As I was unlocking the city bike, hands filled with, as it so often happens to a woman, a handbag and this and that, and trying at the same time not to get all dirty on the bike stand, an unfamiliar elderly woman approached me, her hands laden with heavy grocery bags.
“I’m sure you have a mobile phone, young lady,” she said to me, undoubtedly to me. I looked around in awe, confused and wary, but it seemed only the usual daily routine was going on around me. No signs of a possible ambush by bothersome beggars or loiterers or whatever unpleasant characters there might be cohabiting within your average midsized town.
So, I replied nervously: “I do.” No point in lying.
“Can I ask you, then, to lend it to me for a quick call? It’s really urgent I make that call.”
Red light started flashing in my mind. “I’m certainly not going to give my phone into your hands …” Her eyes grew big with disappointment and her face suddenly turned sad and exhausted. Nevertheless, she kept explaining: “You see, I’m to visit Cecilia but I’m running late and she mentioned she had some errands to do later today and I’m afraid I might miss her and then this ride on the bus will be in vain and then yet another ride on the bus to get back home, all in vain, and I’d really like to see her today.”
“You can tell me her number and I’ll ring her for you,” I suggested after a milisecond or so.
She brightened up, smiled, relieved. She gave me the number of that Cecilia woman I was to call and introduced herself as Fanny.
Me: “Is this Cecilia?”
Cecilia: “Yes, speaking.”
“I have a friend of yours, Fanny, standing next to me.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Well, yes, she’s asked me to tell you she’s been running late but she was on her way to you now. She wants you to wait for her.”
“Why, this is wonderful! Of course I’ll wait for her.”
“She’s taking the bus now.”
“Thank you very much, God bless you, thank you.”
Fanny thanked me as well and while I was putting my phone away she shifted from one foot to the other as if there was something else. And there was. Her head tilted as she said: “You didn’t actually think I was going to steal your phone, did you?” Now, I was surprised again. She continued: “Look at me, I’m old and rusty, you’d catch me in no time.”
“There’s all sorts around these days, one never knows …” I replied. “The crooks are just everywhere.”
“Well, you’re right there, you’re right.”
Off we went, each of us in her own direction, both probably submersed in own thoughts about this experience. I know I was. At least we conversed.
Doubt and caution are the building stones of our everyday.
The title is a bit of a stretch, I admit. Firstly, Robert De Niro was visiting Sarajevo overnight only. Secondly, I never met him. Thirdly, I admire his acting and his films very much, really, truly, but let’s be honest, I’m whispering now, he’s of a certain age.
Coincidentally, Robert De Niro, one of the world’s greatest actors, and I happened to be at the same event last Friday. He was a guest of honour, of course, whereas I was a mere spectator. I’m talking about 22nd Sarajevo Film Festival, a festival that started during dreadful times of war and evolved into the most influential and eminent film festival in the region.
Robert De Niro was there to open the festival and promote the restored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and most importantly was awarded the Heart of Sarajevo (what a brilliant name for a prize, don’t you think?) for lifetime achievement. His presence in that city was powerful and meaningful and his thank-you speech at the opening ceremony was nice too. So was the audience at the open-air cinema Metalac. It’s an incredible venue, a courtyard amidst the townhouses (in fact, a high school sports ground), huge, roughly 2000 to 3000 viewers were present, the screen is of king-size XXXL, it felt almost as the Rome’s Colosseum.
“I will treasure this award — my Heart of Sarajevo — because I don’t think there is another city in the world that has shown such heart in the face of so much tragedy,” De Niro said at the ceremony.
Do read the Washington Post’s article on the festival (the above quote is excerpted from it) – it’s filled with all the vital information.
Of his countless performances, the one line I remember most is “I know a thing or two about a thing or two” from … wait, I have to check the title of this movie co-starring young Leonardo Di Caprio …here it is: This Boy’s Life. If you have the stomach for abuse take a look.
Not only was De Niro there, in Sarajevo, the festival is packed with celebrity material: on the second evening Stephen Frears of Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen and Philomena (among others) came to greet the public on stage before the screening of his magnificent Florence Foster Jenkins. He is a regular but he was all the same overcome with the large auditorium.
Sarajevo is the European capital that appeared regularly in the headlines in the 90’s. Unfortunately, this was due to the so-called Balkans’ war following the break-up of Yugoslavia, which led to this city and its inhabitants being tragically under siege for several years (1425 days actually). The reminders of this brutal war are visible throughout the city still. Today, two decades after the conflict ended, the city is as pleasant and welcoming as ever before. That’s at least what I’m told because my first visit to Sarajevo took place only about 10 years ago. So, I’m not in a position to judge the before and after effect. Not that I’d want to anyway. From what I hear I would’ve liked it before the war for sure and I certainly like it now.
What’s not to like?!
Friendly people? Check
For those of you awaiting more on Apulia please be patient. It’s coming up as promised.
I went for a run yesterday. Only my third after the holiday, and after initial lack of will and motivation I can proclaim I’m back in the saddle: it felt good again. Sadly, I noticed the more than slight change en route. The leaves on the trees are beginning to wither. The shadows are becoming longer and darker as the days shorten and the cyclamen are here again. Their bewitching scent was a nice company although it meant the autumn was just around the corner. A perfect moment then to recollect the summer holiday memories and order them up.
Colours, tastes, scent, delights for eyes and mind – all is there, making you healthily aware of your senses and feelings. I guess it’s what biology, history and sociology of a place fuse into within an attention-paying mind. A deep and long-lasting satisfaction is almost palpable.
When we entered the crypt of Otranto duomo perching above a coastal town I did expect to see a ‘forest of columns’ (as described in one of the guides) but nothing could actually prepare me for the real thing. It’s simply amazing. Not two columns seem to be alike and there are more than seventy.
Striking as it is, the main sight awaits you upstairs though: the grand Tree-of-Life mosaic. The mosaic itself is quite basic in terms of execution and it appears a bit naive to the untrained eye but it’s its size and age that humble you immediately. The 12th century masterpiece namely covers the entire floor of the cathedral. By all means brace yourselves for sighting of relics of Martyrs of Otranto that are housed in the glass cabinets in the cathedral. Shocking.
De-stress outside on the public beach – it couldn’t be any closer, just steps from the old town.
The Apulian Adriatic coast is like that: turquoise waters and alternating sandy stretches and sensational cliffs and rocky bays.
Fantastic scenery of a coastal road leading from Otranto to Leuca is interspersed occasionally by little and large man-made wonders. Palazzo Sticchi in Santa Cesarea Terme evokes the fantasy of One Thousand and One Nights. There may not be another reason for visiting this fairly unattractive little coastal and thermal town but marvelling at this Moorish palace in its commanding position on a hot summer’s day in the south of Italy is a joy.
While we were down there, only a couple of dozens kilometres away from the south-easternmost point of Italy and definitely the southernmost point of its heel, it would’ve been regretful not to dip into the Adriatic at Bagnisco. Or any other bay or beach – there are plenty but from the road mostly accessible on foot. In July you can expect them to be relatively peaceful and not too crowded. August is another matter altogether being a “holy” holiday month for most Italians.
The Ionian coast of Apulia is heavenly, too. The sand is golden and macchia smells divinely.
The tourist Mecca of Gallipoli, an ancient town on the costa ionica, with monumental fortified walls, has retained its own golden beach just behind the old town looking out towards the distant Calabria. Spreading out of town on both sides there are countless miles of party and family beaches. Be warned.
The modern part of town is dominated by a long wide avenue of sorts, which ends at the foot of the bridge connecting it to the old town. The old town is lovely, reminiscent of Dalmatian flair: local ladies cooling off in the gentle breeze seated by the wide open door leading from the street directly into the kitchen. Men are playing cards or watching television. From time to time, during roaming the labyrinth of narrow semi-deserted streets, a nice smell sneaked out from within of a simmering broth or something equally appealing.
Under the bridge, there are stalls abound with freshest from Gallipoli.
If you have the nerve, the top specialty (ask any Italian if you don’t believe me) is ricci di mare, thankyouverymuch.
In Manduria I had freshly squeezed pomegranate juice with my cappuccino.
I don’t know why the culture of spremuta hasn’t spread out of Italy. It doesn’t seem to bother any Italian bartender to prepare it either with agrumi (there goes my little obsession with citrus again) or even pomegranate as was the case in Apulia. A welcome and refreshing change.
The prevalence of gold and leisurely is pushed aside in the northwest of Salento where the dominating citta bianche rule the hills. Ostuni’s patron is St. Oronzo, apparently a very busy man taking care of Lecce as well.
Ostuni is chic and stylish not least because it’s so very photogenic. One could easily imagine to be in another place altogether (Oia on Greek Santorini comes to one’s mind) or maybe in one of the charming places up on Amalfi coast.
The white town offers splendid views down the plains full of olive trees (all that green between the houses and the sea on the photo below are olive trees) to the intensively blue Adriatic. Consider it a must-see.
The best thing in Apulia is you can eat really well. Furthermore, you can enjoy a nice view at the same time. One day we stopped for lunch in Torre Santa Sabina. True, we decided for Ristorante Miramare because of Rowley Leigh’s article published in Financial Times a few years ago, so we had some idea what we can expect. It was good, I can tell you that.
Locorotondo felt dearest to my heart in that part of Apulia. Expect narrow spiralling streets, tiny and more roomy piazze full of flowering pots, the all-over white carefully embellished with romantic patterns of vivid colours. Everything is so clean and tidy one would nearly want to change to slippers before stepping in.
After these boutique-like towns, Martina Franca feels like stepping back into reality again: it’s grandiose and impressive. Its elegance oozes down the lanes packed with proper townhouses. No matter how narrow the roads of the centro storico the traffic within is surprisingly lively yet smooth. The piazze are spacious and the churches loom large over them.
The Val d’Itria is not only home to these remarkable white towns (and many others), it is an extraordinary place in its own right.
The countryside looks manicured to the last metre, the fields and the vineyards may remind you of Tuscany but with one pronounced distinction: trulli.
And then, you enter the fairy-tale-ish Alberobello. Only this is not Las Vegas or Disneyland, it’s incredibly genuine. Once we approached the viewing point on the opposite side my jaw dropped approximately two storeys below.
There are masses of intertwined trulli, mortarless (at least used to be mortarless) stone constructions, that are still populated. It’s Unesco World Heritage site and it’s very popular with tourists but I wouldn’t want to miss it.
As much as I love walking down memory lane of our albeit recent summer holiday I have to tell you it’s been an exhausting one (indulging in memories not the holiday). That’s why I’m saving the jewel of this trip, Lecce, for another time (there are some appetizers in my previous post as well). Stay tuned.
Nevertheless, just a tiny glimpse of what’s cooking:
A traveller arriving to Apulia by way of Campania is greeted by rolling, seemingly endless, wide and flattened hills of wheat fields. If one is lucky enough to arrive in full sun of a mid July afternoon, it appears as though one entered an enormous treasury. All around, practically everywhere, for as far as the eye can see, to the ends of the horizon, there are interconnecting fields of wheat. Some pure golden, others in deep antique gold colour, some already harvested and loaded with bales lying around in a semi-scattered order, just like diamonds set in a necklace of a frivolous heiress, waiting to be escorted to some grand ball. One feels almost hypnotised by all that golden delight on both sides of a modern motorway.
Then, after a while, after tens and tens of kilometres of ripe wheat fields and nothing else, one notices slender white windmills dot the landscape of golden infinity. Somehow, they’re not obtrusive: in different sizes they line the soft borders of smooth hilltops in a never-ending sight. The immensity and vastness of it all is overwhelming.
After another while, kneaded within the gold appears a lonely vineyard. The vines are fascinatingly spread over a pergola-like structure the height of a man forming a rather dense shade overground. Gradually, the land gets filled with nothing else but vineyards. As much as everything was golden for quite a stretch of the way now everything changes to fresh and gleaming green. The landscape is still wide without an obvious interruption in visual field. Wherever one turns the head, all vineyards. Some are, for unknown reason (possibly some kind of a protection against heat? birds?), completely covered with what seems to be dense cloth of some sort. Again, tens and tens of kilometres of everything green. In awe, a first-time traveller to this fertile land needs to be pinched to make sure it’s not all a dream.
Every now and then an olive grove squeezes in between the vineyards. Those are huge olive trees, clearly very old even to an unaccustomed onlooker. Their crowns are almost as high and voluminous as those of chestnut trees in the north. How can they let them grow so big, one can’t stop to wonder. As a déjà-vu of some sort, step by step the land fills up with nothing but silvery green olive trees and it goes on and on and on. Once more, whatever you see for tens and tens of kilometres are gigantic olive trees.
Above it all, a painfully blue sky. A-l-l t-h-e t-i-m-e. The images of luxurious variations of gold, green, silver and blue are doomed to remain forever embossed in traveller’s mind. So, obviously, Apulia welcomed us royally. Although very hot and quite exhausted by a long ride, we were both continually being astonished by yet another kilometre of breathtakingly wonderful landscape.
Not to neglect the rows of colourful oleanders lining the motorway for hundreds of kilometres on end. Alternating in spectacular pinks and reds and whites, some of them are as big as houses. And fragrant too.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, that once we arrived to Lecce, the heart of Salento, our final destination, we were nearly speechless. True, we were captivated even more by a soft pink sunset but the town is a precious haven even without it. The dusk, though, lends it a special feeling of magic-like magnetism.
This is how our uncovering Apulia started. We fell in love with it on the very first day. So much so, that I’m enchanted even after a few weeks of everyday. It will certainly take more than one post of praise.
For any of you out there contemplating a perfect Apulian lunch (as presented in the photo at the beginning of this post) this is what you need:
– a kilo of ripe, locally grown pomodori (firm and meaty, juicy but plump)
– a jar of large, green Apulian olives with pepperoncino
– a bunch of rucola selvatica (a woody silver leaf kind of rucola, extra sharp and spicy)
– a pouch of silky soft, creamy burrata, super fresh from Mercato di Porta Rudiae in Lecce
– sea salt
– Apulian extra virgin olive oil
– a bottle of Primitivo di Manduria
– a sunny day
– a roof top terrace in Lecce with unbeatable view over town.
That’s it. Buon appetito!
Do come back for more on our Apulian trip. This one post can’t do it all the justice.