Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Goodbye Ostuni! See you again soon (five days from now!)
We checked out late this morning, but we have a short drive to Lecce and lots of time to explore. We started by making a stop to hike in the Torre Guaceto Marine Nature Preserve. We took our time, walking along the dunes, set back from the actual shoreline, and admiring the flowers.
At one point, the path took us alongside a very strange and ominous building with all kinds of KEEP OUT signs around it. It made you feel as if you should duck and run past, despite the path. It was some sort of government installation … with all those warnings, probably a beach club for officers, right?
We also made a second stop; the Reserve is miles and miles long. This time we didn’t find a parking lot, but left the car along the road and walked the top of the bluff. Following this path, we found a lot of warning signs, too…but these were for the bluffs (mini-bluffs) that were in danger of crumbling from the wave action eroding them at the base. Again, we saw lots of flowers, but also some lovely views of the water and the beach. We even saw the famous Torre Guaceto – far off in the distance! These structures date from the Aragon dominion over Puglia (that would be Aragon as in “part of modern day Spain”) one of the many foreign powers that ruled Puglia through the centuries. These happen to be about the 16th C., CE. They dot the coast of Puglia, much like the towers that dot the coasts of Corsica and Sardinia.
Using the phone to find a place for lunch… was not easy. Nor was finding the road to the place that the phone found. The main highway along this coast has all these marginales (what’s the English for that?), roads that run parallel and that are accessed from exits off the main road, and then provide access to the stops along the way… (Access roads?) Up, down and around we went to get to the right section. Once we found the place, it wasn’t open yet (for the season). We had a nice conversation with the owner – something to the effect that he started the restaurant to set up his son, but the son only wanted to surf and left for Australia. But, he did have a suggestion for us, in Brindisi.
Brindisi was a place we had decided to skip, but Fate got us there anyway, making a detour from sightseeing, in general, to the market (which was just cleaning up) and a fish restaurant called “Siamo Fritti.”
Don’t you love the name! Naturally, they served fried (fritti) fish, but siamo fritti means “we’re in for it now!” – literally “we’re fried!” It was not a tourist place – or at least, not in the “off season” – which ends tomorrow (bears repeating!). We were quite a novelty in the place – a good one based on the friendly way we were treated. The food was excellent.
Other than getting to the market and the restaurant we saw very little of Brindisi, but we did see many signs directing us to the ferries for Albania and Greece. The only other time I have ever been in Brindisi was in 1974 to take the ferry to Athens. That was memorable trip, but I have no memories of Brindisi.
After lunch, nigh on 3 pm, we were just 20 minutes from Lecce. And so, to Lecce we went!
(I read a fascinating book called “Old Puglia” before my trip. It is organized by location, but the author describes the places using the words of famous travelers/writers who visited. Janet Ross is frequently quoted in the book. The hotel even has a special Janet Ross Room just off the lobby!)
It is a block off the “center of the city”, the Roman amphitheater excavation, and the de rigueur column to Saint Oronzo. We checked in and then went out for a walk, supposedly to get gelato.
Naturally, we stopped to admire the amphitheater (Roman, 2nd Century CE), discovered when the city was doing excavations for the basement of a new bank building. It is only partially exposed, but it’s in perfect condition. For a Roman history buff like me, that is just irresistible! We also walked down Via Salvatore Trinchese, a happening street with shops on both side, joining the evening passeggiata of the Leccese. At the new Piazza Mazzini, a block-sized park with a fountain surrounded by modern apartment buildings, we turned around and headed back on a parallel street.
We passed the Charles V castle. We didn’t have time for a proper visit, because of the late hour, but we did get a chance to go inside the courtyard to look around. We made plans to return to visit the castle and see the photo exhibit.
And, we did indeed get our gelato. As a result, we skipped dinner and had wine and antipasti in the hotel roof bar.
Our room is on the same level with the roof bar. I found it confusing that when the bar is not open, it is really hard to find. The doors must match the walls perfectly, so that it disappears from view. When the doors are open you see right through the bar to the outside – no mistaking it for anything else! (By the way, the roof bar is the anteroom to the outdoor restaurant on the roof. It has the same name as the restaurant on the first floor, Le Quattro Spezierie. Perhaps is was still too early in the season for outdoor dining. The bar shut down at 8 pm when we were there.)
Because our room is on the same floor (top floor) – we also have an outdoor terrace. I suppose that’s for smokers (there are ashtrays), but we used it for a little fresh air and drying our clothes. We also have a nice spa tub that opens onto the terrace, but I we didn’t try it out. Our room is very large with the bed occupying one section and a living and working space in the other.
Again, a nice buffet, with waiter service for coffee or egg orders, is the breakfast arrangement. Many of our fellow travelers here are English-speaking bicyclists. I can see that Puglia would be a great place to bike: The weather is wonderful and, in these shoulder-season months, there isn’t a lot of traffic on the rural roads.
The lobby has an interesting art exhibit having to do with books and fashion, as in books made out of cloth and fashion made out of paper.
Wednesday, May 1, 2019
Today is another National Holiday in Italy, Labor Day.
Gerry and I went out late this morning as Jon and Galina had another appointment. Congratulate us – we managed to get out before noon! Even before leaving the room, we could hear opera outside. What a great feeling! Where but in Italy would you get to hear opera as your “Muzak”? Once outside and past the amphitheater, we could see people congregated around a couple of semis (trailers) and the recorded music we had heard earlier was now replaced by live performances! Opera students were giving a recital in the piazza. How wonderful is that? The students were very good, and all were accompanied by a piano. It was a great way to start the day.
This morning we headed off to find the Duomo, and to see the Piazza del Duomo. This sounds straightforward, but there is only one entrance to the Piazza del Duomo. The piazza is ringed by buildings; most have to do with the cathedral like the bishop’s residence, monastery, etc., but there are also some government (old) buildings and the restricted access must have been a defensive strategy. The piazza was filled with tourists, a species that seems to get the most out of mornings.
The old city of Lecce is a warren of narrow streets and dead ends, like the ones I found looking for the piazza. A map reveals nothing of the secret of the restricted access!
After visiting the duomo, we wandered around; we spent our steps just enjoying the city, its shops and people. The Porta Napoli is the main city gate. It was built in anticipation of a visit from Carlos V. The outward facing side is fairly ornate, and the inward side is pretty plain. I guess they assumed Carlos V would go through it without looking back!
We connected again with Jon and Galina, back from their errand and pleased with the free health service of the Italian government. When it started raining, we scooted off to have lunch at La Vecchia Lecce, a restaurant near the Villa Comunale park.
We were early for lunch, the weather being our motivator more than the time, but had no problem getting seated right away in the empty restaurant. The food was good. (Do you get tired of me stating the obvious? All the food in Puglia is good!)
I wanted to taste some of the regional dishes. One that was just out of this world is a piece of meat wrapped around cheese and grilled. A bombette it is called…Delicious! I also tried the Sagne n’cannulata, a home-made spiral pasta with tomatoes. It was curious, though, because the local people refer to it as le sagne (pronounced ” Leah SAHN-yeah”), as in “the sagne noodles.” You know what that sounds like? Right, lasagna! Which it is not…but it was a bit confusing at first. (I think the locals would have been confused as to why I was confused.)
After lunch, we walked through the park and back towards the hotel looking for the Pasticceria Gelateria Natale, said to be Lecce’s most famous and popular ice cream store.
After a short siesta, Galina and I went back out. We went to see the Basilica di Santa Croce and the Jewish museum. They are one next to the other.
Santa Croce is undergoing a huge renovation and the famous façade is completely covered with canvas-draped scaffolding. The canvas is painted to look like the façade that is being restored, but to get a better sense of what you’re missing (if it is still draped when you go) check out the link above. This is probably one of the most elaborate examples of the beautiful Lecce Baroque style.
The Jewish Museum is located in the Palazzo Taurino, just to the right as you look at the Santa Croce facade. You go down a short set of stairs to access the interior. Fittingly below ground level the museum highlights an old history of this area, the former Jewish sector of medieval Lecce. It is only visited through a guided tour. Because we wanted Jon to be able to visit it with us, we made an appointment for nine the following morning.
Our afternoon itinerary having been foiled completely, we decided just to walk. Lecce is such a delightful city. Like other Puglian towns it is not so much about seeing sights, as it is about just being there among the sights and sounds of this authentic southern Italian city, modern in its way, but with a healthy respect for the past, physical and emotional. Our feet took us along the city walls. We found a gorgeous little park in an area under restoration. The garden was an oasis. From the walk at the top of the walls we could look down on the other side and see excavations. The excavations were uncovering a whole series of walls here – literally generations of walls that follow Lecce’s history.
We returned to the hotel at about cocktail hour. For the evening stroll, Galina stayed in and Gerry and I went back out. It was a long time until the restaurants would open for dinner, so we found a nice outdoor table at a little wine bar. Lifting a glass to Lecce we snacked on antipasti, until it was 8 and time to eat. Jon joined us at that point and we went into Doppiozero 00 for dinner. Seated way in the back, our waiter, who spoke English, treated us very well. We had an English speaking couple at the table next door. The food was good. And the company was, too, as we traded stories about our respective Puglian adventures.
Thursday, May 2, 2019
This morning I headed out on my own. Never a sure thing, I had a time of it with my map, and wasted my alone time lost in Lecce. Eventually, I did get turned around and headed off in the right direction – with plenty of time to meet Jon and Galina at the Jewish Museum. We were the first tour of the day.
We were pleased to have a capable, knowledgeable docent. The entire story of the Jews in Lecce is fascinating. There is only one Jewish resident today, and he isn’t from Lecce, but is a transplant from northern Italy. So, the creators of this museum were not the Jews of Lecce trying to reclaim some of their story, but the result of the private passion of a university history professor and his students who decided to tell the story of the long gone and forgotten Jewish residents of the Middle Ages.
The museum is first class. At the end of the tour we watched a documentary about how, after WWII, Jewish refugees from other parts of Europe came to Puglia to wait for passage to Israel. They lived in the area for 2-3 years, making many friends and memories. The movie follows around a couple of the women who returned to Puglia to seek out the families that help them. It was quite emotional.
Next up was the Faggiano Museum. A Lecce version of a house museum, the owner (Faggiano) went to fix a leaky floor and found ruins under his house. Really old ruins and layers of ruins! Messapians, Romans, nuns and more. Only open since 2008, the tour is a little rough, just a paper with the English explanation and numbers. You have to read it yourself, though two elderly women at the door, one the widow of Faggiano, were full of stories. They could only tell us a little about the history in the house, but they were full of anecdotes about the history of the house.
One odd thing we couldn’t help but remark about were all the references to escape tunnels. That’s what the paper guide told us we were looking at, but it was never explained to where one escaped or why.
The ladies at the door were gracious with a recommendation for lunch. Then sent us off to Trattoria La Nonna Tetti which was right near a very Baroque (architecture not just decoration) church.
Waiting for the restaurant to open, we visited the church. This is the Chiesa di San Matteo (The church of Saint Matthew). Both the interior and exterior of this gem are Baroque. The elements reminded me of the Chiesa di San Carlino dei Quattro Fontane (one of my favorites) in Rome by Borromini. Could that be because this church was built by a nephew of Borromini’s? Did he learn his art at the master’s knee?
Another good lunch, and again a focus on regional dishes. Lecce is the in the northern part of a region in southern Puglia called il Salento. The food is a bit different than that of northern Puglia (il Gargano, il Tavoliere, la Murgia dei Trulli, etc). Here the bread basket comes with both friselle, (dried bread) and the very addicting taralli. Taralli (or tarallini) are sometimes billed as the Puglia pretzel but forget that! The only thing they have in common with pretzels is a round shape and that they are made of bread. Better, think of them as a funny shaped cracker. You don’t dip them in anything or spread anything on them but, boy, are they tasty. Try to eat just one! We were served them everywhere. Friselle, the dried bread, is a remnant of foods sent off with shepherds, foods that had to last a long time. It is often served with chopped tomatoes to put on top, like a bruschetta. Orrecchiette – a pasta shaped like little ears, is a staple here – also served with light sauces of chopped tomato. Don’t expect a lot of garlic in this region. Jon, who is allergic, had to ask about garlic at every meal, and got these surprised looks – “No garlic in our cooking,” they seemed to say. “Where would you get that idea?” [Indeed!]
I could not resist the bombette (some vegan, right?) By the way, the description said they were filled with cheese but, even accounting for a faulty memory, I do not recall that they had cheese inside. Herbs, yes – maybe sage?
Before I leave the topic of food I want to also stress that in Puglia, one eats what is local and fresh. If you’re by the sea, you eat fish. But if you’re inland you eat meat or poultry. I know that many of us are used to eating whatever we please wherever we are, but just go with the flow here in Puglia. You will love the food, and it is a wonderful place to experiment and try new things.
After lunch went to find the Roman Theater and Museum. The Museum wasn’t open (maybe for the holiday) but we did find the theater. It seemed a little forgotten and neglected. There was grass growing in the cracks of the stones and the usual cat to give atmosphere. It feels a little like something that is milked for its tourist potential without actually being respected. But that is an impression, not a fact. Perhaps if we had seen the museum, I would have had a different impression.
After every big meal, a siesta is required. We took ours!
Out for the evening, Gerry and I went back to shoot the cathedral in the afternoon. Now the piazza was empty and the sunlight cast these long diagonal shadows across the façade, making it much more interesting to photograph. We also made good on an earlier resolution to tour the Carles V Castle and to see the exhibit of horse photography.
The castle has large, to the point of cavernous, rooms, all empty. There is wonderful light created by the glow of the golden colored stone. This stone is the pride of Lecce and why Lecce is the heart of the Puglian Baroque. A sandstone, this stone is easily carved into all the fantastic shapes, especially animals and flowers, that adorn the buildings in Puglia. Regarded as “ugly” by some art historians, others consider it a treasure. As an animal lover, I enjoyed picking out elephants, tapirs, snakes, rabbits and more in the iconography of this style. I found nothing ugly about it. And the stone itself is such a warm and inviting color, I could find nothing to dislike.
For dinner, we met with Jon and Galina at Tipografia, (sorry, no website…but it is on TripAdvisor and Facebook.) where we ate outside.
Tomorrow we will leave Lecce, driving farther south – down the stiletto. Before I that, I want to give you some additional images from this provincial capital. I hope these convey how much I liked this city. We seemed to find something wonderful wherever we looked for it.
Next: We travel down the stiletto on the east coast, and back up the stiletto on the west. Join us!