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

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

May 8th, 2009, 04:35 PM
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Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 18,392
Under the Puglian Clouds -- Panecott's Trip to Italy's Heel

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....
panecott is offline  
May 8th, 2009, 05:17 PM
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Looking forward to more - fun to read about a less-visited area!
thursdaysd is offline  
May 9th, 2009, 06:52 AM
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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.

nukesafe is offline  
May 9th, 2009, 07:25 AM
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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!
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 9th, 2009, 07:32 AM
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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.
panecott is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 07:46 AM
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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.
panecott is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 08:36 AM
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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!
thursdaysd is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 08:39 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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I hope I get to enjoy that area as much as you have, thank you so much for this report. I can't wait to read more!
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 08:41 AM
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Funny, I thought her saga so far is encouraging!! I have driven a lot in Italy and know you can easily get lost but that goes with the territory so to speak.
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 10:11 AM
Join Date: Dec 2004
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Bookmarking. Thanks Panecott for posting this report! Puglia is one of the many regions in Italy I'd love to see but still have yet to visit.
bniemand is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 10:12 AM
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Panecott this is superb! The more I read, the more I want to visit Puglia. Please continue!
ekscrunchy is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 10:14 AM
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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.
panecott is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 11:15 AM
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Thank you, Panecott, for a great report. Matera and the region is definitely on my list.
Treesa is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 11:42 AM
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Really enjoyed this. OP did TR in which sassi a part and I'm hoping DH and I can get there. Great report!
TDudette is offline  
May 10th, 2009, 12:57 PM
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For those interested in Matera, please take a look at May 2009 Saveur magazine article by Francine Prose--great photos and recipes:

ekscrunchy is offline  
May 11th, 2009, 07:34 AM
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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.
panecott is offline  
May 11th, 2009, 09:03 PM
Join Date: Oct 2005
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Fabulous report!! You visited many places that I missed. SOrry you did not stop in Trani. If you ever visit again, don't miss it, we loved it.

Waiting for more.
Flame123 is offline  
May 12th, 2009, 09:10 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 18,392
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...
panecott is offline  
May 12th, 2009, 09:31 AM
Join Date: Sep 2007
Posts: 7,133
I've been following your story with great interest. You made the right decision -- this last family segment was the best yet!
Fra_Diavolo is offline  
May 12th, 2009, 09:42 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 11,134
panecott, your report is why I got hooked on Fodors in the first place, so personal yet universal. I am so enjoying your visit with your relatives!
SeaUrchin is offline  

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