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.

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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:

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  • 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.)

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  • 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:

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

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Taking a dip in the beautiful Ionian sea at Gallipoli.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!