Trani, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Gargano Promontory, Vieste, the Umbral Forest and Castel del Monte

The harbor in Trani, with a light show

April 25th – Trani

The view from our hotel window; the crowds were disappating.

If you’re starting here, I am glad you skipped over the travel to this point.  It wasn’t fun; there were many problems, etc., etc., but we got here and, most importantly, we’ve started having fun!

We met up with Jon and Galina Thursday afternoon (April 25) in the Munich airport and flew Air Dolomiti, a junior Lufthansa to Bari on an uneventful, and easy flight.  We had no problem getting our rental car and signing up our additional drivers at the Avis Preferred counter.

Then, snuggled tightly into our bright blue Peugeot, we made the trip from the Bari airport to Trani, an historic “city.” (We were assured that Trani is not a “town.” I admit I know how that feels…Trani is the size of my hometown, Janesville, WI – about 70,000-80,000 people – and I bristle when people assume it is a small town simply because they have never heard of it before.)

The traffic in Trani was AWFUL. (See those capital letters, like shouting?  They are intentional!) We discovered that today is a national holiday – Liberation Day (of Italy from the Fascists). The town was full of people! Gerry skillfully maneuvered in between the thousand of pedestrians in the streets without killing or even maiming a single one, but it was a cliff hanger every inch of the way.  And inch, we did!

Our hotel was right next to the cathedral.

Our directions to the hotel, thank you (not), from Google, sent us to a parking lot that was nearby walking… but wasn’t the parking for the hotel.  Once we got that close, Galina and I got walked to the hotel (it was literally right at the top of a flight of stairs) and an employee went back to the car and guided Gerry to the proper place to park.

Our hotel is the Palazzo Filisio Hotel and it is literally next to the Cathedral, which is named for and dedicated to Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim.  The views from our windows are beautiful.

The whole town is quite beautiful.  It is very clean, despite the crowds.  The streets are clean, but the white color of the buildings also makes it appear very clean.  I don’t know if the buildings have been cleaned or were cleaned recently for an event, or if the usual pollution from cars is just not that prevalent in this coastal Adriatic town.  The effect is very nice.

Trani Cathedral bell tower by night.

Last night we didn’t get in until almost 8 (most of that time spent crawling along streets within the huge crowds).  At 8:30 we went out to walk along the port and had dinner at La Rosa dei Venti.  We had a very pleasant evening:  It was cool, the temperature coming down from the mid-70s, the port was lively with people and music. Our mood was good and our food was good! We loved the chef, who was very accommodating. Our waiter was fun, too. He spoke Italian, of course, but also a smattering, literally, of English, Spanish and German, so we had quite a potpourri going trying to order.

I ordered homemade taglialoni con vongole, (like a fat spaghetti) accompanied by a delicious wine from northern Puglia called Erbaceo.*  It had just a hint of grapefruit tartness, was crisp and cold and delicious.  Exhausted, we were all in bed by 10.

Cathedral in Trani

[*Sidebar on Puglian wines. Names I thought I heard or remembered have been difficult to find. Granted I did not know if what we were told was 1) the name of a grape, 2) the name of a wine, or 3) the name of the house that produced it. When I can determine it, I will try to use the actual name. I did find this site.  It is super interesting and informative if wines are something you like to sample when you travel. As I mention wines, I may refer to this site or other sites as I go.]


An empty fish seller’s booth frames one in action in the background.

April 26th

I woke up early this morning and took a walk.  I didn’t quite make it out for the blue hour or the dawn.  A recent article on attacks on women traveling alone makes me hesitant to go out when there is no one around.  But I did go out just after 6:30 am and I spent a couple of hours walking and taking pictures.

Along the port, I saw a group of men around a table on the wharf, next to a boat unloading fresh fish.  I imagined these were all the chefs in town buying the night’s catch for their respective establishments.  It was a bit incongruous to see so many of them smoking cigarettes – I just don’t associate a good cook with a smoker.

Trani Cathedral bell tower

I made the circuit of the port, keeping my eyes on the cathedral bell tower which dominates the town profile. This town reminded me of several other places I have been, but just a hint here and there.  I think the overwhelming similarity in feel and look was to Essaouira in Morocco, due to the white and blue palette.  I imagined many “eastern” touches – in the palms and the shapes of some of the cupolas.  It is a lovely place.

Across the harbor from us is the Molo San Antuono which is right next to the city park.  I saw lots of exercisers in the park, a lovely garden of straight paths, like a mini Jardins des Champs-Élysées.  There are wide paths decorated with urns shaped like amphorae, and narrow ones flanked by trees and flowers.  At the eastern end of the park, I could look southward along the coast, a view of modern apartment buildings with little character, while our harbor is flanked by buildings from the 12-16th centuries!

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In the park, there were lots of birds, including parrots who I watched building a nest. On the way back to the hotel, I wandered between the port and the streets flanking it, admiring the white buildings and the relishing the cool morning air and the smell of the sea.  There is a haze today that makes the sky and the sea both so pale that the horizon is lost.

Trani is significant historically because it was one of the major starting points for the crusaders.  The crusaders would pass the night before they sailed here praying, probably in the Church of Ognisanti (All Saints). Other than my walk we didn’t get to spend much time sightseeing. Like many of the places we will visit on this trip, Trani is a town to experience, to “be” as I say.

We left the hotel, continuing our northward drive. We skipped Barletta, contenting ourselves with a cursory drive through the old part of the town.  Hugging the coast, our road became a causeway between the sea and a series of lagoons and salt pans.  It was an interesting drive because we had so much to look at.  Today was not the greatest for photos, as the sky was just uniformly pale grey.

We were overwhelmed by the spring wildflowers.  There were lots of yellow, daisy-like flowers, mixed with exuberant red poppies, whole fields of them.  We found a scenic-ish spot and got out of the car to take some pictures. Nothing like an abandoned farm building with a field of flowers to catch the essence of rural Italy!

We were headed for Monte Sant’Angelo, the town where we will find the famous Sanctuary of Saint Michael Archangel, a grotto chapel. The road was a series of corkscrew turns and dramatic switchbacks. Fortunately, we encountered very little other traffic (a good reason to visit off season).  The town is very quaint – typical of many of the hill towns we expect to see, with twisty, narrow streets and steep ups and downs, tiny shops with artisanal products, restaurants; all painted white.

Street in Monte Sant’Angelo

We also saw whole sections of the town where the buildings were a series of identical one door structures.  It brought to mind the “novena” villages we saw in Sardinia and made us suspect that these were once pilgrim resting places, too.

The biggest attraction in town is the grotto church, or Santuario, dedicated to Michael, the Archangel. For us, the biggest attraction upon arriving was definitely lunch!

We found and had lunch in the restaurant Medioevo, a highly recommended little place (Michelin & Google).  It could not have had more than 10 tables, lots filled with families.  Our food was very good. I had a huge plate of grilled vegetables, many small portions of all kinds of yummy things that appeared in the appetizer portion of the menu. We drank a very good bottle of Puglian red wine, called Caporale.

After lunch we were just steps from the Sanctuary, so it was the first place we visited.

Religious places with a long history often have an aura that, believer or non-believer, casts a spell when you enter.  I cannot explain why this place did not have that effect on me.  Perhaps there were too many tourists, or specifically, too many pilgrims, or the entrance too sanitized. Walking down through perfectly curated steps to a grotto church decked out in gewgaw embellishments left me absolutely flat.

Inside the Sanctuary of Saint Michael Archangel

It may also have been that my first exposure to the place was noisy – a woman reading from the scriptures while the congregated recited responses.  Walking in on someone else’s ritual moment, as a tourist, is uncomfortable for me.  I like my religious buildings quiet and calm.  I want to be able to absorb the place physically, something that I cannot do when there are either too many people or the people are engaged in active worship.

I walked around looking for the feeling, but I never found it.

The “castello” of Monte Sant’Angelo

From the church, we walked up a steep staircase to where we had left our car, and “discovered” the ruins of a medieval castle.  This is one of many, many Norman-Swabian-Aragonese castles that dot Puglia – the Castello di Monte Sant’Angelo. The earliest parts date from the 9th C. but the castle was used and reused by subsequent dynasties, hence the hyphenated name.

It was in a rather sorry state, but that only served to make it more photogenic.  I found much more to activate my soul here than I did in the grotto, but perhaps history is my religion…I only would have wished for something more interesting in the sky than that monotonous grey.

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There were also vast vistas from the ramparts.  There was a deep and distinct haze in the sky – definitely humid – but cool and not really threatening rain – but damp. Back in the car, we followed the switchbacks down the mountain and regained the coastal road traveling northward, up along the lower edge of the Gargano Promontory.

Typical vista on our drive up the south side of the promontory.

The drop we would have had to negotiate to see the rocks in the previous picture.

We came to this region because it has three Michelin Stars (a “not to be missed” rating).  The grey sky notwithstanding, the views along the way were spectacular.  The water below us had a pale aqua color. With the white cliffs and dark green of the evergreen forest it produced a subtle, elegant palette.

Galina had read about a walk that would get us to a spot where we could admire a couple of rocks that appeared to have been dropped into the sea from the heavens. Walking a short way up the path, we met a young couple who had just come from there, and we learned that the path had suffered a landslide and there was now a steep, 10-meter drop that required scrambling and climbing.  We finally found it, but we weren’t up to the physical challenge.

Dramatic scenery impelled us to stop a few more times along the way.

Our arrival in Vieste was far less momentous than that in Trani, but we did encounter problems.  The first was finding a place to park. (Are you sensing a trend here?) Gerry dropped us off at the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and we walked up the steep, three blocks to the hotel while he circled looking for a parking place.  I went back down to meet him, since the hotel turned out to be off a side street and not as straightforward as we thought.  He ended up parking fairly far away, and meanwhile there were frantic texts going back and forth between Galina and the proprietress and me and the proprietress.  Galina was having trouble with the internet and I was trying to sort through the parking.

View from the Piazza Victor Emanuell II

Finally, we settled on the paid parking (5 euros!) so Gerry took off again. Once we had it all sorted out, we went for a walk in the city and to look for a place for dinner. It was already dark, so there weren’t many pictures to be had. For dinner, we finally settled on the Osteria del Duomo, a taverna-like place with a maze of little rooms.  I had an excellent dish of stuffed cuttlefish on a base of lentil puree. We also had another really good white wine, this called L’Insolito.

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Last night’s image radiant in the sunlight.

Saturday, April 27

Old Fish Market in Vieste

As always, I was up early and went out walking with my camera. Vieste is a coastal town, with the huge Foresta Umbra at its back and the Adriatic Sea in front stretching over to Croatia.  Galina read that the geology of the Gargano is like that of Croatia, suggesting a long lost connection for Italy to a different realm of the continent.  This may partly explain the ‘Eastern’ feel – though more probably that has to do with the Messapians, the Greeks, the Byzantines and any number of lesser travelers from across the sea.

For this morning’s walk, I went the opposite direction from where we went last night, and headed down to the port area, closer to where we left the car (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II).  The views are spectacular and with the sun just rising and warming the air as well as the colors, it was a perfect morning to be out early. There is a large piazza lined with palms at the base of the city, along the water, like a malecón.  Looking up you see the cathedral spire anchoring the Old City to the hill and below your focus shifts to the lighthouse.

Looking up at the old city of Vieste from the harbor

In a city like this one, I think you have to weigh the charm of staying in the “old city” with the openness of staying with a view of the beach and the water.  I saw many charming places to stay along my walk, and because this is not beach season, they were far more appealing that the claustrophobia of the old city.  I just wonder if, when the place is overrun with summer vacationers, the old city doesn’t provide a sort of refuge…thick walls insulating you from both the crowds and the noise.  Hopefully, I will be able to test that theory someday.

Open sea views to the lighthouse in Vieste

The typical fishing platform, called a trabucco. This one a derelict.

By the time I returned, breakfast was ready.  I found Gerry at the breakfast table and we had a chance to talk with Michela, the proprietress. We packed up and left a little later than was wise, given that we have so much ground to cover today!

Leaving the hotel, we suspended our trip toward the Casa Forestal of the Umbra Forest for a short back track to photograph Pizzomunno beach on the southern edge of Vieste. The solitary behemoth rock on the beach is quite a sight!

Galina shows you how large Pizzomunno is!

We had a beautiful day for a drive along the coast. (Today we are on the northern edge of the Gargano Promontory.) The steep descent to the water was covered with forest habitat. Tall trees, mainly pines, shade and screen our view down to the water and the beaches. We stopped in Peschici to shop for picnic food.

We had decided that we do not have enough time to search out a restaurant for lunch, so we’ll have a picnic of local salumi (cold cuts) and cheeses.  From Peschici, we took the road inland to the center of the promontory where we hope to find the Casa Forestal, a sort of visitors’ center/rangers’ station.

I am not sure we made it, but at an intersection of the road near our destination, we found picnic tables and so commenced our feast. Because it is still April, many tourist services are not open yet.  The “season” begins on May 1st. A stop at the ranger station a little later, confirmed that is was not yet open for the season.

At the “lake,” where we were supposed to find an hour-long hike, we found an easy stroll around a man-made pond. I wouldn’t recommend it. The drive through the forest allows you to see and enjoy it far more than the walk. A good long hike would probably be best!

The Foresta Umbral up close.

Back in the car, we have a two-hour dive to Castel del Monte.  Our route by-passed Monte Sant’Angelo on the way down, taking us along a more rural route that allowed us to enjoy the countryside, and a more subtle descent from the promontory.  Once back on the plain, we are again greeted by vast fields of wildflowers and poppies.

Deviating from the highways again, we were on the back roads, a more direct route to Castel del Monte, but not one without pitfalls – Oops, I mean potholes.  Hitting a double one extra hard, (they are hard to see with the long, dark, afternoon shadows across the roads), we are now accompanied by some strange scraping noise each time we hit a bump.  A strut, perhaps?  We couldn’t see anything hanging down from under the car, so we all just crossed our fingers and on we went.

The Castel del Monte, true to the hype, is visible for miles around.  All alone on the top of a hill, it looks like a modern structure (possibly a prison because the windows are insignificant).  Jon could not believe from a distance, that this was a structure from the 12th century.

Castel del Monte is a World Heritage Site and a unique building.  It is built on an octagonal plan, with rooms on two floors, towers in the corners.  It was designed by Frederick II himself, perhaps his interpretation of a square and a circle, relating to time he spent in Jerusalem and his having seen the Dome of the Rock.  It is widely believed to have been a hunting lodge, but its position at the top of the hill, the absence of windows on the first floor and remains of a curtain wall suggest that it may have had defensive functions as well.

The column is made from the red brescia. A page of the hunting treatise.

We were not able to park close to the site. We had to leave the car about a half mile away and take a bus to the castle.  The visit was not a long one, but we were able to see all of the ground and second floors, climb the stairs in the towers, and marvel at the spacious rooms.  From the outside, the castle is made from a honey-colored stone that is native to this area, but inside the light stone is complemented by breccia rosa (from Brescia, Italy), a stone made from coral and limestone.  The breccia was used around the doorways and windows.  You can also see the remains of huge fireplaces in four of the seven rooms, both upstairs and down.  Windows on the ground level are very high in the walls, for security, so the rooms are dark.  On the second floor big windows let in lots of natural light:  They’re cheerful.

The courtyard inside the castle.

There was a display in the castle based on the book that Frederick II wrote on hunting with birds.  This extremely learned and cultured man was a master of falconry.  Pages from the manuscript, illustrated in the manner of old Latin texts is accompanied by modern paintings of falcons and other birds of prey.

The day was so lovely, we could have lingered longer, but we were already an hour later leaving than we had planned, and we have a 90-minute drive ahead of us to our masseria near Fasano.

Though we were “driven” to arrive at the masseria by 7:30 a huge field of poppies and yellow flowers, with a road right there for the stopping was more than we could ignore.  We made a brief stop to wallow in the brilliant color of the flowers, glowing in the late afternoon sunshine.

Poppies and wild fennel in the Tavoliere, plains between the Gargano Promontory and the Murgia.

We barely had a minute or two to settle in at the Masseria Stefanodelconte in Fasano (Ostuni), when we were invited to sit for dinner.  Here we had a sumptuous vegetarian meal of small plates that showcased the vegetables of the farm and those in season.  It was unusual and quite delicious.  Some of the dishes I remember were wild fennel au gratin and vegetable tempura; chick peas, purple cabbage with lemon, sorbet with strawberry coulis.

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