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Year in Review

1 Jan

The older we get the faster time seems to move. (It’s an actual phenomenon that has been scientifically proven: the older you are the faster time seems to pass.) Only yesterday it seems we were dying of the heat in Rome, taking refuge in the mighty Dolomites enjoying brisk mountain air and alpine meadows. But that was July. Looking back over our time in Rome – now 19 months and counting – we have experienced so much, and yet my list of to-dos in Rome (not to mention all of Italy)  has more things on it that we have not accomplished than ones we have managed to check off. There’s a wonder around every corner and we shall never get to all of them. Roma: Una vita non basta!

New Year's Eve Vespers with Papa F! We were right on the aisle. Ric snapped this pic with his phone.

New Year’s Eve Vespers with Papa F! We were right on the aisle. Ric snapped this pic with his phone.

We managed to see a bit more of Italy this year, visiting some old favorites as well as new territory.

  • March saw us in Sicily for our 28th anniversary, where we were constantly cold, but where we ate magnificent food and saw our first-ever Greek ruins. Stunning! Must go back in warmer weather.
  • In May we ventured to the heel of the boot, Puglia, with my brother and sister-in-law. More great food, a fantastically different Italy, and lots of kilometers covered. Can’t count the bottles of wine consumed. Rick & Jane, we had so much fun with you those 10 days in Rome and Puglia! And we “discovered” Abruzzo on our way back to Rome. Wow!
  • In fact we were so enchanted with Abruzzo we went back for a weekend in July. Not many North Americans (or non-Italians) go to Abruzzo as it is not chock-a-block with must-sees, but it is an amazing place to escape the city, practice one’s Italian, and relax.
  • Later in July was our week in the Val Gardena. If only we could figure out a way to live there all summer.
  • Like most Italians, we got away for Ferragosto but only as far as Orvieto for a couple of nights.  It’s always nice to get on a train, and only an hour away is this charming Etruscan hill town.
  • Our youngest son came to visit in September and we made our 4th trip to Venice in less than three years. Three days there flew by and in wonderment Derek observed we still had not seen everything we intended to. Venice has a lot to offer and so many people try to “do” it in 2 nights and one day. We’re going back for the 5th time in April with friends who have never been.
  • The Cinque Terre calls to us each autumn and we made our third trip there in October. Hoping we can squeeze in a weekend there again in 2014.
  • After the Marine Corps 238th Birthday Ball in early November, we made a trek to Ravello just as the town was closing for the season. This is a must-go-back location sometime during the concert season.
Kids, don't try this at home. Our neighbor across the street shot off Roman Candles from his oh-so-tiny balcony on NYE. Note the Santa figure climbing a ladder hanging from the balcony. And this goes on all over the city!

Kids, don’t try this at home. Our neighbor across the street shot off Roman Candles from his oh-so-tiny balcony on NYE. Note the Santa figure climbing a ladder hanging from the balcony. And this goes on all over the city!

Other highlights in 2013:

  • I turned sixty. Can’t believe it, but my mother is there in the mirror every morning, so I guess it’s true.
  • We had a blind date with Nigel and Carol, new friends from England that we met through the Rick Steves’ Helpline and this blog. Hoping to see them again in February!
  • Made Thanksgiving dinner for 11 Italians. We had so much fun doing this! I only hope they will let us do it again next year.
  • Seeing our youngest son (not very young anymore, but still il mio bambino al cuore) after 16 months away.
  • Getting fit(ter) in the gym. I’ve lost about 45 pounds since moving to Rome and had to buy a whole new wardrobe last summer and again this winter.
  • Becoming more comfortable speaking Italian. I am “advanced intermediate” (B2/C1 for those that understand the scale) according to my teacher. I should be fluent by the time I am 85.
  • Seeing Tom and Karen, our in-laws, when they visited Rome after their cruise.
  • Visits by Michael Horne for gastronomic exploration of Rome. (Thanks for the intro to Vino Roma!)
  • New Years’ Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica with Papa Francesco. He was right there, not 2 meters from me during the processional and recessional. The energy in St. Peter’s was palpable, the love for this man overwhelming.

As I wrap up this post, we are aboard a train that departed at 07:20 New Year’s Day, leaving

St. Peter's, NYE 2013. I read today that shortly after we left Papa Francesco came out in his Popemobile to see the Nativity in the square. Purtroppo we had left the scene!

St. Peter’s, NYE 2013. I read today that shortly after we left Papa Francesco came out in his Popemobile to see the Nativity in the square. Purtroppo we had left the scene!

Italy for the first time in 19+ months. The sun is just coming up, outlining the Apennine Mountains in gold. We are headed to Switzerland where, magari, we will do Winterwandern (alpine snow hiking) to wear off the cheese fondue we plan to eat. We have many trips planned this year including a return to Venice, the Dolomites, Florence, Lake Como, and Abruzzo. We have guests coming, too: Kim, John and Aubrey in April; John, Susan, William and Elizabeth (aka JSWE) in July; the Omaha Bartons in August; a return by Derek in September; Rick and Jane in November; and hopefully Helen, Eddie and Debbie will make it over too. Anyone else? Would love to see you!

Buon Anno 2014! 

Si mangia troppo ma costo meno

21 May

When he learned we were going to Puglia, un ragazzo in our neighborhood regaled us with stories of how beautiful it was, and especially how well we would eat for very little money. “You’ll tell them ‘Enough! No more food,’” he said. Two days into our trip to Puglia his words rang in our ears. Si mangia troppo, ma costo meno. (You’ll eat too much but it costs less.)

Beach castle

Squat towers and castles dot the area in the heel of the boot. Originally built to protect from Saracens and other invaders.

This is a vast region, in the heel of the boot, with squat medieval castles and windswept shoreline, where whitewashed villages tumble to the sea. Puglia is also the largest producer of grapes in all of Italy, and ancient olive trees stand watch along the roadside. If grapes and olives are abundant, tourists are not, at least in May. We heard little American-accented English, making for a good opportunity to sharpen Italian skills.

Ristorante Antiche Mura within the old walls of Polignano a Mare.

Ristorante Antiche Mura within the old walls of Polignano a Mare.

We are traveling with my brother and his wife, who spent a few days with us in Rome. Wanting to enjoy a region none of us had visited, we chose Puglia. A long drive from Rome ended with a two-night stay in Lecce, a Baroque town deep in the heel of the boot, characterized by elegant buildings and graceful balconies. A good base for driving the heel, Lecce has also offered some great dining, new-to-us dishes, excellent wines, and is easy on the budget. There’s a lot of meat on the menus, at prices unheard of in Rome. I gravitate toward seafood, also a relative bargain.  Octopus, calamari (stuffed and sautéed), clams, mussels, orecchiette (little ears, a regional pasta), lots of vegetables, all in huge quantities made for sharing. One night the antipasto of three fish carpaccio could have fed a family of six! Still, we ate it all (it’s only fish!) followed by a serving of orecchiette con ceci e vongole (ear-shaped pasta with chickpeas and clams) served in a small vat for me. Chickpeas in pasta seems like a double-hit on carbs, but it is de-li-cious! My Ric ordered lamb and had four large chops, grilled to lamby-perfection. Brother Rick and Jane ate similarly, yet with two


Gallipoli in Puglia is still a working port with a charming old town and, of course, a castle for protection.

bottles of very fine local vino, our bill was about 20% less than the same meal would cost in Rome.

Night number two was even more remarkable! At tiny little Cucina Casareccia in Lecce we were treated like family.  Here we discovered the Puglian delight of purè di fave con chicoria (pureed fava beans with chicory), accompanied by antipasti della casa, verza con pecorino, (Savoy cabbage sautéed with pecorino cheese) and also a very fine octopus stewed in a special Puglian style.  €25 per person with great house wine. Si mangia troppo, ma costo meno. This is a place you will not stumble upon in your meanderings. It’s on a dark and otherwise non-commercial street. You have to ring the bell to gain entry; An altogether different experience.

Still, we are eating too much for a car-based trip. Ugh! At least we aren’t eating dessert.

Moving up through the region we passed through gorgeous country side, stringing together the towns of Ostuni, Locorotondo, Martina


Traditional dwelling in Puglia, particularly in the area of Alberobello. The trulli give the landscape a fairy-tale-Tolkien-kind of feel.

Franca, and Alberobello on our way to Polignano a Mare. The landscape is dotted with trulli lending a Shire-like aspect to the terrain. These traditional structures, particularly present in Alberobello, are adapted in new construction as well.  Martina Franca is an incredibly lovely town with piazzas strung together, dotted with charming restaurants and friendly, welcoming residents. It is, in the words of writer Fred Plotkin “the best of what Italy has to offer.”

Martina Franca

You’ll not find a prettier town in Puglia. Kind people, great food, welcoming green spaces.

We intended to stop for a light lunch, having sworn off midday pasta after Thursday’s gluttony. But when we invaded Ristorante ai Portici, the waiter/owner kept the food coming (Si mangia troppo) from a free starter through a giant salume and cheese platter he insisted we must have because Ric’s entrée was going to take 15 minutes to cook. Once again I indulged in the local specialty fava bean puree with chicory, and once again we rolled out more-than-satiated. €75 for four people with wine (costo meno). The best part: an owner who was so attentive, so proud of his food, and a location evocative of the best of Italy in a charming Puglian town.

Polignano a Mare

Whitewashed Polignano a Mare, a pleasant stroll through quiet streets at dawn.

Polignano a Mare is a decidedly different side of Puglia, right on the Adriatic sporting a fun-by-the-sea feel. There is a charming old town, Roman ruins, and it’s not far from Castel del Monte, a Castle built by Emperor Frederico II in the 13th century. Well worth a visit as there is no castle like it anywhere on earth.

Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte

And there is food: Polignano features magnificent seafood and the Puglian specialties continued to amaze us and inspire us to find activities requiring us to expend some calories.  After two nights of stuffing ourselves on grilled orate (sea bream), alici (anchovies), octopus salad, marvelous local vegetables, shellfish pasta, and some of the very special wines of Puglia, we headed for home by way of Abruzzo. More to come….

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