From Far And Wide, O Canada!


Happy Canada Day!

This is my traditional Canada Day post. To catch up on previous years’ posts, click here  (2013) and here (2011).

Today I’m writing to you en route from Warsaw to Krakow, in Poland. I’ve got a gaggle of Canadian students in tow for a month-long study abroad program, so I feel a little less alone on this Canada day.

Canadian traveller.

Canadian traveller, Matera, Italy.

It’s my 6th Canada Day celebrated outside of our glorious nation, you see, and I’m kind of liking the tradition. Not because I like being away for my wonderful nation’s national holiday, but more because I feel that being on the road gives me some perspective. The nostalgia for home fuels my thoughts and musings for these posts, and I, ever the proud Canadian, never feel like it’s time wasted thinking about my country. So here’s my Canada day anecdote for this year:

The other day while flying from Italy to Poland, I started flipping through my trusty phrasebook trying to learn a few basic phrases in Polish. This being my first time to Poland, I really had no idea about the language. These are the words I looked up, in this order:

Please. Thank you. Canada.

I’m not kidding. I can’t ask you for the bathroom in Polish, but I can tell you I’m Canadian. I also checked to make sure the Maple Syrup at our Polish breakfast buffet was, in fact, Canadian. It just goes to show that quite without realizing it, being Canadian, being able to communicate my Canadian-ness, and being proud of being Canadian are always at the forefront of my mind. If you don’t believe me, please let the pictures in this post do the talking for you.

My maple leaf.

My maple leaf.

So, Happy Canada Day to all the Canadians celebrating, far and wide! I know there’s a ton of you out there, so leave a comment and let us know where you’re celebrating from.

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

My First Palio


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"July 2, 2010.

Imagine the Piazza del Campo, majestic and beautiful, brimming with a crowd louder and more invested in what’s about to happen than any crowd you’ve ever seen. Tens of thousands strong, they’re singing, yelling, hoping and praying. They’re wearing their contrada’s fazzoletto tied in the front and hanging over their shoulders to show their allegiance. For the Senese, life revolves around the contrada and this event. Heck, even my life has been affected by the Palio.

So imagine standing in the middle of that crowd, willingly trapped in the centre of the piazza, in the late afternoon heat. You don’t quite understand all of what’s taking place, but you’re happy to just be part of all the Medieval pomp and circumstance.

The crowd.

The crowd.

That was me at my first Palio.

Flag-throwing alfieri

Flag-throwing alfieri

Wig-wearing, costumed tamburini (drummers) and alfieri (flag-throwers) promenade around the piazza for the Corteo Storico. The rat-a-tat-tatting of the drums and whooshing of the flags can be heard even above the excited chatter of the crowd. Then, before you know it, there are 10 horses, each bearing contrada colours, being ridden bareback by 10 brave jockeys out the large wooden doors of the Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall) to a thunderous applause. Numbers are drawn and announced over a loudspeaker. The starting positions are set.

Barbaresco

Barbaresco

Then, into the pen they go. The jockeys, atop their circling horses, whisper last-minute threats, pledges and bribes to one another, all in hopes of swaying the race’s outcome. Race? No, it’s not just a race. There’s blood, honour, tradition and a year’s worth of bragging rights on the line.

Finally, the jockeys allow their horses to line up calmly, and a hush comes over the crowd. And just when you’re least expecting it, the number 10 horse, from behind, charges ahead and starts them running.

The pack of horses sprints around the piazza, the thunder of their 40 hooves barely audible over the cheering and jeering of the crowd. I’m cheering for Drago, the dragon contrada. A few seconds after the start, it’s evident Drago is not doing well.

I turn my body to follow the pack of horses around the piazza, trying to my best to snap pictures all the way. With only one lap to go, it looks like the Selva (forest) contrada might win.

Palio

Palio

Selvaaaaaaaa!” Anyone wearing Selva colours is now yelling with every fiber of their being, imploring their expended energy to somehow make its way into the legs of their horse and propel it across the finish line. First.

As the pack passes for its third lap, I’m momentarily confused as crazed contradaioli start jumping into the track and chasing, yes chasing the pack of horses, one or two of which are now rider-less, after having lost their jockeys on one of the treacherous San Martino curves. Are they crazy?

When it’s Selva that crosses the finish line first, the whole scene degenerates into the most chaos I have ever witnessed.

People spill everywhere. There’s not a stitch of order to anything.

Horses are snorting and kicking and trying to evade being stopped. Grown men shed tears, both of happiness and anger. A couple ambitious Selva members climb through the crowds and retrieve their coveted Palio banner. The Selva jockey, I see through the throngs of people, is hoisted onto the shoulders of two Selva members and is paraded, with the winning horse, to the Duomo.

And as each contrada leads its horse out of the piazza, it’s all over.

all over