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Trip Report Under the Puglian Clouds -- Panecott's Trip to Italy's Heel

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Having embarked on this last minute trip because of the irresistible fare of $376 RT, NY/Rome, and not having done much research except here on Fodor’s, I wasn’t sure what to expect, or whether I had planned well enough. Except for the dreary weather, as you may have guessed from the title, the trip turned out to be an enjoyable adventure.

The Delta flight to Rome was uneventful and we arrived at 8:00 a.m., a half hour early. I took the Leonardo Express into the city, checked my suitcase, and set out to wander around Rome until the 2:00 ES to Foggia, where I would pick up my rental car the next morning.

Rome was warm and hazy that day. I walked away from the main entrance to the termini, and it didn’t take me long to start snapping away at the numerous photo ops - ruins, churches, Rome’s crazy traffic, fountains, trees, people, and finally, a small outdoor market that sold a variety of merchandise from bikinis to zucchini flowers. The market also sold rain jackets. I was tempted to buy one but did not - a decision I would later regret! My feet started burning and jet lag started setting in and I was glad that I had chosen the 2:00 train, instead of the 4:00. I bought a sweet orange, with the leaves still attached, and found a small piazza to sit and relax for a bit before heading back to the station.

The train ride to Foggia was pleasant and went through some lovely countryside, with blue skies, pretty clouds, and green fields, stopping in Caserta and Benevento before heading east to Foggia. I struggled to stay awake, not always successfully, but every time I opened my eyes, another photo op presented itself, and I got some great shots from the train. The train stopped at each station for about 5 minutes and it was amusing to watch the smokers descend en masse to light up at each stop, much like the small crowds of smoking workers who line the entrances to NY’s office buildings.

I had booked the Mercure Hotel in Foggia b/c of its proximity to the station and it worked out fine. The service was indifferent, but courteous, and my room was pleasant and clean and faced the front. After an invigorating shower I got a second wind and set out to explore the city and get something to eat. I was just in time for “la passagiata” and joined the numerous “Foggia-rites” on their evening ritual along the pedestrian zone, browsing in store windows and venturing into some narrow side streets to take pictures. I had a little chat with some local women who were sitting outside a restaurant that was not yet open. Foggia is a small city but it was unexpectedly pretty, with a lovely church and a park named for Pope John Paul II, and a park and monument to composer Umberto Giordano, who was born there, and an attractive historic center.

I started to feel hungry and tired and altho’ was about 7:00, most restaurants didn’t open till 8:00, so I reluctantly headed back to my hotel to get a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant. About a block from the hotel, I happened upon a tiny, family run restaurant that was open, Giorgio (I think). It had only about 7 small tables, and one woman seemed to be cook and waitress. I had a bowl of pasta, Foggia style, which turned out to be just tomato sauce, but very tasty, a small but delicious plate of grilled calamari, a mixed salad, semolina bread, half liter of vino rosso, and a small bottle of aqua minerale, all for 14.50 Eu. It was a great introduction to Puglia’s cuisine.

I woke up refreshed on Saturday morning and went downstairs to a lovely buffet breakfast. A young woman from California was having breakfast there and she told me she was living in Foggia for a few months, working for Boeing, along with a small group of colleagues, and was staying at the hotel. She talked about Foggia’s traffic - which didn’t seem bad to me at all - and said that, altho’ she had never been to NY, she imagined that Foggia’s traffic was much like that of downtown NYC. LOL. Her comment was even more surprising, considering that she lived in LA. I told her that, no, Foggia was a bit different from NY.

Renting the car in Foggia turned out to be a good move, and much to my delight, the car rental place was right around the block from my hotel. It was also an easy and direct drive to get outside the city, which I accomplished without any hassles. The skies were gray and dreary and it occasionally drizzled. This was a pattern throughout the trip, sometimes better, sometimes worse.

Once on SS 189 my only plan was to arrive in Vieste before dark. I drove thru’ some pleasant countryside and saw the first of many lovely green meadows, dotted with wild flowers, fences of light gray rocks, and olive groves - Puglia’s signature scenery. I took the exit for San Giovanni Rotondo to see the church of Padre Pio, and after a winding, uphill drive to the town, I followed an improbable route thru’ tiny side streets and up steep San Francisco-like hills before finally arriving at the shrine.

The ultra modern shrine of Padre Pio is alongside two other churches, a newer church, and the smaller chiesa antica (old church). The surrounding piazza has nice views of the valley below. There were two weddings at the chiesa antica while I was there and it was fun to watch the brides and grooms and other celebrants. Of course, I took pictures of them as well. Inside the new church, I was taking a picture of a statue and a little boy of about 6 or 7 jumped into my picture. He was smiling and quite pleased with himself, and he was delightful. I took two more pictures of him and he beamed when I showed him the pictures on the viewfinder.

I didn’t go to see the tomb of Padre Pio, and after about 2 hours I set off in the direction of Monte St. Angelo, a small hill town not far from San Giovanni Rotondo. It was much easier exiting San G.R. than arriving there, b/c the shrine is on the edge of town so it was possible to drive around the perimeter of the town instead of through it.

The drive to Monte St. Angelo was lovely, through more scenic countryside, dotted with gray rocks, and the ruins of old villas, and some farmhouses still intact. Best of all there was little traffic. Once again, the hill town was reached via a long winding uphill road, with each turn revealing lovely views of the valley below. I passed a group of cyclists making their way up the long steep hill and, having done a few uphills of my own on previous bike trips, I was so thankful to be in my Mercedes 220!

Monte St. Angelo is a charming little hill town that turned out to be one of my favorites. At the edge of town is a fortress, built into the rocks, which were covered with a variety of wildflowers. I visited church of St. Michael and walked around the pretty town, browsing in some shops along the way. I went into a store that sold local olive oil and other products, and which was run by a friendly couple who offered me a sample of a local digestivo, which was delicious. We struck up a nice conversation and I learned that they were both nurses, and they were delighted to meet a paesana from America. I bought a small bottle of the digestivo and we said goodbye and I set off for Vieste.

It was drizzling lightly, but not enough to spoil the ride, and I eventually reached the “Foresta Umbra”, a tropic-like forest that is part of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano. I drove thru’ the forest for about an hour and never saw another car. I turned off the car radio and listened to the sounds of silence, broken only by the singing of birds. It felt like a tropical paradise. At the end of the forest the road continued along lovely farmland with grazing cows, complete with cowbells, something that would become a familiar sight on the Gargano Peninsula.

I eventually reached my hotel, the Residence Torre Silvana, a few kilometers outside of Vieste, at dusk. I was greeted by the charming owner, Antonio, who runs the place with his adult son Paolo. There is a main building with what will eventually be 18 rooms, and 6 little “villette”. I had a villetta with 2 bedrooms, a large kitchen/living room and a veranda with beautiful views of the sea, for 60Eu. Unfortunately, due to the weather, the sea and the sky were both gray for most of my stay, altho’ the sun managed to break thru’ every so often. As I was settling in, Paolo came by to say hello and brought me two large bottles of aqua minerale, naturale e frizzante.

It had started raining again and I didn’t feel like driving into Vieste for dinner, so I decided to eat at the hotel.

Antonio does all the cooking himself and he excels at it. There were only two other guests, a friendly Italian couple who were celebrating their anniversary and who go there every year. A warm and inviting fire was going and Paolo moved my table close to the fireplace.

Dinner was a veritable feast, with a first course of sauteed zucchini, frittata, melanzane, fresh beets, and bruschetta. Each was served on an individual plate, big enough to feed two people. It was followed by a huge and delicious bowl of pasta with porcini mushrooms, then Puglian sausage and insalata mista, and of course, a half liter of vino rosso and aqua minerale. Between courses, Paolo and Antonio would sit and chat with me and the Italian couple, and it was all friendly and relaxed and very pleasant. Early in the meal I already decided I would eat there again the next night. After dinner Antonio carried my leftovers - there weren’t many! - and the basket of semolina bread to my room, in case I got hungry later on!

After a long but relaxing day of driving, I turned in early and slept like a baby.

More to come....

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    May I ask why you chose this particular part of Italy to visit? Obviously you speak Italian, but for many of us who are feel challenged by not being able to communicate outside of the big population centers it might be intimidating.

    You make the area sound very attractive, aside from your bad luck with the weather. Looking forward to hearing more.

    :-)

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    How lovely to read your report. This is the trip I had planned a year ago and then scrapped it at the last minute due to the reluctance of my TC. I can't wait to read more, thanks for sharing!

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    nuke, I chose Puglia b/c it's one of the few areas of Italy that I hadn't been to, altho' I've been meaning to go for years, and it just seemed like the right time. Speaking Italian certainly helps, but you shouldn't be intimidated b/c you don't. The people are wonderful and somehow you always manage to communicate, and an Italian phrase book would come in handy when sign language fails. :-)

    Here's Part 2

    The next day, Sunday, started out promising, with the sun struggling to break thru’ the clouds, although it rarely succeeded, and by afternoon, it was cold, windy and rainy. Breakfast was simple - croissants, chocolate and plain, and two types of biscuits, and was served by the lovely Katia, a young local woman. After last night’s dinner, I had no need for a large breakfast.

    I decided to drive south along the coast to Mattinata, and with Antonio’s directions, easily found my way to the town and the coastal road. As with the previous day, there was little traffic, which made the driving very pleasurable. The coast was dotted with a number of small ancient watch towers, much like the Torre Silvana at the entrance to my hotel, and for which it was named. At one of the towers a man had set up a little table from which he sold olive oil, oranges and lemons; I saw a few such stands along the way.

    The coastal scenery was quietly beautiful - not breathtaking, as, for example, Amalfi or Sicily, or Lago di Como - but it was consistently lovely and did not disappoint. When the sun managed to break through, the aqua colored sea was a perfect backdrop for the ubiquitous wild flowers of red, yellow, white and lavender, that lined the roadside. Needless to say, many photo ops presented themselves along the way.

    I arrived in Mattinata a little before noon, just in time for the Sunday morning passagiata. Part of the main street was closed to traffic and it seemed like the whole town had turned out for the walk. After about an hour, however, everything changed, and by one o’clock, the streets were deserted, as everyone went home for pranzo. I walked around the empty streets, feeling a bit like Gary Cooper in “High Noon”.

    Mattinata is a pretty town and, because everything was closed, I took many photos of attractive doorways, terraces, flowers, and of course, clothes drying outside on clothes lines. It’s funny how, in Italy, clothes lines seem to acquire an artistic quality.

    After about an hour or two I headed back to Vieste. I had intended to take the coastal road again, but missed the sign and wound up in another part of the Foresta Umbra, another lovely drive. I passed some cows and goats grazing on the hillsides and at one point got stuck in a small traffic jam of goats crossing the road.

    By the time I reached Vieste, it was raining steadily and everything, save a few restaurants, was closed because it was Sunday. I stopped into a pizzeria for a focaccia, then walked along the waterfront, watching the rough seas and imagining how different it must be in nice weather. I walked up many steps to the Duomo, which was also closed, and just kept wandering around the pretty, narrow, streets and alleys. There were wonderful views from the high elevation and the sun actually came out for a few minutes, then just as suddenly, it turned cloudy again.

    As I walked back toward the lower part of town I found the Duomo had opened and went inside, where the organist was practicing. I sat for a while and listened to the music, until a tour group entered, which was my cue to leave.

    Vieste was one photo op after another, and must really be beautiful when the sun is shining. As it started to rain again, more heavily now, I headed back to my car. Since the weather was not exactly conducive to sitting on my veranda and enjoying the view, I decided to drive in the direction of Peschici instead of heading back to my hotel.

    The road to Peschici was pretty, but not as lovely as the stretch of road between Vieste and Mattinata. It was a lot more commercial, with hotels, restaurants, and beach facilities along the way and had more traffic. I passed through an area of charred trees and later learned there had been a big fire a few years ago. I encountered another traffic jam of goats, and before reaching Peschici, I turned back and headed for my hotel and relaxed inside before going up to dinner.

    Sunday’s dinner included more Puglian specialties - fried breaded alici, and another type of local fish, more bruschetta, Pasta with a red fish sauce, and a huge plate of “sepia ripieni” (stuffed sepia), a type of chewy fish in the polpo (octopus) family. It was delicious, but I couldn’t finish it b/c the portions were just huge. But once again, a warm and inviting fire was burning, and my hosts and fellow guests, the Italian couple, provided friendly and welcome company. Paolo took my picture and asked if he could include it on the website.

    My original plan was to spend 3 days in the Gargano Peninsula, 3 in the Valle d’Itria/Alberobello area, and 3 in Lecce, however about a week before I left I decided to spend 2 nights in Matera so I canceled one night each in Vieste and the Valle d’Itria. When I awoke Monday morning to more clouds and wind, I was glad I was moving on. I loved the Gargano Peninsula; in fact, it was my favorite part of Puglia, and I would love to return - when the weather is better.

    My rough plan for the day was to drive south along the coast, stopping in Trani, Castel del Monte, then Toritto, my mother’s home town, for a look around, before arriving in Matera in the late afternoon. Antonio was disturbed by my plan, saying it was much too ambitious, and offered to call and find me a hotel near Toritto for the night. I declined, but he convinced me to at least take the Autostrada instead of the coastal road the entire way. So I took the coastal drive to Manfredonia, where I picked up the Autostrada in the direction of Foggia. I got confused around Foggia and instead of just staying on the AS in the direction of Bari, I got off at one of the many “tangenziali” and wound up in the middle of the industrial area. It took more than a half hour to get back on track. Then I somehow wound up on SS 16 instead of the AS. It wasn’t really a problem b/c the two roads are parallel, but I didn’t know that at the time. So I turned around and asked directions and was advised to just turn around again and get back on SS 16, which I did. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of construction, and it was a single lane for much of the way, and I lost a lot of time. I also started to lose patience with the Italian drivers, those who were constantly on my tail, as well as those coming in the opposite direction, passing other cars with no regard for oncoming traffic. I’ve never done so much defensive driving! So I chucked Trani and decided to head straight to Castel del Monte.

    I headed for the town of Andria, from where I’d head south to Castel del Monte. Once again, I got lost and wound up going thru’ the entire town instead of around it, and asking directions every few blocks. I really have to say that part of the reason I kept making wrong turns was that there was always someone on my tail, honking at me and forcing me to move before I could even read all the signs. After a while it started to grate on my nerves.

    There was a lot of construction going on in Andria too, but I finally wound up on the lovely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere that leads to the Castel del Monte. The medieval Castel high on the hill was an imposing presence in the distance.

    There’s a parking lot about a half mile from the Castel, and you have to park and ride a bus up to the Castel. There is also a row of Porta Johns, which cost .50 Eu to use, but they do have separate ones for uomini e donne. I took the bus up with a bunch of German Senior Citizens.

    The Castel is an octagonal structure, perfectly preserved, and dates back to Frederick II, although much of its history appears to be uncertain. It sits high on a hill in the middle of nowhere and offers wonderful 360 degree panoramic views of the surrounding plains and countryside. The sun paid a visit while I was there, a beautiful breeze was blowing, and it was peaceful and beautiful. It was one of the most impressive structures I've seen and one of my favorite sites in Puglia.

    Not many people walked on the path around the outside of the Castel and the solitude was enjoyable. I wished I could have stayed longer but it was then after 4 p.m., and after a day of getting lost and losing time I was anxious to be on my way.

    I needn’t have worried b/c Matera was a lot closer than I realized and a lot easier to reach than I feared. The parking lot attendant gave me great directions and I headed toward Altamura on a lovely, scenic, peaceful road through fields of green and wild flowers, and olive trees. Since I realized now that I had plenty of time, I stopped a few times along the road and just took it all in, and enjoyed the intermittent sun, the gentle wind, the beautiful scenery and the serenity.

    Once I arrived in Altamura, however, it was a different story, b/c the road signs were confusing and I once again found myself going through the town instead of around it and was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic - rush hour? - for about 20 minutes before finding the road to Matera. I was glad that I had asked the hotel for directions so I knew enough to exit at “Matera Sud” instead of the many other exits to Matera that preceded it. Once up the hill, however, the directions failed me and I drove toward the “centro” hoping to find signs to the sassi.

    At one point I passed a piazza where a group of young men called out “sassi, sassi”. I almost asked for directions but decided against it. But, as I turned the corner a young man on a motorcycle, Luigi, wearing a supposedly "official" name tag around his neck, pulled up alongside my car and gave me a spiel about being a tour guide, having two kids, and how Berlusconi does not help anyone, and said he’d show me to my hotel for an “offerta”. I knew immediately it was a racket, but not a complete scam since he was offering a welcome service, and after a day of getting lost I told him, “avanti”.

    We were quite close to the sassi but I probably would never have ventured down the steep winding road without knowing it was the right way, nor would I have known which way to turn once we were there, so I welcomed Luigi’s guidance. He led me to a piazza where I parked my car and he carried my bags to the Hotel Caveoso, telling me it was too confusing for me to find my way, repeating “labyrinth, labyrinth”. When we arrived at the hotel he called for la “signora”, telling her a guest had arrived. I had no change so Luigi lucked out with a 5 Eu tip, which pleased him immensely. When he left, the signora smirked distastefully and said he was a “collaboratore” and I replied that I was well aware of his racket but it was worth it for me to have had some help in finding my way.

    The Hotel Caveoso is quite lovely, right in the midst of, and built into, the sassi. There’s a small reception area and a pleasant cave like breakfast area, with a private piazza in front, decorated with plants, and dramatically lit up at night. There are amazing views in every direction. Signora offered me a choice of rooms and I chose one on the second floor, which was reached from a small outside balcony, and which had a spectacular view of the church high up on the hill directly facing it. My room was large, with a high, rounded stone ceiling, a twin bed and a “letto matrimoniale” (a cross between queen and king sized) with soft, ironed linens, and was furnished simply but attractively with a desk, chair and armoire. The towel warmer in the large bathroom came in handy for drying laundry, and a pair of complimentary slippers was provided.

    After settling in I took a walk around the sassi, feeling as though I had entered another era. Most stores were closed but a few people were selling crafts on tables along the street. Afterwards, Signora told me that all the restaurants in the sassi were closed on Mondays, and she recommended one right outside the sassi, Il Borghese, in the same piazza where I had met Luigi. I decided to walk but when I got there, it, too, was closed. Not finding anything else nearby I went into a pasticerria and ordered a calzone and a gelato, and bought some fruit in a colorful fruit and vegetable market next door. If I had walked in the opposite direction I would have come to the main square of the modern city, but I didn’t learn that until the next day.

    I walked back to the hotel and found the signora and the other host, Giuseppe (her husband?) sitting and chatting cozily with...none other than Luigi, which I found to be all very amusing. She was very apologetic when I told her the restaurant was closed and they all tried to make other suggestions. Luigi offered to take me - on his motorcycle?? - to a restaurant, with “no offerta” necessary b/c I had been so generous with him earlier that afternoon. LOL! Although I had been looking forward to a nice dinner, having eaten the calzone and gelato, I declined.

    The church and hill facing my room were illuminated and it was a beautiful sight, even against the cloudy night sky. I had a great sleep in my warm and comfortable bed and looked forward to exploring the next morning.

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    Thanks for your comments, thursday and SeaUrchin. Sea, I hope you get to visit Puglia someday soon. It's a lovely area and less touristy than other parts of Italy, altho' I'm sure it gets its share of Italian vacationers in high season. I would like to return there.

    Here's Part 3

    Breakfast at the Caveoso was a small, but adequate buffet of croissants, rolls, cereals, yogurt, fresh fruit, bread and focaccia - the first time I’d ever seen focaccia served at breakfast. Afterwards I booked a tour of the sassi and Giuseppe told me that a Canadian couple, whom I’d seen at breakfast, were taking the same tour.

    We were driven to a tourist office, which was right next door to my pasticerria and fruit market from the previous evening, and we were joined by a German couple, one of whom spoke English. For some reason, the Italian tour cost 10Eu pp, but the English tour was 15 Eu pp.

    Our guide was Franco, who had been born and raised in the sassi, but who now lived in the modern part of the city. He led us back to the sassi, where we walked thru’ a maze of streets and alleys, up steps and hills, and gave us a fascinating look at an amazing way of life. In addition to the now empty caves we visited two churches with well preserved frescoes on the walls, and were accompanied the whole time by Franco’s dog, Sasha.

    Everywhere we looked there were incredible views and it was easy to understand why Matera is a popular locale for biblical films. Most buildings in the sassi, even those that are still occupied, look as though they have not changed at all in centuries. Franco said that approximately 4000 people still live in the sassi. Franco sadly showed us the place where he grew up, which is now a souvenir shop.

    Our tour was supposed to last an hour and a half, but Franco stayed with us for double that amount of time, after which we decided to eat lunch. The Canadians asked me to join them, and the German couple came along, too. The place Franco recommended was filled with a bunch of screaming school kids so we went elsewhere, to a small bar/pizzeria, which we all felt was a ripoff, altho’ the food was decent.

    Franco made a suggestion of an evening tour to the “Cripto del Peccato Originale”, a cave with drawings depicting Adam and Eve and the story of the original sin, which had been discovered sometime in the 1960's. Since no one had anything better to do, we all agreed. We all asked Franco for directions relating to our future travels and he came back with maps and helpful information for all. I recommended the Castel del Monte to the others and Franco agreed that it was a “must see” and both couples decided to put it into their plans.

    My Canadian friends, Adam and Deborah, and I walked back to our hotel for a rest before the evening tour. They had the room right next door to mine, and theirs had a little living room in a separate alcove. We laughingly compared notes, as it turned out that they had also encountered Luigi the previous day, in the same spot where I did, and they were also sent to the restaurant that was closed, altho’ they found an open one near the modern town square.

    We met up again around 5 p.m. and walked up many steps to the piazza where the van and our German friends awaited us. The cave was about 15 minutes outside of Matera and it rained heavily during the drive, altho’ it stopped by the time we arrived.

    The small cave had amazing drawings, some more well preserved than others, and a recording explained each one as it was illuminated. We were the only ones there and the tour was pleasant and interesting. There was a fig tree right outside the cave, befitting the cave of the “original sin”.

    The German couple was dropped off at a masseria outside of Matera, where they had their camper parked, and my Canadian friends and I were dropped off near the main square, a lively area with many stores and a lot of people around, even on the rainy evening. I wound up buying an umbrella and a sweater b/c I was ill prepared for the miserable and unexpected weather. I put the sweater on right in the store and it felt warm and cozy and I later regretted not having bought two.

    We walked around for a while and then headed back to the sassi to find a restaurant. We wound up in the Trattoria Caveoso, a cozy and nicely decorated place on the same street as our hotel, and had a light but delicious dinner.

    I was torn between pasta with rapini and fava e cicorie (pureed fava beans and chicory). I chose the latter, a delicious Puglian specialty, and a side order of patate. Adam had the same and Deborah ordered the pasta with rapini and an insalata. We had a nice bottle of medium bodied red wine which bore the name of the restaurant. After dinner Adam excused himself and when he came back he told me that I was their guest for dinner -- a really thoughtful and lovely gesture.

    We then headed back to our hotel and agreed to meet for breakfast the next morning, where we said our arrivedercis and buon viaggios. They had another two days in Matera, then were planning to travel north to Vieste, and were winding up outside of Pisa, where they had rented a villa for the month of May. I recommended the Torre Silvana in Vieste, and in fact, received an email from Antonio this week, thanking me for sending them.

    Matera was very interesting, both the sassi and the modern town, and I think it's easily worth at least 2 full days, as there's much to see there. Of course, it's not part of Puglia, but it's close enough to be included on a tour of the area, and I'm glad I decided on more than just a day trip there.

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    I'm interested to read that you enjoyed Matera so much, as I wasn't sure that it would be worthwhile. I'm also wondering whether I'd have to drive to get there - I don't like to drive in Europe (I'm too used to automatic transmission, and I travel alone) and your saga isn't encouraging!

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    thursday, don't be discouraged! Driving in Puglia was actually quite pleasant, and most places didn't have a lot of traffic. If I had just stayed on the Autostrada that day, from Vieste to Matera, insteading of exiting at Foggia, I would not have had even half the problems I did. And that was really the only bad day.
    But I think I did read on another Puglia thread that you can get to Matera without a car.

    SeaUrchin, thanks. I hope you manage to convince your TC to go, or you find someone else to go with.

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    Thanks for your kind comments, everyone. The next installment will be coming soon.

    Ekscrunchy, that link is so timely. There's a recipe in there for fave e cicoria, a delicious dish I tasted for the first time on my recent trip. Thanks.

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    Thanks, Flame. I missed a lot of other places too, but, as you will see, I will definitely go back.

    And before I go any further, I must thank you and all the other Fodorites who gave such helpful information when I was planning this trip. It really helped a lot.

    Now I know this next part is not necessarily of general interest because it involves my meeting with long lost family members, and I debated whether or not to include it, however, it was the highlight of my trip and I think it gives some insight into life in a small town in southern Italy and the genuine warmth of the people, so I'm including it for anyone who cares to read it.

    After leaving the Hotel Caveoso, I headed to Toritto, which was easily reached from Matera in about an hour. Toritto is a small town of less than 10,000, about 20 minutes west of Bari, and is where my mother was born. I knew that my mother had one uncle, long dead, who never emigrated to America, but I had no idea if he had any survivors still left in the town, and I certainly had no idea of the wonderful and serendipitous experience that awaited me.

    After driving through the town and around the main square, I parked my car in front of a church on a wide street and planned to walk around a bit and then go the Municipal Office to make some inquiries. After about 15 minutes of wandering around, something made me turn down a particular street. I passed a house with glass doors and crisp white linen curtains and a small picture of the Sacred Heart in the window. It caught my eye and I took a picture. At the end of the small street a woman was sitting in a garage cleaning broccoli di rape for sale.

    She asked me where I was from and I told her my story and mentioned the last name of my mother's uncle. And, to my amazement, she replied, "Stefano _________?" – my mother's beloved Zio Stefano! (Uncle Steve). She took my arm and led me right back to the house I had just photographed and a little old lady answered the door and the vegetable lady told her about me. She turned out to be Uncle Steve's daughter and my mother's first cousin!

    I told her my grandmother's name and, although my grandmother had 7 children, she guessed immediately who my mother was! I was incredulous and couldn't believe how all this was happening. She excitedly invited me in and made me caffe'. She was 84, but spry and sharp and warm and funny and I liked her immediately. There was a big wooden board on the table filled with orrechiette that she had just finished making. We talked like old friends and she picked up her cell phone and started calling her 5 sisters to come and meet "La cugina Americana".

    The next few hours were a whirlwind of meeting cousins, their husbands, their children and grandchildren. My new-found relatives ranged in age from 91 to 2 years old. They took me to their homes - all within a few blocks of one another - and showed me around, served me caffe', and gave me little spontaneous gifts - a bag of homemade taralle, a braided palm from Palm Sunday, and one of them served me homemade limoncello and gave me a small bottle to take home. It was soooo good!

    They were all delighted to pose for photos, and I was truly surprised at how beautiful their homes were, and how spacious, and well furnished. And it struck me funny that each of the 6 sisters had a bowl of fresh peas in her kitchen, to be eaten at dinner that night. But best of all was the genuine warmth and hospitality with which they all welcomed me. I could not have asked for a nicer welcome and I never imagined that there were so many wonderful cousins there. My mother had visited about 35 years ago and met all of the sisters - her first cousins, but I had no interest at the time and so knew virtually nothing about them. And my mother did not know how to write in Italian so they never really kept in touch. But they all remembered her and knew a lot about the rest of the family.

    They insisted that I stay with them and, as it was getting late, I agreed, with mixed feelings. I felt awful canceling my reservation at the Masseria la Rascina at the last minute, not only because I was looking forward to relaxing there for 2 nights, with its lovely grounds and swimming pool, but also b/c the owners were so gracious in all of our email communications. It was the place I was most looking forward to, and I regretted doing something so inconsiderate. But I was presented with an unexpected, once in a lifetime opportunity, and I felt it was really meant to be, the way I seemed to be drawn right to the first cousin's house, so I reluctantly canceled. And I later rationalized that b/c of the bad weather, I would not have enjoyed the grounds or the pool anyway. Perhaps another time.

    I had dinner at the home of the first cousin, Leonarda, and her daughter, MC, a teacher, who is a few years younger than I. We had a simple antipasto of capicolla, provolone, and fresh mozzarella, the homemade orrechiette with meat sauce, and cervellata, a Barese veal sausage that was always a treat when I was growing up, and fresh peas, salad and semolina bread. Dessert was biscotti, fruit and of course, espresso. Leonarda's cooking surpassed even that of Antonio and I enjoyed dinner immensely.

    We also had a wonderful bottle of red wine which they got from a lady across the street who makes it at her home. MC went over with an empty bottle and came back with it filled, and said the lady didn't charge them for the wine in honor of "L'Americana". The next day she sent over another bottle and came in to meet me. The vegetable lady also dropped in the next two mornings to say hello, and gave me a head of lettuce. :-)

    That evening another young female cousin, MA, a lawyer who has her own office in the town, came by and she and MC drove me to the cemetery to meet the rest of the relatives. :)) We then drove into Bari where we visited the impressive castle/fortress of Frederick II, which dominates the waterfront, and the famous 12th century basilica di San Nicola. We walked along the lovely palm tree lined waterfront, and through the lively old town, munching on hot sgagliozze - fried polenta patties - which MA bought from a street peddler. MC bought a bag of freshly caught merluzzo and another similar fish from a small truck for the next night's dinner. She teaches right in the area and kept running into her students - adolescent boys.

    The weather had cleared and it turned out quite pleasant and we ended up having a drink in a waterfront café in the modern city. Afterwards, we visited MA's sister who lives in Bari with her husband and adorable 2 year old son.

    The evening in Bari was fun and I was glad to have gone b/c I would not have driven there on my own – not with the crazy city traffic. In fact, like many other people, MC parked at the Park and Ride at the city's edge and we took the bus to the center.

    When we got back to her mother's house, MC told me to move my car to their street, and, to my amazement, I found that the church were I had parked it that morning was right around the corner. It really was karma!

    To be continued...

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    panecott - what a wonderful story! I'm so happy for you that you had such a heart-warming experience. And I agree with SeaUrchin - this kind of TR is a big reason why I'm here. Thanks!

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    How could you even think for a second not to include this fabulous last entry??? WOW!!!! I was blown away. It amazes me all the time how karma and serendipity enter our lives when we least expect it. What a fabulous story. I was so moved and enjoyed it sooooo much. More more more please!!

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    Bookmarking to read more later - off to work now. Loving all the detail - thanks so much for writing! This is the trip I had planned for this month but had to cancel - now I'm determined to try again.

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    Thank you for your kind words, everyone. I'm glad you are enjoying the report, and appreciate the part about my family.

    Here's a little more, after which we move on to Lecce, my last stop.

    I was awakened the next morning by the church bells pealing at 7 a.m., and, hearing the rain falling steadily outside, quickly fell right back to sleep. When I finally got up, after 9, I found fresh towels laid out for me in the bathroom. MC and Leonarda had been up for hours but didn't want to disturb me, and Leonarda had been to mass. They made me a simple breakfast of espresso, biscotti and fresh fruit. The vegetable lady, Maria, dropped by and showed me a local newspaper article about her 50th wedding anniversary, which was this year.

    When the rain let up, MC and I started out for Alberobello. She insisted on using her car and I was glad for a break from driving. Our first stop was the fascinating Grotte di Castellana, a maze of deep underground caverns in which, over the centuries, some of the stalagmites and stalactites formed into a variety of amazing shapes, including a camel, an elephant, a ballerina's leg and a madonna. The tour lasted about an hour and was very interesting.

    Afterwards we drove in the rain to Alberobello and the trulli We passed several trulli in the country which were very pretty, but I was a little disappointed in the town itself, which was very commercial, with many of the trulli turned into souvenir shops. Nevertheless, it is unique and worth seeing, and some of the trulli which are still residences, have modern extensions added to them.

    We had lunch in a trullo styled restaurant on the via Cadore -Trullo del Conte - and had pasta in tomato sauce with sausage and mushrooms, roast vitello, boccancino, patate e insalata mista, a beer for MC and wine for me. I enjoyed it completely but MC thought it was just okay. The bill came to 28 EU for two.

    When we left the restaurant there was a funeral procession proceeding up the hill to the trullo styled church of St. Anthony. It was drizzling and with the numerous mourners walking behind the hearse with their black umbrellas, it looked like a movie scene.

    We then proceeded to Ostuni, the white city, through the lovely countryside, which managed to look pretty even under the clouds. It was then around 4 p.m. and stores were opening and the town was lively. It was a contrast to Mattinata, Vieste, and even Matera, where most places were closed when I was walking around and I had the feeling of being an outsider who was not invited in.

    We walked up and down streets, to the main piazza, and up many steps to the Duomo. Ostuni very pretty and in the sunlight I imagine it must be very impressive with its many white buildings.

    We went into a souvenir shop and MC insisted on buying fischetti - little hand painted ceramic whistles - a local craft, for me and my brother, whom she does not know. A shopkeeper in Alberobello, who sold only fischetti in her store, told us that there is a contest every year for the most creative design. This year's winner was a model of Berlusconi which was – well - not flattering is all I can say.

    We passed some billboards near a park which contained printed death notices. They were each about 2 ft. square and pasted on the boards much like those one sees outside a theater. MC told me that this is customary but I don't recall ever having seen this outside of Puglia.

    On the way back to Toritto we took the coastal road and stopped at Polignano, a pretty seaside town. Once again, I imagined how nice it must be in the warm weather, with the sun shining.

    Leonarda had prepared another delicious dinner of antipasto, pasta with piselli, grilled fish and insalata mista, and of course, the red wine from Maddalena, the wine lady. Dessert was fresh strawberries with lemon juice. MC later took me to see her own apt., a few blocks away, which was being renovated. It had 6 rooms and promises to be beautiful when done, and she told me I am welcome to stay there anytime I want to return.

    We visited her brother and his family and later, some of the other cousins came over to the house. I enjoyed listening to them speaking proper Italian and then suddenly switching to the Barese dialect, which is cacophonous and sounds nothing like true Italian. My mother and her sisters used to speak Barese when they didn't want us kids to understand what they were saying.

    The previous day, when I saw Leonarda's homemade orrechiette on the table, I told her about my mother's aunt - who was also her aunt, her father's sister, whom she knew about - who used to make homemade cavatelli but would never let anyone watch her and would get up early to do it before anyone else was awake. She got a kick out of the story and repeated it to her sisters, who all laughed when I said, "Adesso, lei e morta e la ricetta anch'e morta" (and now she's dead and the recipe is also dead).

    We talked about family, in Italy and the US, they showed me family photos, and they were all interested in hearing what it was like to be in NY on 9/ll. They talked about seeing the events on TV as they were happening, at mid afternoon in Italy.

    It just amazed me to feel such a bond and so completely at ease with these people, as though we had known one another for years. I felt some regret at not having looked them up sooner on so many previous trips to Italy. I would love to return to Toritto and I couldn't help wondering to myself if they would all still be alive when I go back.

    The next morning I found fresh towels laid out for me again and marveled at how comfortable they made me feel and how I never had to ask for a thing.

    It was raining again and it was time to move on to Lecce. I could gladly have spent the rest of my trip in Toritto, and I know I was truly welcome, but I did not want to overdo it. Because MC was off from work during the time I was there, I had invited her the previous day to come to Lecce with me and she gladly accepted.

    Before leaving, we went, with Leonarda, to the little country town of Quasano, just a short distance from Toritto and from the sea, and where several of the cousins have country houses. It was nostalgic for me b/c/ I remember hearing my mother speak about Quasen', as it's pronounced in the Barese dialect. Once again, I received a sincere invitation to visit in the summer and stay as long as I like in MC's home. I've put it on my agenda!

    Before we left for Lecce we had pranzo of pasta with mushrooms, boiled merluzzo dressed with garlic and olive oil, and more grilled cervellata, which I had told Leonarda I loved. MC later told me that Leonarda wanted to make me fave e cicoria (which I had enjoyed so much in Matera), but MC thought I probably wouldn't like it! Aarrrggghh!

    After bidding arrivederci to dear Leonarda, and my new found friends, the wine lady and the vegetable lady, MC and I started out for Lecce in mid afternoon. I hated saying goodbye to Leonarda, because I became genuinely fond of her. I hope I see her again.

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    Now I know this report has definitely peaked, but we still have 3 days in Lecce to go and I'll try to keep it brief.

    We arrived at the B&B Villa Giuliana, a few km. outside of Lecce, in early evening and were greeted by Andrea, who runs the place with his mother and his fiancee. Our room was simple but spacious and pleasant and after settling in, we headed into town to find a place to eat. Andrea had recommended a place but we couldn't find it, so we settled on a trattoria/pizzeria on the via dell'Universita, a tree lined blvd. That is one of the main drags in Lecce. We each had Pizza Margherita and insalata mista, which contained mozzarella, artichokes, olives, as well as lettuce and the incomparable Italian tomatoes. It was very tasty and more than satisfying.

    Much to my delight I awoke the next morning to see sun pouring through the slats of the shutters outside our room. It was Saturday, April 25th, Liberation Day in Italy, and maybe the sun was shining for la festa. I quickly showered and went outside to explore the beautiful gardens of the Villa Giuliana.

    The B&B was even nicer than it appeared on the website. Situated behind a high wall and wrought iron gate, it seems a world apart from the area outside. The little courtyard outside the 5 rooms was lined with flowerbeds containing daisies, roses, clematis, pansies and several other flowers I can't identify. Up a flight of stairs from the courtyard and in the back of the house was a large terrace which overlooked a small orange and lemon grove on one side and vegetable garden on the other.

    I was taking pictures of the citrus trees when Andrea came out and picked me an orange to eat. He thought the fruit was dry b/c there hadn't been much sun, but it was sweet enough. He then showed me the other side of the garden where he had just planted peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and several types of herbs.

    In the front of the house was a rose garden just about to burst with color, but we were about a week too early to see it in full bloom. There were daisies, geraniums, pansies, and other colorful flowers everywhere. I admired the garden and said that a garden is good for the soul, and Andrea replied, "Yes, but not for the back." He and his mother tend to the garden themselves. Over near the parking area were numerous olive trees.

    Andrea mentioned that the B&B is now offering, on specified weeks during the year, cooking classes given by his mother, as well as bike tours, and he guides the tours and translates for the cooking classes. His sweet fiancee, Angela, is also involved in this aspect of the business. They also have a program on making olive oil.

    Breakfast was served on the terrace in front of the house, with the welcome sun shining. It consisted of croissants, yogurt, homemade almond cake and homemade jam (by Andrea's mother) all of which was delicious. Andrea and Angela sat with us and helped us plan the day.

    It was a perfect day for driving along the Salento Coast to Santa Maria de Leuca, the very tip of the heel, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. Altho' it was a holiday, there was a lot less traffic than I thought there would be. The ride was beautiful and relaxing, passing thru' some pretty towns with many private villas, and we stopped here and there for photo ops. I laughed to myself remembering how, whenever I looked at a map of Italy, for some reason I imagined that area to be wild and almost uninhabited – very unlike the reality.

    I am, by choice, a solo traveler, and usually find that company inhibits me, and eventually annoys me. But MC was more than congenial and didn't get on my nerves at all, which is a credit to her. And I enjoyed her company. So it was a bit of a different experience for me, but very enjoyable, and it was fun practicing my Italian, and she practiced her English. And along the way, we became friends. She is a heavy smoker and I told her that, aside from health considerations, if she quits, at 8 EU a pack per day for Marlboro, she'd save enough in a year to come to NY.

    At SM de Leuca we walked around the piazza on the elevation containing the Sanctuary and the lighthouse and went inside a little church, where a chair had been roped off - the chair that Pope Benedict had sat in when he visited there recently. At the church's entrance there were two stands, one containing a bowl of rose petals, and the other a bowl of leaves formed into little cups containing white rice, in preparation for a wedding. We hung around the piazza for more than a half hour but didn't see the bride and groom. We had a drink in an outdoor café and enjoyed the warm weather and the lovely breeze, a welcome change from the cold and dampness of the previous week.

    We then drove down to the town and walked along the waterfront, which was lined with beautiful private villas that were still closed for the season. MC and I each chose one as our own. Some children were frolicking on the beach, fisherman were trying their luck, families strolled leisurely and couples walked or sat romantically along the water's edge. It was a typical holiday scene, but happily uncrowded.

    We had a leisurely lunch at a colorful outdoor restaurant on the beach, Lupo di Mare, and enjoyed fried calamari, grilled shrimp, patate, and insalata mista, and of course, the sun and sea breeze. The owner of the restaurant had a trained dog who performed tricks on the beach.

    After a stroll along the waterfront we started back for Lecce. Because it was such a beautiful day, we decided to take the coastal road again, instead of the faster state highway. Although we had planned to stop at Otranto we put that off for the following day.

    When we arrived back at the Villa G, we sat outside on the terrace and relaxed before going into Lecce for dinner. It was Saturday night and traffic was crazy, but I nevertheless ventured further into the city center than I had the night before, with MC encouraging me to just go, in spite of all the cars coming from every direction at certain intersections and traffic circles. It's even worse at night than during the day, but there's something to that expression, "He who hesitates is lost". You just have to join in the craziness and go!

    We finally found a parking spot and walked through some dark, narrow streets, which, fortunately, were not completely deserted, before coming upon an Osteria (Anguilla or Giuliana, I can't remember for sure), that was obviously a popular spot for date night and appeared to be known for its antipasti of a variety of vegetables and meats prepared in several different ways, which everyone ordered. MC ordered an assortment of dishes that included "Polpette di cavalli" - meatballs made from horsemeat. When they arrived, she told me that she did not eat them, and I had no intention of eating them either, however, I did take a little taste, and they happened to be good, although a little dry, but it's that psychological thing, and there was too much else to eat so I left them. We skipped pasta and had sausage, vitello , cicoria (which was very bitter) and a salad. I never drink when I drive, not even a glass of wine, so that was a part of the meal I had to regretfully forego for those few days.

    It occurred to me that, staying outside of Lecce as I did, I probably would not have ventured into the town at night for dinner, had I been by myself. It was just too confusing and hectic so I was glad for the company. As convenient as a car is in many cases, and as lovely as it is to stay outside of town, I think that staying right in the town center, as I usually like to do, has its advantages because you can just walk everywhere. I never really got to see much of the city of Lecce.

    Sunday was our last full day in Lecce but Andrea told us everything would be closed, so we took a drive to Otranto, a little southeast of Lecce, and right on the water. We arrived in time for the Sunday morning "passagiata", just as I had done a week earlier in Mattinata. But for some reason
    all the stores were open in Otranto and we walked around and browsed in the stores. Like Santa Maria de Leuca, Otranto had a large fortress along the waterfront.

    Otranto is very picturesque and we spent a lot of time just wandering around before deciding on a waterfront restaurant. Although it was very pretty, with a white tent outside sheltering the tables, and hanging plants and flowers on the tables and fancy linens, the food was so-so and it was overpriced. And the owner tried to overcharge us by 5 EU by scribbling the bill so that it was illegible. But we called him on it. It was really the only sour note of the whole trip.

    Afterwards we did some shopping, had a gelato and headed back to the Villa Giuliana. We sat out on the terrace and met, for the first time, Andrea's mother - an elegant and very attractive woman who must have been a beauty in her day. She asked if we'd like to join her for tea and she soon came out with a tray complete with some of her wonderful homemade cookies, which we almost devoured, but managed to leave one or two, just to look delicate. :-) We enjoyed a pleasant conversation before she left to continue her work.

    I wasn't really hungry but MC was so we went back to town and ate at the trattoria/pizzeria from the first night. We each had a Pugliese specialty, a type of stuffed pizza, but I can't remember the name (not calzone or stromboli), and we split the insalata mista. We headed back to the B&B and turned in early.

    We awoke the next morning at 5:00 a.m. because I had to turn the car in at Bari Airport and catch my Easy Jet Flight to Rome at 10:45 a.m. We left Lecce at 6:10 a.m. and made it to the airport in just about 2 hours, much faster than I thought we would, and had plenty of time before check in. We had a caffe and said arrivederci before MC left to catch the bus to Bari and go to work.

    My Easy Jet flight was 40 minutes late, but was otherwise uneventful and comfortable. The plane was not full and I did notice many people exceeding the carry on limit and no one said anything.

    I had booked a hotel near Roma termini for my last night, the Hotel Novecento on Via Carlo Emanuelle. It's not an area I would choose for a longer stay b/c I prefer something more central, but it was fine for my purposes since I had an early flight the next morning. The Novecento was quite pleasant and inexpensive, 90EU for a double, single use, and it had a lovely roof garden. It's family run and the service was very friendly.

    My plan for the day was to walk over to the Colosseum, then head toward the Piazza Navona, the Borghese Gardens, the Spanish Steps and then back to the hotel. There was, however, a fierce wind blowing in Rome that day, and after a few hours it started to rain. The wind made an umbrella useless. After a while I stopped into a trattoria and ordered a bowl of Pasta e fagioli, which was hot and delicious, and sausage and insalata. Since I wasn't driving, I ordered a half liter of red wine and left the restaurant when it finally stopped raining.

    I lost my bearings and walked in the totally opposite direction from where I wanted to go. I wasn't too upset b/c discovering Rome is always a pleasure, and I wound up at a huge intersection with traffic coming from every direction imaginable. I was a few blocks from the Colosseum and it started raining again and was starting to get dark. So I headed toward the Colosseum, which was only about a 10 minute walk from my hotel. It started raining more heavily and when I came upon a taxi stand I jumped in one. Just as I closed the door, it started to pour. For once, my timing was perfect.

    Back at the hotel I took a long hot shower, packed my suitcase, and I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. I overslept the next morning and rushed like crazy to catch the 7:50 a.m. Leonardo Express to the airport. I had to wait 7 minutes for a taxi and would have been better off walking, but it was drizzling - what else is new? - and I literally caught the train just as the doors were closing. I didn't even have time to validate my ticket, but fortunately no one came around to check.

    Check-in at FCO was a minor nightmare, with the Delta terminal being a bus ride apart from the main terminals at FCO. The first line was to see how many bags people were going to check or carry on and were marked accordingly. The next long line was check in, followed by another long line for the security check. I had completely forgotten about a bottle of water in my carry on, however, it went unnoticed and I didn't realize it until I was on the plane. Finally, there was passport control, and then back on the bus to go to the departure gate.

    The flight home seemed endless, more than 9.5 hours, possibly because of a strong headwind. They showed 3 movies, including Frost/Nixon which was great, and the usual other junk. When I arrived back in NY, the temperature was 84 degrees. Wouldn't you know, after 12 days of freezing in Italy!

    I arrived home with fond memories of the many people I met along the way, in every town, and the wonderful experiences I had. I know I will return to Puglia.

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    Very fun report. I too have been wanting to visit Puglia for a number of years and can certainly see how a fare like that would push me to do so immediately.

    Will you be sharing any photos?

    Thanks for posting.

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    i enjoyed reading your report, even though a few years old.
    I am going to Puglia in late April, also solo but using public transportation.

    I am staying in Lecce for the first 5 days using it as a base for train and bus travels to nearby towns.
    Plannng on visitng Trani, Matera, Ostuni and perhaps Bari.
    Any other thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

    I had similar experience visiting family in Calabria on my first trip to Italy many many years ago when I was 26.
    ( Aside I am now 84 ) My father and his older brother had left Calabria when he was 16 and left several brothers and sisters there. I was the first to return and the welcome I received was unbelievable. My planned 2 day stay turned into a 3 week stay.This trip was the first of many visits to and from Italy by both my newly discovered Italian family and my American family.

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    Thanks for your report. Great info that I am now using to finalize my report.
    I may email you next week if you do not mind to ask some specific questions. I am booked for Lecce for my first 5 nights, to just appreciate Lecce and use trains and buses to visit towns south of Lecce .
    I then have 7 days not finalized and still in the planning stage. My trip is scheduled to leave NY April 23 so I know I have to decide in the next few days.
    I had really wanted to overnight in Matera after that, but I am now thinking of going to Ostuni for perhaps a day trip and then Trani for 2 days. Then to Bari for perhaps 2-3 days and do a day trip to Matera by train.
    I then leave Bari by train to Florence .

    Hopefully I can return next year to spend time in Matera.

    Any thoughts or suggestions will be appreciated.

    Tina

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    Kristina
    Thanks. I must say I have been reading your reports and looking at your fabulous pictures.
    You are a true artist in both aspects.

    I will take you up on your generous offer.

    Tina

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