A Peek at Puglia


For years Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"now, I’ve wanted to visit the region of Puglia. Geographically speaking, we’re talking about the heel of the Italian boot. Now that I’m back from a fairly relaxing 9 days down there, I’m writing to share my experience with all of you.

My impressions of Puglia:

Tourism in Puglia is not nearly as developed as it is in other parts of Italy. For my travel buddy and I, this meant that we encountered no lines, no wait times (except for trains), hardly any pesky tour groups, hardly any pesky English speakers (we both speak Italian), and lots of peaceful moments. For that, it was blissful.

DSCN5430

On the other hand, if you’re used to being shunted around on pre-organized tours from monument to church to museum to historic site, Puglia may not be the ideal place for you. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my 9 days down there. And we moved around, despite the very interesting (read: horrible) rail system. But if you’re not a lover of seafood and the seaside, it’s maybe best that you stick to the central and northern parts of the country.

The coastline and sea are beautiful, the people are friendly and helpful and the food is delicious. Would I go back to Puglia? Absolutely. Would I necessarily spend 9 days there again? Maybe not.

Practical notes:

  •  You can get around by train, but for us (two fairly seasoned Italy travellers), all the routes we took were a pain in the butt. On the roads, traffic seemed very light, so renting a car in Puglia is probably quite doable and desirable. Distances aren’t long, but three train switches in 40 kilometres makes even a quick jaunt to the seaside a daunting day-long task. Also, some trains don’t run on Sundays. At all. And when two lousy train engineers on the Maglie – Otranto route decided to fare sciopero on a Saturday (translation: strike meaning: extra day off) we ended up riding a bus with every sweaty, loud high school kid in the area:

IMG_0971

  • If you don’t do seafood, stay away. Seriously. I eat very little fish or seafood, apart from canned tuna and fresh Canadian salmon, but this trip introduced my tummy to some excellent new varieties of sea creatures. If you’re not willing to try, stay home. We encountered many restaurants that serve only seafood dishes. Kiss your spaghetti bolognese goodbye and opt for a plate of spigola (sea bass) or orata (sea bream).
  • If you’re looking to be occupied all the time, bring a book. Or a small child. I don’t want to say that there aren’t many things to do, but…there aren’t many things to do, depending on your interests. Our “city tour” of Lecce was a 2-hour jaunt from church to church. The guide was informative, but… Yes, the strolling, the eating, the beaching, the travelling all takes time, but when the entire region shuts down from 1 – 5 pm for the “pausa” or “siesta”, you’ve got nothing to do but bake on the beach or take a snooze yourself. (We did both.)

IMG_0797

  • We weren’t able to find too many reasonably priced organized tours to join, like wine tasting tours, olive oil tasting tours, etc. There were a few little things, but knowing how much you’d pay in Tuscany for a similar service, I couldn’t bear to part with 150E for a 4-hour cooking class.

Highlights of the trip:

Visiting the trulli houses of Alberobello and the Grotte di Castellana:

DSCN5416

DSCN5419

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A wonderful birthday dinner of spigola in the main piazza of Monopoli.

IMG_0836

Taking a dip in the beautiful Ionian sea at Gallipoli.

IMG_0895

Taking a dip in the spectacularly turquoise Adriatic sea at Otranto.

IMG_0956

Riding in the back of an Ape Calessino, then having to get out and push (yes push!) when it got stuck in the sand.

IMG_0959

The food. The wine. Da leccarsi i baffi! (Mouthwatering!)

IMG_0835

IMG_0934

Il Palio di Siena ~ Siena’s Palio Horserace


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Maybe you’ve heard of Siena, and maybe you haven’t. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you have).

Maybe you’ve heard of Il Palio, or maybe not.

I have a hard time gauging how well-known both Siena and the Palio are because they’ve become such a big part of my life. I can hardly imagine someone not having heard of my favourite town in Italy or its most exciting event. I’m a little too close; I can’t see the forest for the trees.

In about a month’s time, on July 2nd, this year’s first Palio will be run in Siena. What is the Palio you ask? Well. In order to understand the Palio, you first need to understand how Siena is organized.

In modern-day Siena (which sounds funny to me since Siena is still so Medieval in my books), the city is split up into 17 contrade (neighbourhoods). Each contrada has its own name, its own symbol, its own flag, its own headquarters, its own government, its own streets, its own church, its own museum, its own social life, etc.

contrada-di-siena

If you live in the old city centre, you live in a contrada, however you don’t necessarily belong to it. To belong to a contrada you’re either born into the one where one of your parents is a member, or later in life you, through connections, work, and fellow-feeling, are asked to become a member. No one is an official member until they are baptized in the contrada fountain.

pantera

The Palio is a bareback horse race that has been run since Medieval times in Siena. The race takes place twice a year, on the evenings of July 2nd and August 16th, regardless of the day these dates fall on. It’s a competition between Siena’s contrade  for honour, glory and centuries’ worth of bragging rights. The contrada that wins the race gets no money, just the Palio banner (cencio, drappellone) itself. Jockeys are hired from outside Siena, and the horses are assigned to each contrada through a draw.

Crowds awaiting the "estrazione delle contrade" or the drawing of the contrade that will run the next Palio. The drawn contrada's flags get hung out the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico in front of the waiting crowd.

Crowds awaiting the “estrazione delle contrade” or the drawing of the contrade that will run the next Palio. 

Not all the contrade run in each Palio, however. 10 run each time, and the two Palios are independent of one another. How do they pick who runs? Easy. If your contrada is one of the 10 that run in July 2014, you don’t have the automatic right to run in July 2015; the remaining 7 that didn’t run the year before do. However, because each Palio is run with 10 horses, there are three from the ones who ran in July 2014 that will also be selected to run in July 2015, through a draw that takes place a little more than a month beforehand.

Watering down the track, just days before the Palio.

Watering down the track, just days before the Palio.

A week or so beforehand, the transformation of the Piazza starts. Truckloads of tufa sand are brought in to build a track right there where there are usually tables and chairs belonging to the restaurants in the piazza. Bleachers are set up and the centre of the piazza is enclosed with wooden gates. The horses and jockeys do trial runs.

That’s all to say nothing about what’s going on in the contrade.  They’re strategizing, and eating and singing and praying and chanting. On the day of the Palio, their horse even gets pushed inside the contrada church for a special blessing. If, said horsey happens to do his business while he’s in there, tanto meglio. All the luckier! (I am not kidding.). The contradaioli (contrada members) wear their fazzoletti (scarves) in their contrada colours, and sing their contrada’s hymn.

And while there’s so much activity in the contrade, the rest of Siena practically shuts down. Stores are closed, streets are blocked off, people take the day off work. In the morning, the horses run the provaccia, the last trial run in the piazza. Then they’re blessed and prepared for the Palio.

And now that you’re prepared for the Palio, you’ll have to wait for my next post about my first Palio experience. I promise, it won’t be long coming!

Practical Italy: Managing Expectations


Dinner DisastersI’ve noticed that people come to Italy with high hopes and wrong hopes. I should know, I was one of them. I told you about it here.

How can hopes be wrong? They’re personal! You disagree.

Ok, let’s call them unrealistic hopes. Unrealistic expectations. That better? Good.

Ricominciamo da capo. Let’s start over.

People sometimes come to Italy with unrealistic expectations and are sometimes sorely disappointed when the Italy of their dreams isn’t quite the Italy of their reality. Starry-eyed travellers thinking that vintage red Vespa is everyone’s principal form of transportation here and that they’ll be the only ones trying to throw coins in the Trevi fountain at 10pm on a Saturday.

I hate to break it to you, but no.

Not all of Italy looks like Tuscany, you won’t magically learn Italian in two weeks and you’ll probably never escape the hordes of other tourists at major sites.

But how will I know this if it’s all new to me? You ask. How can I be realistic if I have no idea what to expect?

Here are some pointers:

Do. Some. Research. Use your Google machine. Talk with other people who have been to Italy. It’s no big secret what Italy is like. People have been there before you and they’ll probably be happy to tell you about it.

happiness equation

Really though, it’s not even so much your expectations that will determine whether your time in Italy is magnifico or orribile, it’s your attitude towards things when your expectations aren’t met.

Scenario: You order a pizza in Italy and it doesn’t have globs of gooey processed cheese all over it like at home. You like globs of gooey processed cheese and were really craving those cheesy, gooey globs after your long day of sightseeing. You look at your practically naked (cheese-wise) pizza and you have two options:

1. Complain, turn your nose up, whine and be a general nuisance to your travel companions and anyone within 50 feet of you. Snivel, pout and ask God why he just can’t make the Italians do things like you do back home. Especially the pizza! Refuse to eat it. Fantasize about that cardboard, cheese-laden pizza from home. Go hungry in Italy.

2. Cut your pizza, stick it in your mouth. Chew. Repeat. Enjoy it for what it is: different from the pizza you’re used to at home, but probably marvellous in it’s own right. 

Now, which do you think will make you feel happier?

If you chose answer #1, just stop reading here. You’re a lost cause. If you chose answer #2, bravo!

Take it from me: you need to start off your trip to Italy with the general expectation that “everything will be different. But even that little maxim needs an “and I’m OK with that” chaser.

Add in a touch of “and if things aren’t as I expect, I will be open and flexible about it” and really you can’t go wrong. Control-freakishness does not lead to happiness. Not just in Italy, but anywhere. Mi raccomando! 

If you honestly think you can’t stomach that, then stay home per piacere, and leave the Italy-enjoying to the rest of us. Really. The milk here doesn’t taste the same. McDonald’s doesn’t taste the same. Coca Cola doesn’t even taste the same. Brands are different. Systems are different. Chaos is the prevailing form of organization. Customs are different. Ideas are different. Traditions are different.

But that’s why you wanted to come to Italy in the first place, isn’t it?

So when your shower suddenly turns icily cold after 15 minutes and you’re used to 40-minute showers at home, steel yourself against the frigid water (or turn it off quickly) and think “this is what I came here for”.

I’m not talking about the cold shower; don’t be too literal on me. I’m talking about difference. That’s what you came here for. To see how other people live. To see how other people, in my humble opinion, live pretty well.