A Baroque Beauty - Lecce
TuesdayOctober 28, 2008Fasano - Lecce - Ceglie Messapica, Italy
Another gorgeous sunny day and another Masseria to inspect. This spacious,
sprawling former farmhouse has been a 5 star hotel for some time. We learned that the Masseria concept was the birthplace of the mafia in southern Italy.
The Masseria was managed by a boss who kept the farmhands under control with his guns. The owner of the Masseria usually lived in a palazzo in a city but would come to inspect his holdings from time to time. These bosses, like a captain on a pirate ship had to please the owner while keeping the rogues loyal and productive. This arrangement eventually morphed into the crime syndicate in existence today. This reminds me that once last week when things were more than usually chaotic at what we'd call a free-for-all but the Italians call a buffet-style dinner, I overheard a trade show attendee remark, "Don't you know the only thing Italians can organize is crime?"
Just when we'd seen several of the hotel rooms, the pool, and the common areas, we were all summoned to go out the front door. It was past time to go and we thought we were headed for the bus. But we walked right past it to a little stable where there was a Shetland pony and then went into a side entrance of the Masseria to find a huge spread of brunch laid out for us.
The three meals we sit down to each day are beyond satisfying, then before lunch and in mid afternoon, there's always a little something to go with an aperitivo. After the sumptuous breakfast - which followed way too soon the feast we had for dinner last night, no one was able to do anything but groan at the sight of all the goodies on the table by the roaring fire. We managed somehow to put a pretty good dent in it
before heading out to the bus for Lecce.
Known for its papier mache figurine-making,
baroque arch- itecture,
and the Roman amphi- theater in the main square, Lecce is one of the prettiest towns
in Puglia. A famous tenor, Tito Schipa was born here and at noon, instead of
the traditional noon bells, his singing belts out from the bell tower. Our guide mentioned this at about 12:30 PM, just after we'd missed it. Too bad.
If there's such a thing as "overly baroque", the façade of Lecce's main church would qualify. The Catholic church promoted baroque ornamentation to convince non-Catholics to follow their path. It is architecture to
intimidate and the symbol of the town is a fish eating a crescent moon. The period when this type of architecture was most popular was just after the Reformation but I can't see this lavish ornamentation convincing any Protestant, Jew, or Moslem, that being a Catholic was the way to go.
Another church in Lecce, The Church of the Sacrifice, had a pelican atop its pediment symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ. Our guide explained that if the pelican's young were starving, she's give them her own flesh to eat. I don't know if pelicans actually do that or not, but that is why the pelican is used as a symbol of Christ's sacrifice.
A real standout destination of the trip to Puglia was lunch at a palazzo in downtown Lecce.
A nobleman lives here and opens the first floor and gardens for concerts or catered lunches.
Groups who use the first floor are asked to
come upstairs, meet the nobleman, and hear his description and history of this palazzo.
There were some remarkable specimens in the garden and it was good to see what is behind some of the town's massive arched doors we pass when walking down sidewalks. Usually all we see are the retail shops and hotel lobbies on the first floor and maybe the office windows on the 2nd and 3rd floors. But behind many of these city facades are beautiful courtyards, gardens, and homes of real people.
From there we went for another hotel inspection at Relais La Fontana, a
restaurant and wine hotel.
In one remarkable suite of avant garde rooms the bathroom took up more room than the bedroom. Two showers filled one wall like a high school locker room with a large glass screen behind them. There was also a square toilet and bidet and some of the walls were rough stone.
It was all very interesting and would probably be pretty cool for one night, but it's just too far out there for any kind of long stay. When the owner saw our names on our business card later in the evening at dinner, he told us he had assigned us to that room, but we had to go with the group that is getting up at 4:00 AM for an early departure for Bari airport (we unfortunately would be in another Masseria that could not compare in any way to this one - but only for a VERY few hours of sleep). There was, of course, another big spread of Puglianese specialties and 50 glasses of local rose poured for us. They couldn't just show us around and not feed us, could they?
A half-hour drive through Ostuni, the white city, brought us to our hotel with just enough time to change for dinner in the town of Ceglie Messapica at Cibus Trattoria. This is the best restaurant of the trip - recognized by Slow Food. They are closed on Tuesday, but opened for us and really put out a beautiful and delicious spread. The highlight was wheat berries mixed with caciocavallo cheese and both infused and topped with black truffle. When we were all stuffed, they brought out a big plate of sausages, ribs, liver, and sliced meat. All I could do was to pick at a rib and wish for a day with just 3 meals in it. For the perfect ending, we sipped from a small glass of
sweet red wine before walking through the narrow winding streets of old town
Way down south in Puglia
Sunday - Monday October 27- 28, 2008Puglia region of Italy
It is a looong way to the heel of the boot; we arrived in Fasano at about 7:45 PM and went to dinner at our hotel at 8:30 PM, strolling down a candlelit path to the dining area.
The hotel has set up several stations with chefs demonstrating their techniques for making Pugliese specialties.
Afterwards, they served us at tables in the dining room - enclosed and heated at this time of year, but still with the feeling of being on a garden terrace.
The common areas of the hotel are in a converted military garrison in the middle of an orange and olive grove. The rooms are all one story new pale stone construction with outdoor entrances off a beautiful center courtyard with bougainvillea and jasmine climbing the walls. Our room is huge and has a fireplace, a big bathtub with massaging jets, and a little walled in patio overlooking the golf course.
We have work to do tomorrow starting at 8AM but at least we are getting to bed earlier than it looked like we would on the way down here today...with a roaring fire which was laid and ready and started more easily than any fire we've laid in our fireplace at home.
When we were in Puglia four years ago, we stayed at a Masseria, or converted farmhouse. There were some renovated hotel-like rooms on the premises of a run-down farm. There were new walkways and landscaping alongside some leftover farm animals and a family of farmhands-turned hotel hands lived in un-renovated parts of the property. We were the only hotel guests there that night and the only diners in the Masseria’s restaurant. As I recall, we had some difficulty when we were ready to leave finding someone who would take payment for the dinner and room.
The Masseria where we are this time has taken a few giant steps forward from what we knew a Masseria to be. The developer of this one started with not one but two ancient stone farmhouses and fitted a beautiful golf course between them among the olive and orange trees. There is not a trace of the property’s former function as a farm or military outpost. The modern reception area just inside main farmhouse is fully staffed with crisply uniformed professional but hip staff. The difference in our two Masseria experiences, separated by four years is an illustration of the transformative tourism initiatives Puglia as a region has undertaken to claim its share of Italian tourists. A region-wide concerted effort to make important tourism infrastructure improvements such as improvements to roads, restaurants, service worker’s training, and tourism support services has paid off in developing a region that is nearing maturity as a place that will be acceptable by most Western tourists before long. In fact, we met several people involved with tourism in Puglia who moved here from Milan and other well established destinations to be a part of Puglia’s transformation. One group of hotels is even providing free flights direct from New York City for their guests!
After a very impressive breakfast (sliced cantaloupe that’s better tasting than we’ve
had elsewhere in Italy even in the summertime), every imagineable kind of fresh fruit - even prickly pear cactus fruit, made to order eggs, and NONE of the little pre-packaged breakfast goodies that are so common even in better hotels) we walked the half mile through the olive grove to get on the tour bus with the other half of our group of about 50 tour operators.
Puglia’s olive trees are much larger, twisted and filled with character than the olive trees we’ve seen anywhere in Italy or France. Now most have an orange nets spread out on the ground from the trunk to the drip line to catch the olives that are beginning to fall.
Our first stop is a nearby dairy farm (Caseficio Lamapecora) that produces the region’s famous mozzarella.
We watched their cheesemaker knead the long white strands and tie them into warm little knots for us to taste.
Nearby, cows slept in the shade of olive trees and a five day old litter of piglets scrambled over their mother for some breakfast.
Shade-dried cherry tomatoes for this winter’s pasta sauce hung in the hay filled barn. Even the dairy farm had thousands of ancient olive trees with nets underneath.
From this fertile farm area, the bus speeds us to the seaside town of Monopoli for the fish and
We parked down by the docks, busy with hard working fishing boats and walked down narrow lanes under residential balconies in this bright white town to the center where we could hear the vendors calling
out well before we could see what they were selling.
I was first to respond to a seller of mussels who offered me a long black hinged shell filled with raw pink flesh. He said that the ones with the pinkest flesh were the tastiest and even without a squirt of lemon juice, it was absolutely perfect. I’ve only eaten mussels boiled to a bright orange color before this but the raw one he offered made me hang out at his booth a little while longer for another taste...no need to wait to cook these sea treasures. One of the ladies in our group bought a sack full to eat later.
We left the market for a gelato and a walk back to the bus down the long promenade on the docks, past the 15th century castle, an ancient chapel, and colorful fishing boats at the edge of the clear water of the Adriatic.
Alberobello is the next town with its hundreds of trullis – tiny houses with pointed-topped stacked stone roofs.
A lady asked us if we wanted to look inside one and all of us passed single file in her front door, through her living room, bedroom and kitchen then out the back door. We saw plenty of trullis, even went for lunch in one that is now a restaurant, then walked back through some more trullis to the bus.
We understand that a trulli is built so that by pulling one stone, it would fall in on itself and look like a pile of stones. This was to avoid paying real estate taxes centuries ago. After the tax inspector left, the trulli dwellers would rebuild. Now, the structures are a genuine curiosity and are protected as part of the national heritage.
We rode up to another mid sized town named Martina Franca for a stroll-through and a stop at a pastry shop for one of their famous pastries. Their patron saint is St. Martin, and his image, cutting his cloak in half and sharing it with the poor, shows up all around the town - such as this relief over the cathedral entrance.
Back at our masseria, we showered and changed for dinner, then met at the Masseria Torre Coccarro with some local tour operators and hotel owners.
This masseria is much more obviously a previous farm complex - they even had their own little chapel by the entry. A welcoming fire lit our way to the gathering area.
Dinner is below ground level in the grotto followed by a demonstration of the local Tarantella singing and dancing.
Lively young musicians played tam- bourines and drums and a guitar while a couple danced the local folk dance traditionally performed to ward off evil spirits or after having been bit by a tarantula spider.
Tonight we don’t build a fire in the fireplace because the smoke kept us awake last night...we left before the dancing was over and walked back home, hoping for a good night's sleep to ready for another full day of Puglia experiences.
Fun in Rimini
Saturday October 26, 2008Rimini, Italy
The sun is shining on the little marina next door as we step out on our balcony this morning. Just a glance, then we're on our way to the convention center.
Today we got a little better at grouping appointments in the same part of the convention center instead of walking so much from one pavilion to another. We met
Cyndi of Esperia Tours
again today after lunch to catch up. She was in Bologna at Buy Emilia Romagna last April and we’ve been looking forward to seeing her again. She’s from Indiana and now lives in the area with her Italian husband.
Instead of waiting for the 6:30 PM bus that got back to our hotel at 7:15 PM, we finished all our meetings and jumped on the 4:00 PM commuter train and after a
short stroll through the pedestrian center of Riccione, arrived at our beachside hotel before 5:00 PM... leaving time enough to enjoy the beautiful view from our window and relax a bit.
We met for dinner at 8:30 PM and arrived at another Rimini convention center around 9:00 PM. Tonight’s dinner is sponsored by the region of Sicily and is a lot more fun than Thursday’s sponsored by the Piemonte region. There were little breaded fishes we held by the tail, closed our eyes, and ate whole, lots of eggplant dishes, and wonderful salami and cheeses.
Also on the buffet table were some chocolate cannoli filled with cinnamon flavored ricotta and topped with a candied orange slice. I hope nobody was counting because several seemed to disappear from a plate left on our table.
Afterward a Sicilian group sang songs from their region with melodic influences of the Middle East and Africa.
There were some Sicilians who seemed to know how to dance to this music so eventually we all got up and tried to mimic them with varying levels of success. At one point we joined hands in a big circle but I’m not sure the Sicilians recognized that dance.
There were a lot of goodbyes, thanks for comings, and see you next years spoken from the podium, but at most Italian banquets, the speakers don’t ask for order and silence before speaking. Speakers just go up to the microphone and start speaking, adding to the din of dishes clinking and people shouting across the table to each other. Only the Americans try to make everybody stop talking and listen to the speaker, but no matter how insistent they are, they can’t hold back the tide and it’s impossible to hear over all the Italians talking and eating. The speakers don’t seem to mind, like senators entering their speech for the record to an empty senate floor, they say what they have to say, while the noise continues.
We finished the evening with a Sicilian digestivo made of artichokes that tasted a little medicinal. It did seem to be the perfect ending for all the Sicilian food. We got back to the hotel very late again but tonight is the end of Daylight Savings Time here so we get an extra hour of sleep tonight.
Sunday morning, we enjoy a leisurely breakfast with some new friends from Alexandria, Virginia then board a comfortable bus for what has been billed as a five hour trip to Fasano in Puglia. The schedule said we should arrive at 2PM but we’re informed after getting started that the 2 should have been a 7...Puglia is a looong drive south of here. We couldn’t leave when planned because the luggage compartment of the bus isn’t large enough to hold all our luggage. After much arm waving and head scratching they decided to move the people from one side of the back row of seats and put some of the luggage there. So we finally got going after 10:30 so the 7 now becomes an 8:30. Looks like another late night, By now we’re completely accustomed to things not starting when they’re supposed to and going longer than announced.
Tastes of Italy - the Western Coast
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday
October 23, 24, and 25, 2008
Dulles – Rimini, Italy
On the road again… this time to a con- vention for tour operators in Rimini, Italy. We're at the Nautica Hotel
right on the beach beside a promenade with a sculpture of a boat cutting through the water.
When asked where we were going on this trip, almost everybody I told this to gave me a real quizzical look and I had to explain that it’s on the back of the knee of the boot-shaped peninsula. Rome is roughly on the West coast and Rimini is about the same latitude but on the opposite coast. Rimini had its day about 20 years ago when it was a major destination for British on holiday - but for some unknown reason it fell out of style. This time of year more than half of the beach side hotels and restaurants on the 9 miles of sandy beach are closed until next June, when they will be jam-packed with vacationing Italian families. According to Wikopedia, Rimini is famous for its tons of night clubs (discos, they’re called here) and hordes of Italian tourists come here in busloads for rowdy, all night summer fun – there are even special trains that come late on Saturday (the clubs open at 1 am or later) and return on Sunday afternoon.
We’re here, though, because there’s a monstrous convention center and the 600 tour operators and perhaps 300 exhibitors of Travel Trade Italia (TTI) are taking up about a third of it.
Our first stop from Dulles in Schiphol Airport is Amsterdam where, half asleep we make our customary stop at the museum, featuring a teasing of Dutch paintings from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. A free museum in an airport? If you’re the home of a collection of Dutch masters including Rembrandt drawings, you can afford to keep a revolving display at the airport to tempt people to come to see the mother lode. On the shuttle to the plane to Bologna from the terminal, the gentleman holding on to the strap next to us said, “I saw you in Milan two weeks ago.” True, we had been part of a group of people in the security line at Milan’s Malpensa Airport who were trying to keep a rude and impatient couple from breaking in line rather than going through the long serpentine line like the rest of us (they thought that since the security guards couldn’t see them, they could get by with it; but there was such an uproar, they had to duck back under the railing and go to the back of the line). Tommas runs a travel business in Houston and he, like us, was returning home from Lake Como where he was visiting his parents at his childhood home. We three who were heading to Bologna were marveling that he, from Houston recognized us, from Virginia in Amsterdam two weeks after spotting us in Milan.
From Bologna Airport a nice bus took all the TTI conventioneers to their hotels on the beach in Riccione and Tommas ended up in the check-in line at our hotel by the marina in Riccione. We ran into him again at the seafood restaurant, a rather grande-sounding Cavalluccio Marino (seahorse) Bar Pizzeria Ristorante
, a block from the hotel and
we joined him for some of the best seafood we’ve had in a long time. It was nice having a real Italian chatting amiably with the waiter.
He was anxious for some spaghetti with vongole (shell fish) and a plate of mussels. We had similar pasta and seafood dishes and for a beach town, everything was really excellent.
After a desperately needed nap and a 45 minute ride to the Rimini Fiera (convention center) we sat down to the opening ceremonies (speeches by dignitaries) and a Gala Dinner sponsored by the Piedmonte Region. We were in a room big enough for a North American football game and there are 16 of those rooms here. Overhead are crisscrossed wooden bows holding up massive arched ceilings.
We sat beside a delightful couple, Libero and Chiara Piazza, from Vicenza, who spoke only a little English but a lot of Italian. After salsiccia di bra, salame cotto and polenta (beef and pork sausage, cooked salami, and cornmeal cooked in a copper cauldron) for appetizers, we had Agnolotti al Plin con Burro e Salvia, Gnocchetti al Seiras con dadolata di Verdure Autunnale e Salsina alla Menta, Sella di Lombata di Sanoto in Crosta al Profuma di Erbette e Porcini.
(pinched pasta filled with beef and pork butter and sage, mini gnocchi made with Pied- montese ricotta, saddle of castrated beef baked, boned, cut, placed back in the backbone and baked with a crust of ground breadsticks, herbs, and porcini – yum!)
That sounds like a lot of food but after all that we had Pied- montese cheeses – too many to list, fresh fruit, and an assortment of Piedmontese cookies.
Each dish was served with a different wine from the Piedmonte. While I was disappointed there was no Barolo, I was very impressed with the slightly bubbly white Moscato d’Asti they served for dessert.
We got home after midnight, and we got far too little sleep for the 12 meetings with suppliers on Friday, but the day flew by because almost all of them were interesting and the suppliers we met had great ideas for our tours and were really enthusiastic.
One marketing director of two VERY high-end hotels in Florence and Lucca offered us a complimentary night in both properties. We’ll take advantage of that offer as soon as we finish our post conference tour of Puglia on Wednesday of next week.
We finished Friday with another gala dinner at a nearby hotel and walked home about 20 minutes down the pedestrian promenade by the beach.
A Day in Como
Saturday October 4, 2008
After packing the car before sunrise, we retraced our steps from yesterday's drive to Milan to drop Jill off at Linate Airport on the southeast side of town. Our flight home is tomorrow out of Malpensa Airport which is about an hour north west of Milan. So we drove around Milan and up toward Switzerland following signs (and GPS) to the town of Como.
We took a train to Como over a decade ago to catch a bus up to Bellagio on the lake. And we were in Varenna, also on the lake, earlier this year; but we've never come to the Lake Como area just to get familiar with the little town of Como.
We stuck mostly to the historic center, also called the walled city - a rectangle whose west side is a long harbor and promenade on Lake Como. Both Plinys, the Elder and his nephew, the Younger were born here and chronicled much of what we know of ancient Roman culture during the 1st century.
Alessandro Volta in the 18th century is another claim to Como's fame and just outside the rectangle is a museum with some of his electrifying inventions.
After a stroll up the lovely main street admiring the churches and large
then through the ancient gate and to the Saturday market, we strolled back to the lake.
For a birds-eye view of the town and the lake, we took a steep funicular up the mountain crowding the north side of town. The little bedroom hamlet of Brunate is at the top of the track and before we looked down on the town we had to find a place for lunch. We spotted a sign for Trattoria Cacciatore (the hunter) pointing away from the tourist spots near the funicular stop
and followed some stairs down the other side of the mountain to the cobbled
lanes of the residential area of Brunate...what a change from starstruck
When we came to an intersection with no sign, a very helpful white-haired nona pointed to the alley we needed to ascend to find the house with the family-run trattoria.
We took the only open table in a pine paneled room with a rustic and eclectic collection of country chatchkes on the walls. Not another tourist in the room full of red and white checkered tablecloths.
A young waiter tells us what they've prepared today - a couple of choices for each course. We chose what it appears everybody else is eating, a base of polenta with either tagliata (sliced beef) with mushrooms or beef brasato.
Delicious and filling, and in a miles-away from 21st century atmosphere.
After lunch, we followed other signs to the lookout point where we could see
the rooftops of Como, the southern shores of Lake Como, and Chiasso, the
nearby town which is in Switzerland.
A crusty old Italian man was telling
anyone who'd listen that in mid August he'd climbed the farthest visible peak in snow up to his waist. He told us that we could see the mountain on the Italy/France border from where we were standing.
Both of us fell asleep (unusual for Anne!) on the 15 minute funicular ride back down to lake level where we checked into our hotel and took a little nap.
After walking down to the Tempio Volta and by the Monu- mento ai Caduti (a
modernistic World War I memorial that was designed by an architect from Como who was a casualty of that war) we
looked across the lake and could see the track of the funicular we had ridden, and the edge of the hilltop town of Brunate.
After ducking in and out of some very interesting and unique shops, we decided to stop for another Spritz. I ducked into a little bar with one customer and an award winning mixologist whose diplomas and certifications as an outstanding bartender covered an entire wall. He pointed out that instead of just any prosecco, we must use the prosecco named Cartizze D.O.C. of Valdobbiano to make a real Spritz. And we should drench the glass's rim with juice from an orange and dunk it in a shallow
tray of sugar. The sole customer, a distinguished looking gentleman at the bar had just driven to Como from Lugano, Switzerland about 20 km away to celebrate his retirement. The way he put it was that today he got his first pension check. He told us about a piano festival in Lugano and insisted on paying for our drinks since we were visitors to his area. I hope we brightened his day as much as he did ours.
We then found a restaurant that looked like it would be just right for our last dinner in Italy. We were welcomed warmly at Trattoria Il Solito Posto
and guided through a warren of little rooms (to the sound of a Brazil 66 song that was playing the night we met in 1972) to our table in a cozy room with a loft also seating happy diners. We were pleased with the complimentary glass of prosecco and an amuse buche of hearty zucchini soup with crispy croutons in a square bowl.
I had all seafood - a trio of antipasti comprised of shrimp with berry sauce, "soused" shad, and a thin roll of frittata with char and goat cheese followed by black rice with squid, tagliatelli with lake fish, and steamed turbot with cherry tomatoes
while Anne had aspar- agus, carrot and goat cheese terrine (an unusual-sounding but delicious combination) and duck ravioli with red currant sauce.
We had nothing to do on Sunday morning before heading to the airport except to find the illy brand coffee bar we'd spotted yesterday - the only one in town!
We checked all the parts of town where we thought we'd seen it, but didn't find it until we went to the block where we didn't think it was. I won't have an espresso like that until we find an illy bar in Rimini later this month when we return to Italy.
Labels: Illy, Lake Como