Jamikins and Bikerscott do Italy!

Old Jul 4th, 2012, 05:17 PM
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Scott & Jamie, continuing to follow your adventure. So much of the architecture reminds me of Sicily. Enjoy...
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Old Jul 5th, 2012, 03:21 PM
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Day Thirteen – Viva Italia!

We managed to have yet another sunny morning with not a cloud in the sky. Our check of weather in London shows that it’s relatively cold and overcast, with a chance of rain. It is actually 20˚C colder at home today than it is in this part of Italy. We don’t want to leave, really.

Today’s mission was the white city of Ostuni, just off the coast between Bari and Brinisi, not far from Martina Franca. Gazza was playing nice today and routed us through the closest town (other than Mesagne) of San Vito dei Normanni, where we found a convenient supermercati to replenish toothpaste, shampoo, and most importantly deodorant supplies (it turns out the travel sized portions of all three will last two travellers just less than two weeks – an important tip to keep in mind).

We followed Gaz all the way to the start of the cobbles at Ostuni, and then decided to park on the road rather than follow his directions to the parking lots, as that would violate one of our inviolate rules of Italian driving. We parked in one of the white-lined zones, thus avoiding the pesky payment for parking one finds in those exclusive blue zones, but requiring a walk to the main touristic part of Ostuni.

A note on the inviolate rules of Italian driving – there are several, and they are not to be violated:
1) never drive on a cobblestone portion of a town or village,
2) never drive through a grand marble arch into a village,
3) never actually follow the speed limit, these are only suggestions, to be modified as local conditions permit
4) if it looks like a pothole, it is probably deep enough to remove a good portion of your car’s undercarriage – slow down and look foolish rather than power over it and have to call a tow truck,
5) lines on the road are for amateurs, be creative,
6) don’t stop when entering roundabouts, the other cars will almost always let you in
6a) pay for the additional insurance when hiring your car, it’ll be worth it in the long run
6b) this one wasn’t serious, if you follow rule 6 you will get into an accident, an Italian person will yell at your quite a bit, and the Carabinieri will too. You have to be somewhat aggressive, but don’t just close your eyes and aim, as this will only end in tears. It is, however, a good idea to consider the extra insurance, because Italian drivers are almost all insane and will try to kill you and damage your car.

The free parking worked out quite well as it turned out – we had to walk a little farther than if we’d gone to the pay parking, but a) it was free, b) we didn’t have to walk up the giant hill that we would’ve had to if we’d gone to the pay lot, and c) the best scenic views of Ostuni were from just beside where I’d found the parking. Result on all fronts really.

Ostuni is known as the White City, and it lives up to it’s billing. Despite being on a hill, it’s actually quite manageable for the lazy tourist as the interesting central bit is relatively small, so not a lot of uphill walking is required. After a fortifying espresso served with a glass of ice (for a homemade iced coffee of course) or two, we ventured into town and its hill.

The cathedral on the top of the hill required a donation for entrance, and while I pretty much always leave a few euros on a voluntary basis when I go into a church, I refuse to do so when it’s a requirement. Not logical, I realize, but that’s just how I am. While it was hot up at the top, I think we’ve almost become accustomed to the heat, as it didn’t seem to affect us much as it has in the past.

There wasn’t much at the top of the hill, so we started back down, looking for somewhere to have lunch. As someone once said, never eat on the piazza, that’s for the tourists – we managed to find a little tratoria down one of the tiny side roads that seemed to fit the bill – if nothing else, it smelled amazing when we went in, and that counts for quite a bit.

Lunch was huge and quite good – a pasta course to start for both of use (orchietti two ways, which was an interesting comparison), then fish for Jamie and a translation mixup for me which turned out to be quite nice – I’d thought tagliata was a type of pasta, but it turns out it’s thinly sliced beef with olive oil and spices. Both our mains were excellent. Sadly, my two cokes cost quite a bit more than Jamie’s two glasses of wine, but as I was driving I think it was a few euros well spent.

While Ostuni is an interesting town and worth a visit, there isn’t actually that much to see there, so after lunch we got back in the car and drove the few miles to the pre-Roman excavations at Egnazia. We’re suckers for roman excavations, and while they all look similar, I don’t think we’d pass up stopping at a good Roman town. This may be due to all the roman historical fiction we’ve read (Steven Saylor, Simon Scarrow, Jack Whyte, etc) over the last few years.

Jamie commented on the size of the excavations – it seems that pretty much all the ruins we’ve ever seen are of relatively small town, there aren’t any big towns that have been discovered. I pointed out that all the big towns survived (Bari, Brindisi, etc) and we wondered what it was about each that made it survive while these others faded away into obscurity. It all seems so random, although there must have been reasons for it 2000 years ago. What will they think of our modern cities 2000 years from now, and how much (or little) of what we’ve built will last as long as what the ancients built has?

We’d planned on having dinner at a typical barbeque place in Cisternino, but after the huge lunch, neither of us thought that we’d be even remotely approaching hungry by the time of our reservations at 6:30. We programmed Gazza for our Masseria and instead spent a few hours basking in the late afternoon sun by the pool, before getting ready for dinner.

Tonight was the semi-final game between Italy and Germany in the Euro 2012 championship – we’d been here for the Italy v England quarterfinal when Italy knocked out England, so felt that we had to watch the semis. The Masseria had brought in a giant projection tv complete with huge screen and professional sound system for the event. The front rows were taken by family, with the back half reserved for guests. All were Italian other than us and a very quiet father/son combo who I think were German.

It was quite entertaining, both watching the match on the tv and the Italians all around us. In particular, the grandfather of the family group was deeply into the game; both Jamie and I were concerned that he would have some sort of coronary event with all the jumping and yelling he was doing.

Fortunately Italy won, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Super Mario Balotelli and keeper Gianluigi Buffon, who should be given a medal of some sort for his performance. We thought we were going to face a major dilemma, as I thought the final would be played on Saturday night, when we have reservations for an 8 course tasting menu, which Jamie would not be happy to miss. It turns out the final is Sunday, so it’s a take-away curry at home in London with the sound turned up high on the stereo system.
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Old Jul 6th, 2012, 03:54 PM
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Hope everyone is still following along!

Day Fourteen - Dodgem, Frogger, and Crashup Derby in Italy

So much for the whole sleeping-in plan – Jamie made me get up at 8:45 this morning, which as previously mentioned, is far too early for a holiday. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t mind all that much this morning, as we’re getting to the last few days of our holiday and apparently my subconscious mind is starting to get ready to go back to work – I spent most of the night having terrible dreams about the office. I dislike it enough while I’m actually there, let alone while on holiday.

Today turned out to be a bit of a driving day. We’d booked a guided tour of the village of Matera, a few hours almost due west from Mesagne (pronounced the same as lasagne apparently). The drive wasn’t too bad really until we got fairly close – of the two hour trip, the last quarter in terms of time was to get about 1/8th of last bit of distance. The roads in this part of Italy are really shocking. I keep thinking of my Ferrari (not yet purchased, still waiting for that lottery win to come through) and that I wouldn’t bring it down here – not only would I remove most of the undercarriage, but with the stiff racing suspension my back wouldn’t thank me for it.

Gazza was playing a bit of silly buggers today. At one point he wanted us to take an exit off the highway just to take the connected onramp – no point other than a brief detour. When we got right into Matera things got a bit hairy. As with a lot of Italian towns in the countryside, Matera has been built right at the top of a great bloody hill. I’m a big fan of hills in general, when seen from a distance in a picturesque manner, but not when I’m trying to either walk up them or drive up them in a manual transmission car.

We finally got to the top, and throwing caution to the wind, I broke one of our cardinal rules of Italian driving (never drive into the cobbled bits of towns) and drove into the cobbled bit of town. Fortunately, some very nice men wearing what looked like official Matera tourist board shirts stopped me just as I got into the centre and asked if I was in town for a tour. I said lunch to start then a tour, and asked if there was any parking around.

Being the kind gentlemen that they were, they pushed a parked scooter out of it’s parking spot in the taxi bay (they didn’t own the scooter, just moved it a bit) so that I could park up. I was a bit unsure about parking in the reserved taxi spot, but they assured me that it was fine, so in a rather brilliant display of precision parallel parking, I got the car in without so much as a bump on any other cars. We stepped out of Giancarlo and that’s when the realization hit – these weren’t tourist board t-shirts, these were a band of creative and resourceful touts who’d had shirts printed up to look official! The audacity.

They were very keen for Jamie and me to try their favourite trattoria just up the road, and even offered to set us up with a tour guide of the Sassi. He was a bit disappointed I think when we explained that we already had a reservation for lunch, and that we’d pre-booked a tour guide. He exclaimed that he’d gone ahead and moved a scooter for us, I reply simply with a rather well-executed French shrug (I’ve learned this through innumerable trips to France, where they’ve elevated the humble shrug to an art, able to convey as much with the simple gesture as the English can with the word f**k). He was not impressed with the finesse in my shruggery, and stormed off.

We quickly found our trattoria for lunch and asked for a table inside, as the heat of the day was a bit stifling - we’ve heard that the region is scheduled for a heat-wave from Africa tomorrow – what we’ve got now isn’t a heat wave???

(If you have delicate sensibilities, or are easily offended, please skip ahead as the following may not be to your taste) I may burst into flames if it gets much hotter, and the swass, swack, and swalls will be unpleasant to say the least. Jamie and I have developed a series of code words on our trips to climates fairer than ours. It started with swass, a combination of the words “SWeaty” and another word which I won’t elaborate on – I’m sure you can guess. As time went on, and the heat got hotter, we added swack to the lexicon – again a combination of SWeaty, this time combined with “bACK”. I don’t think I need to explain what swalls are, or swoobs. I’ve mentioned in the past that we’re a bit juvenile, haven’t I?

Lunch was excellent, if a bit filling. Jamie had the best pasta dish of the trip in her opinion (ravioli with a rather generous portion of fresh truffles shaved over the top, for just €10 if you can believe that). As usual, we overate. We really have to remember to order a primi to share and a secondi to share or just one course if we’re going to have our own. I used to be afraid that the restaurateurs would be upset, but now I’m just greedy and forget. We lingered over lunch, giving ourselves time to cool off, and also because we had a good three hours until our tour was scheduled to start.

After finishing our prolonged lunch we still had about an hour before our tour, so after checking on the car (it had been left right next to the big piazza in a taxi zone after all, but was fine) we found the Tripoli Café to have a café freddo, a prosecco for Jamie, and a HUGE bowl of really tasty gelato while we waited for Nadia the tour guide. The Tripoli Café is a bit of a gem, not least because they have one of those giant fans that spray a fine mist of water as it blows. We’ve only ever seen them in Greece before, but they’re wonderful. The hour wait wasn’t quite as stifling as it could have been, and gelato makes everything just a bit better.

As 3pm arrived we stood up to wait at the designated spot in front of the fountain – we met fellow tourists and Fodorites WellTraveledBrit and partner (LessTraveledGit as he prefers to be known). Soon after, Nadia arrived and we were off!

The Sassi of Matera is a bit of a dark spot on southern Italian history. The literal translation is the “Stone of Matera” – in fact it’s two separate but connected communities who until recently lived in a series of caves in the cliffs below Matera. By recently, I mean just that – the last family was finally convinced to leave in 1968. And by caves, I couldn’t be more literal – there was no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, and entire families lived in holes dug out of the soft rock, sometimes 15 people plus assorted pigs, sheep, chickens, donkeys, horses, and other livestock (really not kidding about this, evidently the pigs and chickens lived under the bed to provide warmth) living in holes 20 square metres big.

The caves are thought to be some of the earliest dwellings in Italy – some date back nearly 9000 years – how many can claim to be living in a room that has been inhabited that long? The living conditions were appalling, and according to Nadia the infant mortality rate was officially 50% but unofficially though to be closer to 80%. Since 1980, the Italian government has been trying to get some of the original Sassi inhabitants to move back to the caves, although much has been done to modernize them, including the addition of electricity, running water, plumbing, and external walls and windows to make the dwellings habitable by modern standards.

It’s shocking as one walks through the Sassi to think of what life must have been like not that long ago. We often take for granted the convenience of our lives, little thinking of the privations of so many. The extension of this thought is that this sort of living was eradicated from this part of Italy in 1968, however in many parts of the world today, people are still living in just this sort of poverty, if not worse. Enough sermonizing.

The tour was fantastic, and at more than three hours, gave us a really good look into life in the Sassi. Nadia was excellent and very informative, letting us take as much time as we wanted poking around and stopping constantly to take photos. There is much to see in the Sassi, and I’d highly recommend a guide if you really want to see it.

The tour wrapped up at about 6:30pm (not bad for a start time of 3pm) and conveniently for us, just in front of the car. We said goodbye to Nadia and our fellow tourists and started up the car. Gazza wasn’t done having a laugh at our expense.

I’ve neglected to mention that July 1st is a feast day in Matera, and the town was getting ready. Lights were up all over the place, and the main street through town was being converted into a market. Gaz, offended in some way I think, felt that the fastest way back to the Masseria was directly through the madness of the centre of town. It was not fun driving, made worse by the Italian disregard for the rules of the road. I did well I think getting out of town, in that I didn’t kill any pedestrians who walked out into the middle of the street without warning, crash into any of the cars who turned left in front of me, or decided to stop in the middle of the road for no apparent reason.

After getting out of town, the drive home was easy. We weren’t in the mood to spend a lot of time looking for a place to eat, and weren’t actually all that hungry – it sounded like a final night at Villa Leta was in order. You just can’t go wrong with a good pizza, a good bottle of wine, and a straight 5km drive home.
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Old Jul 6th, 2012, 05:07 PM
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"gelato makes everything just a bit better"

Words to live by indeed.
hanabilly is offline  
Old Jul 7th, 2012, 01:35 AM
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swalls and swoobs- haha, we might pinch those codes!!!

we also could never resist ordering more food than necessary and also saw the delight in a simple pizza and beer!!

its a shame as we used ti love our local village pizza here in surbiton, but now it never quite lives up to il tronco in puglia!!

i;m not sure i could cope with that heat so bravo!!
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 04:54 AM
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More, please.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 05:26 AM
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You guys totally crack me up. Swoobs and Swalls, I understand and appreciate the humor (it also reminds me of an Alec Baldwin, Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer SNL skit, Schweaty B@*%s).
You are always great fun to travel with!
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 05:26 AM
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I remember on another thread ( eks?) that Nadia said that she had grown up in Maters but had not known about the sassi until adulthood. I am not one ofr guides generally, but she sounds like a winner.
We are thinking about a night or two in Matera as I hear it is wonderful after dark.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 05:42 AM
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jubilada - i remembered something like that being said too.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 10:28 AM
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annhig, it is hard to imagine. You can see the sassi from the new town, so it must mean that she knew the caves were there but hadn't seen them or known people lived in them. I wonder those kids didn't go to school???
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 10:44 AM
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Hey guys,

No they didn't interact at all and the kids didn't go to school until very recently. The sassi had two different sections and even they didn't interact with each other. They never interacted with the new town folks.

Families had many many children and the parents would in many cases leave the kids at home for days on end overnight all alone to fend for themselves and many died. The official child death rate was 50% but they think in reality it could be up to 80%. There was no running water, no sanitation, and the animals lived in the house with them. This only changed very recently when they basically forced the people living there to move to the new city due to the sanitation issues.

The sassi were empty for years but the government now gives incentives to people who renovate and open businesses there so they have been in many cases remodelled with working plumbing.

It's very surreal and very sad!!
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 01:55 PM
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I'm trying to get to the end of this great trip report, but it is chock-a-block with great detail and much laughter.

I'm not at the end yet, and I realize that this last bit is a really striking story to hear happening in the latter half of the 20th century, but how good to at least know about it.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 02:48 PM
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...We stayed in a cave hotel on a cold, wet night; they had
dehumifiers running all the time to try to control the streams
of condensation rolling down the walls. Winters must have been absolute hell in the sassi.

Looking out over the chasm at night was a sight I will never
forget - it's such a hauntingly beautiful place - at least
for a visitor from the 21st century.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 02:51 PM
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The sassi were a sight to behold. We were so glad we had a tour, it made the town really come alive!

Day Fifteen – Driving in the Dark

As it was the last full day of our holiday, there wasn’t a lot on our itinerary, so we managed one last lie-in. Our plan included a trip down to Gallipoli for a visit (the Italian Gallipoli, not the one in Turkey), and dinner at a Masseria just north of Ostuni, and that was it.

The promised hot weather actually arrived and the mercury was topping 35 at 11am when we finally left the room. The drive down was, as with so many of the drives in this part of Italy, not particularly scenic. Gaz took us straight to the town for a change with no bizarre detours through side-roads or off-ramps. We even managed to find a parking spot just this side of the causeway to the historic centre on its island, and even better, it was free.

We were forced by heat to stop for a gelato before crossing the causeway. In addition to the temperature, the wind itself was hot, and the humidity had gone up that close to
the sea. The gelato helped, as it does with so many things. We had an entertaining view of what appeared to be a traffic warden trying to direct traffic at the roundabout just before the causeway, although he didn’t seem to be doing much other than trying to look official (tucking his ears into his cap didn’t help with looking official, it made him look like a small schoolboy in a borrowed uniform).

At one point, two men in a small Fiat decided to park pretty much in the roundabout itself so they could go have a coffee. An argument ensued, which we observed with great interest. Who would win? The official in the uniform, who was clearly correct in pointing out that the middle of the roundabout was a no-parking zone? Or the burly Italian parker whose counter argument (as far as we could discern from the gesticulations) was that he wasn’t actually blocking traffic as such, and he was just going to be in the café beside the car if there were any problems. In North America, the argument wouldn’t have happened in the first place, but if it did, the official would have won, no contest. As this is southern Italy, the car remained where it was, the burly gentleman had his coffee, and the official tucked his ears up a bit farther under his cap.

Gallipoli is an interesting town, in a tourist sort of way. There is the expected street of souvenir shops selling the same crap you can find in any other seaside town in most of the world I expect, only this crap has “Gallipoli” painted on the side. The side-streets, however, are rich with local life. There were tiny grocery stores clearly catering to locals, houses with families going about their daily lives, and even a wedding in procession down one of the sidestreets for photos.

We wandered around for a bit before deciding it was time for lunch. We found a restaurant just above the beach area that had a nice view over the water, if nothing else. We haven’t really had a good fish meal so far on this trip, despite spending a full week on or near the coast. We threw caution to the wind as it was our last day, and each ordered the fish of the day, which didn’t have a final price, just a price per 100grams. It could have gone very badly for our credit card balance.

As it turned out, the branzino (sea bass) was very tasty indeed, and while a good size for each of us, not enough to break the bank. In fact, it was only €40 for both fish, which I don’t think is really that bad. To be honest, it was worth almost that much for the view alone over the blue and green waves for an hour or so.

After lunch we took a walk on the beach itself. It wasn’t the nicest beach in the world – not very big, loads of stuff in the water (plastic bags, etc), and fairly cloudy water at that. We puddled around for a few minutes, then decided we’d had enough of the Gallipoli seaside for the day.

The walk back to the car was a bit of a trial – very little shade as it was the middle of the day, and the heat was on full. I’m not complaining, as I love the heat, however I think Jamie was ready to melt (from a distance I probably looked like I was literally melting – sweat pouring from pretty much every pore, not a pleasant sight). The car was baking hot, thankfully the A/C kicks in amazingly quickly in little Giancarlo. After a brief disagreement with Gaz, we were back on the highway heading back to the Masseria for an early afternoon.

I managed a nap for an hour or so, as that seems to be the way things are done in Italy, while Jamie read. If it’s going to be that hot, it’s the only way to survive I think. After the worst of the afternoon sun had passed, we moved to the pool to catch a few more rays and read for an hour or so.

Dinner was booked at a Masseria a couple of kilometres north of Ostuni. We headed out for the 30 minute drive about 30 minutes before we needed to, thinking that giving ourselves a 30 minute buffer would be plenty, even given the condition of the roads in Italy. What we hadn’t counted on was Gaz wanting another laugh at our expense.

He felt that the fastest way to the Masseria would be directly through the centre of Ostuni, as they were having some sort of festival in the main square, complete with full stage, sound system, seating, etc. It’s worth noting that the main road through Ostuni passes through this square. It was unpleasant. There were people everywhere, randomly crossing the road with no warning and generally without looking to see if there was a car (me) coming. As bad as the pedestrians were, the other drivers were worse. As traffic was bad, they threw what little caution they had to the wind to try to get where they were going as quickly as they could. It was pandelerium, however due to my extraordinary driving skills we survived, and made it to dinner only 15 minutes late (that’s right, a 30 minute drive took 1 hour 15).

The Masseria Il Frantoio was beautiful. They’d clearly spent a lot of time restoring it – having said that it is quite a bit more expensive than ours. As we were late, we missed the guided tour, but managed to catch the last little bit, including the section where they tried to sell us some olive oil. After the tour was dinner.

This particular Masseria is evidently known for the quality of their food, and dinner didn’t disappoint. For €59 each we had an eight-course meal, complete with two bottles of wine and as much water as we wanted. The dishes themselves were quite good, with the octopus and zucchini plate being the clear winner. The only issue I had with the meal is that it featured the local cuisine, which is very good and proper, however the local cuisine is “cucina povera”, or poor food, maybe not conducive to the style of presentation that I think they were looking for. That being said, it was all quite tasty, and the service was impeccable.

The drive home was a bit of a nightmare. We’d spent quite a bit of time at dinner, and didn’t leave until midnight. This part of Italy is DARK at night, as there don’t seem to be any street lights other than right in the centre of town. Gaz tried to take us back through Ostuni again, but we told him to piss off and followed the signs for the highway. Even that was unlit, which made for an interesting drive at 120km/hr.

Our last night in Italy and I think we’re both a bit sad to be leaving, and not just because London is the middle of the worst June in recorded history apparently. We’ve had a great trip, and are looking forward to planning our next adventure in Italy, preceded by some Italian lessons for both of us.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 03:36 PM
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Bravo, great trip! So sorry that it's coming to an end.
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 04:18 PM
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Can't wait for your next trip -
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Old Jul 7th, 2012, 11:02 PM
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loved the report- brought me back to our trip.....eh london's not so bad, its actually still very warm so the rain is a nice cooler!

get what you mean re il frantoio and local cuisine.
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Old Jul 8th, 2012, 02:42 AM
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Well, I imagine you are home again in London now. Thanks for sharing a wonderful trip and making me laugh every day.
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Old Jul 8th, 2012, 06:51 AM
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yes - I hope that you are enjoying the tennis and the SUNSHINE!

[RATS - we've got rain - again!]
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Old Jul 8th, 2012, 07:02 AM
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Excellent and great to read about less travelled-to places.
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