We’d Like Flowers Abroad for Dinner

There wasn’t a lot going on in Ostuni’s main piazza early Sunday morning.  The few tourists that were up and about were heading for the centro storico and the locals who weren’t checking out the goods at the antique market – which, as I’d found out, was alive and well (previous post) – were probably at church.

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Piazza della Libertà. Ostuni. It’s easy to tell the locals from the tourists. The locals are wearing jackets and long pants. The tourists are in short sleeves.

I had a quick look at the map I’d picked up at the local IT, which stands for Informazioni Turistiche, not Instant Teller, and then did what I usually do in places like this.  I put it away.

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Having visited quite a few of Italy’s medieval centres I knew that trying to follow the map through the twisting alleys and dead ends would be molto seccante (seck-kahn-tay). Very drying out of the spirit. Besides, no matter which alley I took, I’d eventually come to a wall, part of the ancient fortifications against invaders. If I got really exasperated, it was just a matter of looking up and using the spires of one of the churches to take my bearings.

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In Ostuni’s centro storico put away the maps and meander.  You’ll never really be lost.

People have been living here for a long time.  Since the Stone Age in fact.  During the tour I took of an olive grove on the outskirts of Ostuni (next post), there was quite a bit of talk about some ancient people called i Messapii.  The personable, young guide was so impressed by my knowledge about a rather delightful bit of trivia concerning the origin of the olive tree, I hated to disillusion him,  so I decided to look them up later.  I was relieved to see that although scholars are pretty sure the Messapians – I loved the meaning of their name  – ‘Between the two Seas’ – arrived in Puglia in the 8th century B.C., they don’t  know exactly where they came from. Whatever their origins – probably Greece – the original settlement was (as usual) destroyed and another group of Greeks arrived and built a new settlement, which they called Astu Neon (New Town).  Ostuni.

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As you stroll along the alleys you go from deep shade to brilliant sunshine.

Every Canadian who is lucky enough to have a cottage or lots of cottage-owning friends knows that there is one downfall to the season they have been longing for all winter.  Mosquitoes.  There are two main lines of defence against the wretched little vampires.  Mosquitoes prefer dark colours, so you can try wearing light-coloured clothes – not a very practical option at the cottage – at least not the cottages I’ve been to – or, assuming you can get past the long list of nasty-looking ingredients, slather yourself with insect repellent.  For those of us who spend most of our summer languishing in the city, mosquitoes aren’t much of a problem.  Instead it’s the vast expanses of asphalt parking lots and dark-walled office towers that suck up the heat, making walking along the city streets almost as unbearable as in the depths of winter.

And what, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with Ostuni’s historic centre?

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Is that periwinkle? I wonder who the stone step is for?

The answer lies in the dark days of the 17th century when one of the many plagues that regularly decimated populations throughout Europe swept through Ostuni.  To help the barely living steer clear of the houses of the soon-to-be-dead, someone came up with the idea of painting the walls of the infected houses in a colour that was easily identifiable and that there was a good, handy supply of.   As we saw in ‘It Doesn’t Exist!’ (July 17, 2016) one thing that is readily available in Puglia is limestone. The Ostunesi  took the limestone, ground it into a fine dust, added water to create a milky wash and started painting.  After a while of this practical, but perhaps ethically questionable practice, they noticed something strange.  Many of the people in the painted houses did not die.   They didn’t know it at the time of course, but their milky wash was calcium carbonate. Not the rock-dissolving type that creates lamas, but a form that is antibacterial.  And a natural insect repellent.

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Modern windows give a hint of the work involved in modernizing the ancient structures.

Now that fighting plagues has given way to attracting tourists as a prime concern, the walls of the town are still kept a pristine white by generous government subsidies – homeowners are refunded 50% of the cost of white washing their walls every two years. And of course, unlike the dark-hued towers that seem all the rage with architects these days, those white walls reflect the glaring rays of the Puglian sun, making the city much cooler.

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Who knows when this door was last opened?

I was trying to get a shot of the entire cathedral – a challenge in the narrow spaces – when I heard a vaguely familiar voice.  ‘Madame!’  I turned around and there was the French couple I’d met the day before.  I had been about to pour another stash of coins into the parking machine when someone called out,  ‘Attention madame! La machine ne marche pas!’  (The ticket machine isn’t working!)  Now if there’s one thing that gets me riled up when I’m travelling, it’s other tourists who act as if their language is some kind of lingua franca understood by everyone else.  English speakers are the worst offenders.  And just because English is the closest we have in our time to a world language, that’s no excuse.  When you’re in a country where your native language is not the language of that country, the least you can do is start off with the local version of ‘Hello’, or ‘Excuse me’, which in Ostuni would be Buon giorno or Scusi.  Sometimes I pretend not to understand and answer in Italian, but the poor fellow – he was probably in his late 60’s – looked genuinely concerned and more than a bit frazzled, so putting aside this linguistic bestia nera (black monster), I said, en français, figuring my account with my guardian angel could probably do with a top up – Comment? (Pardon?)

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He showed me the ticket the machine had printed out after he had inserted beaucoup de monnaie.  The expiry time was 9,35.  It was evening by now.  Italy uses the 24-hour clock. His ticket expired at 9,35 am.  Maybe he did have a point.  I looked at the machine again. The time showing was 17,57.  I didn’t have a watch on but that seemed about right.  I looked at his ticket again.  With all the attention focused on the offending 9,35, I hadn’t noticed another time entry at the top of the ticket – 17,55 – the time his ticket must have been printed.  I was already pretty frazzled myself with the whole parking thing in Ostuni, and switching over to French definitely put a strain on the circuit board, so it took me a minute to figure out what was going on.  After 20,00 (8 pm), parking in Ostuni, assuming you can find a spot, is free.  The machines do not give change.  However, any money you put in the machine that would cover past 8 pm goes towards the following day.  In smaller letters under the expiry time was the expiry date – May 23.  This was May 22.  When they caught up with me at the cathedral, they looked totally relaxed.  In fact madame had a twinkle in her eye.  ‘Il faut que je vous raconte ce qu’on a fait.’ (I have to tell you what we did.)  Before our encounter at the parking machine, they had driven up Via Cattedrale all the way to the cathedral, before it occurred to them they were in a pedestrian zone.  No wonder they were frazzled. It was hard to know which was more amazing – that they would even think it was OK to drive up the narrow, congested lane or that they weren’t spotted by one of the wretched vigili.

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Strangely, the cathedral wasn’t painted white. Had it enjoyed some kind of heavenly immunity during the plague?

The French couple and I were lucky we hadn’t decided to visit Ostuni in August when, according to an article in the Brindisi Report (Aug. 22, 2012), finding a parking spot is like finding un ago in un pagliaio (pal-yigh-oh). Christian Continelli, councillor of the Pdl – Popolo delle Libertà di Ostuni – was upset that his otherwise splendida Ostuni, the city with the largest number of tourists in the entire Brindisi province, could be so unwelcoming as to hit those tourists with hundreds and hundreds of parking fines, many of which were, in Consigliere Continelli’s opinion, of highly dubious merit.  He also made a number of  withering comments (which I quite enjoyed) about the ‘indisciplina stradale degli ostunesi (lack of road discipline of the locals) as well as the troppa toleranza (excessive tolerance) shown to them by the vigili compared to the tourists.  No wonder the owner of the B&B hadn’t shared my worries about all the NO STOPPING signs.

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In front of the cathedral the lane widens.  Taking advantage of the rare, open space, a bar nearby brings out tables and chairs when the weather is bello.

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As the sun began its slow descent, even narrow alleys filled with inviting places for the evening aperitivo.

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The pointy, purple bean bags looked terribly out of place amidst the medieval surroundings, but given how many there were, I had a feeling this would be a lively place later on.

L’Osteria del Tempo Perso looked like a lovely place for dinner, but I had other plans.  I was going to have dinner on the B&B’s rooftop terrace.

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The inviting entrance to the Osteria of Lost Time.

I had put a bottle of vino bianco in the fridge earlier that day.  The only thing left was to pick up dinner from the Friggitoria nearby. The ‘Frying Place’ was a combo fish market, deli, trattoria and take-out.   While I was waiting for my pasta alle vongole a British couple arrived.  They tentatively approached the counter.  ‘We want to eat,’ the Brit said to the young fellow, ‘all’estero, ‘(al-less-teh-roh) . ‘No,no, no!’ the woman interrupted, all’estero means ‘abroad’.   Complimenti, I thought.  She was right.  Then she turned to the young man and explained, ‘We want to eat fiori.'(fyoh-ree).  We want to eat flowers.  To his credit the young fellow didn’t show the slightest sign that anything was off, and even more impressively, rather than possibly embarrassing her by asking if they wanted to eat fuori (fwoh-ree), he used another expression. Volete mangiare all’esterno? (al-less-tair-no) You want to eat outside?  They did.  Now that where they were going to eat was settled, there was the matter of what.  They wanted fish, which I thought was very adventuresome of them.  There was an enormous selection to choose from.  They examined the various fish closely, finely agreeing on a big, white one.  Dorado.  The young man asked how they wanted it cooked.  Al forno?,  he suggested.  They didn’t have a clue and he apparently spoke not a word of English – not even simple terms like ‘baked’.  I was on the verge of helping out, when they smiled and said that ‘Al forno’ would be wonderful.  And Sì, sì, they also wanted some patate fritte.

It was such a pleasure to watch them navigate what can become a trying, daily ritual – I’ve seen many a couple who did not treat each other with anything remotely close to the patience and good-natured humour these two showed each other – that I was almost sorry when my order appeared.  It was only later, as I was setting up my dinner on the rooftop terrace, that it occurred to me what they had ordered.  Fish and chips.

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 Pasta alle vongole (clams), vino bianco and a view.  Buon appetito!

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La Città Bianca. The White City is still visible long after the surrounding area melts into darkness.

Next – Athena’s Gift

 

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Trust is Tested in the White City

Travel is brutal, wrote Cesare Pavese, it forces you to trust strangers...’   Pavese was born in northern Italy in 1908, which meant that his formative years would coincide with two of the darkest periods in Italy’s long history.  An experience that no doubt exacerbated a natural inclination to melancholy.  Paul Theroux, the inveterate traveller and travel writer, has a much more sanguine take on the issue, but even he adds a sobering note.  ‘Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.‘ (The Tao of Travel, Enlightenments from Lives on the Road).  While I have never experienced travel as the brutalità Pavese wrote about, or been in a situation where I had to trust strangers with my life, my willingness to trust in strangers has occasionally been tested.  Most recently in Ostuni, my next base.

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Ostuni. The black specks are rondini (swallows). An old proverb warns that ‘una rondine non fa primavera’. (a lone swallow does not make it spring) but by mid-May it was more like summer and there were lots of them circling high over Puglia’s Città Bianca.  White City.

Ostuni is a short drive south of the garden in the lama. (previous post).  To be precise, according to Google maps, it’s either 41.8 k via the SS16 and E55 or, there’s Option B, which is 39 k via the SS16 and SS16 (?!).  The first will take 38 minutes, the second 39.  Like I said, it’s a short drive.   Però – (peh-roe) –  it’s one of those short/long drives that Italy has an astonishing array of.   They are all bellissimi and, depending on whether you are designing the itinerary, driving or enjoying the view, either exasperating or exhilarating.  The most notable (notorious?) of course being the SS163  along the Amalfi Coast where, if you are so foolish as to, for example, decide to drive from Sorrento to Amalfi, you’re looking at well over an hour of white knuckle, heart-stopping curves with the occasional oncoming bus – so be prepared to back up.  All to cover 31 km. In the off season.  And if it weren’t for the fact that most of the time there is hardly enough room for one lane in each direction, let alone room to pull over to give the driver an opportunity to see what the passenger is oohing and aahing about, it would take even longer.

But Puglia’s SS16 is a wide, flat, mostly straight 4-lane highway and the cars really zip along. Except when it’s a ponte (pon-tay), which usually means ‘bridge’, but sometimes, as in the weekend closest to June 2, which I had forgotten is the Festa della Repubblica, a national holiday, means ‘long weekend’.  At those times, as the signora at one of the B&B’s I stayed in warned me, the highway becomes un macello.  ‘Ma-chel-low’ is one of those words that seem rather harsh the first time you hear it – its primary meaning is ‘slaughterhouse’, but what she meant was that it would be bumper to bumper cars, packed to the gills with food, people and stuff, all heading for their favourite beach.

So what makes the SS16 a short/long drive?  The exits.  With all the beautiful and luxuriant oleanders along the highway, it’s often hard to see the signs for the exits.  But that’s not the problem.

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A photo from the highway would have been ideal, but wisdom prevailed so this photo from a country road will have to do. That thin, green line is the top of a huge tour bus pummelling up the SS16.

The problem is the sheer number of exits.  At 120 km, which, going by the number of cars that passed me, was slow by local standards, there seemed to be one every five minutes.  And through breaks in the oleanders near those exits I caught tantalizing glimpses of the coast and olive groves and wheat fields.

I didn’t take all of the exits.  But it was probably a good thing I was on my own.

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Later I would be visiting Alberobello, the site with the highest concentration of Puglia’s iconic stone huts. These ones are probably used to store farm equipment or maybe provide shelter from storms.

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Nearby, on a previous trip, just a few weeks later in the season.

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If I was the farmer this is where I’d take my lunch break. And what a view!

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Some of the exits led all the way to the sea.

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With many hours of daylight still left for these meanderings, eventually I decided I better head inland.  Ostuni is only 8 km from the coast, but I knew that once I entered the city things would get complicato.  Molto complicato.  I took the following photo on my previous trip as I was walking along Corso Vittorio Emanuele towards the city’s historic centre.  The round signs with the red ‘x’ against a blue background – if you look closely you’ll see there are three of them along this short stretch – mean DIVIETO DI FERMATA. NO STOPPING. EVER.

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Is one really expected to take in all these signs and drive at the same time?

Parking anywhere near Italy’s historic centres is always a challenge.  After I had driven around one town a few times without seeing a single parking spot – not even one that a local might have been able to squeeze into – I pulled over and asked a fellow that looked like a local if he had any ideas.  ‘Ah signora, he replied in an ominous tone, parcheggiare qui è un’impresa.‘  An impresa (im-pray-zuh) is un’iniziativa importante e difficile.  You got it.  Parking may be ‘an important and difficult initiative’, but Italian is easy.  And if you believe that…

If parking was an undertaking in that village, it was almost un’impossibilità in Ostuni. I didn’t even try looking for the B&B while I was driving.  I headed to a parking lot a few blocks removed from the centro storico that I remembered from my previous trip and walked back.

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Because of the heat, the sky was hazy. Beyond the town the slightly darker band of blue is the sea.

Outside the historic centre, la città bianca is not all bianca.

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There were many times during this trip when I felt I was back in Sicily. This palace would have fit right into any of the baroque hilltop villages of south-eastern Sicily.

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It even had the gargoyles that support the balconies of those towns.

The last time I had been to Ostuni was in December.  It was damp and it rained a fair bit – there is a reason why prices are lower in the ‘off’ season – but coming from Toronto it was astonishing to see plants that were obviously left outside even in winter.

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What we call ‘tropicals’ could apparently survive the winter outdoors. In small pots with no insulation.

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Even on a cloudy day the narrow alleys weren’t at all gloomy.

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The only sign that this is December are the heavy, winter coats…

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… and a few Christmas decorations.

I was looking forward to seeing the centro on a hot, sunny day.  But first I had to take care of lodgings and the car.  I found the B&B easily enough.  But when I explained where I had parked my car, the owner didn’t seem too pleased.  Why hadn’t I simply pulled up in front of the B&B to check in and drop off my suitcase?  He didn’t seem at all concerned about the NO STOPPING signs.   In any event, he trudged all the way back with me to where I had parked my car.  I thought I’d done a very nice job of parking, so was a little miffed when he suggested that he drive it back to a more reasonable location.  But hey, it would be a lot more relaxing to be a passenger for a change.  Besides I was curious to see how he would navigate the one-way streets and confusing piazzas I’d just driven through.

What I hadn’t anticipated is that he would squeeze past a barrier, drive into a tiny piazza  and then turn off the motor.  Right next to a sign that looked a lot like the ones along Corso Vittorio Emanuele.   The only difference was it was missing one of the arms of the cross.  This, I knew, was a NO PARKING sign.  There was even an image of a tow truck hauling away a car in case you missed the blue circle outlined in red and the red slash.  It was more than a little awkward.  I was the straniera, the one from away.  He was the local, the one who presumably knew how things worked here. Still, among the many experiences I hoped to have on this trip, having my car towed was not one of them.

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At the risk of appearing foolish again, I pointed out the wording below the image of the tow truck.  E’ vietata la sosta in tutto il piazzale per svolgimento mercatino dell’antiquariato dalle ore 6 alle ore 21,30 di domenica 22 maggio 2016.  (No parking anywhere in the piazza due to the antique market from 6 am until 9:30 pm Sunday May 22, 2016.)  It was Saturday evening.  May 21.  I knew this and presumably so did he because he had checked my reservation before we set out for my car.  Nevertheless he waved his hand, dismissing my concern.  ‘Non si preoccupi. (Don’t worry.) Non c’è più.’  This second phrase – It isn’t here any more – was a little ambiguous.  It could have meant ‘it isn’t here because the powers that be decided to hold it somewhere else and forgot to take down the sign’ or, and this is how I interpreted it, ‘it isn’t here because they don’t hold it anymore.’  My little inner voice was screaming ‘NO, NO, NO!’ but what more could I say without being – what? unreasonable? ornery? unfriendly?   After all, what person in their right mind would park the car of a guest who was staying in his B&B where she would be sure to get a ticket?

When I came by the next morning and saw the market in full swing and my car – the only one around – with a ticket under the windshield wiper I was, well, I’ll leave it to you to imagine how I felt.  I looked around to see if the wretched vigile who had written the ticket was anywhere in sight.  Then I walked over to a group of vendors who no doubt had been curious to have a look at the dimwit foreigner the car belonged to.  I tried not to vent too much – they weren’t to blame – as I told them how I had happened to end up parked next to the NO PARKING sign. They did a lot of tsk tsking, which helped a bit, but I was shaking, I was so upset – which is why the photo they suggested I take is partly out of focus.  Then they urged me to take the ticket to the B&B fellow right away and get him to take care of it.   Which I did. He was very apologetic, had mixed up the dates, of course he would pay the fine, but when I took the ticket out of my purse, he almost shouted at me, ‘But signora, they’ll give you another ticket!’   Now I felt angry and stupid.

There was no new ticket on my windshield when I got back to the car.  Had the vigile returned and the vendors persuaded him not to write a second ticket?  I don’t know.  In any event I moved my car to a spot nearby, put a bunch of change into the parking machine, put the receipt – right side up – on the dashboard and headed for Piazza della Libertà to have a cappuccino and recompose myself before setting off to explore the centro storico.

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With its view over the piazza and the narrow road that led to the centro storico, Caffe Trieste was just the place to recompose oneself.

Trust is a tricky thing.  Even at home with people you know, or who live in the same community.  When we travel among strangers, it’s an even bigger leap of faith.  Or maybe not.  I’m not sure.  On the road, we are just passing through. The stakes aren’t usually as high as with people we are close to.  In any event, it seems to me there are two types of travellers – without getting into the hornets’ nest of the travellers vs. tourists argument – the ones that are totally self-reliant, arm themselves with an array of electronic devices designed to reduce interaction with locals to the absolute minimum and then there are those who deliberately choose to rely on the locals for directions, advice and insights.  I can see the advantages of the first approach, but I always wonder, why bother going to a place if your goal is to have as little real interaction with that place as possible?  Why not stay home and watch a documentary?  There are lots of great ones.  On the other hand, as I had just experienced, there are definitive risks to the second approach.  Still, even though I could have done without the drama (and probably cortisol surge), my car didn’t get towed, the guilty party was going to take of the fine and, as they say, tutto è bene che finisce bene.  All’s well that ends well.   Besides, who wants to be like the cat Mark Twain wrote about?  ‘We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid.  She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.’

In my experience, getting burned occasionally on one of life’s hot stove lids vale la pena (vah-lay lah pay-nuh), literally ‘is worth the pain’.  It’s a risk I’m willing to live with.

Next:  Revisiting the White City

 

 

 

It Doesn’t Exist!

As much as I craved the sea, there were a couple of things that now and then lured me away from Puglia’s spectacular coastline.

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As you walk along the path between Baia dei Turchi and Torre dell’Orso (Turks’ Bay and Tower of the Bear – love those names!) there’s the never-ending temptation to go just a little bit further to see what lies beyond the next rocky outcrop.

The chance to visit a garden was one of those things.  Especially in a place like Puglia, where almost all the land that isn’t covered in rock has been planted with olive trees and vineyards since the days of the ancient Greeks.  So when I stumbled across a garden/nursery close to Monopoli – there really is such a place – it’s midway between Polignano and Ostuni, my next base – I was intrigued.  It was called Lama degli Ulivi.   Up until now, apart from the animal (only one ‘l’ in Italian), which had yet to come up in everyday conversation, the only meaning I knew for lama had to do with a coltello (knife) or una lama a doppio taglio.  A blade that cuts two ways.   A garden called ‘Blade of the Olive Trees’ was definitely something worth checking out.

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Of course, once you get to that rocky outcrop there’s always another one. And another.

To make sure the garden wasn’t just a ruse to attract customers to the nursery’s cassa (cash register), I roamed around the Internet a bit.  What I found was not encouraging.  Ma dov’è??? (But where is it???) wrote Domenico from Rome.   OK, I thought, maybe it’s some northern, city guy out of his element.  But then there was a fellow from Taranto, one of Puglia’s bigger cities, who lamented,  Difficile da trovare, il navigatore impazzisce.  (Difficult to find.  The ‘Navigator’ – as Italians call the GPS – goes crazy.)  Given that Taranto is only 65 k from the garden, this was a little unsettling.  But it was a reviewer from Salerno, a city on the east end of the Amalfi Coast, that really had me wondering if I shouldn’t just skip the garden and check out more of the coast.  Non esiste! he started off. (It doesn’t exist!) Non c’è modo di trovarlo, he continued. (There’s no way to find it).  And instead of going crazy, the navigatore in his car had taken him altrove (a wonderfully evocative word that brings up visions of vast, unknown places).  Adding insult to injury,  nessuno in zona lo conosce (no-one in the area knows about it) and after driving around for three hours he’d come up with a big, fat nulla.  On a slightly less agitated note he added that, in compenso, the whole area was full of ulivi secolari bellissimi.

The nice thing about having ‘planted one’s cabbages’ as the French say, is that you can go on longer trips.  I was going to be in Puglia for almost three weeks.  If I wasted a half-day on a wild, goose chase – pazienza. 

Since I am a Luddite and never use a navigatore, I looked up the directions on the garden’s website.  Given the experiences of Domenico and company, Come raggiungerci (how to reach us) looked suspiciously straightforward.  Take the SS16, the four-lane highway between Bari and Brindisi, get off at the Monopoli – San Francesco da Paola exit and follow the signs for Vivai Capitanio Stefano.

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In the Fasano plain south of Polignano, many of the olive trees are 2,500, even 3,000 years old. They are so revered there is a special name for them – olivi secolari – not ‘secular’ as the computer gnomes suggest, but ‘centuries old’ from secolo meaning century.

I was a bit nervous as I whizzed by the various exits for Monopoli and then I saw the sign for San Francesco da Paola.  I took my time on the narrow off-ramp and when I reached the inevitable, multi-directional cross-road, I was relieved to see a sign for Vivai Capitanio Stefano.  With a helpful arrow pointing the way.  In case you’re thinking ‘helpful’ is redundant, you probably have not done a lot of driving in Italy.  Despite years of driving there, every trip there are always a couple of arrows that mess me up.  Soon I was on a narrow, country road surrounded by the ulivi secolari bellissimi  the Salento reviewer had written about.

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I’ve visited a lot of olive groves in Italy but I’d never seen the trimmed branches gathered around the base of the trees. A way to retain moisture in the arid landscape?

One of the (many) times I stopped to take photos of the olive trees, I heard bleating nearby.  I couldn’t see any sheep, but a bit further along the road I saw the pastore (pass-toh-ray).

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They do like to stick together. Beyond the sheep, a stone tower supports a precarious branch.

The shepherd saw me too and since I had been taking photos of his sheep it seemed rude not to say hello.  Unlike the stereotypical image of a lone wolf – bad image – try again – solitary figure who shuns social intercourse, this shepherd was eager to chat and was clearly very proud of his pecore (pay-coh-ray).  He owned 100 hectares, which struck me as an impressive chunk of land (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), but then I live in a city where semis on 25 foot wide lots are going for a million dollars and more.  It had cost him 100 million euros.  This seemed rather a lot of money for a shepherd to put together, but my twitch-prone eyebrows must have stayed in place for once because without skipping a beat he added that in addition to la terra propria (his own land), he had another 100 hectares in affitto.  Rented.

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Herd mentality and all, there always seems to be one that likes to keep an eye on things.

I followed the sheep as they moved from mound to mound of clipped branches.  And the shepherd followed me.  Or was he following his sheep?  In any event, my self-appointed guide continued to tell me about life in the region, which was, like so many places in Europe nowadays, molto difficile (deef-fee-chee-lay).  You could faticare the whole day long for 60 or 70 euros and then the government would take half.  (This I knew to be accurate because the owner of one of the B&B’s I stayed in showed me his receipt book.)  The shepherd sighed.  Italy was going through un periodo molto brutto.  A very difficult time. Coming from someone who was clearly old enough to have lived through the horrors and deprivations of World War II, this was indeed a grim reflection.

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It wasn’t yet 10 am – opening hour at the garden – and it was already pretty hot. The sheep headed for a bit of shade.

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The black tubes around the base of the olive trees are for irrigation.

We waxed philosophically about the state of the world for a few more minutes and then I told him I had to be going.  I was on my way to the ‘Blade Garden’.  He knew it – it was just a few kilometres further along the road – and despite the brutto periodo, we wished each other una buona giornata.

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I slowed down when I got to this gate, but there was no sign so I kept on going.

Maybe the owners had seen the reviews and put up new signs because there were lots of them – and they weren’t the pathetic little brown and white ones the government uses for Heritage Sites all over Italy – these were big, colourful affairs.  I turned into the driveway and you would have thought half of Puglia was there.  This being a Sunday, the other half was presumably al mare.  At the sea.  A young gardener turned parking lot attendant for the day directed me to an opening – I would not call it a spot – next to a stone wall.  ‘Eh, no! I protested,  Sono dal Canada.  There is no way I can park there’.  What I really meant was there was no way I’d be able to get out of there.  He laughed, had a chat with his colleague and waved me over to an off-limits area close by.

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Advertisement in Lecce, 110 km south of Monopoli.

I parked in a nice, big, isolated spot and looked around for the biglietteria (bill-yet-teh-ree-uh).  Ticket Office.  The entrance fee was €7, not an unreasonable amount, as long as the garden was worth seeing.  A big crowd was gathered by the entrance.  The ticket line-up? But when I got closer I could see they were just milling around chatting.  By this time it was 10:15, fifteen minutes past opening time.  What was going on?  There were two young girls at a table nearby. Were they selling tickets?  No, signora.  Oggi l’ingresso è gratis!   (Today the entrance is free.) It was June 5, the last day of the sixth edition of  Il Colore in Giardino (Colour in the Garden), a celebration of plants, flowers and fragrances with tastings, workshops and activities for the young and young at heart. I had expected it would be a bit crowded on Sunday, but I was surprised at how many people there were.  What I hadn’t counted on was that the organizers would choose the LAST day of the festival to hold the Opening Ceremonies.  I had arrived just in time for the festivities.  Two adorable ragazzini, all dressed up, cut a bright orange ribbon to great applause and then there were speeches from local dignitaries and the owner of the garden, followed by more applause.   Then we made our way under a leafy archway into the garden.

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From the entrance all that was visible of the garden was a Jacaranda, my favourite tree, in all its glory.

The reason I hadn’t been able to see the garden from the entrance was because it’s in a lama, which, I discovered when I looked it up, is una formazione carsica.  Then of course I had to look up carsica, which led me to one of those vicious, circular definitions.   (And for the record, even though I would love to take credit for it, ‘vicious’ is not me ranting, it’s the official term.) Carsica means Karst.  Una formazione carsica is ‘a Karst formation’.

So far my experience with geology had been limited to looking for just the right shape and texture of rocks for my garden.  However, mindful of the barrage of warnings about the importance of learning new things if we want to ward off the onset of any number of ways our brains can succumb to neurogenerative decline,  I googled formazione carsica.  From what I could make out it had to do with rainwater dissolving rocks, which was obviously wrong, so I tried ‘Karst formation’.  Same talk about the dissolution of rock by water and the same off-putting chemical formulas.  CO2 + H2O + CaCO3 = Ca(HCO3)2.  It was comforting to know my Italian wasn’t the problem, but not so comforting to think of what the source of the problem might be. I decided to take a breather and check out the images on the Italian websites. And almost right away I came to a photo that looked familiar.  Sure enough. It was the beach in Polignano a Mare.  The charming little cove I’d visited was  a lama.  A Karst/carsica formation!  I went back to the geology websites which suddenly didn’t seem quite so intimidating and here’s my take on how a lama – which is where all this started – is formed.

As rain falls it collects carbon dioxide (CO2).  If it’s not one of the violent cloudbursts we’ve been experiencing lately, rather than  running uselessly off to gardeners’ and our farmers’ despair, the rain hits the ground and seeps through the soil picking up a bit more CO2 along the way.  Eventually the rainwater turns into a (very weak) carbonic acid, which, given enough time, can dissolve bedrock –  IF that bedrock is composed of carbonate material aka calcium carbonate aka limestone.  Puglia is covered in limestone.  Over thousands of years the cracks and crevices that the CO2 laden rain drops had landed in dissolved, creating fissures and eventually underground caves and grottoes and charming, cozy inlets like the one in Polignano.  This unlikely process – or maybe that is the nature of all geological processes – explained why there were so many caves in Puglia. On a previous trip I’d been to one of the most spectacular (and safest for tourists to visit) – Castellana Grotte – and was hoping to take a boat ride or two to visit some of the grottoes along the coastline.  The garden of the Lama degli Ulivi had been created in the shelter of one of those ancient, geological formations.

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I’m sure the garden would be a delight any time of year, but as soon as I got my first glimpse of one of the installations, I was glad to be visiting it during the festival.

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Gorgeous labels.  Had they been set out especially for the festival?

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A path to the left led to the Jacaranda Tree I’d seen earlier.

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A tree fit for Paradise.

The fallen blossoms looked almost as lovely against the red soil so I took a couple of photos. Then I saw the Iris.

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A brilliant combo.  Or was it serendipity?

So that I could ID the flower  later, I took a photo of the label in front of the clump.  Dietes Iridioides looked like some kind of iris to me and sure enough, the ‘common’ English name is African Lily.  Also Fortnight Flower, which seemed odd, but like all of these common names, has a logical explanation.  The individual flowers last only one day, but the plant blooms in bursts that occur at two week intervals.

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The young woman with half her head chopped off – I was focused on the label and didn’t notice her at the time – is a photo, part of the exhibit from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bari.

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There was some discussion amongst the visitors as to whether the flower had been placed there or was growing out of the trunk.

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Elettaria Cardamomum. Cardamum Ginger. The flowers made me think of lychee.

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How do the flower petals not get pierced by all those thorns?

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A flower made for hummingbirds. Or is it the other way round?

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That first letter looks like a ‘J’, but there is no ‘j’ in Italian. It’s an ‘I’ which looks like an ‘l’ (el) in this font. It isn’t. It’s an upper case ‘i’.

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A pistachio tree? I’d seen some in Sicily on an agriturismo a few years before.

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Pistachio tree at an agriturismo near Agrigento, Sicily, 2005.

What I found on the first website for Pistacia Terebinthus didn’t seem right, so I checked a few others.  The sites varied a little in their emphasis but they were all in agreement as to  its principal use.   Turpentine.

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The tree I’d seen in Sicily, the one with the edible pistachios, was Pistacia vera.

The path led down to the lower level of the lama, where the exhibitors and vendors had set up their wares.

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So tempting. Especially the blue ones.

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Vivaio (vee-vigh-oh) from vivere (to live). So much better – and less confusing – than our ‘nursery’.

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Lemons and verbena. What a great combination. But not for eating.

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Here’s one I hadn’t seen before. Perfumed sand. According to the sign, it lasts 6-7 months and is re-perfumable.  Is ‘Summer Fruits’ meant to give it an exotic touch?

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When I got to this stand, I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask if they were real.

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Imagine being able to take one of these home and plant it – outdoors – in your garden.

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For some reason the beekeeper and all his equipment struck me as a strange sight in this tropical oasis.

The most surprising sight of all was off to the side.

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Canapa – yes, it’s what you think – the plant that regenerates man, the environment and the economy.

There were also two chiese rupestri (cave churches) but these were by guided tour only and with all the activities and demos and vendors, I couldn’t see any tours being given.  I didn’t mind, as I knew I would be seeing some later in my trip.  Besides, by now I was starving.  One last look at the Jacaranda and I headed back to the coast.

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Next:  The White City

 

 

 

Lunch bis

Last week’s post was the beginning of my trip to Puglia, but almost all of the photos are not from the day I arrived, but from the end of my trip.  Not because I had problems with my camera or because I was disoriented from jet lag or on edge because of the city’s reputation.  It was the weather.  On the train ride south from Rome, the bright sun and clear, blue skies that had drawn me to Puglia were overtaken by dark, looming clouds until the sky was as close to black as a sky can get.  And then it started to pour.  Taking the philosophical view of such things can only get you so far.  It was hard work not to let my face muscles settle into una faccia da funerale  (face fit for a funeral).   Luckily, the deluge began to abate as we approached Bari and by the time I walked out of the station, although some of the streets were flooded, it had stopped raining.

The skies were still overcast when I drove down to Polignano a Mare the next day, but the rain seemed to have passed.

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Ironically, Polignano a Mare looked much the same on that blustery, gray day in May as it had on my previous visit years ago in December.

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The small beach in the middle of the town was all but deserted on that December morning.

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The day after the storm il mare è ancora mosso. The sea is still moving.  An odd phrase, until you see the sea when it settles down and becomes calmo again.

The next day was glorious and it was bel tempo for the duration of my trip – in fact until the last morning in Rome when, as I waited to board the bus to the airport, it started to pour.   At the airport I learned how lucky I had been when a fellow passenger told me about the rain storms further north and showed me photos of the flooded square in front of the Louvre after the Seine overflowed its banks.

Because I wanted to see Polignano under sunny skies I stopped there again for lunch on my way back to Bari at the end of my trip.

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Some places are meant to be seen under sunny skies. Il mare calmo along the craggy coast north of Polignano.

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And the sun-lovers have returned to Polignano’s tiny beach.

I climbed back up to the bridge that crosses over the inlet and headed to the centro storico.

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The bridge, part of the Via Traiana, was built by Emperor Trajan (Traiano) as a shorter alternative to the Via Appia route from Benevento, 50 km north-east of Naples, to Brindisi in southern Puglia.

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Apparently, like many of the towns I visited, Polignano had also held a festival.

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Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, the heart of the centro storico.

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All the light displays reminded me of the time in Gaeta, a seaside resort about an hour south of Rome, when all the lights blew the town’s transformer.

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Like true gardeners everywhere, lack of space didn’t deter this plant lover. And what a great way to stop people from parking by your front gate.  A nice spiky aloe.

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The White Crane Flower aka Bird of Paradise is so elegant I wonder why we only ever see the orange variety in our florist shops.

Polignano a Mare’s economy is based principally on tourism, so not surprisingly the alleys of the medieval centre are lined with shops selling things tourists might want to buy.  The only thing I buy these days is olive oil, so I just usually walk by.  One enterprising vendor had come up with a way to make even tourists like me pause.  Little nuggets of wisdom written on the walls and staircases.   Most were short quotations from well-known figures.

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Don’t waste new tears on old sorrows. (Euripides)

The longest was a translation, I assumed by ‘Guido il flâneur‘, of a poem by the American poet, Edgar Lee Masters.  I translated – fairly literally – Guido’s translation back into English. ‘Wayfarer, the greatest sin of all is the sin of a soul that is blind before all others.  And the greatest joy of all is the joy of knowing the good we have seen and to see what is good in the miraculous moment.’  Then I thought I’d have a look at the original and I was reminded yet again of why I had shunned a career in translation.  ‘Passerby, sin beyond any sin is the sin of blindness of souls to other souls.  And joy beyond any joy is the joy of having the good in you seen, and seeing the good at the miraculous moment!’  The well-meaning Guido has got tripped up with that split, present perfect verb (Do people even use such terminology any more?).

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On the bottom step – Guido the stroller; not a writer, nor a poet or artist. Below the year of death are the words Spero non prima (Hopefully not before) and on the far right Lettore si! (Reader yes!)

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I was getting hungry so I stopped meandering and headed straight for La Balconata, the casual little trattoria/pizzeria where I had eaten three weeks earlier.  It was in a small piazza on the east edge of the town – which in Polignano means atop a cliff that drops straight down to the sea.

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View from the balcone.

It was as busy as the first time and the food – fritto di mare misto, verdure grigliate e vino bianco della casa – was as delicious as I remembered.

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Lunch bis.  Just as delizioso the second time round.

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Like so much of the coastline of Puglia, the area around Polignano a Mare is a place where you can walk and you can gawk, but you can’t (safely) do both at the same time. It still makes for a wonderful post-lunch stroll.

Next:  A Botanical Garden in an ancient Lama

 

In the Blue-Painted Blue

Nel blu dipinto di blu (knell blew dee-pean-toe dee blew) starts off the refrain of ‘Volare‘ (voh-lah-ray), one of those songs that came out of Italy in the 1950’s and were played, some would say, ad nauseum.  The lyrics of one made (in)famous by Dean Martin tell it all: ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore…  Italians  apparently detest the things.  In any event, during the seemingly endless days of bleak, gray skies and bone-chilling dampness that was last January, I fell into a bit of a funk.  A dispiriting sludge of cravings for blue and the feeling that the sun had taken off for another, more enlightened solar system.  Of course I knew the sun was up there all along, but after days and days of having not made an appearance, it might as well have not existed.  Like the good in some people.  You see how dark my thoughts were getting?  So I resorted to my favourite antidote.  I started planning a trip to Italy.  To a region I hadn’t been to in a while.  Puglia.  The ‘heel’ of Italy.  Between the blue skies and coastline – 800 km of it – my blue cravings were bound to volare.  Fly away.

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Baia dei Turchi. Bay of the Turks, near Otranto.

Of course, if I had just wanted to see a lot of water, I could have taken a road trip around Lake Ontario.  The shore of Lake Ontario is 1170 km long, so if you lop off a couple of the bigger inlets, you’re talking similar numbers.  But there was something wrong with that comparison, so I booked a flight to Rome and then, more because of a dislike for airports than a preference for train stations, a dislike that had been exacerbated by the hours-long delay in the departure of the connecting flight on my last trip to Puglia, I decided to go the rest of the way by train.

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The long, sandy beach of Torre dell’Orso. Tower of the Bear.

Then I started looking at places to stay.  In this era of world-wide access to lodgings, if you’re looking for a buon rapporto qualità-prezzo, January is not at all early for a May trip.  I soon had all the accommodations booked, starting with two nights in a charming B&B in Polignano a Mare, one of my favourite seaside villages on my last trip.

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Puglia has many beautiful beaches and many charming, coastal villages, but Polignano a Mare is one of the few places that has both.

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On my previous trip – in December! – I followed this fellow carry the chair from the centro storico (on the right) and set it down in the middle of the bridge overlooking Polignano’s beach, where he  proceeded to have a smoke and read his paper.

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They may be sick of the song, but they’re not above promoting a native son. Domenico Modugno, Italy’s first cantautore (singer songwriter), soared to international fame with ‘Volare‘ in 1958.

Then I looked at the train schedule.  And that is when I discovered the flaw in my lovely itinerary.  The fastest train, the Frecciargento (Silver Arrow), took four hours.  Which makes sense, given that the distance between Rome and Bari is 450 km, compared to 544 between Toronto and Montreal and the train between those two cities, which I had taken more than once, takes over five hours.  But I wasn’t thinking along those lines.  I was thinking about Italy, three and a half of which could easily fit into the province of Ontario.

My flight was scheduled to land in Rome at 11:40 am. By the time I made my way through customs, picked up my luggage, took the shuttle to the Stazione Termini in Rome, the earliest train I could reasonably hope to catch left at 14:45 and arrived at Bari Centrale at 18:49.  The good news was that the Bari station really is centrale.  The bad news was that the car rental agency, a ten-minute walk from the station, closed at 18:00.  Polignano was a forty-minute drive south of Bari.

After indulging in a bit of self-flagellation I pulled myself together and slightly buoyed by the thought that I had chosen the slightly more expensive cancellazione gratis option, I cancelled the reservation in Polignano and started looking at B&B’s in Bari.  It’s not a place I would have chosen to visit.   Until fairly recently its reputation has been, let’s say, chequered, and as a woman d’une certain âge travelling on my own, I am more comfortable erring on the side of caution, but I figured I could manage one night. Besides, what choice did I have? Despite the many warnings about visiting Bari Vecchia (Old Bari)  at night, I found a simple B&B in the heart of the centro storico.  If I had to stay in Bari, I wanted to stay in the most interesting part.  On the B&B site, the location was described as a 15-minute walk from the train station. What that didn’t take into account of course was the circuitous route a jet-lagged, first-time visitor was likely to take.

The first part, between the station and Old Bari, was easy.  It went through the ‘new’ part of the city that had been built in the 19th century on the Roman grid system.  Once I found Via Sparano all I had to do was keep on going.

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The shops along Via Sparano in New Bari were much more upscale than I had expected.

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So were the tacchi alti (high heels) and gonne corte (short skirts).

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A high-end kitchen store at the end of Via Sparano was one of the landmarks I used to find my way.

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Once I crossed over to the other side of Corso Emanuele and entered Old Bari things got a lot more challenging.

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Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the dividing line between New and Old Bari. Adding to the confusion for a first-time visitor, there is a second, smaller Vittorio Emanuele parallel to the main one.

Fortunately the B&B was close to Bari’s numero uno church, the Basilica di San Nicola and there were lots of signs pointing the way.  I managed to stay awake long enough to have dinner at a trattoria nearby and then it was Buona notte.   I had set my alarm for 8 am – none of that gentle switch-over to local time for me when I’m on a trip – but I needn’t have bothered.  The adrenalin rush of being on a trip had, as usual, reset my circadian rhythm.  After breakfast I had a couple of hours to explore the town before picking up my car at 11.  I probably could have picked it up earlier, but then I would have had to return it earlier at the end of my trip to avoid being dinged for an extra day.

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Wedding decorations soften the severe façade of the Basilica di San Nicola.

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Baby’s breath and roses look even more fragile against the fearsome creatures of the 11th century façade.

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Usually all the attention is on Saint Nicholas. (more on him in a later post.)

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Or on the ornately decorated ceiling.

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But today everyone’s attention was on the here and now.

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When I left to go pick up my car I was alarmed to see a pigeon sauntering across the carpet that had been laid out for the newlyweds. Hopefully it would not do the usual pigeon thing.

I spent most of my book-ended visit to Bari exploring the centro storico.  It really was a labyrinth and I got lost many times, but it was so small I knew that no matter which narrow alley I followed, I would eventually come to the sea or one of the major landmarks.

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It doesn’t take long before you realize that this is a place where a lot of life is lived in the street.

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In many stores taralli, the (much healthier) potato chip of Puglia are sold by weight.

More than any other region of Italy I’ve visited, signs of religious devotion are everywhere.

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Window of a bakery.

Paintings of saints and other religious figures were hung outdoors along the narrow alleys.

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I was reading the plaque next to this little shrine when a young woman approached me and offered to show me the way. Immediately I tensed up.  I was not lost.  I was not looking helplessly at a map. I was reading the plaque.  Two other women close by were watching.  Street smarts are not my forte, but even so I didn’t think this was one of those gypsy ambush situations.  Also, she had spoken to me in Italian.  What kind of con artist speaks Italian to a tourist?  I thanked her for her offer and explained that it was not necessario. I was fine.  Sto girovagando.  I used a big word for ‘wandering around’, thinking it might put her on notice that she wasn’t dealing with an ingenue, but someone who knew her way around Italian and by inference Italians.

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In this house the sweet little flower of Carmelo, the little lamb of Jesus, the venerable Sister Elia di Saint Clement, Teodora Fracasso was born.

Undaunted she insisted on showing me the way back onto the usual tourist track. Maybe she was just bored.  I have no idea.  What I was sure about was that there was nothing shady going on.  In fact the only untoward thing I saw happened in broad daylight in a busy alley close to the basilica.  The alley is lined with bars and small shops selling everything from fruit and vegetables, to fish and laundry detergent.  One of the smallest was a friggitoria.  It was maybe six feet wide.  Just enough room for a single line of customers and an enormous vat in which slices of what looked like polenta, a northern speciality, were fried.  I watched as a young man stepped into the tiny space, picked up one of the pieces from the vat, had a bit of a feel with his finger.  And put it back in the vat. Then he grabbed another piece and took off.  I love trying local foods, but this was one local speciality I decided to pass on.

I saw three weddings in the day and a half I spent in Bari.  After the ceremony friends and family usually mill around in front of the church while the newlyweds sign the documents that make the deed official.  Several of the young men in the group below had long tubes that looked a bit like fireworks.

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The long tubes weren’t candles like the ones I’d seen people carrying in religious parades.  But who sets off fireworks in broad daylight?

A few minutes later the mystery was solved. The crowd gathered near the church entrance and a series of little booms marked the triggering of the tubes which were filled, not with pyrotechnics, but with tiny pieces of white paper.  At the end of one of the ceremonies I watched – strangely, at least for a North American, most churches remain open to the hoi poloi  during wedding ceremonies – the priest reminded the attendees that in the interests of keeping the church clean and respectable, tossing rice or confetti or anything else was no longer permitted in the interior.

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How they totter around on the uneven stones in those heels is beyond me. Let alone with a toddler in arms.

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Eventually the bride – and presumably the groom, but he’s not always easy to spot – came out and it was kisses all round.

I left the celebrations to continue my meanderings.  About an hour later, in one of the alleys off Piazza Mercantile where I was looking for a restaurant for dinner (more on that in a bit) I saw the newlyweds and their entourage again.

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From what I’ve seen in my chance encounters of such things across Italy, custom demands that some of the wedding photos be taken against an instantly recognizable local landmark .

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Getting to all the sites of those must-have wedding photos is not easy when you’re tottering on stilettos in a skin-tight gown, wearing a headdress that threatens to take flight at any minute.

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You wouldn’t want to mess with local customers like these.

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When I saw what passed for parking, I was glad I didn’t have the car.

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There was an elevated section – part of the ancient walls to protect the ancient Baresi from the Turks and Saracens and whoever took a fancy to their city.

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The views from up here were quite lovely.

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There was of course no ‘ground’ in the elevated area, but that didn’t deter this gardener.

As they day wore on, more and more chairs and people started appearing along the alleys.

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Just beyond one group of old friends was something I had been hoping to see.  Orecchiette, the unofficial symbol of Bari, maybe even Puglia, spread out to dry. As I got closer to take a photo, one of the men got up and approached me.  Orecchiette, he said, pointing at the little pasta ears. From the jeers of his friends – they spoke in dialect so I couldn’t understand a word – I got the feeling they were accusing him of something along the lines of ‘Would you like to come and see my orecchiette…?

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A familiar sight at the front door of many dwellings in Old Bari. Orecchiette, spread out to dry on a spianatoia.

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The little pasta ears, rough on the outside and smooth on the inside, are designed to capture lots of sauce.

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Why peel the potatoes alone in your kitchen when you can sit out by your front door and watch the world go by?

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Earlier in the day when I passed by this alley I had seen two feet and the wheels of a wheelchair poking out of a doorway. In the evening the signora had come out to pass the time with her neighbours.

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Some of the groups were strictly uni-gender.

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Others, like this group in Piazza Mercantile, were all-inclusive. How far did they haul their chairs and did they do this every evening?

For dinner, as usual I had asked the signora at the B&B for a recommendation.  Un posto semplice dove si mangia una buona cucina locale.  (A simple place that served good, local food.)  Vini e Cucina (Wines and Food), she was sure, was just what I was looking for. She wrote down the name and told me approximately where it was.  During my meanderings around Old Bari I made a point of going by it – as much to check it out as to make sure I’d be able to find it.  Good thing I did, because although I found Strada Vallisa easily enough, I went back and forth several times and still couldn’t find the restaurant. Finally, feeling more than a bit disgruntled, I asked at a butcher shop that was open at noon, but not when I returned in the evening.  The signora stepped out into the alley and pointed to a restaurant I had passed several times.  Eccolo.  There it is.  I shook my head.  No, sto cercando Vini e Cucina.  (No, I’m looking for Vini e Cucina.) Sì sì, she replied, è proprio quello. (Yes. That’s the one.)  By this time I had been travelling around Puglia for almost three weeks and not once had I encountered any problems communicating with the locals. What was going on?  It seemed rude to ignore the macellaia (butcheress – not sure if there’s such a word) so under her watchful eye I walked back to the establishment she pointed to.  Over the entrance, in enormous letters, was written PAGLIONICO, which I had foolishly taken to be the name of the restaurant.  Instead, ‘Paglionico’, as I read upon my return home in the Lonely Planet, is the name of the family that has run Vini e Cucina – later I noticed a very small sign on the far right – for over a century. I had a peek at the interior.  Nice, rustic ambiance and every table was taken.  It was just what I was looking for and now I knew how to get to it.

But when I returned at 8 pm, there were only quattro gatti.  Normally I would not even consider eating at a restaurant where there were only ‘four cats’, which in this case consisted of one table of six and two tables of two, but I had seen this one at lunch when it was packed.   Maybe it was early.   Southerners tend to eat fairly late.  I went in and, feeling a bit foolish, given that the restaurant was essentially empty, asked if there was ‘Un tavolo per una persona‘.  I was shown to a table squashed in between a table occupied by one of the two couples and a freezer.  Hmmm.  I started to squeeze between the two tables and then I thought, this is ridiculous. I turned around and asked if I could sit at one of the many, other, unoccupied tables.  If I had read the review in the Lonely Planet beforehand – ‘The owners/waiters are brusque but brilliant.‘ – I might have been somewhat prepared for what followed.  ‘No, no, no!  Non è possibile!’, he bellowed. ‘The other tables are all tables for two.  This is the only table for one.’  Hmmm.  I don’t like to give up easily and the signora at the B&B had been very enthusiastic about the food here, so with a few scusi to the two fellows who’d had the misfortune to have been seated next to the only tavolo per una persona in the entire restaurant, I managed to get into my chair without knocking anything over.   The bellower came back to take my order.  At least that’s what I thought he was doing.  He reeled off the items on the menu:  antipasto, primo, which today was  pasta ai frutti di mare (seafood pasta), a choice of two secondi (main courses) and dolce (dessert).  When he was finished I said, as I had done numerous times as I travelled around Puglia, Vorrei il primo e un quarto di vino bianco.  (I would like the pasta and a 1/4 caraffe of white wine).  To my utter surprise – and dismay – this request unleashed a torrent that made the first round of No, no, no! seem the apotheosis of hospitality.   He ranted on and on, in a loud, heated manner, even by Italian standards, about how he couldn’t let people just have a first course!! the fish alone cost him 5 euros!! how was he supposed to survive?!  It was all so unexpected – and spiacevole (piacevole belongs to the piacere group of words that have to do with pleasure; putting an ‘s’ on the beginning of a word creates its opposite) – I don’t remember much else of what he said.  I do remember thinking, well why don’t you just charge 10 euros for the primo and everyone will be happy?  On another occasion I might have simply walked out at this point, but I was tired and not in the mood for looking for another place to eat, so I said, as calmly as I could, Scusi, ma non riesco a mangiare tutto e mi dispiace quando devo mandare indietro la roba perchè dopo la gente pensa che non mi sia piaciuta.  (I’m sorry, but I can’t eat that much and I feel badly when a plate of uneaten food goes back to the kitchen and the staff thinks I didn’t like it.)  The waiter/owner/tyrant stomped off without saying a word.  I sat there, dumbstruck, for a moment and then, assuming I had been dismissed from the restaurant, started to gather my things.  And that is when another, equally unexpected thing happened.  One of the men at the table next to mine, who like his companion couldn’t help overhearing the exchange between me and what turned out to be the owner, leaned over and said, very soothingly, in a beautiful, velvety, northern Italian, ‘Signora, qui si mangia veramente bene.  Noi abbiamo già ordinato. Se vuole, può dare un’occhiata a quello che ci porta e poi decidere se andarsene o no.’  (Madame, here one eats extremely well.  We have already ordered.  If you want, you can have a look at what he brings us and then decide whether to leave or not.)  Just then the dreaded padrone reappeared, mercifully at their table, with their primi.  Which looked delicious.  Hmmm.  He then disappeared into the kitchen and as I mulling things over, he came back.  To my table.  Before I had time to take a deep breath he announced that while he was right, I also was right, so this is what was going to happen:  I was going to have the antipasto, un primo, la frutta e vino bianco.  I glanced at the fellow next to me and said, Benissimo!  My ‘server’ marched off to to the kitchen.  A few minutes later he came back and without a word plunked a 1/2 litre jug of white wine on my table.  I resisted pointing out that 1/2 litre was far too much, and instead thanked him as graciously as I could.  A word you hear quite a lot in Italy came to mind – Pazienza!   Just ‘go with the flow’.  And a very pleasant flow it turned out to be.  The food was delicious and the company wonderful.  My saviour, originally from Bari, was a music agent and had been living in Rome for twenty years.  His companion, from Holland, was his client.  He was a member of a chamber ensemble and had played all over the world including a number of cities in Canada.  They were in Bari for a concert later that evening.  We had a great time chatting – mostly in English, which like so many Dutch tourists I’ve encountered, the musician spoke beautifully – and what could easily have turned into a very ugly way to end my trip to Puglia, instead, because a stranger reached out, was in the end a wonderful one.

Next: To the sea