Monday, June 16, 2014

2014 Trip to Southern Italy

We've never been to southern Italy, so we are finally going to visit Puglia (the heel of Italy's boot) and Sicily (the 'football' the toe of Italy's boot is kicking) this May-June 2014. Our friend Toni is joining us for 16 days in Puglia. Marcia and I are then going on to Sicily for 12 days, and winding up in Rome for a few days.

Puglia is a long, narrow province in SE Italy, and we are breaking up our stay into 3 parts. The first week we will be in the city of Lecce in southern Puglia. The last week we will be in Monopoli on the east coast of central Puglia. And in between for 2 nights we are staying in Matera (which is actually in the province of Basilicata, west and just over the border from Puglia). We are renting a car, and as usual we plan to take day-trips from our base cities (probably using trains too).

Sicily is an island off the toe of Italy. After Puglia, we are flying to Sicily. The first week we are staying in the small towns of Avola and Noto on the SE coast of Sicily and as usual will take day-trips. Then we will drive west to Ragusa staying for 4 days. Our final visit will be to NE Sicily to tour Etna and see the most active volcano in Europe.

Note: You can click on any photo below to enlarge.

Before starting our vacation in Italy, we stopped in Amsterdam for 5 days where Marcia managed her client's conference with 250 people. Our flights were flawless and Amsterdam greeted us with a sunny day (despite the prediction of rain). The huge red and white "I amsterdam" sign is a wonderful way for the city to say hello!

I took a walk in downtown Amsterdam. It really does have canals everywhere and is as storybook looking as we've been told:
Today we spent a few hours in the Rijks Museum. It is one of the great art museums in Amsterdam. 

Marcia's client, Quantified Self (QS), conference started:

Time to leave the chilly rainy weather, great art museums, a great conference, and Amsterdam behind... and off to Italy! Our flight stops in Rome where we meet Toni, change planes, and fly one hour to Brindisi in Puglia.

The 25 minute drive from the Brindisi airport to Lecce went smoothly until we got into town. Then our GPS was hard to follow as it said to turn where there was no street. After making a few circuits, we realized that what looked like a driveway was actually a street. After entering the Centro (the relatively big, old part of town), we were in another world. The buildings were all a few hundred years old. The streets were like alleys. We meandered through very narrow streets, once having to back up, following the GPS but not really being sure where we were going. Then when we thought we were close to our apartment, Toni got out of the car and looked at the street name; and with great excitement said "DOWN THERE!". So down one more narrow street and into a piazzetta (small piazza) where we recognized our B&B from the web photos.

All was dark, so we knocked on the door to hear "who is there, I'm coming". Then we met Elisabetta... the owner and our host. She couldn't have been more welcoming. First she showed us her house and then up a long narrow flight of outdoor steps to our apartment and its balcony. It was like in a movie... all 3 of us said we could live here for a long time! Our first stop was our traditional glass of prosecco.

The next morning our breakfast was waiting in a beautiful basket outside the door to our balcony. Toni made cappuccinos and we marveled at the sweetness of the fruit and yogurt.

Today we're off for our walking tour of Lecce and wine tour with our friends the Yewells and Pagendarms from St. Helena (who just happened to be vacationing in Puglia with one day of overlap with us).

Wednesday, May 14, we spent the day walking around Lecce on our own. Getting lost is easy, even with a map. The streets are narrow and often curve and intersect with other streets that all look the same. After a while you begin to get a bit of a feel for where you are, but I'm never absolutely sure. All this is in the old town (Centro), but outside of the Centro, the new part of the city becomes much more like any other city... with the accompanying loss of charm. While eating lunch, we began chatting with a man sitting alone. It turns out he's from Belgium and sold everything and moved to Lecce about 7 months ago. He said he was the happiest man on earth now.

I already raved about our "Roof Barocco Suite B&B" run by Elisabetta here in Lecce and how friendly she was when we arrived. So Marcia stopped by her apartment (below ours) and asked if she knew of a cooking class for local dishes. The next thing we knew Marcia, Toni and I were there for over an hour chatting with Elisabetta. She explained how after they bought this building they were renovating and found an amazing mosaic tile floor in their dinning room (see photo). And oh, Elisabetta is giving us a cooking class in her apartment Sunday. I'll get to meet Elisabetta's husband and enjoy the fruits of our labor. You gotta love Italians!

One of the things Lecce is well known for is its old tradition of "cartapesta" or as we generally know it "papier mâché". We went to the Cartapesta Museum and found amazing statues all made of paper on the inside and plaster on the outside. Marcia bought a necklace and earrings from a cartapesta artist near our apartment.

Lecce's Duomo at night (click to enlarge):

How about some chocolate tools from the local bakery?

The other night we ate at a pizzeria and Marcia asked for pepperoncini for the pizza. The waiter said he makes it at home and brought us 3 small bottles of it the next night. We love Italians.

Saturday nights Lecce becomes a beehive of activity with thousands of people (mostly young) filling the narrow streets and piazzas. It's like a huge party... with the only turnoff being how many people are smoking.

Puglia is one of 20 Regions in Italy and is in the very far southeast. It is often referred to as the heel of the boot of Italy ('high heel'). Puglia is made up of 3 provinces; the southeastern most is called Salento. Lecce is the largest city in Salento.

note: You can click on any of these maps to enlarge.

If you look closely at a map of Italy, you'll notice that the heel is a "high heel." The most southeastern part of the high heel (the part that sticks out from the mainland) is Salento, and it's a peninsula. It's bounded on the east by the Adriatic Sea and on the south and west by the Ionian Sea.

Thursday, May 15, we visited the 3 popular coast towns of Salento: Gallipoli on the west coast, Santa Maria di Leuca at the southern tip, and Otranto on the east coast. Gallipoli faces west back towards the Italian mainland. Santa Maria di Leuca is at the bottom "point" of Salento/Puglia, and Otranto faces east. They are each about a 40 minute drive from each other and make a diamond with Lecce at the top.

Gallipoli was originally just a small island guarded by a castle fortress, but today the island makes up only the old town (Centro) with the majority of the city on the mainland connected by a short bridge that both pedestrians and cars travel over. It has become a vacation destination with beautiful beaches and where the wealthy moor their yachts.

Santa Maria di Leuca is a small town known mostly for the fact it is on the "point" of Puglia/Salento (the very bottom of the heel... the sole of the heel). Most of the hotels and restaurants hadn't opened for the season yet, but we found one open restaurant right on the sea. What a pleasant lunch looking out on the Ionian Sea. The small white object in the distant background behind Marcia and Toni in the photo below of the sea is the lighthouse at the point.

Our last stop of the day was Otranto. This town faces east towards Albania, Greece and the Orient, and on a clear day they say you can see Albania and sometimes even Greece. It was a major shipping point for many products into and out of Italy from pre-Roman times through the 19th century. Today it is mostly a tourist town with its Centro and larger new part of the city.

At the end of the day, we were glad we visited these 3 towns, but we all felt fortunate to be staying in larger Lecce where there is more charm and less tourist trinkets.

Saturday, May 17, we took the train to Brindisi's "old town" for lunch and a walk around town. We found a family restaurant with fresh fish and great grilled veggies. We also saw the monuments that the Romans erected at the very end of the Apian Way from Rome. Brindisi was eerily empty in the early afternoon, as are many southern Italian towns, when most locals are home having lunch.

Sunday, May 18, we took a short drive east near the coast to see the very small town of Acaya with its locally well known castle (of course pausing for a caffe) and then walked through the Le Cesine Nature Reserve.

We ended our stay in Lecce with a great evening with Elisabetta, our B&B owner. She gave us a cooking class on some typical Italian food. We prepared Gnocchi ala Romana with eggplant, Risotto with verdicchio and talleggio cheese, and Zucchini Lasagna with provolone and parmigiano.

She and her husband then hosted us for dinner eating all of the wonderful dishes we prepared followed by bright red very fresh strawberries (yum). We had a wonderful 5 hours with her and her family. 

Monday, May 19, it's off to Matera with stops in Manduria (known for its Primitivo wines) and Grottaglie for ceramic shopping.

Many people had told us the city of Matera was worth seeing, but we had no idea why. Well we found out! Matera is called the "Cave City" because every house in the "old section" was, and is, a cave. About 15,000 people lived in caves along with their animals and many children until the mid-1950s when Italy decided it was a national disgrace. They forced everyone to leave their caves and move into temporary housing. It took about 10-15 years to complete their new housing in the "new section" of the city. In the mid-1980s a few wealthy people began renovating the old caves into very nice homes. This led to more people buying and renovating until today where Matera's "old section" has about 5,000 people living in expensive ex-caves. Many of these are now B&Bs (like the one we stayed in) and luxury hotels along with some private homes.

We were only in Matera for two nights from May 19-21, but it was a walking orgy of sights. Our B&B was a beautifully renovated cave (look closely below and you can see Marcia and Toni up on our porch). Of course the food was typically 'Italian fantastic' with its unique Matera flavors. To no surprise, Marcia made friends with the chef at a great restaurant (those are black truffles on our table).

Views of Matera from the opposite hill (on our way out of town):

I made a short video of the tour we took of the Matera caves and city; click here.
Check out this professional 4 min. video about Matera.

We're now in Monopoli on the east coast of Puglia (about 70 miles east of Matera, north of Brindisi and south of Bari). We will be here from May 21-28 and use it as our base city from which to take a few day-trips. We had our traditional new city glass of prosecco, and later our dinner with wine, cheeses, fruit, veggies, etc. that we bought in local markets on our apartment's rooftop balcony with a view of the Adriatic Sea that was the bluest water I've ever seen.

A stroll through Monopoli on a warm day:

To see a short video of how we usually enjoy the early evening in Monopoli, click here.

Panorama view of Monopoli from the top of the town Castle:

Friday, May 23, we took a driving day-trip visiting the nearby inland towns of LocorotondoMartina Franca and Alberobello. This central part of Puglia is called Valle D'Itria (the southern part of Puglia where we started our vacation is called Salento). The towns were established between the 13th - 16th centuries and are built on hilltops with the Centro "old town" surrounded by the sprawling new part of town. We spend all of our time in the Centro. Our day started in Locorotondo. It's a relatively small Centro, but it's one of the most charming we've seen:
Aerial View of Locorotondo

Martina Franca is a typical Valle D'Itria hilltop town with a beautiful Centro:

Alberobello is known for its trulli (white limestone conical shaped houses). They are very small usually with two tiny alcoves, one for the parent's bedroom and the other for the kitchen, and a sleeping space in the upper "cone" for children. Although not as rustic as the caves of Matera, they reminded me of them due to their small size inside. Today some  residences are built with multiple trulli put together as B&Bs. They were easy to assemble since they use no mortar.

Saturday, May 24, we took the train 5 min. up the coast to Polignano a Mare. Its coastline is very dramatic (somewhat like Sorrento near the Amalfi Coast). The locals love their beach.

Marcia and Toni have been enjoying coffee granita, but I still go for the gelato!

Lest we forget, here is how most Italians live in small towns:

Sunday we slept late and had a late lunch in the main piazza. We also discovered that on Sunday many shops do not open, even the markets where we get our wine and food supplies.

Monday, May 26, was a great day with a number of surprises. We got up late and had cappuccino and fruit with yogurt on the roof balcony and talked about what to do. We decided to see if we could take the olive oil tour that our friends the Yewells had told us about, and the family that owns the olive oil business was gracious enough to let us come that day. On our way to the Masseria Brancati tour and tasting, we got a bit lost and wound up walking in the Adriatic Sea and having a great lunch. We then found Masseria Brancati and the tour blew us away learning about, and touching, olive trees that were over 2,000 years old and how olive oil production was done across the millennium: pre-Roman times, in Roman times, during the last two centuries, and now. Of course, we then tasted their olive oil and bought a unique lemon flavored version. According to them, 50% of all olive oil and wine produced in Italy comes from Puglia. We finally wound up in the town of Ostuni referred to as the "White City" on top of the hill. It was a lively town with many restaurants and gelaterias.

Here we are at the Masseria Brancati olive oil farm standing next to a 3,000 year old olive tree and getting a lesson on how olive oil was pressed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The farm has been in the current owner's family for 200 years.

The "white city" of Ostuni high on the hill:

We've loved our time in Puglia learning and seeing everything new to us. Our last full day, Tuesday, May 27, ended sweetly with Marcia and Toni meeting two wonderful young sisters who just opened a small fresh food store. Their piadine were great (similar to panini but thinner bread) for lunch, and we went back to get more for our last dinner on our roof balcony. Unfortunately they were closing, so they suggested we go to their mother's cafe and restaurant... which we did. We enjoyed some prosecco and marveled at the huge number of different sweets that their mother bakes fresh every day.

It's now on to Sicily. Our one hour flight from Brindisi stops in Rome where we change planes and fly another hour back south to Sicily. We will mostly be in SE Sicily in the Siracusa and Ragusa provinces with the last days in the NE touring Taormina and hiking Mt. Etna.

Our flights were all on time, and we arrived in Avola only 30 minutes late due to waiting for our luggage in the Catania airport. You can't be in a hurry in Sicily :)

Our plan was to stay in an apartment in Avola for one week using it as a base city and taking day-trips. However sometimes you need to be a bit flexible. The apartment was not to our liking, nor was the city. So we found a B&B in the nearby small hill town of Noto. The first two days we stayed in a B&B and then on Sunday, June 1, moved to an apartment for 3 days. Noto is one of those magical Italian (oops, Sicilian) towns that makes you want to move here. WiFi was only fair in Noto, so Skyping with the family back home was not possible.

Sights of Noto during the day and at night:

Our apartment has a great roof terrace that we used for a few of our meals. While walking around Noto we met two art gallery co-owners (Aldo and Alice) who we celebrated their opening with prosecco. To see a short video of the sights and sounds of Noto, click here.

Sunday, June 1, we took a day-trip to the coast town of Marzamemi in the far southeast corner of Sicily, and then we visited the Vendicari Nature Reserve with its old abandoned tuna factory from the 19th century:

Sunday night Marcia made her first home cooked pasta dinner in Sicily (awesome) and then we ate a fresh home cooked connolo and pastry we bought from a small local bakery. Yum!

Monday, June 2, we took a day-trip to the Greek and Roman amphitheaters in Syracuse. The Greek amphitheater was built in the 5th century BCE and is still used today (the original stone seats were replaced with wooden ones) for operas and other events (Aida is coming in July); it holds about 15,000 people. The nearby Roman amphitheater (which was for chariot races and gory gladiator fights) was built in the 3rd century AD and only ruins are left. To see the short video I made of the amphitheaters, click here.

Then we walked around the island of Ortigia connected to Syracuse by a short bridge. It's full of tourists (the most we've seen so far this trip), but we got lucky and had a great lunch. It's a small island that you can walk entirely around in 1-2 hours.

Monday evening after returning from our day-trip, we stopped in our favorite bakery and gelateria. The owner gave us samples of gelato and we chose cones with two flavors... they tasted like real fruit and chocolate. We chatted with the owner and his boyhood friend for a while, and they wouldn't let us pay. That's Italians...

Monday night Marcia went to a baroque concert with the two women she met in Noto.

Tuesday, June 3, we climbed to the top of the church in the Centro and took a few panorama photos:

After a great 5 days in Noto, we packed up and moved to Ragusa Ibla (Ibla is the old town on a separate hill from the new part of town). Our B&B is very nice with a roof patio for breakfast and lounging during the day if desired. As usual, we toasted our new town with a glass of prosecco:

On the way to Ragusa, we stopped in Modica which is famous for making chocolate. When the Spanish controlled Sicily 400-500 years ago, they brought the knowledge of making chocolate from the Aztecs in South America to Modica, and they are still using that process today. It is much less smooth and creamy than other chocolate; it has a grainy texture. We bought a few different flavors and will share with our family and friends if we don't eat it all before returning.

Our first full day in Ragusa Ibla starts with breakfast on our B&B's roof patio:

We took a tour of the new and old part of Ragusa with Anna who studied art history in Florence and Paris (she was a great tour guide). After the earthquake of 1693, that destroyed most of the towns in southeast Sicily, Ragusa Ibla rebuilt on its original site (on the lower hill). During the next century a political and economical struggle between the aristocracy and the upper middle class of Ragusa led to the upper middle class moving and building on the upper hill. From then on, the lower city was referred to as Ibla and the upper one as Ragusa. Legally they are both Ragusa, but the split was also over which patron saint they supported, and that split continues to today and can be clearly seen in the difference between the churches.

One thing we've found is how fast people drive through the very narrow streets in Ibla. You really have to stay very close to the sides of the roads, and even then you can get clipped by the side view mirrors (many cars have cracked side view mirrors). To see a short video I made of Ragusa and Ibla, click here.

If you want to join us in Sicily, here's your reward of dolce and caffe:

We met a couple from London staying at our B&B (Kelee and Ed) and shared our opinions of various towns in Sicily we each visited. Paolo, the B&B owner, serves breakfast on the roof patio of his B&B.

We walked from Ibla to Ragusa (the upper part of town) today. Yesterday we took the bus to Ragusa to start our tour with Anna, but today we walked the steep 300 steps from Ibla to Ragusa. It's hot in the sun, so we enjoyed returning to our cool B&B made of stone later in the day.

On Saturday, June 7, after a long drive on small windy roads from Ragusa, we arrived in Zafferana Etnea about 2000 ft. up the mountain of Mt. Etna in northeast Sicily. We were pleasantly surprised at the amazing view of the sea (looking east) due to being so far up the base of Mt. Etna. The main square in the town is big with a great restaurant and of course gelaterias and shops. As always we toasted our new town with prosecci.

Sunday, June 8, we took a day-trip a bit north to the hill town of Taormina. Everyone told us it was beautiful, with awesome views... but a lot of tourists. They were all right. It also has a Greek theater built in the 3rd century BCE and enlarged by the Romans in the 3rd century AD, similar to in Syracuse, except this one is still used often during the year. It's impossible to express how dramatic the vistas are from the heights of Taormina.

Among the throng of tourists in Taormina, there is a 5-star hotel where you feel you are on your own planet... very few people, beautiful views and quiet elegance. Marcia told the manager she was a conference planner and wanted to learn about their hotel for potential conferences. They readily agreed and the next thing we knew we were sitting on the patio with a bottle of prosecco and great snacks waiting for their Conference Manager. The tour of the hotel was very nice. If you are interested in Hotel Timeo, the rooms/suites range from 600 - 3,500 euro per night.

For our last full day in Sicily, Monday, June 9, we learned about Mt. Etna with our tour guide Davide. The volcano is the largest (not counting those under the sea) active one in Europe. It dominates the skyline and usually has steam coming out of some of its 5 craters. We had a great tour and learned how wild mother nature can be. Around the mountain, and even 30 miles away, people are well aware of what Mt. Etna can do, even though they often ignore the dangers. To see my very short video of our tour, click here.

The volcano is pretty active at the moment; to see if it has erupted since we left, click here.

Our last night in Zafferana Etnea and Sicily had one more surprise for us. At dinner we met our B&B owners who joined us. They then invited us to join them to go to the Granita Festival being held in Acireale (about 20 minutes away). Acireale is well known for their great granita and tonight was the second annual festival where chefs prepare various flavors of granita to share with the townspeople. It is also a competition where each chef's granita is rated. The winning chef made a blood orange granita that was delicious. We returned back to our B&B around midnight feeling great.

Tuesday, June 10, we flew to Rome to spend two days with our good friends Smilja and Claudio. It's a wonderful end to our month in Italy:

Wednesday, June 11, Smilja took us to their favorite seaside restaurant, La Baia, in Fregene (30 minute drive from Rome) with her cousin Goldie who is visiting from Serbia. It was a great way to escape the heat of Rome, eat awesome food and enjoy the view of the sea:

On Thursday, June 12, we flew from Rome to Munich to spend two days with our 1991 exchange student and his wife and children. Adriano and Marzena were wonderful, as usual. We had a great time playing with their kids and going out with Adriano and Marzena in downtown Munich.

On Saturday, June 14, we flew from Munich to Toronto, changed planes, and took our last flight of the trip home to San Francisco.

From beginning to end, we enjoyed every moment...

The table below shows a list of places we visited and things we did in Puglia, Sicily and Rome. We especially enjoyed the learning (click on a link here to learn too):
• granita vs gelato desserts
• piadine vs panini sandwiches
• Italian ricotta vs US ricotta cheese
• How people lived in Matera until the 1950s
• How an olive tree gets to be over 2,000 years old
• How well the Greeks built amphitheaters over 2,300 years ago
• What Nero d'Avola wine tastes like
• How the Aztecs made chocolate over 500 years ago, and what it tasted like
• What happened when a huge earthquake destroyed entire towns in 1693
• What an active volcano looks like