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Trip Report Spring 2015 in Puglia, Rome and Florence

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My wife and I have long wanted to visit Puglia but were hesitant to rent a car and figure out an itinerary on our own. We found the “Experience Puglia” website on TripAdvisor and, after reading the stellar reviews of Angelo Coluccia, thought this would be a perfect fit for us. Another couple from Dallas wanted to join us (the wife’s birthday occurred on the trip) so the four of us signed up for the 4-day (5-night) tour with Angelo Coluccia. I recommend this tour highly for many reasons; but one, in particular, is the fact that English is not widely spoken in this region. The two upscale B&Bs where we stayed and the local restaurants where we dined are places where no English was spoken. Having Angelo, a native of Gioia del Colle, or his assistant Katia, who is from Conversano, with us to translate and recommend menu items was invaluable.

April 7--We arrived by air in Bari at 4:30 p.m. Angelo met us at the airport and drove us to the modern and spacious B&B Cavour in Gioia. At 8:00 p.m. that evening, Angelo walked with us to Trattoria Pugliese where we had a huge selection of traditional dishes from Puglia as well as Sicily (the chef’s home).

April 8—After breakfast, Angelo picked us up and we toured Gioia’s historical center, including Frederick II’s castle and its museum, and stopped for a tasting at a mozzarella factory. In mid-morning we went to Altamura, famous for its “D.O.P.” focaccia baked in a wood-burning oven. We were given warm slices to taste and some wrapped up to take away. Lunch was at Osteria la Murgiana in Gravina—a nearly two-hour experience, including many antipasti, pastas, wine, and dessert. Lunch on this day and the ones that followed left us so full that we skipped dinner in the evenings. Instead, we enjoyed wine and cheese in the B&B. Late in the afternoon, we found ourselves in Matera seeing the Stassi. Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been named one of the Cities of Culture for 2019, so this ancient and unique town is gearing up to expect large numbers of visitors.

April 9—Angelo was sick this day so his amiable colleague Katia was our guide. We toured the historic district of Bari, its market and cathedral, and then drove to Polignano a Mare where we had a bountiful seafood lunch in Il Bastione overlooking the bright turquoise waters of the Adriatic. After lunch we crossed the street to a bar that has become famous for its Caffe Especiale, a blend of coffee, whipped cream, almond liquor and lemon zest. It is one of the best coffees I have ever tasted. At the same bar, we had fabulous gelato. They dipped our cones in whipped cream. Literally, an over the top experience. Our afternoon visit was to Alberobello and the Trulli, another UNESCO site. The charming Katia helped us make a birthday video for friends back in Dallas.

April 10—Angelo was back this day and our first stop was the medieval port city of Trani and its Basilica San Nicola. Then we drove through the countryside to the tiny town of Montegrosso di Andria for an unforgettable lunch at Antichi Sapori. We were served a seemingly endless variety of inventive and beautifully presented apertivi, followed by exquisite main dishes and not to be missed desserts (Angelo knew the best ones). It was one of the best meals of our lives. That afternoon we drove to our third UNESCO site, the octagonal Castel del Monte, built by Frederick II in the 13th century.

April 11—Angelo is passionate about the food and wine of the region. Today he took us to an olive oil tasting at the family owned “Mancino.” We were given a small bottle to take home. Later, we went to a small winery for tastings of the region’s primitivo and other natural wines. Lunch was at Caffe Pasha in Conversano, which featured local dishes such as bruschetta with puree of fava beans, sundried tomatoes and ricotta; local mortadella; and the unique Pugliese pasta called orecchiette. The gelato here was fantastic. After lunch, we checked into our new accommodation, Il Mulino del Monastero, literally the “flour mill of the monastery,” which is what it was originally. We had a cooking class here where we learned to make focaccia, apple cake, brasciole, and orecchiette. Our teachers did not speak English, but Katia was on hand to translate and to photograph the fun. Later, we sat down to enjoy the meal at a long table with the chefs and their husbands. It was a memorable last night in Puglia.

April 12—Onward to Rome. At 10:00 a.m., Angelo picked us up for our drive to the Bari airport. The Atalia flight to Rome took one hour. A prearranged driver (65 Euros) picked us up and transported us to Hotel Campo di Fiore where we would spend the next five nights. We have been to Rome five times before, but our friends had only spent one day there previously. After checking in, we walked to Cul de Sac for a midafternoon snack of wine, cheese and salad. We had booked the New Rome Free Walking tour for 5:30 p.m. that evening. My wife and I took this tour in 2012; a change is that reservations (and punctuality) are now required. A couple of latecomers were turned away. A highlight of the two-hour tour is a stop at Sant'Andrea delle Fratte where two of Bernini’s angel sculptures are displayed. At the conclusion of the tour we took a cab to La Campana where we had 8:30 p.m. reservations. My wife ordered two of her favorite dishes, a fried artichoke and tonarelli cacio e pepe.

April 13—Our guide Alessandra Mazzoccoli met us at the hotel at 9:00 a.m. for a four-hour tour of ancient Rome, including the Pantheon, Ghetto, Theatre Marcellas, Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. Alessandra’s rate is 60 Euros per hour and she is worth every penny. At the conclusion of the tour, we had lunch at a nearby wine bar Alessandra recommended called Cavour 313. Here my wife had her other favorite Rome artichoke--carciofi alla romana—she was in artichoke heaven! (I am not an artichoke aficionado much to her dismay.) We had a free afternoon and skipped dinner in favor of prosecco (compliments of Hotel Campo di Fiore) and snacks on the hotel’s gorgeous rooftop.

April 14—We took a cab to Travestere for our 10:00 a.m. cooking class with Andrea Consoli (http://www.cookingclassesinrome.com). We took his class four years ago and think it is a great way to experience Roman food and culture. My wife was delighted that the class included making carciofi alla romana. The other dishes we prepared were cavatelli with broccoli and prosciutto sausage, meatballs with fresh tomato sauce, spinach with raisins, and cheese lemon custard with kiwi. We sat at a long table with the other class members to enjoy the results of our labors. Andrea sent all the recipes via e-mail the next day. We finished in late afternoon and walked through Travestere to the church of San Francesco a Ripato to see Bernini’s sculpture of Ludovica Albertoni. Then we walked back to our hotel and that evening enjoyed another sunset with wine and snacks on the rooftop.

April 15—We visited the northeast part of the city, beginning with the neighborhood known as Quartiere Coppede. The walk to our next destination, Catacombe Priscilla, was lengthy, but there were no cabs to be found. After a tour in English of the catacombe, we took a cab to Gaudi on via Ruggero Giovanneli where we had eaten years before. It is very close to the Borghese Gallery where we had 2:45 p.m. reservations with Walks of Italy (49 Euros). The Borghese tour ended at 5:00 p.m. and we took a cab back to the hotel. That evening we had dinner at nearby La Fortunata, based upon the recommendation of one of the hotel’s staff members. We found the food to be average—not terrible, but we would not return.

April 16—This was to be our last day in Rome and we had purposely not planned anything in advance. Our friends went on a shopping quest for a handbag (as part of the wife’s birthday celebration) and decided upon a lovely purchase from Gucci. My wife and I visited and photographed the churches of Santa Maria Maddalena and Santissima Trinità degli Spagnoli. Later, we met mutual friends from Dallas for a leisurely lunch at Nino on the posh shopping street of via Borgognona. We had impeccable service and very good food in this classic restaurant. That evening we had dinner at an old favorite, Osterio Pegno near Piazza Navona, followed by gelato at Teatro. We walked to the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which is beautifully lighted at night.

April 17—Our traveling companions returned to Dallas today and we took the train to Florence. (A note: arriving at the Campo di Marte train station was a mistake as it is impossible to get a cab there.) We wound up taking a bus to Santa Maria Novella, then a cab to Residenza Il Carmine in the Oltrarno. Our apartment, the “Oro” was 93 Euros per night. We have stayed at the Residenza previously and like that fact that the owners are on premises and will happily make dinner reservations. We had lunch at Mario’s near the Mercato and dinner in the Oltrarno at a place my wife wanted to try because the cookbook author Ina Garten has mentioned it. It is called Alla Vecchia Bettola. As we were walking there, we serendipitously encountered a couple we had met that morning at the Hotel Campo Fiore in Rome and were seated with them at one of the communal tables. My wife enjoyed the signature pasta Penne Bettola, a version of which is included in one of Ina Garten’s recent cookbooks.

April 18—We did the Free Walking Tour, which began at 11:00 a.m. at the Santa Maria Novella Church. The emphasis was on the Renaissance. (A Medici walking tour is offered in the afternoon.) We have been to Florence approximately 8 times before and have visited all the major sights, some more than once. Yet, we always learn something new on a walking tour. Our tour ended at 1:00 p.m. near Trattoria Pallottino. This is a reliable stop for lunch, and we enjoyed our selections--a bowl of barley soup for my wife and papparelle with wild boar for me. I had caught a cold in Rome so spent the remainder of the afternoon resting.

April 19—We visited Museo di Palazzo Davansanti, a bargain at 2 Euros. It is a beautiful 14th century palazzo. One is supposed to make an advance reservation to tour the third floor, but my wife was able to talk her way into this option and saw the kitchen, master bedroom and bathroom. For lunch, we split a sandwich of salami, pecorino cheese and olive relish at “ino,” a sandwich shop often recommended on this site. I rested in the afternoon while my wife visited another house museum on our list--the Casa Buonarroti, once owned by the nephew of Michelangelo. There are two marble reliefs and several sketches by Michelangelo in this museum.

April 20—This was our last day in Florence. We went to Orsanmichele, which is only open on Monday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (free admission). There are great photo opportunities from the top floor. Later, back on the Oltarno, we discovered a new gelato place—Gelateria La Carraia—fabulous and inexpensive. They even sell 1 Euro cones so it is possible to try many flavors. We try never to miss Il Guscio when in Florence so we had lunch there. We ordered Mezze Maniche al Ragu Bianco (pasta with meat sauce), roasted pork with potatoes, and scamorza al forna con carciofi (grilled mozzarella topped with with shreds of artichoke). We have never had a bad meal here. We walked back to the apartment and called a cab for our 4:22 p.m. fast train to Rome. We arrived in Rome at 5:40 p.m. and took a cab to Hotel Adriano, which we wanted to try for our last night. It is impossible to get from Florence to Dallas in one day, so we always have to overnight somewhere. The Adriano was modern and well located, and our room was quite large. After checking in, we walked to the Piazza Popolo and looked inside the twin churches. Our final dinner was at Matricianella where we shared a caprese salad, bucatini matriciana and cacio e pepe—all excellent.

April 21—The hotel arranged a driver to the airport for 50 Euros. There, we enjoyed duty free shopping—a Furla handbag for my wife and Hermes tie for me. Might as well take advantage of the favorable exchange rate! Our trip home was uneventful, with our flight actually arriving early.

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