- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
I wiped my eyes. The temperatures in Warsaw were plummeting by the day. The chill wind stung my eyes, and caused them to water. We shivered in our layers, and lightweight coats -the Poles, more sensibly, were quickly into their winter woollies, hats, boots, and scarves. It didn’t stop us sightseeing though, and led by our friend we had no choice but to keep up a rapid pace. The town centre of Warsaw, destroyed in the war by the German occupying force, was completely rebuilt in the years following, and is a beautiful sight. We were privileged to get a private tour through the heritage museum with the son of one of the architects, showing us his father’s work, and talking about the process of reconstruction. Of course, this occurred during the Soviet era, so it wasn’t without difficulties, and his father ended up being forced to escape to Australia. In fact, he said that many people in Poland (non-Jews and persecuted minorities of course) consider the Soviet era to have been more difficult than the war years.
I wiped my eyes. For hours I had been straining them in an effort to see the deer we had been promised. But after three days in a car over the weekend, and into our third hour on the train south, the deer were proving to be elusive. The fellow travellers in our compartment, an American couple, suggested we admit defeat. They too were tiring of looking. And of course, as is the way of things, soon six or seven deer appeared at the edge of a cornfield, skittishly running off as the train sped past. I sat back and relaxed, satisfied.
It had been a good weekend. A four hour drive from Warsaw, our friends had planned the trip and we were only too happy to leave the decisions to them. We found ourselves sleeping in a haunted (supposedly) castle, though the ghost did not show itself, eating and drinking in quaint restaurants and old SS barracks, shivering at Hitler’s headquarters (the Wolf’s Lair), squishing through a marsh in search of Europe’s largest swan colony, smiling at a newly married Polish couple and their guests celebrating outside the church and loudly honking their horns as they drove round and around the village, sighing at the utter beauty of the lake district in full autumn colours, and snapping photos at the (unstaffed) Russian border. The countryside in Poland proved to be an unexpected pleasure, with rolling hills, beautiful tree-lined (albeit slow) roads, and soft, autumn light.
And now we were on the train to Krakow, former capital of Poland, and a beautiful city undamaged (physically) by the Second World War. The town square is large and beautiful, and even in the October chill it throngs with tourists. Wawel Castle overlooks the Old Town, and churches appear every street or two. University students (there are 120,000 in the city) form flashmobs, roller blading around the square in the evening, and square dancers entertain under the gaze of the old church. There are endless churches and museums, a rare Da Vinci to ogle, and plenty of history to keep you amused. If the Husband annoys, you can even send him to the Salt Mine (though you might find it interesting yourself, even if the final ride to the top in an industrial lift is a bit too claustrophobic for my liking).
Just down the street from our hotel is the Jewish quarter, now a bustling area with restaurants and clubs, and the Old Synagogue. And across the river you will find the infamous former Jewish ghetto, streets that look familiar from countless documentaries and movies. And at the edge of the former ghetto is Schindler’s factory, now a museum telling the story of the Jews in Krakow, and of the factory and its workers.
No first-time visit to Krakow though is complete without visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seemed appropriate to be there on a cold, gloomy day. The sights again are familiar, as are many of the stories and much of the information. But standing there, taking in the sheer magnitude of the horror, seeing the barracks and execution sites, walking through a gas chamber, past the train tracks where selections occurred, walking over the cobblestones – approximately 1.2 million representing the lives lost there – and imagining what it must have felt like, is indescribable.
I wiped my eyes.
I have to admit. I have a crush. It’s the lilting tones in his voice, the soft but sexy accent, the way he says “turn.” He came into our lives as the American left. The American with her strong, nasal accent, and her annoying terminology. Sean quickly became part of the team, the three of us as we explore this country. He is another voice, reasoned, never stressed out, only occasionally irritating. And he doesn’t take offence. Not really. Because occasionally we yell at him. Sometimes, when he’s quiet, we comment that we miss the sound of his voice, his presence, his reassurance that all is well.
And yes, Sean does have a few flaws. But at least he doesn’t say “rotary” like the American. Rather, his soft vowels caress the word “roundabout” making us look forward to the next one, rather than cringing as we did in those early days with the American. Likewise, he hasn’t tried to send us up a one-way street and kill ourselves as she did, though to be fair, he has suggested sometimes that we turn (torrrn) into non-existent roads off a mountain, but I’m not going to hold that against him. He is an egalitarian, believing (it seems) that – once off a motorway – all roads are equal. This has worked to our advantage, down scenic lanes lined with stone walls, but also to our disadvantage, taking us through pedestrian only streets, scenic lanes that are so narrow we have to stop and pull in the wing mirrors, and on crazy detours. Sean too has been neglected by his masters, forced to rely on information that is now almost three years old, unaware of developments such as the new ring road around Locorotondo, or smoother connections between the different highways and autostradas. He knows where we live right now, but doesn’t know it is number 27. That’s just not fair. Imagine his sense of defeat and humiliation when I had to ask at the Agip station?
Today we say farewell to Sean. Good-bye, Sean, and t’ank you.
On this, our last day in Puglia, I wanted to share our top ten places at this end of Italy:
- Pulignano a Mare
- Locorotondo, Ostuni and the white villages
1. Monopoli – It may not appear in many of the guidebooks, but it is well worth a visit. A lovely friendly little town, with great restaurants, public beaches right there, and everything you could need. Consider using it as a less touristy base for explorations in Puglia. You can of course read my previous writings about my love affair with Monopoli here.
2. Alberobello – Those cone-shaped little huts are only found in Puglia, and the highest concentration is at Alberobello, the UNESCO World Heritage site. Read more here.
3. Pulignano a Mare – We didn’t feel like a major expedition one Sunday, so decided that a 10 minute drive just up the road was a good idea. And it was. Pulignanon a Mare (Pulignano on the sea) is a beautiful little white town perched high on rocks, with the usual narrow winding streets, elegant piazzas, and pretty church. The walled town was once circled by a moat, and you can still see the slots for the chains to the drawbridge at the entrance to the old town, alongside a 16th century fresco. The beach next to the town is dramatic beside the cliffs, but perfectly located for a quick dip. There’s a good parking lot at the back of the town (take the Conversano exit and turn right), with a pathway down to the town and beach.
4. Matera – strictly speaking, not in Puglia, but in Basilicata, it is worth the drive and close enough that you must include it in any visit to Puglia. Driving through the countryside gave us plenty of opportunities to stop and take some classic Italian photos, wave to a farmer with a haul of grapes in the bed of his truck, admire some goats, drink some good coffee, and still get to the look-out before mid-day, to capture the best light. The only really useful piece of information that Lonely Planet gave us in three months in Italy was to look for the belvedere on the road west out of town.
Driving in, we managed to find a park off the main ring road (Via Lucana) and then it was an easy and relaxed walk into the piazza for lunch, then down into old Matera, the home of the sassi, or caves where as recently as 1950 50% of the population lived, often in squalor, living in caves meant for animals. The sassi are gradually being renovated, and the town is no longer mired in poverty, but has a budding tourist industry, thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage listing. A network of channels and pipes and underground cisterns maintained the water supply for the population, but also the sewage, which may explain why the government evacuated the residents in the 1950s.
5. Lecce – A golden town, basking in the sun in the centre of Puglia’s heel, Lecce would have been an excellent base for our trip if it hadn’t been quite so far south. Wide streets (except for in the very centre of the old town), elegant shops, and plenty of parking (on a Sunday at least), made it a pleasure to arrive in and stroll through to the old town. Bar blackboards advertised two items new to us – one an iced coffee made with a dash of almond milk, and – perhaps more to our taste – a Lecce pastry (pasticciotto leccese) or shortcake (almost a friand) with a custard filling, ideal for a morning snack before tackling the sights. We started at the basilica, and wandered through the streets, getting to the main square complete with the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, as well as the customary gelaterias, bars, restaurants and miscellaneous churches around the edges. A deli/café called Doppiozero was an interesting spot for lunch, in one of the streets skirting the cathedral. Steering away from the customary Italian lunch fare, this was more like a modern deli in Wellington, Sydney, or London than in traditional, habit-bound Italy. Unique and different in Italy, it was obviously extremely popular.
6. Otranto and the south – The easternmost point of Italy, Otranto is yet another charming little white town on the coast. It has a wide bay, filled with coves and beaches (the usual horrors with wall to wall beach chairs and umbrellas, though also with good sand) and a few public areas. Rocks provide interesting spots to swim out to, yachts enjoy the breeze, and tourists (like us) walk around the waterfront. A castle stands guard, but duck through the walls into the old town and you find some lovely little streets and tiny piazzas.The cathedral here provides a hint of the history of the town. The mosaic floors date from the 12th century, and are very impressive. More chilling, though, are the carefully arranged skulls and bones in one of the chapels, remembering the martyrs of Otranto, who were killed by the Ottoman invaders in the 15th century. Over 800 people were murdered, some say because they would not convert to Islam, others suggest that it was punishment for the resistance they put up to the invasion.
Further south, it is easy to see we’re coming to the end of the line. The road deteriorates, and at Leuca, the majority of businesses have shut up shop after the August rush. There were some interesting features on the drive – unusual shaped farm buildings scattered amongst the olives, menhirs and dolmens right out of Asterix and Obelix, and fishing villages. We went because we wanted to go to the tip of the heel. For that it was worth adding on to the visit to Otranto.
7. Trani – North of Monopoli and Bari, Trani’s beautiful cathedral is worth a visit. Starkly located out on a point, just along from another of Ferdinand II’s castles, the cathedral is beautiful in its simplicity. Wander through the old town surrounding it, and you might find (as we did) the Knights Templar church home to the first Crusades, and then pop out at the marina, where there are a small group of restaurants and cafes lining the shore. La Perla del Sud delivered a thin crusty pizza and a delicious seafood orecchiete, and a lovely view.
From Trani, drive inland around Andria to Castel del Monte, this odd octagonal castle dating from the 13th century. No-one knows exactly why it was built – it was never lived in, there are no kitchens, and no other defensive fortifications. Extensive reconstruction has been carried out, and it is another interesting World Heritage site.
8. Grotte di Castellana – Extensive caves, huge caverns, and enormous and beautiful stalactites and stalacmites await in the caves of Castellana. You need to explore with a guide, but the walk is easy (providing you have decent footwear) with wide paths. There are one-hour and two-hour tours. The husband chose the two hour, and was very happy with it. Photographs sadly weren’t permitted.
9. Capitolo coast – On the main motorway south, between Bari and Brindese, there is a stretch of coastline worth exploring. From Torre Canne, up to Capitolo and into Monopoli, there is a rocky coast. Few sandy beaches exist, but this doesn’t deter the sun-seeking Italians and other Europeans who flood into the region in mid-summer. By September the coast is almost a wasteland – only a few of the beach resorts remain open, but they are an interesting and pleasant place to relax for lunch off the main highway. Unfortunately temperatures dipped, and with high winds and choppy seas, we didn’t get our dip in the Adriatic. There are other things to do though –walks through the national park areas of Torre Guaceto, visits to the towers that scatter the coast (there for defensive reasons or communication – able to provide first warnings of invaders perhaps), or a visit to the Roman ruins of Egnazia, where the Via Appia Antica reached the Adriatic.
10. Locorotondo, Ostuni and the white villages. The other towns of Puglia – Monopoli and Polignano a Mare, and yes, Otranto – are so lovely that Locorotondo and Ostuni risked being left off our list completely. These two villages – along with Martina Franca (which we drove through) and Cisternino (which we flagged) – are on all the lists of places to visit in Puglia. And they are lovely. But I didn’t feel they had the heart that you find in Monopoli and Polignano. Still, it’s worth visiting them.
Ostuni is a white town on a hill, with a defensive wall. Apparently you can walk around the outside of the walls, but there was no tourist information or signage, and the views on the way in weren’t ideal. The town itself was pleasant – narrow streets and white houses. The view was the best part of it, with vistas of endless olives, and the Adriatic Sea stretching out beyond.
Locorotondo is my favourite of these two towns, and definitely worth a visit. A lovely white town on top of a hill. Take the ring road towards Martina Franca, and you’ll find some lovely views back to the town. Venture inside, and – after much swearing and difficult navigating of the town (we went twice and still couldn’t find an easy way to get to the main carpark – which on Friday was covered with a market anyway) – you’ll find a quiet and beautiful white village. Locorotondo is feted as being one of the most beautiful of Italian towns. And it is almost too perfect – white streets, and pretty flower-filled window-boxes. Walk through the town from the main gate, past the church to the opposite side and you’ll find a pleasant little park, with a view across the countryside. It is here where you might first see how many trulli there are outside of Alberobello, some still part of farmhouses, others left to ruin gracefully amongst the olives.
It is here too though you see a real similarity with a small town in New Zealand. The war memorial lists the dead from both World Wars. Family names predominate in both lists. I grieved for the family Palmisano, losing so many sons in WWI, then so many more in WWII. And yet on the way back to Monopoli, I was pleased to see evidence of survival and I hope prosperity – an advertisement for a business “Palmisano and sons.”
We drove south, into the sun, for three days. We could feel the call of the Mediterranean, as the mountains disappeared, the scenery opened up, the sun shone, the roads straightened, and we ate up the miles speeding down the Adriatic autostrada. From time to time the sea appeared – the Adriatic, a sea we are familiar with, having sailed on, and swum in it, a few years ago on the cruise from Athens. Sunflower fields taunted me, though as mentioned earlier, many were ready for harvest, dark brown and drooping disconsolate heads. We saw vines everywhere – grapes, and something else, possibly kiwifruit. Picturesque ruins, like only the Italians can do, dotted the landscape as if scattered artfully by a designer.
We stopped on the way. On the afternoon of our first day, we visited the Republic of San Marino, our sixth new country on this trip. It is essentially a tax haven (or as our landlady in Vittorio Veneto said “a fiscal paradise”) on a hill, with an at times charming old town packed with gelaterias and duty-free shops for tourists. Ancient walls and towers overlook the town, and in fact the entire country. It has an interesting history though, and it claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, as the continuation of a monastic community founded in 301. When modern-day Italy was being formed, San Marino opted out, and due to the fact that in the early years of the process it had given refuge to many of those who were in favour of unification, Garibaldi agreed that it should remain independent. And so it remains today. It is not part of the European Union, but it uses the euro as currency. Once again it seems absurd that we drive along a particular road, and find ourselves in a completely new country. Even more so when you can pop in, drive across the entire country in about 15 minutes, and drive out again.
We stopped on the coast for the first night, and as noted earlier, our second night in Molise was a great success – with the exception of the lack of sunflowers – as noted earlier, and so on we drove down Italy’s boot, diverting around its spur (Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor told us it would enchant us – they were wrong), and finally into its heel. Now we were in Puglia, or more correctly, Apulia, the Italian name for this area. In the previous two months, when I would tell Italians that we were spending three months in Italy, and September in Puglia, they would sigh in delight. “Apulia! in Settembre!” they would swoon. “Bellissimo.” “The light!” they would gush, rendered inarticulate with longing.
In the middle of Apulia, on the Adriatic coast, there is a town. South of the more well-known Bari, unheralded by guidebooks or tourist websites, Monopoli is our base for September.
It all started back on the train to Orvieto. We were sitting there relaxed, looking out the window, a bit sleepy from the early start, when suddenly, we sat up.
“Did you see that?”
“Oh my god, I wanted that photo!”
“That was perfect!”
We took a note of the location – how many minutes to the next station – so that we could be ready on the way home, with our cameras, on the right side of the train, facing the right direction. We sat there eagerly, my camera pre-zoomed, so as not to waste any time. And we managed to fire off a few shots, but still, the train was too fast, and the motion too blurred for the picture-postcard perfect photograph.
“Never mind,” the husband consoled me. “We’re sure to see plenty more on the way north.”
And we did. Except we were on autostradas at the time, about as useful for photography as trains. Still, I was happy to see this oh-such-Italian of sights, in classic Tuscan countryside as we sped our way north. In the north, though, they had disappeared. And I was resigned to the fact that by the time we were heading south, they would be past their best, ready for harvest and all brown and shrivelled and definitely not photogenic.
And I was mostly right. Our three-day trip from Vittorio Veneto to Monopoli, in Apulia in the south (on the heel of Italy’s boot) showed that Italy’s crop had largely been harvested or was about to be. And still, once again, we were caught on the magnificent autostradas, running at 130 kmph, unable to snap out the window, and impossible to stop, even if we had caught them at the right time.
But Italy offers other views too. “Oh, look at that!” I would cry, at rolling fields and old farmhouses catching the light just perfectly, at far off villages on top of hills, with tall bell towers, or crumbling castles on the horizon, at vineyards or olive groves or both, patch-working the countryside. My wistful voice said all too frequently, “that would have been a good shot” as it disappeared from view. So many picture postcard shots in Italy, if you had the time (and yes, you’d think three months is enough time but it really isn’t) you could roam this country taking photo after photo of idyllic countryside, village, and medieval town shots. It wouldn’t be difficult, and you wouldn’t have to be a particularly talented photographer, Italy is so beautiful. So as much as possible, I tried to forget the missed photo ops, and just soak it in.
We exited the autostrada on our second day of this trip south. We’d taken it easy that morning, leaving the beach resort late, after a walk along the shoreline, and a casual breakfast at an open air café with a waiter who had never met New Zealanders before. So it was late afternoon by the time we headed inland, in search of our small country hotel. After 20 minutes or so, suddenly, there in front of us, was the view I had been searching for. Even better, there was an open gate into the field for us to park. Unfortunately though, the light was poor, facing us, and our enthusiastic photography just didn’t give us the results we wanted. Still, we knew we were returning the next morning, when the light should be better. So we went on to our little hotel, leaving the provincial road, and climbing up into the hills, no longer green, but brown, after late summer harvests had occurred. But even then the browns were golden, and the hills rolled gently and artistically, and the farmhouses looked quaint, the occasional cypress or olive grove adding some colour or variety to the view.
We settled into our hotel, finding our perfect little (and very reasonably priced) hotel high on a hill, with a swimming pool, and beer and aperitivi. We looked over the stone wall, at all the brown stalks in the field, and asked the owner what they were. She confirmed our worst suspicions. Yes, they were what we thought they were, and worse, they’d been harvested the day before we got there!
“You should have been here a month ago,” she said. “Late July, that is the time. We’re surrounded by about 50 hectares of them.”
I groaned. So close, but so so far.
“Yes,” her husband nodded enthusiastically, not feeling my pain. “It’s like Van Gogh, out here.”
The Husband (mine) thought this was all very hilarious, so we put it aside, and enjoyed our delicious dinner in the garden, with wine from the vines at the front of the hotel, watching a family of foxes.
The next morning we headed out. The light was right. And this is what we saw:
And for the record, this was the view on the train from Orvieto. Looking from the opposite direction, standing still, with the sun on the old farm building in the morning, it would have been a great shot.
There is often a moment, as I enter a new country, one where I don’t speak the language, when I feel completely unprepared, all at sea, and very vulnerable. I think this is even more disconcerting when driving across a border, because at least at international airports there is a degree of English spoken, signs to taxis, and (usually) a hotel booked. You’ve had the time in the air to adjust, and on arrival you settle into the new country and language more gradually. But physically crossing a border means that you instantly cross from one environment to the next, and for a moment, your perception shifts and everything is different. When we first came to Europe, we picked up a car in Paris, and drove to Switzerland. We were fine, my schoolgirl 6th Form French was adequate, and driving (without GPS) was easy. We drove from Geneva to Bern in the afternoon, and I remember the shock of entering Bern, discovering that we were now in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and finding that German was not a language I was prepared for. The husband of course points out that he feels like this in most non-English-speaking countries, with the exception of Thailand, and doesn’t understand why it is a shock to me.
I had that same feeling of disorientation about two hours after leaving the apartment. We crossed the border – well prepared, having bought the requisite Vignette for driving on the highways at an Italian autostop on the highway earlier – and suddenly, we were aliens! But soon we could see that the highway wasn’t as busy as the Italian autostradas, and our destinations were well signposted. And the scenery opened up. Any feelings of disorientation were quickly replaced with delight, and self-congratulations on our decision to stay the night. (At first we thought we’d go just for a day. But we started looking at the maps, estimated how long it would take us, and would it give us enough time to see what we wanted to see, and importantly, to spend time with the friends we planned to meet. So the night before we left, we got onto the internet, and booked a hotel. It was the right decision.)
We left the highway just past the capital city, and found ourselves driving through lovely countryside, crops in the fields, hay racks, and small villages with elegant churches. There were mountains to the north, and vast swathes of forest, real forest, thick forest, Red Riding Hood forest that looks like the Big Bad Wolf is lurking nearby.
And soon we reached the small and beautiful town of Skofja Loka, about 20 kms out of Ljubljana. Yes, if you haven’t guessed we were in tiny Slovenia. It is a small country, but – like the friends we had gone to meet – it is very welcoming. We spent a wonderful day with them, learning about Slovenia, life under the communists when it was part of Yugoslavia, independence, and life now. We explored their home town, talked and talked, and they kindly provided lots of advice for our drive back to Italy the next day.
We left late in the afternoon, heading into Ljubljana, for an evening stroll around the elegant centre of the city. It was warm, crowds of locals and international tourists were out, buskers entertained, and the cafes, bars and restaurants along the river were packed with people enjoying the evening. An after dinner gelato was the perfect ending to a great day.
Slovenia is very much part of Europe, just south of Austria (once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and neighbouring Italy. The lack of border controls (since Croatia joined the EU in July this year, the country now has no land border work for a thousand customs/immigrations officers), and the use of the euro – unlike our detour earlier in the month to Switzerland – made it very easy for us to pop into the country for a day or two. The ease with which Europeans can visit different countries is very strange for island dwellers like us. But it is one of the charms of visiting Europe, crossing borders easily and finding different languages, geography, food, culture, politics and history.
Our second day in Slovenia involved driving north. We took our time, popping in to see a church near where our friends plan to build a house, and stopping to see the famous Lake Bled, with its lake, island in the middle, and castle on a cliff. In the summer, the water in the lake is a warm 23 degrees. It looked an idyllic place to swim. But I need say no more about stunning Lake Bled. After all, picture, thousand words, etc.
We took our time leaving Slovenia. We stayed off the autostradas, and enjoyed the very scenic Vrsic Pass, very close to the border with Austria. The Italian Front of the First World War moved across this whole area back to Vittorio Veneto (where we were staying), and the road across the pass was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1915. It would have been anything but easy labour, on the steep slopes and in the depths of winter. We passed through ski villages, and now, in the height of summer, the pass was filled with motorcyclists loving the thrill of the bends, cyclists (sources of admiration and disbelief) climbing to 1600 metres and cruising back down the other side, and tourists there to enjoy the scenery. There were few spots to stop to photograph the scenery, so you shall have to take our word for it that it is beautiful. We picnicked near the top of the pass – enjoying a famous Lake Bled Cream Cake which is (for my kiwi readers) essentially a perfect South Canterbury custard square, without the icing, but with the decadent addition of whipped cream between the custard and the pastry top – before we continued along the windy roads, envying the many tourists staying (as we wished we could) and walking the many trails in the mountains and through the valleys alongside fast-running rivers. Finally, another pass took us back into Italy, where we relented and rode the autostradas again. We only stayed a night in Slovenia, but wished we had stayed more. From travellers, that’s the highest compliment we can give.