Friday, May 3, 2019

Beautiful olive trees and poppies in il Salento

We left Lecce with regret. I think all four of us really enjoyed our days here and could have stayed longer. Another item for the “Visit Again” list!

Back in the car, we’re primed for touring.  We are headed for the ends, of the earth (finibus terrae) driving along the coast.  For those of you who rely on Google – just beware in places like Puglia.  What she thought were real roads…were not.  She got us deep into a natural park on questionable “roads.” But like the intrepid travelers we are, we made mashed potatoes out of over-boiled tubers.  We left the car parked next to a ranger station that was not yet open for the season.  And, we went for a walk.

The walk took us through forest as well as fields. (Il Salento)

We passed through Interesting landscape and vegetation that changed 180 degrees as we walked along. Sometimes we were in evergreen forest and other times walking along farmers’ fields. We saw olive trees and poppies, and we saw the supposed remnants of old Roman walls.  We were unable to follow our route all the way out to the water’s edge because of high water in the wetlands between the shore dunes and the woods.  Unfortunately, we saw no animals nor birds.

The weather was changing.  It was beginning to get dark and rainy, and with dark and rainy came cold. Our drive is taking us up high again, like the Gargano Promontory.  Below us are the seas (yes, plural, because it is here at the ends of the earth where the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas meet.)  In case you aren’t following along with a map, we are driving down the stiletto its southernmost point.

Wetlands prevent our access to the beach. Il Salento

Luck and chance are wonderful co-travelers.  Today, they were in the driver’s seat.  Just about 30 miles from Lecce, as we are driving along the coast, we passed through a town called Roca.  We weren’t really paying attention to much until we saw a sign that proclaimed the “Most Beautiful Swimming Hole in the World.”  Could you have passed up the opportunity to check that out?

Galina gives you an idea of how high the rocks are here.

We couldn’t. (Besides we are four people who are always ready for an excuse to get out of the car and walk around.)  I could not say whether this is the most beautiful swimming hole in the world (I haven’t seen the whole world yet), but even on a cloudy, overcast day the Grotto della Poesia was exceptionally pretty and worthy of a stop.

“Poesia” does not refer to poetry in this context, according to archeologists.  Rather it comes from a Greek word and has the sense of “creation.”  There are extremely ancient inscriptions at the base of the grotto, basically at the water line at low tide, that make reference to this as a religious site.

Locals all know about the grotto, but it hasn’t made the tourist circuit yet. (However, Google Maps will find it.)  That’s a good thing, especially if you go in any other month than August, when half of Italy is on vacation.

The grotto is a large sinkhole.  You cannot see anything of it until you get really close to the edge.  Then, be careful!  It is a long drop to the water.  Daredevils will jump or dive from the edges, but I wouldn’t recommend that unless you are addicted to adrenaline.  It is wonderful enough to just contemplate the color of the water, the rocky surroundings, the breeze off the sea, and (you know me!) the remains of ancient ruins in this karst topography. (There were people here as far back as the Messapians.)

Grotto della Poesia in Roca, Italy

These ruins are called Roca Vecchia, and are similar to Egnazia. (Gerry and I visited Egnazia later in

Another Aragonese tower, one of many that dot the coast of Puglia.

this trip).  The city of ancient Roca is probably buried under the modern city, and this part out by the water was destined for religious or ceremonial uses (as is the area near the sea in Egnazia).  It is fun to imagine the ancient site, but you won’t get any help.  Here the focus is on the sink hole. [Be sure to check out this link, and scroll down to see an image of the sink hole from the air.  It is very impressive and a view you are not likely to see!]

A picnic, or a swim, are both good excuses to stop here for a while and enjoy the unexpected beauty of this place.

Driving father south, just outside of Otranto there is a bauxite lake. Galina got us there to see it.  I had no idea what a bauxite lake was, but I was game.  Apparently, it is a tourist thing to do as there was a parking lot (a roped off area of grass).  There was also a desultory guard who took our money and vaguely pointed off over his shoulder as a means of telling us where to go to see it.

It was beautiful! It was colorful, though it looked more like a quarry pit than a lake.  The sides were a vivid, rustic terracotta color, the trees green and the water  emerald.  Lovely!  Apparently you can hike around the area, but we didn’t have time for that.

The bauxite lake near Otranto

Back on the road, we are still headed south. Our destination is Santa Maria di Leuca, a resort town right at the point of the stiletto.  Our hotel is the Montiro’ Hotel, apparently a place for weddings.  It is new, with very pretty and elegant décor, using the white and beige palette of Puglia.

But, it is rainy and cold. We bought a picnic dinner and ate in. Gerry isn’t feeling well and there doesn’t seem to be any place to eat nearby…at least without driving again.

Our room in the Montiro Hotel, Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy

Saturday, May 4, 2019

This morning we had a wonderful breakfast.  It was set up in a corner of the huge dining room, which is being prepared for a wedding in the afternoon..  We met a couple from Chicago who are headed from here to Austria on bikes. Think about that…the entire length of Italy!

We walked to the town of Santa Maria di Leuca after breakfast. It is an interesting town. For a place that is called the “ends of the earth” it is surprisingly connected to the rest of the world. It doesn’t feel remote at all.

Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia

Santa Maria di Finibus Terrae Sanctuary is to the left as you face the water.  We drove past it on our way into town yesterday after noon, and weather permitting we’ll get a chance to visit it before we resume our drive up the western coast of the stiletto towards Galipoli.

Walking now, we stayed near the port.  There were some huge old villas facing the sea, many abandoned, or in states of disrepair even if occupied.  This looks like a town that comes alive in the summer when northern Italians flood the beaches of the Mezzogiorno. The weather had not improved much, and we got caught in the rain. There was nothing to do but pack up and get back in the car.

Sanctuary of Saint Mary at the Ends of the Earth (Finibus Terrae) in Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia

As I had hoped our first stop was at the Santa Maria di Finibus Terrae Sanctuary. There was a

This point of land “points” down the dividing line between the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. Santa Maria di Leuca

wedding going on in the church. (Is this the wedding whose reception will be at our hotel?)  We spent a couple of minutes looking out toward the place where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet.  What an anticlimax – there was no line! (JK)

The cloudy sky and imminent rain was keeping our spirits low, so we just drove to Gallipoli. [This is not the famous Gallipoli of World War I: That is in Turkey].

We rolled into Gallipoli, Italy by lunch time.  We weren’t really dawdling or sightseeing because Gerry is still under the weather.  We went to a great restaurant called Il Bastione.( I wish I could remember how we found out about it). What fantastic seafood we had! This was a local crowd, and it appeared that the owner’s family was having some sort of celebration – a birthday, maybe or an anniversary?  We drank a delicious negroamaro rosato with our food.

Il Bastione Restaurant in Gallipoli, Italy (taken on Sunday when the sun was out!)

Our hotel in Galipoli is the Palazzo del Corso.  It is on the mainland, in what might be termed the new city.  The old city (think San Juan, PR) is on an island.  You can walk all the way around the island – I doubt it is more than two-miles – and for reference Il Bastione is on the island looking right out to sea.

Our hotel is quite nice, not a huge amount of personality, but appropriate for an elegant property in a small town.  Our room is small compared to the other hotels we have stayed in, but it is bright and comfortable, with French doors that open out to a view of the street and the sea.  The breakfast and dinner venue is on the top floor, and I managed to get turned around and lost, trying to find my room, more than once.

It was raining in the afternoon so instead of going out we went to the roof bar for a drink. Tonight is our last night together. Jon showed us his pictures from the trip (I will show mine tomorrow at breakfast).

The hotel was offering a special price dinner, so Gerry and I took advantage.  We met yet another group of cyclists. These were Americans, and they wanted to hear straight from Gerry about the situation in Puerto Rico, post-Maria, especially about the federal aid. The restaurant was called DolceVita.

Gallipoli, Italy

Sunday, May 5, 2019

We woke up to a gorgeous day, with brilliant sunshine.  We had breakfast up in the roof restaurant, where the views over the water were spectacular.

We took advantage of the sunshine and took a long, leisurely walk to the old city (just about 4 minutes from our hotel, over the bridge). Gallipoli has a capacious man-made, protected harbor for large boats, including those of the Guardia di Finanza.  But the little city also has protected coves and natural harbors that are filled with fishing boats.

On our Sunday morning passeggiata we were treated to many scenes of fishermen working on nets – a riot of colors – the nets, the floats, the rubber overalls. Given the gorgeous sun and a brilliant blue sky, the effect was charming.

We walked all the way around the outside first, then headed inward, to wander the narrow streets.  According our guidebook, the narrow, winding streets of Gallipoli were part of its defense.  There wasn’t room for invaders to fight in the streets and getting lost in the maze of turns and switchbacks would have been highly probable, making it easy for the townspeople to pick off soldiers separated from their mates.

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Saint Agnes Virgin & Martyr, Duomo of Gallipoli

With our map, and Galina’s great map skills, we found the Duomo, dedicated to Saint Agatha Virgin & Martyr.  The façade is nearly impossible to photograph! The street in front of the steps is about two-cars wide, and tourist shops spill out into half of that! Hoping to prolong the pleasure of this little city, we went on the hunt for a certain café, Blanc, but it was closed on Sundays.  Instead we got ring-side seats to the parade of humanity at a bar in the piazza just as one comes off the bridge onto the island.

Around 11 am, we checked out of the hotel and, having learned from our experience last Sunday, we asked for a lunch recommendation (and reservation!).  The hotel staff sent us to Tenute Al Bano in Cellino San Marco.

To say we were in “the middle of nowhere” would have given the location more credit than it really deserved! The place itself was odd – a sort of mix of castle styles from disparate parts of the world, in garish yellow and orange.  There were battlements and urns, towers and crenellations. Inside the walls were many buildings (restaurant, hotel, vacation housing and winery) and plenty of parking.

The restaurant is called Don Carmelo, and I can say, without qualification, that we had an excellent lunch.  For the first course, Gerry and I shared the Ceceri & Tria which is pasta with bread and chickpeas, a Puglian specialty.  The broth/sauce had tomatoes and herbs, the bread was toasted strips that added some crunch. Definitely try it!  Our second course was mixed grill of meats, that included the bombette that I coveted.  Fantastic!  The Italians really know how to grill meat. Galina had a vegetable zuppa (soup is not a common menu item down here) and a risotto con i fughi, Jon had orecchiette with manzo (beef) that was also very good.

A bit more about the place:  What I thought was Albano (like someone from Albania) was actually Al Bano, a singer! (Full name Albano Carrisi; stage name Al Bano.) The deskpersons at the hotel in Galipoli couldn’t believe we had never heard of him, particularly because he was married to Romina Power, the daughter of the famous American actor, Tyrone Power.  The two of them sang as a duet for a long time, and I think continued to do so after their divorce.  I had heard of her – just the name – but no idea about him or the singing. In the restaurant, they were playing his music in the background, and it was good.

The lunch was both fun and delicious.  Make a detour to see the place and have a meal.

Well, that’s it.  After lunch, we drove directly to the Brindisi Airport where Gerry and I picked up another rental car.. We headed back to the Ostuni area to meet up with our photography group.  We will tour Italy with them for the next 12 days.  Jon and Galina went from there to Matera.  They left Italy on the 9th headed for Paris.

It was a great trip.  We got a good taste of Puglia and got a great taste of Puglian food!  Puglia definitely deserves a trip.  Take it slowly and just enjoy it.  The people are friendly, the beaches are fantastic, the history is deep and comprehensive, the food is good, the accommodations are top-notch.

And now, if you’re following chronologically, stay with me as I join the photography group.  If you’ve been reading as I post, you have already seen that part (because I wrote and posted it first).  I hope you will comment, either way!  If you aren’t comfortable commenting below, please email me your thoughts, or post them on Facebook.

Gallipoli, Italy