del Tavoliere con piselli freschi, carciofi, and fave novelle e tanto amore,” which turned out to be a dish of semolina grains with fresh peas, fava beans, and artichokes. I had never tasted this grain before; it was shaped like orzo, but had a texture vaguely reminiscent of very soft farro.

    My partner was in culinary heaven with mezzemaniche with a ragu of mixed meats, passata of tomato, “spices,” and pecorino canestrato.

    We shared one second course (12 euro) but were actually sated long before the arrival of the tiny chops of Murge lamb, grilled over almond wood and served with a simple arugula salad and roast potatoes.

    Next: complimentary limoncello and a liqueur made from walnuts, liquorice.

    And to conclude this extraordinary feast, dessert:

    Sugared almonds
    Baba au Rhum
    And a cassata encased in chocolate that was the single best dessert of the week and one I will be yearning for for a very long time.

    Along with the dessert, a complimentary glass of Moscato di Trani, the sweet dessert wine from Trani.

    We drank the house wine, a local IGT 2009 Castel del Monte from Conte Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli made from Bombino and Nero di Troia grapes.

    The price, with water and wine, plus a bag of orechiette di grano arso from the small selection of house-brand food items on display: a very reasonable 60 euro.

    A Slow Food restaurant worth a long detour. Closed Saturday dinner and Sunday. Highest recommendation.

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    Ky: Let me see if I can post a few pics; they are truly pretty terrible, though.
    I begin most trips assiduously documenting the food and this falls by the wayside by the second or third night.

    I will try to write a bit more later stop is Matera.

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    After another lovely alfresco breakfast at Lama di Luna, we set off about 10am on a cloudy Tuesday morning, bound for Matera. We planned a stop at Altamura en route: This small city of about 70,000 inhabitants, near the border of Puglia and Basilicata, is famous throughout Italy for its bread (which I first sampled at Rome’s legendary food shrine, Volpetti) which bears protected DOP status and in fact, was the first European foodstuff to be granted this coveted designation. Altamura is known as the Citta del Pane, or “city of bread,” although the DOP zone extends to include bread made from local durum “remilled” wheat, and produced by traditional methods in nearby towns including Minervino and Gravina de Puglia.

    Altamura is also famous as the city that defeated McDonald’s; the fast food goliath pulled down its arches in 2002 after less than two years of operation, citing lack of profitability.

    From Montegrosso, we took the highway towards Bari, where we turned south on the SS 96, which took us through undulating green landscapes and past olive groves, where quite a few minimally clad young women waited for clients at the roadside. The drive was easy, although a routing through Minervino, Spinazzola and Gravina might have afforded more pristine scenery.

    My original quest to find a particular bakery in Altamura (diGesu) was quickly thwarted; I'm not sure if I should blame Google maps or a change of address, but after some backtracking and searching for a parking place, we found ourselves inside the Panaderia Bisco on the SS 96, or Via Bari as it is known inside the city, at #173.

    The smells emanating from the bakery sent me into a swoon, and the folks inside appeared thrilled to have visitors who had traveled from New York to Altamura to sample the city’s most famous product. We bought far too many bags of taralli, the ring-shaped snacks popular in the region, which are studded with fennel seeds, red peppers, or sesame seeds to mention three of the most usual flavorings (1.80 euro each) and a loaf of the “pane alta,” or “high bread (4.20 euro) with its distinctive brioche-like shape; see the photo in the link below:

    We had a quick peek at a busy neighborhood close to the historic center during our search for the bakery and I got an impression favorable enough to put Altamura on my list for a possible future visit. I certainly would recommend a stop for anyone with a serious interest in bread, or food in general. It certainly would have made a great lunch stop. (My research had turned up a well-regarded local restaurant (Pein Assutt on Corso Umberto.) ) I had even briefly toyed with the idea of an overnight stay but time constraints eventually nixed that idea.

    From Altamura we drove on, reaching the first of several exits for Matera in about 25 minutes. Here I became a bit befuddled, as the (hopeless) directions and map on the hotel website had said nothing about which exit to take off SS96 from Bari/Altamura, and I had not, in fact, expected to be confronted with a choice of entrances to the city. I followed a hunch which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to be correct.

    After bypassing several highway exits, which led to driver protests that we had bypassed the town entirely and would soon be lost in the wilds of Basilicata, we came to one (very small) brown sign marked “sassi.” Veering off the highway, we soon found ourselves driving through a somewhat unremarkable area of a modern town where signposts indicated the directions for many hotels but not ours.

    Happily, as we slowed the car at a tourist office where I intended to get out and seek directions, we were approached by one of Matera’s unofficial scooter-driving “entry guides.” I had read about these fellows and, although they are frowned upon by hoteliers and tourist officials, I was all too happy to part with a tip in order to be led to the doorstep of our hotel, in the sassi. No price was mentioned, I merely nodded and off we went, following our guide to the edge of the “new” city and down the steep cobbled lanes that skirts, and then pierces, the Barisano, one of Matera’s two sassi districts and the location of our next hotel, Locanda di San Martino.

    We plunged, following our "guide" deeper and deeper into this other-wordly landscape colored in a thousand shades of gray, white and beige, along narrow paths hemmed in by the facades of dwellings that reached far back into the rocky canyon walls, until we halted at a small parking area, near a small sign indicating the back entrance to our hotel. After a quick chat about Osama and Obama, we tipped the “guide” 3 euro, which I considered money very well spent. Finding our hotel in Matera had brought me more anxiety than any other aspect of the trip and I was only too glad to be rid of the car for the next two days. (When we checked in, we were asked about our plans for the car; there is virtually no nearby parking space, but the hotel has an arrangement with the Demasco garage which charged us 25 euro for two nights, including pickup and delivery of the car from and to the hotel; Damasco also offers rental cars)

    The Locanda di San Martino proved to be a lovely place to stay. Carved out of the sassi rock each of the individual rooms is distinct and most bear the names of the original function. Ours, for example, was “Chiesa,” for it had been a chapel in its original incarnation. The hotel is owned by an American Anthropologist and her Materan husband and they have created a truly remarkable hostelry uniting what were once disparate caverns into one rambling entity, using local furnishings and materials wherever possible.

    The lamps in our room and in many of the public areas, for example, while they do not give off ideal light for reading, had been crafted in the ceramics town of Grottaglie and were so handsome that I wished we were headed for some ceramic shopping!

    There is an elevator between levels but staying here requires careful selection of rooms (the staff are very responsive to e-mails) to ensure minimal stair-climbing and walking form the elevator.

    While we are on the subject, I will also mention that a visit to Matera, regardless of hotel location, entails substantial traipsing along uneven stone street surfaces and climbing plenty of steps both within the sassi and between the sassi and the newer parts of town. Comfortable shoes are absolutely essential. I had packed only one pair of walking sandals and I quickly developed blisters but had no other appropriate footwear for the daily rambles we did during our two days in Matera.

    The hotel site offers photos of each of the rooms and if you book early, as we did, you can select the one that you prefer. Our room, #8, in the cost 126 euro with breakfast buffet and taxes. We chose the Double Superior, which represents one of 5 room categories, ranging from standard to family suite and priced accordingly.

    The Locanda also has a beautiful and romantic-looking thermal bath, glowing blue in a white cavern. Unfortunately, hours are limited (closed between 11:30am and 4:30pm, for example) and there is an extra charge of 10 per person for for use of the baths and an additional charge for rental of robes. (You have to walk through public areas to access the bath area).

    You can see photos on the website; the hotel, and Matera itself, would make a fabulous honeymoon setting for an adventurous couple:

    For more on the sassi of Matera, one of the oldest continually inhabited sites on earth, see this page from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:

    And this from the very good regional tourism site:

    For preparatory reading, I recommend Carlo Levi’s seminal book, Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, and the haunting 1979 film of the same name by Francesco Rosi, starring Gian Maria Volonte as Carlo Levi; the film is not available on Netflix but your public library may have a copy.

    Here is a 2010 article on Basilicata from the NY Times that touches on Matera:

    Although it is certainly possible to explore the sassi on one’s own, armed with either the Lonely Planet Puglia & Basilicata guidebook or Cadogan’s Bay of Naples and Southern Italy, we chose to hire a local guide who had been recommended by a poster on this forum. (Thank you, Ozlinz!) We had a few minutes after check-in to unpack and get settled before our 2pm rendezvous in the lobby with Nadia Garlatti.

    We will begin our tour of Matera shortly! For now I will say only that my infatuation with the city was very quick to develop. This is one occasion where the overused and hackneyed exclamation "WOW!" is absolutely appropriate.

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    Guided private tour of Matera:

    I had booked this tour with Nadia Garlatti a few weeks before our planned visit; she can be contacted by e-mail at:

    Her phone number is: 0835-333214

    The price for the tour for two people was 40 euro for three hours.

    A native of Matera, Nadia’s strength is her ability to recount tales of what life was like in the sassi of Matera for those who lived there until the forcible evacuations beginning in the 1950s, when 20,000 inhabitants of the sassi were relocated to newly constructed housing blocks in the new city. Shamed by the outcry over the primitive conditions decried by Carlo Levi, who was remanded to internal exile in nearby Aliano by the Fascist government in the 1930s, and by his sister, also a medical doctor, the Italian government essentially banished occupancy of the caves that had sheltered families and their animals since the Neolithic era, exclaiming that conditions in Matera constituted a “shame for the entire nation. “E una vergogna per tutta la nazione!”

    By the 1970s, however, the abandoned sassi had become a vast rubbish dump and conditions deteriorated further until the area was granted UNESCO status in 1993, spurring various renovation projects.

    Today, realizing the potential tourist draw of the caves, the local government has instigated efforts to preserve the sassi and B&Bs, hotels, restaurants, and shops are sprouting where the contadini once lived in abject misery just a few decades ago.

    Nadia told us that when her mother was a child, residents of the upper town rarely ventured into the sassi districts which were perceived dangerous and filled with superstition and territorial boundaries invisible to outsiders, a category that included residents of the upper town.

    She explained the difference between the two sassi districts: Barisano, whose inhabitants often had jobs outside the sassi and therefore had access to money which propelled them to the top of the social order in the area, and Caveoso, where a barter system was in effect and whose residents were perceived to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. None of the sassi districts had schools or hospitals, and medical care was almost non-existent. Levi’s sister recounted how, during her visits, sassi dwellers would beg not for coins but for quinine to counter the malaria which plagued the area until well into the last century.

    Nadia first led us into a couple of many the painted churches tucked within the caves. Like the landscape itself, these reminded me of a long-ago visit to Cappadocia in Turkey. And while I had also visited cave homes in Matmata in Tunisia, and in Andalucia, in southern Spain, none of these prepared me for the wonder of Matera.

    We wandered the labyrinth of narrow lanes while Nadia told stories of life in the sassi and in the region and explained how it was easier to construct lodging by digging into the calciferous rock than to find, cut, and shape wood for new construction.

    We spent about 45 minutes inside the Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo, a multi-roomed cavern that was formerly the residence of a relatively well-to-do sassi family and is now preserved intact as a house museum. This was absolutely fascinating!

    As we walked along the streets, we were often walking on the roofs of the facades that jutted out from the caves and formed the front room of residences. The entire landscape is a cubist fairyland and I was awestruck.

    More information on the sassi, and on the rest of Matera:

    As we continued out explorations in the Sassi Caveoso, the heavens opened up about this time and we were soon drenched in pounding rain which only added to the biblical atmosphere of this less gentrified of the two sassi districts.

    We would return the following day to the viewpoint which allows a vista not only of the untouched caves on the other side of the Gravina river, but a cross-section of Materese development with the sassi at the bottom and the new apartment towers at the top level.

    After which we ascended the staircase to the historic center, certainly among the most beautiful I've seen in southern Italy; we continued our wanderings with Nadia pointing out historic churches and palazzi including the Church of Purgatory, with its macabre skull-and-bones motifs embellishing the stone façade and the bronze doors.

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    By the end of our three-hour tour the rain was pounding down hard, so after leaving Nadia we headed back to the hotel, armed with a couple of great recipe ideas that she had given us including one that employs stale bread as its main component ( I had told her of my detour to Altamura for bread, and my plans to buy more in Matera).

    Before I describe that evening’s dinner, I should discuss the Peperoni di Senise that I mention in the title of this report. These long, slender sweet red peppers are one of the staples of the Lucanian table and enjoy DOP protected status. (Lucania is the original name for the region of Basilicata and the one that the locals themselves tend to prefer). Grown in and around the town of Senise, they are harvested in summer and left to dry outside houses on long strings, to be used throughout the year as fried snacks, stuffed with meat or grain, and as an ingredient in local dishes.

    The most famous of these dishes is Pasta with Peperoni Cruschi con Mollica di Pane, or Pasta with Fried Sweet Red Peppers with Bread Crumbs. I first read this recipe in Saveur, a US food magazine, and once I tried it, it became my favorite pasta to make at home. For a few years I was able to find the imported peppers in my local Italian market but last winter, the entire shipment had been held up at airport customs and I had to go without. My visit to Matera took the form of a quest—I knew I had to both sample the dish in its native incarnation, and buy a stash of the peppers to take back to my own kitchen. The recipe in Saveur originated at the Matera restaurant, Le Botteghe, and it was there that we booked a table for our dinner that first evening in the city.

    This is the recipe:

    LE BOTTEGHE (Matera, Basilicata)

    A handsome white restaurant built into the rock in the sassi Barisano (one of two sassi districts in Matera), Le Botteghe is the source of the recipe that has since become my favorite pasta to make at home.

    The restaurant’s location in the heart of the most “gentrified” of the two sassi districts, near many hotels, draws many tourists. While most of the tables were occupied by tourists at the somewhat early hour of our visit (8:30 dinner reservation) we did not get the feeling that this was actually a “tourist restaurant.” I do not recall seeing an English menu (although the website lists the menu in English.) LIkewise, I do not recall that English was spoken by the staff, or at least not by our waiter.

    A massive wood-burning hearth dominates the front room. Beside it: A display of lamb. beef, and pork attests to the restaurant’s focus. For those interested in sampling the locally famed steaks of the Podolica breed, Le Botteghe would probably be an ideal place.

    We began our meal with one order of the house vegetable antipasti mix, (13.50 euro) which included on that evening:

    Pettole of eggplant and of lampascioni—these were highlights (for more on lampascioni, see the first report in this series)

    Eggplant stuffed with fresh ricotta (melanzane ripieni). Another standout.

    Caponata--excellent rendition of this Sicilian classic

    Polpetti di pane (meatballs made from bread, bathed in a light tomato sauce) Like many other dishes in the Lucanian repertoire, this typifies the “cuisine of poverty” in a land where most families were too destitute to consume meat more than a couple of times a year. These were delicious, as were all of the dishes in the spread.

    Tortino di zucchini con uova—a flan-like custard of zucchini and egg, this was a highlight for me

    Carciofi Gratinata, or gratineed artichoke

    Cardoncelli alla Griglia, meaty grilled cardoncelli mushrooms, a regional staple

    My first course had been decided long in advance: “Fusilli mollica e crusco” (11 euro).
    The difference between this original rendition and my adaptation is that here the toasted bread crumbs are ground very fine. The resulting dish here lacked the texture that my much more coarsely ground, fried in olive oil crumbs, offer. Nevertheless, the pasta was excellent.

    My partner was more than happy with his orecchiette al tegamino (10 euro), in which the "little ears" of pasta had been bathed in a tomato and cheese and baked in a terra cotta casserole.

    Too sated to sample the steaks, we opted to share an order of grilled cheeses (13.50 euro), Formaggio alla Piastra. This was comprised of Pecorino, caciocavallo, and scamorza, each drizzled with the fragrant local olive oil. Excellent !

    We drank a bottle (6 euro) of the house Aglianico (the restaurant has an extensive list of Lucanian and Pugliese wines at reasonable prices)

    Dinner for two at this SlowFood restaurant totalled 60 euro, with wine and water.

    We had an excellent meal and while it did not, perhaps, ascend to the heights of our meals near Montegrosso on the previous two nights, I would recommend as a solid choice in Matera's sassi district.

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    EKS !!!! Welcome back. What a fabulous trip report you are posting. I am SO enjoying "going back" to some of the places we loved on our own trip several years ago, and reading about new places (for a possible return visit??).

    Loved the diGesu bakery and Altamura, bought the same foodstuffs there as you relate!! Only spent one short day in Matera with no overnight. Looks like it will be on my next list for a several-days visit. Looking forward to more! Thanks

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    Flame: So glad you are enjoying.

    You are one of the "Puglia pioneers" on this site.
    Believe me, I read your report quite a few times before the first trip!
    I liked Matera so much and would go back there for the "new" city alone, not to mention the sassi. I hope that you are able to plan a return visit soon! You are a good driver, in and out of towns, so you could even use Matera as a base to explore the area..

    I may have mentioned this on another thread, but there is a great article, with photos, about Matera in the May, 2009 issue of Saveur magazine.

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    We devoted the next morning, our full day in Matera, to exploration of the historical center of the city, whose churches, municipal buildings and and palazzi represent architectural styles ranging from the 13th Century through the city’s golden age of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

    One of my main goals, of course, was the purchase of Senise peppers and with that in mind, we headed to the market a few blocks from the stately Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Artichokes and favas were heaped high, along lampascioni, wild asparagus, and all of usual fruits and vegetables. For the first time since arriving in Italy I began to see piles of the round golden fruit labeled “nespole,” which in this season were imported from Spain but would be available locally in a few weeks. It would be a few days before my first sampling of this delicacy would give birth to a new culinary obsession with E. Japonica, known in English as loquat.

    One thing I did not see, however, were strings of dried red peppers. I began to feel quite downcast when I was told, in answer to my query, that this was not the season for Senise peppers and they would not be harvested again until the heat of summer. The vendor must have noticed my disappointment, though, because he told me that my best chance for finding the dried peppers would be at an upmarket shop on the central square which I had noticed earlier that morning. And so after a round of photo taking, which included a snapshot of a dried bean vendor with one of the longest moustaches I’ve ever seen (the same fellow’s photo also appears in the Saveur issue on Basilicata), we headed back to Piazza Vittoria Veneto, to Il Buongustaio.

    Enjoying a priviledged position at #1 Piazza v. Veneto, Il Buongustaio is a handsome shop stocked with every sort of epicurean treat from Bascilicata and beyond-from cheeses and salumi to wines and liqueurs to dried and fresh pastas to olive oils and jarred fruits, vegetables and preserves. Strung up on the wall opposite the entrance: A long strand of deep scarlet Senise peppers! I purchased half a strand (11.30 euro, priced at 25 euro per kilo) which should keep me stocked at least through the end of the year.

    A couple of steps from Il Buongustaio at #22, the Casa di Pane di Martino Cosimo turns out excellent Matera breads, along with myriad other sweet and savory treats. A few bags of taralli and one of chocolate-chip-studded biscotti were added to the growing stash that was quickly filling up my carry-on bag.

    After dropping our purchases off at the hotel, about a 5-minute walk from the piazza, we headed to Via Duni, near the Ridola Museum, where the cheese shop of Emmanuele Rizzi, occupies unassuming storefront at #2. Behind the cold cases of meats and cheeses that have gained Sr. Rizzi considerable fame and three SlowCheese awards, we entered a small room with about 10 tables. On this afternoon, many of these tables were occupied by members of a walking tour group from the US, along with a few locals.

    We took a seat and were asked whether we wanted meats, cheeses, or both. (there is no menu, or at least I did not see one) We chose both meat and cheese, and within a few minutes, were presented with a sampling of local goat and sheep cheeses, along with smoked cow-milk scamorza and a platter of grilled canestrato di Moliterno, a renowned Lucanian DOP pecorino that was drizzled with honey.

    Along with the cheeses: A salumi plate featuring two types of pancetta—one plain and one speckled with black peppercorns ( in Italy, pancetta is often sliced thin and served uncooked and unadorned, while back home I am used to using it only as an ingredient in a pasta or cooked vegetable recipe); capocollo; salami picante; and peppercorn-studded salami.

    These were served with a fragrant olive oil from Frantoio Lacertosa that I would have liked to bring home.

    We drank a quarter liter of the house Aglianico, and a bottle of water. Here again we were impressed with the quality of even the inexpensive local red house wines. With the wine, water, and a plate of biscotti, the total for both of us was 28 euro.

    While you could probably put together a take-away sampling from the shop for quite a bit less, this makes a comfortable stop for a light lunch.

    The front-room shop offers a wide selection of dried pastas, olive oils, wines, and other local products, along with the meats and cheeses. ( If you've not tried it before, this would be a good place to sample the extremely pungent ricotta forte that is a staple cheese of the Salento and the region around Matera) Via Duni, 2.

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    Puglia Pioneer?? Thanks, I loved that. I am afraid my next trip to the area may take some time. I am next slated for Campania/Les Marches in October.

    Am continuing to enjoy every entry of your trip report. Your details make the brain cells and salivary glands waiting for more!!!

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    Flame: Campania/Le Marche? You caught my attention on that one! Please give us an outline of the trip!

    I recently re-read Matthew Fort's book EATING UP ITALY and he write glowingly about food around Monti di Matese on the Campanian border.

    Now we will have to amend your nickname because you surely will be treading some new territory with that trip!

    Last night we dined out with a friend at an Italian restaurant here in NYC (Maialino, in the same stable as Union Square Cafe and Eleven Madison Park) that has a good reputation. Although the food was very good, I could not help comparing some of the dishes with similar ones we had had on this recent trip. Not even close! A mistake to eat Italian food at home so soon after returning from Italy, I think.

    One of these days I may have to get myself to a cooking school in Italy. (I guess that will come AFTER the language lessons!)

    I am still trying to decide how to explain the magnetism that these areas exerted. There is something I cannot put my finger on but that makes me, and my partner, too, want to return over and over again. It is so unlike me to repeat a destination so soon and here we've just returned from our second trip in 8 months! And dreaming of another! I would love to plunge deeper into Basilicata. And then there is the Gargano...

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    Eks & Flame: it seems that most people don't speak much anything but the local Italian dialect in Puglia. If I may ask, how much Italian have you learned to get by or even to talk and chat with people in the restaurants? Part of enjoying travel for me is meeting locals or at least other travelers, how accommodating are the locals to speak/chat with you in proper Italian or in English for that matter.

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    DAX - I have always found, anywhere in Italy, that the people are one of its most prized attributes. I have always been met with smiles, assistance, good times. I used to speak Italian fluently as a young adult but over the years have not used it so lost a lot. That said, I can understand a lot and speak whatever I need to get by. I would love to take a language refresher course someday in Italy itself. I also take a small pocket dictionary with me, just in case. And I remember so many instance when something on a local menu was not clear to me/us and so the waitress or proprietor brought over a small sampling of whatever it was, to show it to us, and/or have us taste it. I remember once being pretty lost and after much frustration driving into what-I-did-not-know-was a closed gas station(but there were people there). A young man on a motorbike ESCORTED us to where we needed to go, not a short distance either. THAT is one of the reasons I am hopelessly in love with Italy !!!

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    I could not agree more. I have always been struck by the kindness, and the willingness to help, of the vast majority of people I have come into contact with in Italy and this welcoming spirit is even more prominent in the far south, in my experience. I do think that, as is true all over, your treatment largely depends on your attitude. Even without a common language, there can be much communication. But paving the way for communication does not mean walking up to someone and asking in a loud voice: "Do you speak English?" (I've heard this too many times!) To me, it means, walking up to someone and apologizing for the interruption first, in rudimentary Italian, before getting to the question.

    Over and over again, people went out of their way to be helpful. For example, several times on this trip I asked directions from a shopkeeper, only to have that person leave his business place and either walk us down the street to our destination, or point the way once out on the street outside the shop.

    As far as I know, most people in Puglia speak Italian although they may talk in dialect among themselves. But this is probably true in Venice, too, for example, and in many other areas.

    I never learned Italian but after much reading and many trips I am pretty fluent in the language of food and menus. I do speak Spanish, which has allowed me to communicate in a very basic fashion, to ask directions for example.

    So the brief answer is that I think the Pugliese are even more wiling than most to be helpful. those that we met seemed delighted that we would come all the way from America to visit their homeland.

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    Here is the completion of our last day in Matera:

    We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the Sassi Caveoso where, while strolling the winding lanes largely unblemished by the modern age, it is easy to imagine oneself back in the era of Carlo Levi's residence. We noticed quite a few elderly men and women returning from the fields bearing bundles of wild vegetables and herbs. Hanging bunches of these plants adorned the fronts of many of the sassi homes.

    Many of the middle-aged and older women in the sassi dress in somber black garb, with an apron tied around the waist providing the only touch of color. Throughout the city, men were invariably natty, often wearing ties and sport jackets and almost always sporting a fedora or flat cap known here as a coppola.

    We had planned to visit the MUSMA, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, housed in a 17th Century palazzo in the Caveoso, but were very disappointed to find it shut tight. (Opening times are 10am-2pm. We did manage to peek through he gates into a sculpture garden that only served to whet our appetite for the rest of the museum, and increase our dismay about not being able to enter).

    We had a bit of trouble extricating ourselves from the Caveoso and ended up backtracking up and down a stone stairway a couple of times (the paving stones are very slippery when wet, as we had learned the previous day; thankfully, the weather had improved and skies were clearing) before we found the way into the new city once more. I want to stress, again, the need for having good walking shoes for traipsing around on the uneven and often slippery paving stones in the sassi.

    We continued our explorations in the new city; more details are contained within the websites that I linked above.

    After a brief rest at the hotel, we changed for dinner and emerged to join the evening passegiata. Matera is even more beautiful in the evening when the historic buildings are exquisitely illuminated and men, women and children from toddlers in strollers to anziani leaning on canes throng the streets radiating out from Piazza Vittoria Veneto, promenading and pausing to chat.

    Eventually we made our way to the edge of the historic district to Via Santo Stefano, #61, where we had booked a table at Lucanerie, regarded as one of the city’s best restaurants.


    In contrast to the rustic, whitewashed restaurants typical of the sassi districts, Lucanerie is slightly more elegant, as befitting, perhaps, its location in the new city, at the edge of the sassi. Although we had booked for 8:30pm, most of our fellow diners appeared to be locals, rather than tourists. We received a very warm welcome and were given an table for two partially cordoned off from the dining room behind a ruched fabric screen.

    We began our dinner, as per custom, with the mixed antipasti, ordered that night for one person only.

    The parade included excellent cold beef slices accompanied by chicory, a piquant dish of braised pork, and another of braised boar. The spread also featured: Fave e Chicorie, or pureed fava beans topped with braised dark greens. Much as I have tried, I cannot work up much enthusiasm for this staple of the Pugliese and apparently, of the Lucanian, table. Much better was the strawberry puree with fresh ricotta, the tangle of asparagus and egg, and the bruschetta with pureed ceci beans. And finally, another staple which I have come to like very much: A cold pairing of two grains--farro and buckwheat-- tossed with cooked green beans.

    Opting for “primi as secondi,” I selected the Strascinati with Pepperoni Cruschi and Salso di Pomodoro,” my favorite pasta and dried red pepper dish. I did not like this rendition nearly as much as the one the previous night. The dried red peppers were crushed to bits so tiny as to be all but indiscernible. I thought the pasta was slightly overcooked, and the tomato sauce verged on the acidic. (Perhaps this is a function of the time of year?)

    While the dish would have been up to par, perhaps, in a good neighborhood restaurant in New York, I must admit that I was disappointed.

    My partner fared much better with his pasta, which had been recommended by the owner as an off-menu special. Schiacciatella con Crema di Arugula featured long, thick strands of pasta tossed with pencil-thin asparagus in an arugla pesto, topped by tiny leaves of fresh, raw wild arugula. Delicious!

    Desserts were mixed: My chocolate cake was pretty good; the lemon semi-freddo was superb.

    We drank the house red wine; with the wine, and water, the bill totalled 62 euro for two. Here and at every other restaurant we tried during the week, the house reds, were invariably excellent and priced under 10 euro per bottle.

    I think this is a good restaurant, despite my dissatisfaction with my pasta course. A SlowFood pick. Via Santa Stefano, 61, at the edge of the sassi in the “new” city. Closed Sunday dinner and Monday.

    A few steps from the restaurant, the excellent bakery, Pane e Pace,
    (Antica Forno a Legna Perone) at Via Santa Stefano, 37, is open from 7am to 2:30pm.

    We visited the following morning just before we checked out of our hotel, and were invited by the baker to watch the bread and foccacia being baked in the immense wood-burning oven at the rear of the bakery. We took a few photos and, with difficulty, narrowed down our purchases to a large pane di Matera, taralli, and biscotti to tote home.

    Pane Alto di Matera has a long shelf life and was still feeding us at home 12 days after purchase! (The lovely bakery staff recommended keeping bread in cloth bags). By this time, I had a giant tote bag filled entirely with baked goods that I would hand carry on the plane rides back to New York.

    Where else but Italy would one find a website devoted to the bread of one city?

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    eks - I am wary to "hijack" your beautiful trip report thread with an outline of my upcoming trip in October. But since your asked........ I plan on a week in Campania, splitting my time between a B&B outside of Sorrento and a small hotel in Amalfi. Then we shall make the drive towards Les Marches, staying for 5 days in Ascoli Piceno. For our last three days we will be back in Rome before returning home. I am in the throes of checking sites, restaurants, attractions, etc. And loving every minute of it !!

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    eks - so pleased you engaged Nadia as your tour guide! Her knowledge and passion was invaluable! Thank you for your trip report - it made me rush off to re-visit my photos! many memories! Thank you!

    Flame123 - Ascoli is amazing, we stayed there on our way to Matera - such a beautiful city. Make sure you stay in the old town!
    Cheers, Ozlinz

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    Flame: I cannot believe the coincidence: Yesterday afteroon I spent about an hour and a half (when I should have been finishing this report) researching hotels in the Ascoli Piceno area! I keep coming across that city in my readings and am trying to plan a future trip (no date yet; just a vague idea..) that would include it..

    Do you have any places picked out yet?

    Ozlinz: Nadia was fantastic! Did you know that she had attended college in L'Aquila? she seemed very sad when she spoke of that city and the recent tragedy...

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    Now I have a reason to return to Puglia. Matera has been on my to-do list for a while.

    One question: can someone who is fully mobile but has a heart condition (my spouse) enjoy a visit to Matera or is it just too vertical? We had to take Ostuni rather slowly, for example.

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    Tedgale: Matera is very special. I had no idea how special until I experienced it for myself.

    I think that if your spouse managed Ostuni, he would be fine in Matera by taking it slow. The new city is flat. The sassi fill the canyons that slice through the new city. The biggest challenge will be walking down the staircases that lead into the sassi zones, and ascending those staircases again to reach the new city.

    Within the sassi Barisano, there is one "main street" (very few cars as none are supposedly permitted) that is level. And there are '"side streets" that branch off this street and slope upwards. (I am painting a more simplistic picture than the reality but that is the general idea; think of a ravine that has been built up at the bottom and on both sides).

    So there will be a fair amount of climbing but it will not be the continuous steep uphill trek that Ostuni requires.

    While most tourists seem to stay in the sassi, in the "cave hotels," I do not think that this is a "must do." The action at night is in the new city at the passegiata and staying in a hotel in the new city (I keep saying "new city," but realize that it is not at all new!) would allow you to explore the sassi areas in the day but take it easy at night when the sassi can be quite deserted.

    The city is small enough that you can cover the main areas on foot.

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    eks - we do seem to be on the same page very often, don't we? Indeed I have picked out the Albero Piceno for our 5 night stay which looks really lovely, is decently priced and rated #1 on tripadvisor. We plan to spend some time in the city of course, but also to travel to at least Urbino, Ancona, and whatever other small (or large) town "pops up" along our way. I have always loved NOT using a GPS in Italy - my very favorite and most beautiful days consisted of those villages we happened upon when "getting lost" so I usually look forward to that !!!

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    I could not agree more, Flame! There is something that seems so mechanical about the GPS. Not to mention the fact that I am sure that I would encounter some snafu that would prevent it from working well for me.

    I will be eager to hear of your adventures in October!

    Here is a bit more about our return to Puglia from Matera:

    I forgot to mention, above, that the Basilicata tourism authority just opened a stunning new office on the road that skirts the sassi. They are very well stocked with brochures and the terrace offers a fantastic view of the cave-riddled cliffs opposite the city.

    The next morning, after having spent two nights in Matera it was, sadly, time to move on to our last stop of the week, near Fasano in Puglia. This brief visit left me with a hankering to see more of this off-the-beaten track region and now that I am home, I am busy plotting out routes for a trip that might take in the the Lucanian Dolomites, Pollino Park, Pisticci, and Senise, home to the famous peppers.

    We spent an hour or so taking a last look at the new city and filling up the carry-on with bread, taralli and biscotti. Once back at the hotel, we informed the desk of our departure time and the car was delivered to us. Driving OUT of the sassi was easy; there is only one road. But a few minutes after that we found ourselves lost and confused, unable to find our way out of Matera! None of the regional maps I had were detailed enough to indicate the correct road. This is rarely a big problem and it certainly was not one this time because the first person we asked gave us directions and we were soon on driving along the Via Appia, SS7, toward Massafra, where we would turn off on #581 to Martina Franca, and on to Fasano.

    Apart from some further confusion around Massafra, this provide to be an easy drive.

    As we drove through the small, attractive city of Castellaneta, I noticed a trattoria plastered with large posters of Rudolph Valentino. No sooner did I hop out of the car to take a photo then a car pulled up next to me. The driver got out and pointed his finger in the direction of a house nearby, telling me that it was the “Valentino house.”
    The Club Rodolfo Valentino of Cincinnati, Ohio, had commemorated the actor’s birthplace with a beautiful bronze plaque dedicated to: “Rodolfo Valentino-- Nome Che in Terra Lontana Significo Arte E Belleza Italica.”

    Many Castellanetese enterprises play on that association with Valentino trattoria, a Valentino museum, Valentino basketball team, and a Valentino foundation, and both a Hotel Rudy and a Hotel Il Valentino.

    After further confusion which led us into the center of Martina Franca, we righted ourselves with the help of a friendly local, and by early afternoon we were ensconced at the Masseria Torre Maizza, of which I wrote in my first Puglia report and which now reigns as one of my favorite European hotels. It is certainly one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Since my partner and I are both avid swimmers, a big draw for us is the vast swimming pool which, thanks to efficient solar heating, can be used even in chilly weather. We were so entranced with this hotel that I had booked this stay soon after returning home last fall. This entitled us to an early booking package that included one dinner for two at the gorgeous hotel restaurant. Because we were tired from driving, we booked a table for the evening of arrival and enjoyed a very good meal in the candlelit, whitewashed dining room under canopies of flowering vines.

    For the first time since arriving in Italy, we encountered other Americans; Puglia is ideal bicycling territory and the US-based bicycle tour operator VBT regularly books clients into Torre Maizza, and its larger, sister property, Masseria Torre Coccaro. The bikers spend a night or two here and, because they are off exerting themselves during the day, we saw them only in the evening.

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    Tamara: I will be happy to attempt to answer any and all questions about the areas we visited. Glad you will discover them for yourself.

    I have a few more days to cover in this report and will return to it once I get a chance.

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    Here is a bit more and I will return soon with the conclusion of our day in and around Savelletri di Fasano:

    On Friday we decided to re-visit two of the nearby “white” towns that had captivated us last year and which are within an easy drive of less than 30 minutes from Torre Maizza.

    We headed first to Locorotondo.

    I have spent time in many of the so-called “white” towns of Italy, Greece and Spain, but I’ve not seen too many that are as handsome as the mellifluously named Locorotondo. As we approached the center of town, we caught sight of the endless canopy of awnings that signaled the weekly market. Quickly finding street parking, we set off to explore. The acres of cheap clothing and shows held little interest, but after trudging past booth after booth of sequined jeans and laminated place mats, I found treasure in the area devoted to food: Golden oval orbs of the fruit known in Italian as “nespole,” or loquat, a relative of the kumquat. The vendor proferred a peeled specimen and, as easy as that, I was hooked!
    Clutching my bag of treasure, we retraced our steps back to the car, stopping briefly in a couple of food shops before heading off in the direction of Alberobello.

    Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the “trulli town,” and, as such, it draws more than its share of tourists. On our last visit, we had been turned off by the profusion of trulli-themed B&Bs, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants that clog the Rione Monti sector of town.

    This time, we followed the signs to the well-marked “Zona dei Trulli,” and after parking our car near the public food market, we headed away from the tourist shops and up the gentle rise to the “new town,” where trulli houses mix with more conventional, but still beautiful, structures spanning several centuries and which include the 19th-Century Neoclassical Basilica of St. Cosimo e Damiano which overlooks the town.

    We spent about an hour inside the Trulli Sovrano house museum, which offers a fascinating peek into the daily lives of the generations of a wealthy family that called this unusual two-story trulli home.

    Interesting sites about Alberobello:

    Just before returning to the car, I stopped into Latte e Fieno, a tiny cheese shop, to purchase a few vacuum-packed samples of pecorino to tote home. What I had intended to be a 5-minute pause turned into an hour-long visit with the amiable proprietress, Sra MariaGracia Contento, and her young daughter, who was studying English at primary school. I highly recommend this shop, facing the small piazza at Largo Trevisani, #4, which sells the cheese produced on their farm near Martina Franca.
    No English is spoken but the warm welcome transcends words!

    For more on Locorotondo and Alberobello, see my report from September, 2010:

    For dinner that evening, we had reserved a window table at a seafood restaurant located about a mile from the hotel in the tiny coastal hamlet of Savelletri.

    DA RENZINA (Savelletri di Fasano)

    Da Renzina occupies a prominent waterfront location in miniscule Savelletri. Entering the vast dining room (the restaurant seats 300), we confronted a piano, a sea of chairs upholstered in a mayonnaise-hued vinyl, most of which were empty at the time of our arrival at 8:30 on a Friday night, décor rife with curlicues and flounces reminiscent of a wedding hall in a New York City suburb, and a wall of windows facing the Adriatic. We were shown to a window table, booked ahead, where the waves pounding against the glass reminded me of being on a ship.

    Savelletri, along with the nearby coastal hamlets of Torre Canne and Forcatella, is sea urchin territory. I have tried pasta dishes with ricci in New York and never liked them much, finding them to be overly fishy. Nevertheless, for primi, I ordered Troccoli con Ricci di Mare. The resultant long, spaghetti like pasta, with a sauce of sea urchin, was the single best seafood pasta dish I have ever tasted and a highlight of a trip filled with great eating. The house-made pasta, with that perfect springiness of texture, would have been outstanding even alone. With the ricci added, the dish was perfection. (12 euro)

    My partner, almost inexplicably, chose orecchiette con pomodoro, the traditional Pugliese pasta “ears” with a simple tomato sauce. He pronounced it to be “stupendous.”

    We elected to share a whole fish for the main course. We were invited to select a whole fish from the display on ice that dominated the center of the room. I asked the waiter to recommend a fish and he responded that we should take the orata, prepared al forno. The resulting sea bream, cooked in the oven with black olives, was very good, but I wished that I had chosen grilling as a method of preparation, rather than having the fish baked.

    The price for whole fish is 40 euro per kilo and ours ended up costing 34 euro.

    The restaurant filled up during the evening; our fellow diners were local families, quite a few with children.

    We drank the local DOC Locorotondo Cantina Classico white, a blend of verdeca and blanco d’Alessano.

    With water, the bill totalled a most reasonable 66 euro. Recommended. Closed Thursdays. Piazza Roma, 6.

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    mmm - that pasta sounds good, ek. and the fish - as a matter of interest, why did you think it would have been better grilled?

    It's nice to have someone to share with, isn't it? i found when i was in Florence by myself that two courses all to myself was really too much - it would have been much better if I'd had someone to divide the dishes with - then i could have tried more of them, too.

    funny you should mention nespoli - I came across them for the first time this year too. Everyone tried to tell me that they are medlars, but I knew that was wrong, [wrong season, wrong shape] and when i came home I looked them up and found...loquat.

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    Hi Ann!

    There seems to be confusion about nespole/loquat/medlar. A few of the sources I read online seem to state that these are all the same fruit. Others call the loquat a "Japanese medlar."

    In any case, they are divine. I just got a lead (not confirmed yet) that they are for sale in our Chinatown; this would be very good news. I will be sure to report back!

    About the fish, I thought the baked fish was a tad boring..I tend to prefer my white fish to be grilled so that they develop some browning. Although now that you mention it, I did fall in love recently with a bass that had been "salt-baked" here at a restaurant in New York. It did not get browned at all, but the meat was luscious.

    I thought I might try to do that at home, and I even found a recipe; seems a bit of an endeavor, though:

    I agree about sharing the food. It is frustrating to eat alone if only because you have to order such a limited array of dishes or risk stuffing yourself. For some reason, I remember that when I was alone in Florence many restaurants had communal tables where they sat the single diners. Did you noticed this at any of the places you ate? It would be great if many restaurants offered that option, although I suppose that sharing a table would not guarantee sharing food, with strangers!

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    Before I continue with an account of our last day in Puglia, I want to mention a book that I just read and enjoyed very much. Gabrielle Hamilton is the owner/chef of a popular small East Village (New York City) restaurant, Prune. the father of her children has a family home at the southernmost tip of the Salento, which happens to be the southernmost tip of the Italian "heel," and the book has delicious details about her summers there, with plenty of food details:

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    hi ek,

    no, sadly I didn't find any restaurants with communal tables. I'd have been vey happy if I had, but in the end i was quite content with what I did find so it was fine.

    re the medlars, here they are definitely an autumn fruit, which once picked have to be "belted" to make them edible. the nespoli were eaten fresh - definitely not the same thing at all.

    I've seen recipes for salt-baked fish, but never done it myself - your need prodigious quantities of salt and it's quite expensive. but I agree with you about grilling often giving a better result than baking.

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    Saturday was our last full day in Puglia and we decided to again retrace our steps, this time driving north along the coast from Savelletri to Polignano a Mare, one of the prettiest towns we had seen in the region.

    The first part of the drive took us along the coast, past seasonal bathing establishments that were mostly closed this early in the season, and past groves of massive olive trees stretching to the horizon on one side and the turquoise Adriatic on the other.

    Polignano a Mare was the birthplace of Domenico Mondugno, a name that probably means nothing to you but to my music-loving partner will be forever linked to the song “Volare,” a worldwide chartbuster in the 1950s.
    We had neglected to find the statue dedicated to Mondugno on our last visit so that was a priority this time. After parking the car, we paid our respects to this one hit wonder who elicits mixed feelings among the Polignani since he apparently never returned to the town of his birth after he became famous. The statue stands at the edge of the sea to the north of the old city and close to the Hotel Covo dei Saraceni, which looked like a good bet if you decide to spend the night. It is just steps from a gorgeous slash of white sand beach hemmed in on both sides by sheer

    Here are a few pictures of Polignano a Mare:

    We wandered around the core of the old town, pausing to watch a wedding party emerge from the 13th-Century Church of the Assumption and pour into the waiting flower-bedecked black limos. Never before had I seen men bedecked in shiny suits sporting rhinestone buttons, but I saw two of these dandys on that afternoon!

    After an hour or so, we headed back to the car, pausing for the house special coffee, spiked with amaretto and topped with cream (1.60 euro) at the legendary Super Mago del Gelo, whose walls are a veritable gallery of Italian artists ranging from Sinatra and Dean to Pacino as Scarface, to a white-suited John Travolta as Tony Manero.

    We had parked our car on a residential street near the Mondugno statue. When we returned to retrieve it, we noticed that we had parked in front of a doorway almost flush with the sidewalk. Apprently, the owner of the house noticed this, too, because as we opened the car doors, this elderly, nattily dressed gent emerged from his house, wielding his cane and yelling at us for parking where we did. I begged his pardon, in my fractured Italian. All it took was one syllable from my mouth for him to realize that I was not a local but a tourist. His demeanor changed immediately and he broke out into a smile, begging US to pardon him for HIS mistake! Just one more reason why we loved Puglia!

    We were back at the hotel by 3pm, in time for a long swim and a laze on our deck before heading out to what would be our last dinner of the trip, at a masseria/restaurant that we had enjoyed last fall.

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    Last dinner in Puglia:

    MASSERIA PARCO DI CASTRO (Speziale di Fasano)

    This is the only repeat visit that we made; more details of the restaurant can be found in my first Puglia report, from late 2010:

    Parco di Castro, a SlowFood masseria/restaurant, sits amidst olive groves at the end of an unpaved lane leading west from SS16 at km 868.4.

    The masseria offers a quintessential Pugliese eating experience. Food is locally sourced, ample, and hearty. Service is warm and welcoming; in contrast to most other places we ate on this trip, some English is spoken.

    We opted to begin, yet again, with the house antipasti for two which was priced at a fairly steep (for the area) 20 euro per person. While we waited for the promenade of food, we were given a dish of fried fave.

    Among the antipasti:

    Fresh mozzarella and fresh ricotta from Caseificio Crovace, the cheese maker in nearby Speziale.

    Thin-sliced, uncooked, pancetta

    Fave e ciccoria, the Pugliese staple; quite good here

Foccacia with tomato, a Barese specialty

    Artichoke "under oil," or preserved in oil

    Red peppers under oil and topped with toasted bread crumbs; amazing, sweet peppers. I felt that this, and some of the other dishes, was served too cold.

Half-moons of zucchini tossed with oil and mint

Timbale di zucchini baked with cheese.Excellent.

Pizzette with tomato

Salad of grano saraceno, or buckwheat, with diced tomato. This puzzles me, as it did not look like the buckwheat sold in the US, yet the Italian term translates as such. Absolutely wonderful.

    A plate of sliced cucumber arrived, as intermezzo, in the Pugliese fashion.

    Again we chose "primi per secondi," and were served:

    Capalacci ripiene di Melanzane, salsa di pomodoro, or pasta stuffed with eggplant in a tomato sauce. Very good.

    Also very good: My spinach cicatelli with cardoncelli mushrooms, tomato, and arugula.

    We passed on dessert, being too stuffed, but were offered a complimentary plate of the most exquisite almond cantucci from a bakery in nearby Montalbano, along with three digiestivi: wine/sherry; alloro, or bay; and an outstanding limoncello.

    With house red, and water, the bill for two was 59 euro.

    If you are looking for well-prepared, home-cooked local food in a casual setting, I recommend this masseria/restaurant, which also offers guest rooms and would make a very well-located spot from which to explore the area.

    The restaurant is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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    ekscrunchy- you are a miracle. I have just started planning our trip to Puglia this coming June (I love the planning almost as much as the trip, especially when I read reports like yours). Most travel books talk about paintings, sculpture etc. but my favorite art forms are architecture (luckily I live in Sonoma in the S.F. bay area), and I especially appreciate your list of dishes including the total price. thanks.
    And now I am seeking advice: If we fly into Bari and rent a car, tour Puglia and go north up the E55, and cut across to Naples on the A16 (my husband wants to see underground Naples which we missed last time), is that a harrowing or boring drive. One of us hates curves and the other is afraid of sheer dropoffs on roads. Any advice on what to include on the way, in addition to the sites you mention? And for just the Bari/Puglia itinerary you spelled out, how many days would be ideal (I know, a lifetime), but we have 3 weeks for southern Italy and are open to advice from you and the other wonderful fodorites.

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    We drove from Bari towards Naples recently. Easy highway drive. Some pretty countryside to look at, some boring. Its only a few hour trip Get good directions for when you get on and off the highway.

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    We just returned from Puglia. We picked up our rental car at the airport in Naples and drove A16 and a14 to Masseria Barbera It was not a long drive and not particularly interesting, but easy. It took about two hours. I don't remember any curvy roads and definitely no sheer drop offs.

    We also had three weeks and found that to be a nice amount of time. We did spend four days in Naples and three in Matera which is a definite don't miss. We used Nadia as a guide one morning, Having read both of ekscrunchy's TR we enjoyed many of the towns she mentions. Our best meal was at Antichi Sapori. It was fabulous, don't miss a meal there.

    We stayed in Galatina for five days and used our apt there as a base to explore the Salento. Lecce was about 20 minutes drive south of Galatina. enjoy your planning and your trip.

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    Humanone: Thanks for your kind words. I will defer to the two posters above, who have taken the drive to the Naples area, as I have not done this.

    But I would also suggest that, since you have ample time, you might like to investigate meandering from the Bari area to Matera and then on the the Pollino Park (maybe tucking into the Cilento region of Campania for a night or two) and then heading for Naples. Basilicata is a region unheralded by most tourists and one that merits devoting a few days between Puglia and Naples, if you can work it in.

    (If you stick to the E55/A16 plan, let me ask you if you are interested in wine, because if so, you might want to consider visiting either the region around Melfi and Mt Vulture, famous for Aglianico, or the area around Avellino, renowned for some of Campania's best white wines.)

    We just returned from our third trip to Puglia. This time (September, 2012), we flew into Bari and drove immediately to Marconia, in Basilicata, where we spent two nights in a grape and orange-growing estate, the agriturismo of San Teodoro Nuovo.

    From there, we visited the town of Bernalda, a food mecca that I fell for immediately and to which I have to return. Food highlight: Dinner at La Locandiera, in Bernalda.

    The main focus of our stay was to track down my beloved Senise peppers and I am glad to report that our mission was successful. We spent several hours at the farm of Sr. Giuseppe Pennella, just outside Senise, and we departed with armfuls of peppers in several forms.

    From Basilicata, we drove through Taranto, stopped in Gallipoli, and arrived at our next destination for a three night stay: Masseria Don Cirillo, between Ugento and the Ionian coast at Torre San Giovanni. (I wrote a review on TripAdvisor)

    From here, we visited the Ionian beaches, a few gorgeous, sun-baked Salentine towns, and the lower Adriatic Coast. A food highlight was dinner in Taviano, at A Casa Tu Martinu.

    Finally, we returned to which my favorite Italian hotel, the splurge-worthy Torre Maizza, in Savelletri di Fasano.

    I will try to put together a brief report about this trip when I get time.

    Meanwhile, I will link the report from my first Pugliese adventure, in 2010:

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    As we are from the Sonoma/Napa area we go wine tasting frequently, and prefer red wines. So,any suggestions for wine tasting, especially in charming local venues. thanks.

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    We were there last fall. OUr original plan had been a winter trip and after reading this article I'm glad we chose the fall. Hard to imagine larger portions of food! Every meal we ate in Puglia was huge and I left the table feeling stuffed.

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    Tedgale: I wish you a wonderful trip, and will be eager to read all about it upon your return.

    I am hoping to make a fourth (!) trip to Puglia next year..

    Ann: What time of year?

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    ek - no plans at the moment, except a week in Venice in February with our italian class. I've never been to Venice during Carnevale so I'm very excited about it.

    So far as Puglia is concerned we could go any time if I can persuade DH that that's what he wants to do!

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