Wednesday, 28 September 2016

THE SAGA OF OUR PUGLIAN DIGS has proven a great website for me when searching for rental properties. In Arizona, Newfoundland, Switzerland and Italy, Jim and I have enjoyed some sensational properties. But how does that saying go? All good things must come to an end. For our Puglian villa, I got it wrong; I got it colossally wrong!

With much excitement about our trullo villa rental, we set out from Matera; we were scheduled to meet the property manager in Martina Franca who would then take us to our rental at 4:00pm. During lunch in Martina Franca Jim and I discovered that all stores, grocery included, were closed on Thursday afternoons. We had no food! So what! According to the ad, our villa was 'conveniently located in a rural setting'. We reasoned that we would be a short drive to dinner in town and then shopping the next day.......or so we thought! Remind me to check the dictionary for the definition of rural versus remote.

Out into the country, we followed the property manager, driving about 3 km on narrow roads. So far, so good! Oops! Then we hit the cow path; Jim quipped that to call this trail a cowpath is to malign all good cowpaths. Right turn, left turn, left turn, right turn, we twisted onto different road ruts, bouncing over rocks, dropping into mud-filled holes and scratching along bushes, continuing this tortuous, tedious, uncomfortable drive for over 4 km before we reached our villa. At the initial turn onto the rutted drive, our GPS gave up; it showed no roads, merely a mysterious cross country route into nothingness.  Seriously? How would we ever find our way back in the dark? So much for the undercarriage of our rental car, not to mention EuropCar's rental policy of no off-road driving. 

The property manager "speed showed" us around, quickly passing by the extremely inviting algae green-tinged pool, and then made his hasty escape. No kidding?

Are you enjoying our Puglian vacation so far?

In our travels, if we have learned anything, it is to be flexible. Unanimously we chimed, "No way"; I think Jim added a few additional choice four letter words. With limited cell phone service, he eventually contacted the Property Management office and told them to come collect the keys; we would not be staying! While Jim phoned, I immediately referred to Trip Advisor, input Locortondo and waited. Up popped the Leonardo Trulli Resort. Quick contact indicated that there was one room available. Consider it booked! In the dark, we followed the property manager out to the main road, input our new destination and found our way to the resort. Without knowing it that night, we had arrived in a Puglian paradise.

Imagine a winding road past ancient stone walls, vineyards, citrus groves and olive trees leading you to a cluster of cream-white buildings and trulli. This is what we awoke to our first morning, the timeless beauty of the lush Puglian countryside. Our hotel consists of two types of residences, villino rooms, where Jim and I are located,

 and trulli rooms. A stunning, solar-heated pool graces the gardens. 

No lunch is served, but the breakfast and dinner offered are exquisite. Dinner is an Puglian culinary delight with ingredients fresh from the surrounding farms. I sincerely hope that there is room for el Rotundo (my new name for myself) on our return flight. Commutes to Puglian destinations, Ostuni, Alberobello, etc., are at most and hour's drive away; we are ten minutes door to door from beautiful Locorontondo.

I cannot say enough about the beauty and grace of this Leonardo resort, but what has impressed Jim and I most is the loving care and attention afforded each and every guest by the staff of Rosalba (the owner), Giuseppe and Rafaela (Raffie), primarily.

Raffie and Rosalba:

For some bizarre reason, Rosalba, the owner, has taken a liking to Jim and I. Hey! I saw those questioning eyebrows rise! "She love you two", Raffi told us. We are continually greeted by hugs and the the double Italian cheek kisses. Rosalba insisted upon driving us to our wine tasting yesterday. When we were picked up after the session, she spent valuable time driving around the countryside for photographic views. We gifted Rosabla and her husband with wine from I Pastini. Arriving at dinner last night, the staff, including the chef, awaited us in the dining room. One of the bottles of wine was shared. Salutes all around. Jim and I were totally taken aback. When one of the trulli was vacant for one night, Rosalba insisted that we must spend a night in a trullo. So for one day, Jim and I held two rooms at the cost of one. Her kindness knows no bounds.

From nightmare villa to Puglian paradise. From blunder to redemption. The north has the Euros; the south, the soul, we have read. Jim and I believe it.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016


When I think of the mafia, I imagine the Godfather, the Corleones, and the Cosa Nostra of Sicily. How brainwashed by a movie can I possibly be? 

Or Calabria and it's feared crime syndicate, the Ndrangheta come to mind. When Jim and I first planned this year's trip, I joked about heading into Calabria, home of the mafia. Little did I imagine that Puglia, this magical corner of Italy, had actually felt the constant invisible threat of the mafia (Sacra Corona Unita) more than other areas. Well, that is until recently.

In the 1990's, the Italian Government began confiscating mafia-owned land, a staggering 4500+ properties thus far; in 1996 a law passed by the state allowed third parties to formally acquire this confiscated land and what arose is an anti-mafia land movement. "Libera Terra Puglia" is determined to prove that wine and food production can be a key instrument for positive change.

With 25 hectares of vineyards, Libera Terra Hiso Telaray is one such vineyard. What is heartening is that this winery has had the courage to name two well known wines after mafia victims.

Renate Fonte, a councillor at Nando, was killed because she fought against illegal development in the protected area of Porto Selvaggio, one of Puglia's most beautiful Ionian Sea sites. Because of her determination, today the area remains untouched. Tragically Renate Fonte paid with her life, assassinated by the mafia.

Michael Fazio and Gaetano Manchitelli were innocent victims, caught in the crossfire of mafia hits. In their honour, the wine, Alberelli de la Santa carries a label stating, "Dedicated to the smile and youth of Michael Fazio and Gaetano Manchitelli."

Libera Terra Puglia will not bring these victims of mafia violence back, but it takes just one pebble to start an avalanche. The confiscation of mafia-held lands, the use of these lands for positive purposes and the ongoing reminders of the scourge of organized crime are all moves in the right direction. Sinistro a speranza.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016


"Inside these black holes with their walls of earth, I could see the beds, the miserable furnishings, the rags hung up. Dogs, sheep, goats and pigs were lying on the floors. Each family usually has only one of these caves to live in, and they all sleep together: men, women, children and animals. This is how twenty thousand people live. There was an infinite number of children. In that heat, in clouds of flies and dust, children sprang out everywhere, completely naked or dressed in rags. Never before have I seen such a picture of misery......I saw children sitting in the doorway of houses in the dirt and burning sun with their eyes half closed and their eyelids red and swollen; and the flies would land on their eyes, and they just sat there without moving, not even flicking them away with their hands.
I met other children with their little faces wrinkled like old people, and their bones showing through from hunger; their hair was crawling with fleas and covered in scabs. But most of them had big, enormous, swollen bellies, and their faces were yellow and drawn from malaria." (Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi - 1945)

It was the Dante's Inferno-esque paintings and writings of Carlo Levi that ultimately propelled the Italian government to acknowledge Matera's living conditions. How easy it must have been to ignore the nightmare, to keep the plight of these peasants a dirty little secret. Basilicata was a remote, under-populated province. Who cared? No one apparently, for it was not until 1952 that a solution was brought forth introducing proper nutrition, medical care, education and the ultimate forceful relocation of sixteen thousand people to newly built residences on the Matera plain. 

The lower cave levels of Matera were left an empty shell, a virtual ghost town. Until UNESCO declared Matera a World Heritage site, the caves remained damp, derelict and abandoned. The UNESCO designation brought about a complete reversal of Matera's fortunes. And her dramatic rebirth has created a national treasure, one of the glories of Italia.

There is so much more to Matera's story than poverty and caves. Matera is the third oldest city in the world, having been continually inhabited since the Paleolithic era. She is a timeless city, cavemen, Romans, Greeks, Saracens, Normans having all been her citizens. The jumble of stone homes and structures climbing up the hills represent construction on top of the caves, construction layers dating back to the 14thC, then the 17thC and finally modern construction. 

Walking through Matera's atmospheric streets and neighbourhoods, especially at night, is to step back in time. Her immense history is enchantingly palpable. There were moments during our explorations that I felt I had stepped back to biblical times. Benvenuti nella storia - welcome to history.

Matera has moved me in ways I cannot even begin to express, but I do know this for sure. If you haven't been here, you really should come.

Friday, 16 September 2016


Jim and I love Italian if you haven't already guessed. Our Italian Friday's at home are a tradition that dates back over ten years to our first cooking class in Italy. So bear with me if a few of my blogs wax poetic about the local cuisine. How can you say you have travelled if you haven't eaten how the locals do?

"Funny thing, we never searched for an Indian restaurant in Italy." In spite of our preference to eat and explore local foods, those words of Jim's were spoken in Ireland as we desperately sought to escape the bland and find some flavour. Sorry Ireland! Fresh, local, simple ingredients are all descriptions that come to mind when thinking of Italian cuisine and here in Italy's boot they most certainly ring true. 

Sandy soil, a mild climate and proximity to the sea have made the sweet red onions of Tropea much sought after in Italy. I have yet to see a local market without onion rista displayed on the shop's poles. 

Frequently served with classic antipasti and simply drizzled with olive oil, they leave no onion breath or after taste. I'm in love with them. Dear Canada Customs, are they importable? Raw with fresh pecorino cheese, they are to die for. Jars of onion paste, red onion marmalade and Tropea onion chutney are to be found everywhere. How much weight are we allowed on that return flight of ours?

Dark red in colour, the local chilies are actually aged on the vine for a fruitier taste and more heat. It is their heat which Jim loves. We first experienced their hot, hot, hot bite when we stopped for an aperitivo our first night and an antipasti tray was served with our wine. Whoa! That woke me up. What an instant cure for jetlag! I could make millions marketing this! Immediately the next morning, Jim searched out the paste in the hopes of bringing some home. Success! More weight added to those returning bags and we are only on our third day.

And what would a trip to Italy be without mentioning their local wines. Not known for outstanding wines, Calabria's flagship wine, Ciro Rossa Riserva Classica, does meet rave reviews. Full bodied and smooth, it is considered one of the oldest named wines in the world. When ordered, our waiters nod and smile. Ah, we got it right!

Tomorrow, we head for a cooking class in the hills behind Tropea. More food blogs to come, I am sure.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


As our Calabrian sky takes on the amethyst-coloured tinge of early evening, they emerge from Tropea's maze of narrow winding streets and lanes.

Wandering, weaving and strolling, they move aimlessly along Corso Vittorio Emanuale until it ends at a set of metal railings affording dramatic views over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Here they congregate, admiring the view, ranking this evening's sunset, I am sure, and chatting all the while before they turn and repeat their walk in the opposite direction.

Some sort of protest. No! This is one of Italy's most enduring rituals and definitely a favourite of ours - the passeggiata. Entire families, young friends, lovers, elderly couples, all take to the streets to greet old friends, talk to shopkeepers, flirt and laugh. From the eternal city, Rome, to beautiful Florence, to the hilltowns of Tuscany, south to Calabria, Italians universally take time in the late day to relax, to stroll their towns and cities, and to meet and greet family and friends.

What I love is the overwhelming sense of community. While we Canadians sit behind closed doors, glued to the depressing evening news, Italians chose to daily pay respect to and appreciate that which matters most, family and community; they have a deep understanding of what is important, what lasts. May they forever keep this tradition alive. Nowhere was this sense of community more evident to us than in the quaint Tuscan town of Volterre during a huge European soccer final. Who would want a North American 'man cave' with its giant plasma screen when you can pull out a tiny TV set into the piazza and watch the game with family and friends? We have so much to learn from the Italians.

Over the years of observation, I have analyzed the four rules of a passeggiata:
    1. Between six and eight o'clock in the evening, head for the main corso or liveliest piazza.
    2. Walk slowly.
    3. Chat with family and friends. Chat with everybody, for that matter.
    4. Stop for a gelato or aperitivo.
How easy is that formula?

So there we were. Weary and jet lagged from a long trans Atlantic flight, but ecstatic to be back in the warm hug that is Italy, Jim and I joined hands and merged with the moving community. Let us make a passeggiata - fare una passeggiata.

Friday, 9 September 2016


I talk to myself......and not silently. Yup! You read correctly; I actually talk to myself. Out loud. Around the house. In the car. While shopping. I'm convinced that this foible of mine dates back to university days when I would study by verbally reciting, to myself, facts I needed to remember. Whatever the origins, this malady carried through to my professional days. Just ask poor Jackie, my long-suffering secretary, who used to jump from her chair asking what I needed only to be met with, "Just talking to myself again, Jake". As I have aged, my affliction has disturbingly increased in intensity. How often, in the grocery store, have I looked up to see questioning eyes watching me. I know immediately that I have been caught talking out loud to myself, mumbling some recipe or other while in search of ingredients.

As if this isn't pathetic enough, I am now plagued with ear worms, that stuck-song syndrome in which the victim is unable to get a tune out of their head. 

"So what," you say. "That happens to the best of us." Ah, but do you sing along to that music continually running through your brain? Apparently, I do, or so I have recently discovered.

In anticipation of our upcoming trip to Italy, I began playing Italian Love Songs, by Dean Martin in my car. As embarrassing as it is to admit that I even own that song collection, it is even more embarrassing to find myself humming Arriverderci Roma all over Uxbridge. Heck! We're not even going to Rome on this visit. And those rolling eyes and glares from passers-by, I have been experiencing, now make me question my sanity. When fellow shoppers began giving me wide berth, I knew that I was in trouble.

To squash this nasty little ear worm, I turned to one of my favourite CD's, The Three Tenors and Mehta. Jim says that I can't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow and so I reasoned that no operatic ear worm would dare wiggle its way into my brain. Oh man, was I ever wrong. 

And so my friends, if you hear a horribly out-of-tune, scratchy female version of O Solo Mio in the next aisle, please ignore it. It's just your afflicted friend unknowingly giving an unwanted concert. Oh, and if you don't see me for a while, it most likely means that I have been taken away to the funny farm.

Non Dimenticare. 🎼