- 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?
- The country went through unimaginable horrors in the 20th century. World War II took a terrible toll on Poland and its people, and then they had to deal with decades under Soviet influence. This is a land with sad sad stories. They are visible everywhere on the streets in Warsaw – including the plaques on the walls of buildings in the main streets recording massacres by the Nazis, the haunting memorial that was the HQ and grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is built from the rubble of the street, the signs indicating the location of the Ghetto Wall, the infamous prison and the domineering communist-era building overlooking the city (the Palace of Culture and Science).
- And of course, we can never forget Auschwitz-Birkenau.
- The Church. Catholicism has survived intact in Poland, and churches abound. (Though sadly, they are not always aesthetically pleasing.) From Poland, Pope Jean Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła) was the first non-Italian pope since 1523, and statues – both good and bad (clearly depending on the budget) – of him are everywhere.
- Handbag heaven. I thought I would buy an Italian leather handbag when in Italy. I learned early the most important sentence in Italian: “Quanto costa questa borsa?” (How much is that handbag?) But I’m not much of a shopper when I am travelling, and when my friend from Warsaw visited us in Puglia, I was lamenting the fact I still had not purchased my Italian handbag. “Don’t!” she advised. “Buy it in Poland. There are good, leather, handbags at very reasonable prices.” She was right …
- Chopin. I have played a lot of Chopin on the piano. And though I didn’t get time to visit the Chopin museums in Warsaw, it was a special pleasure to visit his birthplace on a Sunday afternoon. The large gardens are beautiful to stroll through, and you can sit on a bench and listen to Chopin piano pieces on speakers. It was packed with people, to my friend’s surprise. Which brings me to the next item …
- Autumn colours. We realised, after leaving Chopin’s birthplace and visiting a palace a few miles down the road, that this is what the locals do in October, much as we visit the tulips in Wellington’s gardens in spring (and starved as we are of autumn colours in our green city). According to a new friend who helped us understand the entrance fees, once a year the locals visit beautiful gardens, and take in the sheer gorgeousness of the autumn colours. Couples strolled, or sat in a golden haze reading. friends chatted arm in arm, and children played in the leaves. The light changed the colours, from green to yellow to orange, red and brown, as we moved around the estate. And as dusk fell, it was time to leave.
- Krakow. It deserves its reputation as a highlight of Poland. There is real rivalry between Krakow and Warsaw – the locals believe there is a reason that the train to Warsaw leaves from the most distant platform at the station! Krakow was the capital before Warsaw, and escaped destruction in WWII. Its Old Town is therefore beautiful, its Castle remains intact, the ghetto and Schindler’s factory remain. One of the oldest universities in the world provides plenty of students who enliven the square (flash mobs dancing or rollerblading in the evening) and are a plentiful supply of English-speaking labour for the tourist industry.
- Warsaw. It’s the poor cousin to Krakow in tourist terms, and so is often left off visitor itineraries. Unfortunately the most picturesque town square was being maintained when we were there, but the reconstruction of the Old Town is extraordinary, and conveyed, to me, an extraordinary spirit of both pride in their past, and hope for the future. That hope is now obvious in this vibrant city; the home of Copernicus (The husband can vouch for the Science Museum) and Chopin, with beautiful parks, a castle, interesting and inspiring museums, it is well worth a visit.
- Stay in a castle. When it is cold, because castles should be cold, and the roaring fires in the bar are cosy. Preferably it should be haunted too. Just because. Our castle, in the lakes district and near Hitler’s wartime HQ, also gave us the opportunity to stay in a small village, and to see some of the countryside.
- Time. You need more than two weeks to do credit to Poland. We spent five days in Krakow, three days in the beautiful lake district, and seven days in Warsaw. We didn’t get to Gdansk, or unfortunately to Schwersenz, the town near Poznan where The Husband’s great-grandmother was born, before she set off at the tender age of 18 to migrate to New Zealand. So maybe, one day, we might have to go back.
When leaving the tower, Fabia asked where we were going next.
“Vittorio Veneto,” we replied.
After correcting my pronunciation of Veneto (VEN-eto not VenEEto), she looked puzzled, and then almost offended. “Why are you going there?” she asked.
We shrugged. “Because there was an apartment we liked.”
And it was almost as simple as that. It turned out well. Likewise, when deciding where to stay in Puglia, we looked at apartments we liked the look of, that met all our requirements (wi-fi, washing machine, and air-conditioning), and that were in a decent location. We didn’t want to be too far south, as it would take too many hours travelling for day trips. Monopoli looked like a good destination. Not that we could find anything about it in guidebooks. We shrugged. All we needed in a nearby town (we’re on the outskirts) was a supermarket, and a few restaurants. Any Italian town would have those. We could explore when we got here.
After arriving the night before, we ventured out the next morning. After navigating the one-way system through narrow streets, we found a park down near the port. We set off, and just around the corner, only a few metres from our park, we saw the inner harbour and the old town. The Castle took pride of place, guarding the busy, working harbour. We found the gate into the old town, and emerged into a bright, sunny, flower-filled piazza, lined with lovely buildings and restaurants, an old clock tower surveying its territory. What a delight!
Lunch at the bustling Vini e Panini was a treat – inevitably, we shared vini, panini and a salad, as we soaked in the happy atmosphere of this little town that is completely absent from our guidebook. After lunch, we decided to wander. We walked around the harbour, past the castle, and around the waterfront. We have explored more extensively since, finding narrow cobbled streets, a popular beach right beside the city walls, good restaurants, and a number of charming churches (on the outside at least), as well as a few subterranean churches or chapels dug into the rocks. As the old town ends, and new town begins, there is a large piazza, bustling in the early evening with people strolling on their passegiata, families, elderly and the young all there, eating gelati and catching up with friends and family. There are few shops and restaurants around the piazza, surprising us. But we have since realised that the locals head to the old town for their special occasions, their Saturday nights, filling the streets and restaurants, meeting friends, chatting to neighbours, buying drinks at the Pineapple, all contributing to the wonderful atmosphere.
We feel quite at home here We know the different routes to the port, where to find parking in the evening when the port carpark is full. We know how the harbour and the boats and the buildings look different as the light changes. We know where to get the best view for an evening prosecco, if it isn’t too windy, and where to find the best pizza (La Dolce Vita). The man in the local enoteca (wine shop) knows us, as does the man at Palazzo Indelli (though he doesn’t seem to know not to suggest the most expensive wine). We know which lanes through the centre of the old town will get us back to the piazza, and where the carabinieri park all their cars. We knew where to take our friend for seafood (Palazzo Indelli) when she visited over the weekend. And since then, we’ve discovered more new things, come upon a few new chapels, tried a new restaurant with the best bread so far in Italy (Il Punto Cardinale), walked down some very narrow winding streets we hadn’t found before, and found the butcher who spit-roasts chicken (over roast potatoes) to take away (dinner last night).
We know now that a few travel writers on-line have discovered Monopoli, agreeing with our perception that this is one of the most charming of all towns in Puglia. We know that those who miss it off their recommendations must never have bothered enough to visit, let alone explore. We know that we absolutely adore Monopoli.
On our way south, we spent a night in Pesaro, a beach resort on the Adriatic. Despite being charmed a month ago by Santa Margherita, Pesaro really confirmed for us that Italian (in fact, most European) beach resorts are not for us.
A long beach stretched out in front of our hotel. But it was hard even to see the sand, because the beach was divided up between the hotels, covered with deck chairs and umbrellas (a different colour combination for each hotel), bar/restaurants/snack bars, and changing and bath rooms lined up against the footpaths. I guess if you’re keen on the sea there is an appeal. You pay a fee and get towels, your deck-chair/ sunlounger and umbrella for the day, you can order snacks or drinks, or eat lunch at the restaurants, and there are toilets and showers right there if you need them. But the fees vary. You’d think if you were staying at the hotel, you’d get all this for free. No, not in Italy it seems. Our hotel charged an unbelievable (to us) 52 euro for the day, but we saw signs elsewhere, off the beaten track, for only 8 euro (though no towels, bar service etc). Still, the close proximity of all the other holiday-makers, and the regimented nature of the deckchair layouts, along with the loss of any sense that you were actually in a natural environment, just made us shudder.
To be fair, the summer vacation was coming to an end, and the beaches were still packed with people enjoying the sun, sea and sand. Cafes and restaurants were full in the evenings, the waterfront crowded with people strolling by the seaside, happy and enjoying their break. So it obviously works for them. Europeans, it seems, don’t have the same needs for personal space that we do in New Zealand. Or maybe they like having bars/cafes and amenities close by? We recalled being in the southern coast of Turkey, finding beach resorts and crowded beaches filled with Europeans, and then – right next door – coming across a single, long, empty beach with nothing but white sand, and a few Turkish tourists, and a single simple cafe on the sand back near the car park. We couldn’t understand why this beautiful beach was so empty. Just as we now can’t understand the appeal of these crowded beaches.
Now we’re in the deep south, beaches abound. I will report more anon.