I’ve been a red wine lover through and through since almost forever (I admit to having preferred the white wine in my coming of age period) so spending a part of our summer holiday touring the Bordeaux wine regions seemed to be a straightforward, logical decision. I love champagne a lot too but I don’t think we’ll head to Champagne anytime soon. One huge French wine region, which Bordeaux area undisputedly and certainly is, with all its delights and weaknesses, was quite a handful. Continue reading “Touring the Wine Regions of Bordeaux, France”
Yeah, I suppose you have every reason to dismiss me with boos and hisses for what on Earth is it in that destination in question, Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera, as it is refered to in English (although the original name reflects the real thing so much better), right? (right???) except for some ugly beaches, lousy weather, bad food and cheap wine. But bear with me, please. It was MY holiday after all.
First things first: Cote d’Azur, probably France’s finest stretch of coast, is just as good and beautiful as I remember. Maybe even tiny weeny bit better but memory can be, oh, so deceiving. Nah, it is disgustingly fabulous. We shall be returning.
Our short holiday on Cote d’Azur this summer was so colourful I’m having hard time assembling all the impressions for this post. Where do I begin? Continue reading “Touring Cote d’Azur a.k.a. French Riviera, France (obviously)”
Plus, reading helps me fall asleep. Somehow it provides the energy necessary to disconnect. Continue reading “The Reading List”
It must be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited: an ancient town named Matera in Italian region of Basilicata, occupying the arch of the Italian foot, bordering the southernmost regions of Italian peninsula: Campania, Puglia and Calabria.
Now, as I’m writing this, contemplating the travels past on a rainy evening, I’ve poured myself a glass of red wine to keep the meandering thoughts going, and it must be more than a coincidence that the wine is a superb Primitivo di Manduria, the one we fell in love with during our holiday to Apulia last summer. A holiday when we devoted a day to visit Matera in the neighbouring Basilicata.
After last year’s visit to the magnificent Bourbon tomb in Franciscan Monastery in Kostanjevica I was promised another visit to see the glorious Bourbon rose garden next door. Yes, the last (Bourbon) king of France is buried in a tiny monastery above Nova Gorica and Gorizia on the Slovenian side of the Slovenian Italian border. I’ve written about it here. This last weekend we went to see them, the fragrant Bourbon roses. As always with my man, the trip included a delicious lunch and also a nice walk, this time through another garden. Another new discovery. More on it below.
I’m no expert on roses, or gardening for that matter, Continue reading “Nova Gorica and Gorizia Revisited or the Fragrant Bourbons”
72 hours of sheer joy it was, wasn’t it, our London break last week. London has always represented the top of the world for me, so yes, I’m biased. Guilty as charged. First time post Brexit, so far all is still good, buzzing, polished and polishing, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, huge, diverse, expensive, welcoming. However, it’s gonna be choppy ahead. For the United Kingdom, for London, for the rest of Europe, for everyone.
The reason, the cause, the motivator for this last trip to London was this magnificent David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain that I just couldn’t allow us to miss. Continue reading “London, United Kingdom”
Ever heard of Senigallia? Me neither. Until last summer that is. As it turns out, it’s one of the most popular sea-side resort towns on the Italian side of Adriatic coast in the region of Le Marche. It’s where masses of Italian families spend their beach holiday. I was shocked by the sheer size, i.e. length of it.
I’d like to say that Corvara in Badia (1568 m) is a lovely little village but I’d be lying. Not that I’m saying it’s ugly but the magnificent part of it is its surroundings. Huge Alpine-style houses, almost all of them dedicated, to some extent at least, to the tourists and their needs, and numerous hotels line the main road and narrow service lanes. Everything is very tidy, no unruly parking anywhere, no mess, no chaos. It’s almost as if it wasn’t Italy.
Corvara is one of six little places that form Alta Badia in the majestic Dolomites. The mountains in fact are the biggest draw here, winter or summer. What used to be a giant coral reef up until some 250 million years ago when the prehistoric sea subsided is now the exceptional mountain range that we know today for its unusually shaped formations and colour, so very different from the encircling Alpine classics. It’s the mountains and the views of them and from them that take your breath away. It’s Unesco heritage for a reason. Continue reading “Corvara in Badia, Italy”
Sometimes I wonder why I like to go to Italy so much. Well, there are many obvious and profane reasons, all of them perfectly legitimate, like shopping for shoes and food, chancing upon history and sights around each and every corner, sensing the arts, learning about la vita italiana.
It makes sense that the more often you visit the same place the more details you notice: not only the obvious ones nor solely the pleasant. Continue reading “Italy, I Miss You”
Randomly and aimlessly clicking my way through the web becomes boring after a while. It’s no picnic giving in to illness and staying in bed all day. What with the headache, the running nose (as fast as Bolt, my son said), the cough. Even my skin hurts.
Then I find out about the rose that escaped the garden. She went for the sand dunes. Brava! And eventually she ended up in a museum. What a life! Continue reading “Under the Weather”
Whenever I return home from Sarajevo my head is so filled with encounters and happenings it pushes me into a strange state of void (if there is such a thing). I cannot describe it any other way. Somehow, for a day at least, I feel kind of lost in utter nothingness. Perhaps it’s just exhaustion. There’s only so much partying one can handle after all. And trust me, they certainly know about partying.
Every time I’m there I’m soaked in goings-on, events, good time, meeting people, food, drink yet at the same time everything around somehow loses its edge and significance. Continue reading “Sarajevo Revisited”
It’s a little town, so little that it can easily be missed. Nevertheless, Tarvisio is a town not a village. It’s nestled within a very narrow Alpine valley and it’s where, figuratively, at the end of the road Italy ends. Before the EU and its Schengen Agreement it was rather notoriously known in the neighbouring Austria and Slovenia (or Yugoslavia) as a shopping Mecca where one could stock on cheap textiles and leather goods of dubious provenance at its numerous market stalls. The memory attributes to it much more romance than it actually ever offered even to those who were the buying customers and not mere passersby. The market is still there although moderately gentrified.
Roughly, it could be said, the town is divided on lower and upper part, which means it runs the length of two parallel roads. The lower part is the old, medieval centre with the narrow winding main road on which traffic runs the regular two-way as if there was enough room. In truth, there’s hardly enough room for two pedestrians to meet let alone the motor vehicles. Sadly, nowadays it is mostly lined with closed businesses and empty (and dirty) shop windows, but the more the road ascends the more lively the town seems to be becoming. Luckily, for my grandmother at least, Preschern, an old school hardware store, is still in business at its ancient premises: it’s where my brother and my son though decades apart got their first bicycles from.
When the road somewhat snakily turns the steep way up under the disused railway underpass it widens substantially. There’s a decent if not surprising selection of shops for a town of such a small scale: mostly fashion and sports equipment but also unmissable alimenti, enotece, edicola, quite a number of coffee bars and restaurants. The tourism is probably what keeps the things stirring. Lately, the town has been into skiing seriously. Quite a step from trading and border guarding.
Men used to come to work in Tarvisio from other more pleasant (and warmer) parts of Italy. It was where the Italian state had sent them to fortify and protect its border. It’s easy to imagine the resentment of their wives and families who had to oblige and follow. Consequently, people from elsewhere were brave and stubborn enough to have brought with them their own traditions. And so, on the bare banchetto at first, the feisty Signora Emma, coming from a coastal town and unaccustomed to the cold and snow but unwilling to give in, started out her idea of feeding fish to the locals. (I should remind myself to ask my grandmother about it: she might remember it.) The unpretentious Ristorante Adriatico (link below) was born. It’s a homely place with dated decor but a nice view over to the ski slopes and the mountains. Fish is fresh and delicious. It’s been a while since we’ve had such a satisfying meal of spaghetti alle vongole so heartily prepared. Tiramisu was just as good.
They have certainly used their winter wisely, the Tarvisiani. For as long as I can remember the winters in Tarvisio have been real, solid winters with loads of snow and freezing cold. Well, truth be told, the snow doesn’t come in abundance these days but the cold of winter is nevertheless very actual and harsh. Never forget to bring a hat, a shawl and a pair of sturdy shoes.
And we haven’t started discussing the summer yet. Hiking the majestic mountains, breathing deeply on green pastures, wandering through the endless forests, biking along the bike lanes or uphill, or meditating in this lovely mountainous recluse. It seems tempting enough especially, but not only, under the thick blanket of snow. It’s so pretty it’s almost kitschy, don’t you think?
As soon as we stepped out of the parking garage at MuseumsQuartier we bumped (literally) into a group of acquaintances we were kind of planning to meet for a drink after dinner. Talk of coincidences! Away from home, in a huge city that Vienna undoubtedly is, you get to stumble across the people the minute you step out in the open.
I must confess, although I know I’m stirring, meeting my fellow citizens abroad isn’t normally welcomed but this act of chance added a whole new dimension to our trip.
Vienna again proved to be a more or less indulging destination for us. We were eating and eating and eating.
Advent time is proverbially a perfect time to visit any German-speaking place: they certainly know about the Christmas decorations and their traditions serve them right. Here’s an explanation from the Albertina leaflet of how a Christmas tree came to be in Vienna:
“The history of the Christmas tree in Austria began on a day in December, in snow-covered Vienna in 1823. Archduchess Henrietta of Weilburg-Nassau, the wife of Archduke Carl, was busy planning the first Christmas celebration in the audience hall of her family’s stately palace, today’s Albertina. For the sake of her six children, she had decided to continue the Protestant custom practiced in Hessen of putting up a “grass tree” (conifer) […] opulently decorated with sweetmeat, apples, and candles instead of a Catholic crèche. Emperor Francis I. took delight in the “grass tree” and had a festively decorated fir tree put up in the Imperial Palace from 1824 on.
Thus, the Christmas tree had become presentable at court and was ready to take off on its triumphal course through the Austrian Christmas season.”
Where best to warm up to Christmas than in Vienna then? In our household we plan to spend a weekend there each December and it’s a tradition I’m sticking to obligingly and without objections.
Vienna is probably one of the grandest capitals even to the pickiest of visitors. There are magnificent palaces lining (and not only) the famous Ringstrasse, there are beautiful parks and elegant pedestrian streets, countless shops, numerous extravagant events, fantastic concerts and exhibitons. Come December she turns into a real imperial princess.
At Albertina we saw another splendid, well curated exhibition, this time on pointillism which is a very luminous and brilliant technique per se, so it made perfect sense to consume it at advent. From Seurat and Signac to Van Gogh and Picasso the paintings and drawings were marvellous, of course, but we were nevertheless expecting to see A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte but it was regretfully not on show.
Although the streets of Innere Stadt are packed throughout the day, one can surprisingly escape the noise simply by venturing into a hidden passage with tranquil antiquity shops.
This is probably what Martin Luther had in mind when he reportedly erected a fir tree for his family sometime in the 16th century to replicate the stars he saw shining through the branches during a walk through the woods.
Anyway, we also had a delicious dinner at Shiki, a fabulous Japanese restaurant cum brasserie just off Kaerntnerstrasse. Apart from food (freshly grated (at the table no less) wasabi anyone? superb sushi! wonderful soup! to highlight only the pre-mains) the service was nice and the ladies’ loo is fantastic. I can’t believe I’m mentioning the food and the loo in the same sentence. It’s the first time I experienced the legendary Japanese lavatory, which self cleans (saw it in action with my own eyes – freakingly unbelievable) and warms the seat for you. If you read this, you should go for the food, please, not the loo.
Unexpectedly, especially for Austria with its rigorous working hours regime, we transformed ourselves to night owls. Remember the little group of people we bumped in upon arrival? Well, we started our Bruderschaft rounds of drinks in the Grand Hotel’s bar, then we walked the deserted streets to Cafe Hawelka for Buchteln and were glad to have had a chance to get the last 8. It was a night of fun and laughter! Great company!
On our way back to the hotel we finished off a plate of wurst at Bitzinger’s kiosk just for the sake of it. It was something we always wanted to do.
Soon, the bricks and mortar of Florence were replaced by gentle hills of rural southern Tuscany. The weather, the food, the wine, the mood – everything mixed and moulded into perfect getaway.
People were picking olives on sunny slopes of olive groves with nets carefully laid under the trees. Every frantoio we passed was busy, the tractors parked at the entrance waiting to unload the crates of precious fruit. Continue reading “Tuscany Revisited, Autumn Continues”
Early on Saturday morning we left for Florence for a short break. We were eagerly anticipating that trip for we didn’t stop in Florence this last summer en route further south for the summer holiday. We thought we better leave it out so we have a relevant reason to return to Tuscany again later in the year. Not that one actually needs a relevant reason; there are plenty more or less simple and basic ones. Delightfully, we stuck to that plan.
Florence is a magnificent city as anyone who ever visited will tell you. I haven’t met a soul who’d complain about it or think ill about it (although the hordes of tourists are in fact quite overwhelming and at times very much suffocating).
Anyone heading to Florence (or further south) from the east please note that the new route between Bologna and Florence is now finally open (we gladly found that out back in July already), so a traveller can choose between Panoramica (the pre-existent motorway) and Direttissima (new and faster way, lots of tunnels). The two meet at the top of the hills near Barberino di Mugello. This part of the way between Bologna and Florence used to be the most tiresome because the lanes were dramatically narrow for all the heavy traffic (trucks! trucks!), continuing ups and downs and endless curves. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll be jammed only for a (relatively) short period of time (of course the never-ending road works are on-going) before descending downhill to Florence.
Which reminds me of my childhood, when driving in our parents’ car towards the Adriatic coast for the summer holiday my brother and I competed impatiently who was going to be the first to glimpse the sea. Cheerful exclamations of “The sea! The sea!” were the proof the holiday had commenced. Even now, as a grown-up, when approaching that last curve before the descent, I usually feel the excitement of a child: the sea is still a vast blue breadth holding a promise of good times and jolly. This same captivating feeling upon descent down the Apennines onto the plain where Florence spreads out all elegant and classy moves me dearly, and the restless eye looks out for the tremendous cupola of the Duomo. The child in me shyly exclaims “Duomo! Duomo!” thus confirming the good time is here.
We had the best possible time in Tuscany this autumn. Two days in Florence and two in the country. The four days were sunny and warm (no socks! short sleeves! sunglasses!) and we could enjoy the impressive colours and fruits of autumn without limits.
The flavours of autumn were persistent too: marroni (glazed and roasted), freshly pressed olive oil, ribollita on day one, trippa alla fiorentina on the last. And many other delicious meals in-between.
Despite the leading motifs of autumn and the cool nights, we simply couldn’t skip the best Florentine ice cream. We walked to Carabe after dinner (every additional trip up Via Ricasoli makes the walk seem shorter) and I (of course) had a cup of Sicilian agrumi and crema. So good! As I remarked to the master how delicious his ice cream is every time we have it (for we have been returning customers for years now), he smiled and humbly said it was the quality of the ingredients that made the end product reliably superb.
Two days are scarcely enough to explore Florence if one is to do it justice. But to take it all in it’s enough to submerse into its elegant streets, turning the head more often upwards at the marvellous Tuscan facades and peeking past the ajar doors into craftsmen’s workshops or brick paved courtyards with cisterns. Notice the Duomo looming large above and behind the narrow streets. Carelessly sip the coffee or Negroni which is what Bellini is for Venice. Watch the people and scan the exquisite shops.
See some of the obvious sights en route: Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, Davide, Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella – there is more art, beauty and history than you can imagine. Breathtaking.
Shop for fantastic designer goods (many of the great Italian designers originate in Florence) or for refined Florentine prints in countless tiny shops or for medicinal herbal tonics and fragrant soap.
By all means, plan to return. Florence like Venice is pure magic.
Our favourite eatery in Florence is Sostanza in Via del Porcellana but it’s open weekdays only. So we chose this one instead and it was very good. EDIT: We ate at Trattoria Sostanza again in summer 2018. It was delicious as ever.
Ai Weiwei exhibition in Pallazzo Strozzi till January 2017
Ignore the silly fashion industry photos lining the walls if you please but do take your coffee at Caffe Giacosa because it really is excellent. The interior itself has been painstakingly renovated so it retains the same old school charm – a must-see – and the service is attentive. Alternatively, Gilli is another Florentine institution (for more info in Italian only see Italian wikipedia).
A few weeks ago saw a launch of a much anticipated TV series on the Medicis, the most famous of Florentine dynasties. As it turns out, it’s so far been aired in Italy only but pay attention to when it comes to your country. According to the frenzy it seems to be a good one.
It’s fascinating to be European. With so many tribes and rulers and nations and states interchanging, mixing, succeeding one another, one is sure to not know the whole history of one’s own let alone the one of the others. The history of Gorizia and Nova Gorica, two neighbouring towns, one in Italy and the other in Slovenia, is figuratively and actually an interesting one. Both have been relatively unknown beyond their geographic region but this might be changing soon. Enter France.
My first time ever to visit both towns purposefully was last June. True, I happened to pass them by many times before especially on our way to Collio and Goriška Brda. I was told that both of the towns are fairly uninteresting so I never really felt like I was missing much by not seeing yet another Austria-Hungarian merchant town and yet another bleak communist settlement.
The region surrounding them (on both sides of the Italian-Slovenian border) on the other hand is well known among wine connoisseurs. The soil and climate conditions and hard-working people give some spectacular wines that can be found in restaurants’ wine lists worldwide. And where there’s good wine there’s good food, right?
Plenty good options for either lunch or dinner around here. The countryside is wonderful for a daytrip alone: meandering roads, manicured hilly vineyards, many lovely villages, a castle or two (Spessa, Dobrovo), lots of wineries, different options of bicycle tours or horse riding (La Subida), or just plain good old lunching time in the country.
The two towns are rather dull but Gorizia’s charms are good food (it’s Italy after all), rose lined corsi (and come spring every other house’s wall is transformed into curtain of jasmine so the wonderful perfume follows you around like a faithful dog) and some grand palazzi. Nova Gorica (meaning New Gorizia) as an alternative is a town of no big secrets lest the last resting place of the penultimate king of France.
The Franciscan monastery Kostanjevica on the hill above Nova Gorica is a lovely spot. Tranquility and serenity are at home there and the views especially are nice. It’s where locals come for some peace and quiet. The summer’s day at the end of June was hot, the light was harsh, the colours stark. The man showed us in and accompanied us to the crypt where the tombs are. He was very busy so we were offered to do a little tour on our own which was marvellous. The whole place was solely at our own disposal.
The last (Bourbon) King of France (next one (and truly the last one) cleverly denoted himself as the King of the French) Charles X is buried here along his entourage. Don’t know why this fantastic information was kept from us growing up under Yugoslavian communist rule. It wasn’t because the king had to flee France as a result of the revolution. Communists praised the revolution. Possibly the venue was not to be promoted since religion was a no-no. As I said, I don’t know. I’ve known about the Bourbon tomb in Slovenia only for a few years now which is a disgrace but ever since I found out I’d wanted to go and see.
The monastery also houses the perfect (and second largest in Europe) collection of Bourbon (surprise!) roses within its walled garden. We’ll return next May when it’s in full bloom. It is another thing I long to see.
As for the French, suddenly they want him back. Apparently, he’s the only king buried outside France. R.I.P.
When we decided to visit Southern Dalmatia a couple of weekends ago we expected it to mean a prolonged summer break. As it turned out, the weather wasn’t quite as fabulous as we’d hoped for. It was a good thing we didn’t need it to be A+ for what we were after: some good fish-based meals, the lovely plavac (a.k.a. zinfandel’s child) and a leisurely rediscovering of the area. A simple break from the norm.
(Almost) Everything was just as we remembered from our last stay some five or so years ago. The scenery is mostly unchanged which is great, the sea is very much blue and the beaches almost deserted. Low season indeed.
Despite its misleading shape and form Peljesac is in fact a peninsula, which means it’s accessible by road. This is a helpful bit of information if one plans a short break as it means no waiting in lines for dull, somewhat expensive and long(ish) ferry rides. Its landscape is also beautifully rough, very much karst and Dalmatian and it’s dotted with cosy little villages and towns. No resorts here.
A definite must-visit on the peninsula are the lovely little coastal towns of Mali Ston and Ston each located on the opposite shores of the peninsula and connected with ancient fortified walls running up and down along the slopes that divide the two towns. For the fit and ready there’s the annual wall marathon where the walls are actually a running field. The experience (not to mention incredible views) must be unforgettable.
Turn left at the crossing were Peljesac meets the mainland and you’re headed in the direction of Bosnia (its coast is only about 20 kilometres long) and further up to the northern part of Croatian coast. Turn right and you’re less than an hour drive to Dubrovnik, the gem town of ancient age and glorious history. So, there’s plenty of day-trip options in all directions.
The views from the road on the way to Dubrovnik reminded me a bit of Amalfi coast. This also is a land where lemons grow (and pomegranates and quinces and the lot). Along the way one can stop by the road and enjoy the views over the sea to the near-by islands like Mljet or Lopud. The traveller should by all means make a stop at Trsteno, a village perched on both sides of the main road. There are several reasons for that. The locals are proud of their 16th century plane trees that are possibly the largest in Europe. What’s not to miss is the arboretum. It’s the only Mediterranean garden of its kind along the Croatian coast, which is quite surprising considering its length.
Its villa (regretfully in a poor shape) and the pavilion have the most fantastic location: amidst the lush greenery and with unbeatable views over the Adriatic. There are many pleasant alcoves in the garden where you can rest and enjoy the peace and quiet or the songbird or the sounds of the wind caught high up in slender palm trees. Or you can meander around its cultivated terraces. There’s also a gorgeous baroque Neptune fountain with its own private aqueduct built to supply it with water.
When we were there there was a stall, well, it was more a folding table, outside the entrance where a grey-haired man was selling homemade delicacies: jams, liqueurs, dried fruit and herbs. During our brief encounter we learned about his strict wife forbidding him to offer the customers tastings but he nevertheless insisted we try the refreshing arancini (so good!), the tenderest dried figs I’ve ever eaten and the various kinds of liqueurs. We left with a bag full of good stuff, the most medicinal being the sage liqueur. Quite exquisite.
Which reminds me: it’s the fig season! Or rather, it is still the fig season. The fantastic smell winding magically around the fig trees and from behind stonewalls in the coastal regions of Mediterranean has compressed into sensual fruit. Grab it while you still can.
I think fondly of those happy moments, lacing our summer trips, when we notice we pass a fig tree only after its head-swirling perfume fills our noses. For me, it represents hot syrupy days under scorching sun, quasi fresh early mornings of bright yellow, smells of macchia and distant sea, stains of red soil on the white rocks, and all the nuances of a clear, never-ending sky.
When you have a bunch of figs, small or not so small, violet or green, that are sadly not as sweet and tasty as you’d want them to be, despair not. Make the best of them by roasting them.
It’s a simple and delicious dessert (or a sweetspoon if you happen to eat it directly out of the roasting dish). This is how I make it:
– Preheat the oven to 200°C
– Cut the figs in half from top to bottom
– Place on a roasting dish cut side up
– Add 1-2 dcl of red wine depending on the size of the dish
– Add some freshly grated ginger
– Add lemon zest strips
– Add ground coriander or cardamom
– Add a little bit of brown sugar or (even better) a drizzle of honey (make sure all of the spices reach the wine as well not only the fruit)
– Squeeze half a lemon over everything
– Roast for 30 minutes.
I like to eat them when they’re still warm but they are very good when cool as well. Summer in the bowl.
Did we make it to Dubrovnik? Certainly, for the umpteenth time. How was it? If you haven’t been go. If you’d seen it before, keep the happy memories and go some place else. I believe there are other beautiful places to discover. This one’s gotten too polished and superficial. It’s cat friendly though.
Kinookus – very interesting film festival in Ston on food production accompanied by Cinelokus, an organic food open-air market
Grgić winery, Trstenik, Pelješac The Napa Valley wine-maker’s estate in Croatia
Restaurant Orsan, Dubrovnik A proper Dalmatian restaurant, real food, good service, away from the crowds
Whenever I flip through the photographs I took, a warm feeling comes over me. Mostly, I remember the mood not only of the place but the one I was in at that moment.
Different occasions provoke different responses: these days it is a regretful sense that the holiday season is over. I know, I know, the whole world is back to work again (myself included) so stop moaning and groaning, right? Right. Let me take you on a trip to Lecce then, as promised. This way please.
There was this store we were passing every day for it was just around the corner of the garage where we parked. Its shelves were full of wine and champagne bottles and other liquor from all over the world. The loaded pallets were stacked outside on the pavement in front of the store waiting for lorries and vans to collect them. On our second evening in Lecce we decided to stop by and ask if one or two bottles can be bought since it gave the impression more of a wholesale. Well, we could’ve bought the entire pallet had we known how good the wine was going to be and spent the holiday happily surrounded by emptying bottles. We’d end up lying under the table soon enough though because the Apulian reds are intoxicatingly strong. So, instead of doing that we healthily opted for two bottles to drink on our terraces (yes, we had four at our disposal) before going out or after we’d return or for no reason at all – just to enjoy them. Not only did the signore serving us suggest two lovely wines, Primitivo di Manduria and Negroamaro, when asked he would happily recommend a place for dinner.
“Fish?” he asked. Upon our confirmation he stepped outside and we obligingly followed because, well, of course, you have to be outdoors to give directions properly, and murmuring to himself and counting using his fingers directed us, verbally and manually alla italiana: “Seconda left, porta grande, prima right, corner e li ristorante Blu notte.”
To be honest, the restaurant didn’t look very convincing upon our inspection (it resembled a regular tourist trap). But we were shown the day’s fish and decided to dine. The restaurant filled up completely by nine (mostly locals; lady from the kitchen came out to greet them that’s how we knew) and was bursting with muted voices of diners’ satisfaction. It was soooo good. I’d like to say that it was then and there I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto of my life but I’d be lying. I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto a few days later when we chose Blu Notte to be the venue of our last Apulian dinner. There may be better ones but haven’t been discovered yet.
No surprise then that the next evening when we were passing the wine store I asked: “Another place?” Signore was genuinely happy and gleamed with pride when he heard we liked his previous recommendation. This time the directions were in higher numbers but nevertheless quite straightforward: “Quattro left, sette, no, otto right, venti metri, right: Degli spiriti.”
There, we entered the oasis of calm and elegance that this restaurant is. It was exactly what we needed after the hustle and bustle of the whole day around town. The food was to die for. The antipasto of melanzane was too good to be true as were the orecchiette with clams and chickpeas – what a wonderful combination. Mind you, the dish was filled with full halves of the clams only – where else do you get that?
The wine we had was superb as was the passito that rounded off the meal nicely. We returned to the apartment hypnotised by the deliciousness of it all.
By all means, there’s more to Lecce than food and wine. There had been the Messapians, the Greek, the Romans, the Normans, and the Ottomans. The rich mixture of cultures and their clashes caused the town to have developed a distinctive charm. There are countless impressive churches, terrific villas, monuments of astounding proportions, colourful roof tiling, extravagant baroque facades that blow your mind, not one but two Roman theatres, infinite number of ornate balconies with bearded plants hanging over them, huge pedestrian area for passeggiata and numerous picturesque streets of the golden centro storico. Proximity to the coast adds appeal and the climate is fantastic. I’ve said it before, Lecce is overwhelming. Breathtaking. Astonishing.
We were very lucky to have had selected a fantastic accommodation and I highly recommend a rooftop place to stay: the views over town’s landmarks, terraces, flat roofs, aerials and church bells are unforgettable. Plus, the gentle movements of the evening air are priceless in the summer heat because the only place to feel the gentle breeze is on top.
Last but not least, beginning another new day with a delicious breakfast under the shade surrounded by blue skies and lush Med greenery is a rare luxury several floors above the dried up stone pavements.
As for the signore from the wine store, we never met him again although we passed the store almost every evening, carrying our helmets at the near ending of yet another joyful day. I regret we couldn’t fire the sparks in his eyes with praise of his recommendations again.
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.
Oh boy, what a holiday! It’s pretty obvious I was smitten with Apulia from day one. It’s very well possible that it was one of our best travels ever.
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.
Inland, tranquillity of olive groves continues.
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: