And so your faithful correspondent, in his never-ending search for new corners of the world, comes to Puglia, a self-described “undiscovered treasure” (we’ll see about that) located in Italy’s southeast region, just above the heel of the boot.
The journey begins with my flight from Chicago (where I had been to a 3-day “Travel Seminar” attended by 300-400 travel crazies whose primary goal in life is to accumulate as many miles– by means both scrupulous and unscrupulous, e.g., one presenter, The Mad Scientist, explained how he had generated one million miles/points in one month —as possible so as to travel the world in first class cabins and five-star hotels…too many details to go into here, but I assure you these were members of a different species) to London, where I catch an Alitalia flight to Milan and thence to Bari, capital of the province.
After a short train ride, I arrive at my destination, the coastal village of Polignano a Mare. Exiting the station on the upper outskirts of town I look around for a taxi, seeing not a hint of one anywhere. After a few minutes I approach a middle-aged guy who appears to be waiting for a ride, and I decide to attempt to determine what the story is, me inquiring in fractured Italian and him responding in fractured English. “Taxi?” “No taxi.” “Que? (What?!) “Only in summer.” “Is it possible to call one?” “No. No taxi in Polignano.” “Bus?” Shakes his head no. Bad news, especially since I have no idea where or how far away my hotel is. What am I supposed to do: walk until I find the place? I guess the distress on my face appeals to his humanitarian side, because he then adds: “Wait.” Whereupon a small car pulls up. The Good Samaritan whispers a few words to the occupants and waives me over. “We take you.” What a relief. So I squeeze into their tiny car, where introductions are made all around as I greet his wife and daughter, a medical student in London, who fortunately speaks English, a factor which enables me to give her a little life advice—i.e., that being a doctor is the greatest job in the world, and by the way, to become a dermatologist—which she responds to with a strange expression. I mean, if people are going to be so nice, the least I can do is impart a little wisdom.
They drive me through town, pointing out that Polignano is the home of the guy who immortalized “Nel Blu del Pinto del Blu” (a/k/a “Volare”….they actually began to sing it!) and dropping me at my seafront hotel, the Covo dei Saraceni, which has the identical name as the hotel I’ve liked so much on various visits to Positano, although on arrival the front desk advises me there is no connection whatsoever between the two. I mention to the front desk clerk that I am astounded they have no taxis in town and had to hitch a ride. He just smiles.
Of course, it may just be that he really doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Because one of the things I quickly learn is that almost no one in this part of the world speaks English. And I mean practically NO ONE. Even at the hotel, when I say something to the staff in English, a blank look will cross their faces and two or three of them will huddle to interpret what I’ve said. In the town, at bars and restaurants and gelaterias and the train station, they are completely clueless when I resort to English. It’s a lonely feeling. Lucky for me, I do hear the language spoken by others because my hotel is the chosen hostelry for a parade of groups of U.S. college alumni taking those affinity trips that you get junk mail about. When I arrived, it was Tufts, followed by Brown, then Smith College—which back in the day of all-female elite schools was perhaps the premium choice for girls who were either very smart or very rich. Many of these Smithies exhibit a carriage and an appearance remarkably similar to Barbara Bush.
The Covo is by far the fanciest place in Polignano, and I apparently have one of the fanciest rooms—a two-room suite with a living room featuring a half-lifesize sculpture of a male nude doing a one-handed handstand, a bedroom with an enormous Jacuzzi tub located right out in the open, and a balcony facing the Adriatic. The hotel recently underwent a major renovation, and they must have hired some eccentric architect and decorator from Milan and gone with Ultra-Modern. E.g., the place is stark white with no wall decorations, the lighting system takes three days to learn, there’s a daybed instead of a sofa in my living room, there’s no desk anywhere, and the toilet and toilet seat are square (try that on for size).
Out on the town, I discover that Polignano is an ancient medieval village built on top of two split limestone cliffs and has to hold the Guinness record for number of gelaterias in one town, since there are three on every block. I know I’m supposed to be eating seafood here, but the local pizza turns out to be so sensational that I have it for lunch and dinner two days straight. Price of a margharita pizza at a good place? About five bucks. A small carafe of local white/red? About $4. A Birra Peroni? Under $2. Even though nobody can communicate with me, I become a very popular guy around town because I’m the only person who tips.
The next day I’m waiting at the train station– the mile walk to and from becomes a regular fixture of my stay– on my way to a town up the coast when I strike up a conversation with an English couple and we hit it off. Turns out they’re from a little village near Ascot, where I’m going the next weekend for England’s version of Breeders Cup, called Champions Day. They’ve travelled all over the world and all over the U.S. and they absolutely LOVE San Francisco and the Napa Valley and San Diego; when I tell them I’m from L.A., they politely change the subject. Anyway, I tell them where I’m headed and they say they think I’d like another town, Monopoli (yes, it’s pronounced just like the game), much better. So I take their advice and hop off the train early, walking down from the Reading Railroad (just kidding) train station (no taxis there, either) through the quiet town to a scenic and authentic fishing harbor area. I stop for lunch at a little café in a pretty piazza and order a pianene (sp?), which is the Italian version of a quesadilla— very tasty, by the way– and while I’m chowing down who comes along but the British couple. We greet each other like long-lost friends and they provide further travel suggestions: don’t miss the Old Town. Not touristy at all, they explain. Well, it turns out that Monopoli’s Old Town is truly old, as in a thousand years old. The highlight is a huge maze of incredibly narrow medieval streets that wind incomprehensively making it inevitable that one gets lost. This is a residential neighborhood where laundry hangs from clotheslines and babies cry from third-floor apartments and neighbors call to one another from ancient porches and windows. As you walk, your imagination wonders how many scores of generations have been born, lived and died in this strange little world. The thing you ultimately learn about the maze is that if you walk long enough…say two miles or so…you’ll find your way out. Which I do, and head back to Polignano.
The weather has been delightful—mid 70’s, sunny in the morning, a little cloud cover in late afternoon followed by a half-hour sprinkle, then clear again at night. This is supposed to be the humid time of year, but it’s not bad. Whatever time of year it is, it’s not tourist season, as I find myself to be the only American on the streets of the town. The tour groups are corralled in their buses and herded to their group dinners, and I never see any of them outside the hotel. Sort of a strange feeling, actually.
Day three takes me back to the train station—they have no bus service between Puglian towns, only the regional train– for a ride to Ostuni, which all the brochures and guidebooks hail as a go-to destination. As I’m sure you’re aware, the hilltop town of Ostuni is known as “La Citta Bianca”…The White City… so called because the town fathers of yesteryear must have decided that the way to put this place on the map would be to whitewash all the buildings. Years ago the place might have sparkled, but the whitewash budget apparently is a little tight these days since the town is a sort of a “dirty” white…a little like the shirts in the old Tide commercials.
A train ride through Puglia offers an endless mile-after-mile view of olive groves, most of them inhabited by ancient trees with thick gnarled trunks and bushy tops. Olives and olive oil are obviously prime products of the region. When you dine at a trattoria they immediately place a small bowl of olives at your place, and are they delicious! When you’re not looking at olive groves, you’re looking at vineyards, their vines shielded from the Southern sun by mesh tenting. The local wine is really good, too. It’s on my list from now on.
Overall, I give Puglia an “okay”. There are so many fabulous places in Italy and this are doesn’t rise to the cream of the crop. The towns are all a little worn out, probably because they’re all broke. Everywhere you go, the parks and piazzas are filled with locals of all ages standing idle. I couldn’t shake the impression that the residents of this region are sort of prisoners…prisoners of their language, their culture, their economy, their static lives. I didn’t envy them or their lifestyle, and I think I’ve made my final visit to the region.
Today it’s back to Bari to catch the Trenitalia Eurostar to Rome. The ride takes us up the Adriatic Coast to a town called Fassano, then makes a hard left and cuts directly across the mountainous center of the country, then a 90-degree turn up the Mediterranean coast above Naples to Rome. Who knew that “mid-Italy” was so gorgeous? We go past tens of miles of more vineyards and olive groves…do they grow anything other than grapes and olives in this place? Yep, I learn, as we enter lemon country, with thousands of acres of lemon trees.
I outsmarted myself by waiting to get a deal on a Rome hotel room, since it turns out the city is full for some reason (maybe a canonization?) and I have to settle for an overpriced Marriott “Autograph Selection” property called the Boscolo Palace on the Via Veneto. Oh well, it’s just one night, as I leave tomorrow for London and I’ll make the money back by betting on Toronado in the Champions Classic at Ascot. I’ve made arrangements to meet YPOers Mike and Lynn Joseph for dinner tonight; they and their group are in town to meet Pope Frank, and undoubtedly make some serious donations. When we were students in Rome, the popular song at the time was “Roma, Non Fa Mi Stupido Sta Sera” (Rome, don’t make a fool of me tonight.) I’ll remember to sing it before I see the Josephs.
Ciao from Puglia.