Thursday, March 31, 2016

Door Knockers of Lecce

A beautiful sunny warm day today, and we did not have anything planned. A good day for a photo walk. Armed with my camera I went for a walk/wander around the streets surrounding the apartment. I had nothing specific in mind, but quickly started noticing the various interesting door knockers on the big courtyard doors throughout the city. So, not so much reading for the blog today, but some interesting pictures. I do not think many of them are used anymore, as I often saw doorbells and intercom systems on most doors.  


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Cooking Italian

When  we travel, we like to rent an apartment and actually live there for long enough that you get to know the place. We like to be able to shop for food and actually cook the food that we can buy locally. We have done pretty well so far in Spain, Portugal, Hungary and England, but Italy has proved to be a bit more of a problem.

Our Kitchen
The first problem was locating food to cook. I asked Leo, the very helpful manager here where I could find a grocery store. He sent me around the corner, through another set of big green doors into another courtyard to a local store. It looked like grandma had set up a little convenience store in her living room. She had a cooler with some cheese and salami, and a fridge with a few cans of coke and Italian soda. On shelves around the room was a sorry collection of canned goods. No fresh vegetables, nor meat, and I did not want to check the “Best Before” on those cans. I asked Leo for a “Big” grocery store and he sent me outside the old city to a “Supermarcedo”. This was an actual supermarket, but was smaller than most of our corner stores. It had a little of everything, but the emphasis would be on little. The vegetable section was a couple of shelves about 18” wide; a few tomatoes, three onions, garlic and two dozen eggs. It took me ten minutes just to find the black pepper conveniently located beside the beer and wine, which I was also looking for. Not a good start. I was starting to feel a bit concerned with our ability to cook Italian . . . .
This is not Italian . . .

Back to Leo to try to explain that I wanted a REALLY BIG store. He patiently got out a map and showed me how to get to two other stores quite a bit further afield. Determined to succeed in this cooking thing, we set out and located these two stores, both good large well stocked supermarkets, but I am not sure what Leo would think as he entered one of our Sobey’s or SuperStore outlets, and I am sure he would be struck dumb if he saw the Auchan's

(My Friend Gordon will know what I mean) I bought groceries in when in China.

Then after all that we found an actual city market right outside the city gate that sells a wonderful selection of meat and vegetables. I think the problem is that guests here just do not cook, electing instead to eat out in the many excellent local restaurants.

Now this looks Italian . . . .
The next problem is the language. Southern Italy is probably as bad as anywhere we have visited for the lack of English. Many people here just do not speak or understand English. I realize that this is their country and it is me that should be speaking their language, but I have never had a problem getting along with just English. What is Lactose Free in Italian? Is that Sheep Cheese or Cow cheese? What on earth is that vegetable?

We are however cooking Italian, but we are often making it up as we go. Regis wanted to make Ravioli, so she went out and bought what she thought was a sheet of fresh pasta. A translation of the package back at the apartment revealed it was some kind of pastry. A quick change of plans; lets make a calzone sort of thing. Onions, garlic, and local sausage simmered in red wine, then mixed with peppers, tomato, and zucchini, tossed with tomato sauce, topped with real buffalo mozzarella, seasoned with fresh oregano and finally wrapped in the mystery pastry produced a really amazing dinner. It was so good it may even go in my cookbook.  

The Wedding Cake Town

Wedding Cake?
This area of Italy is mostly flat, and any lumps or hills were ideal locations to settle, because it allowed you to see the invading Turks in time to run and hide. This problem with the Turks seems to have been a constant one through history, and it is said that although the local dialects are so distinct that people from one town could not understand the "Italian" spoken in another, the one common expression was "The Turks are coming!".

View From Ostuni
Shop in Ostuni
One town that took advantage of a hilltop location was Ostuni, and this town completely covers a round hill sticking up out of an otherwise flat landscape.

Once the problem of constantly invading Turks was resolved (I am sorry, but I do not know the history of this; I'm on vacation not research), the town decided to enhance their favourable position on top of a hill and visible from miles, and they painted the town white. Literately, almost the entire town is painted gleaming white. Driving towards Ostuni, you can see the white dome of the hill for miles, and it really does look like a Wedding Cake. From a distance with the buildings all built so close together, it looks like the entire top of the hill is one white dome of white frosting. This decision to paint the town, has created an upkeep problem however, and during our visit to Ostuni, I saw three men busy with large buckets of white paint.
Ostuni Church

Pass on the Left?
Once you get to the town, you must climb up twisting narrow streets to get the top, where the church sits. Unlike most towns where the church sits proudly dominating the town square, here the square is part way up the hill, and the church sits at the top very tightly surrounded by other houses, probably the rich and powerful who felt being in close proximity to God and church for protection from the Turks was more important than being on the town square.

Ostuni Street
The narrow streets that wind and twist up the hill make driving interesting in Ostuni. Here in Lecce the streets are narrow, but someone had the sense to make most one-way, and many are straight, so even if the street is two way, you can see oncoming vehicles and take action, but in Ostuni, I saw repeated incidents of vehicles coming around a tight corner to find someone coming the other way, causing someone to have to reverse to a wider section. No wonder Smarts, motorized trikes and scooters are the practical choice for many.

Strange, I did not see any wedding shops in the town; you would think that would be a natural fit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Going to Gallipoli

The Train to Gallipoli
This area of Italy is really not that wide, and although Lecce is close to the western coast, an hour train ride will get you to the East coast, so we decided to take a train and visit Gallipoli.

Castello di Gallipoli
The Italian train system is a good one, the trains get you almost anywhere you want to go, and they appear to run on time. There is a big difference however between the big shiny inter-city trains and the local trains. The intercity trains are long, clean, shiny and fast. The local trains are only two cars long, grubby and not so fast. Yup, it was a local train that was taking us to Gallipoli.

No Wonder the seafood is good!
Gallipoli is a town that was originally completely on an island just a short distance from the coast. Of course the town has spread, and now the island is connected by a convenient bridge, and the train station is a short walk from the old town.

Crossing the bridge, you are confronted with an imposing fortress, obviously needed to protect the town; so vulnerable to invasion by those troublesome Turks of old. In fact the entire old town is built on a raised sea wall which surrounds it all. We started our self-guided tour by walking the perimeter, following the wall around the city as we looked for a place to eat. We had been told that the seafood was amazing in Gallipoli, so we wanted to sample some.
Wandering the streets of Gallipoli
Not sure what this is about
Finding a restaurant suggested by our guide the previous day, we stopped and examined the menu. It looked delicious, but when we requested a table we were ushered to one by the back door. We said we wanted a table out front by the ocean, but were told the were all "full". When I pointed out that the restaurant was completely empty, he pointed to his watch, indicating that it was 1:50 pm. I had forgotten about that 2:00 to 4:00 thing again. Now I know what everyone does during their "break"; reserve the best tables in town. A bit annoyed, we elected to try elsewhere.
Once you leave the sea wall walk, the town is much like the other small town in the area, with narrow winding streets and whitewashed stone buildings. We were a bit disappointed that none of the churches were open, but, it was Easter Weekend and many places were closed.
The castle however was open, and we spent an hour or so exploring this attraction. The castle/Fort has been partially restored, although in some places it was very confusing, and one spot had a display about a gate and chain bridge, but it was difficult to even picture this in its present configuration. Unlike the castle in Bari, which we were disappointed in because so much of it was closed or blocked off, here we were free to explore much of the old castle.
A fort colliding with a castle

Arriving back at the train station for the ride home to Lecce, we were pleasantly surprised to find a sleek red modern train waiting, but part way home we were told we would have to change trains, and at that point we were shuffled back onto the little local train, which was already mostly full with a wide variety of passengers, from a Justin Bieber "wannabe", young girls dressed for a night on the town, or a friendly group of North African street vendors, one of whom got off at each town. The last of them knew I was going to Lecce, and made a point of telling me that my stop had come, for at that point it was dark, and you could hardly see out of the grimy windows to see the dimly lit station platforms. 

Alberbello's Trulli

Town of Trulli
Alberobello is a town north of Lecce that is known for its unique style of houses called Trulli. These houses were featured on one of our favourite travel sites as a possible rental, and it was because of this that I suggested we visit the Puglia region of Italy. After extensive research, we are not renting a Trullo, but I still wanted to visit the town known for them.

Trulli Street
A Trullo is a circular house with a conical roof, and are made entirely of stone. The style developed as a means of beating the tax man, a popular sport in Italy I am told. The Trullo was originally a temporary shelter built by farmers or animal herders, and are actually similar in design to our Canadian igloos. The Inuit use blocks of ice, the Italians use stone. Because the original Trulli were built without mortar they could be taken apart when their occupants moved on. Of course the resourceful Italians quickly discovered that because they were considered "temporary" shelters they were exempt from taxation on houses, and of course, no building permits . . . The simple domed stone shelters grew circular rooms under them, and unique stone roofs made of sloping stone tiles were added. Next it was discovered if you built two side by side you could have multiple rooms, and there are even two story Trulli. As you drive around the area you see large Trullo estates with five or six domes, and many now have swimming pools and other modern luxuries. I am told that the swimming pools are in fact "water storage tanks" in case of fires; again to avoid taxation on luxuries.
Tourists . . . .

Unique Trullo construction
This has backfired slightly on the residents of Alberobello however. The "Town of Trulli" was named a Unesco Heritage Site, and now, not only cannot these once temporary shelters be torn down, any new construction in the town must be based on the Trullo design. There has however been a tourist boom as everyone, me included, wants to visit and see these unique buildings.

Yup, even a Trullo Church
Alberobello was included as part of our tour of the region, and it was interesting to wander through the section of town entirely composed of Trulli. Even the church is a Trullo. You can see clearly the original structures compared with the newer ones because now special stones creates nice even roofs where the original ones are much more irregular and rougher.
Inside a Trullo


I am told that the tax laws were changed so that you now do have to pay property tax on your Trullo house.

Monday, March 28, 2016

On the Terrace

Our Lecce Terrace
Although I normally enjoy writing a blog entry about the weather to create jealousy in my friends back in the still-frozen north, this trip I cannot do so with honesty yet. Apparently southern Italy has had an especially wet cool spring this year, so although I am enjoying the 10 to 15 temperatures (that is Celsius for my US friends), the locals are still dressed in big puffy winter coats and wrapped in scarfs for warmth rather than style.

The Church down the street
The morning after we arrived we were able to sit outside for breakfast, but it has been far too cold and damp to do so again until today. I am writing this blog entry out on the terrace in the sun with a glass of local red wine. I could probably do the task easier inside where the IPad would be easier to see, but the sunshine was calling and I refuse to move inside.

Through the Big Green Doors
One of the nicest features of this apartment is this terrace. It is a huge 30' by 20' space off the main living area and overlooks the hotel courtyard. There are lounge chairs and a nice table for four. Off in one corner is an area for hanging out clothes.

The Crowd Outside
Although this apartment is in almost the exact centre of the old city of Lecce, and outside the main door of the attached hotel, hundreds of pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles make it one of the busiest streets in the city, but sitting on my terrace the loudest noise I can hear is the amorous pigeon looking for attention.

As you wander the narrow streets of Lecce, you will see large 20' high arched doors. These large doors lead through passageways to courtyards open to the sky, but remote from the street. Our terrace and apartment is at the back of the courtyard, so we are pleasantly isolated from the hustle and bustle of the city even though we are located right in it's heart.

Oops, time to go refill that wine glass while I wait for that cloud to get out of the way.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Stopping at Mama's

Mama's Olive Farm
This region of Italy is known for olives, and coming in on the train, you can see the distinctive grey/green of the olive trees everywhere. Some of these olive trees are hundreds of years old, and a tree that produces good olives is a valuable investment. They prune and trim these trees every year to get the best harvest, and in the fields you see everything from little thin new trees to ancient, knarled twisted veterans of many harvests. We were told that trees have been stolen, dug up and planted in someone else's farm, so valuable trees often have GPS transponders hidden in them so thefts can be tracked.

Ancient Olive
On a tour of the Region, the friends who were visiting us asked the guide about how to prepare olives to eat. She has an olive tree in her yard and tried unsuccessfully to make the fruit edible. He tried to explain, but with the English/Italian, and his actual lack of first hand knowledge, he took out his cell phone and called his Mama for advice. As a result we ended up being invited to her house which was on the way, for advice from an expert.

It was obvious she was an expert, as we drove down a long narrow driveway lined with fields of freshly pruned olive trees leading to a big old white Italian farm house. Mama lives here with her 90 year old parents, and her two boys, one who was our guide and the other who was carrying on the family olive growing tradition.

Posing with the Family
We were served two large plates of mama-made olives, red and green,and as the cheese man arrived we also got to sample some local cheese. Then via translation we were given a detailed explanation of the art of olive processing.

You need to soak them in what kind of soda?

They need to be soaked for how many days, and the water has to be changed how many times a day?

Laurel leaves, where do I get Laurel leaves?

I think our friend has decided that her olive tree will remain largely ornamental.