We’ll Always Have Apulia

Photo of typical Apulian feast
There’s always food first in Apulia

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.

Apulia, Italy
An enormous olive tree by the road in Apulian inland

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.

Apulia, Italy
There’s a lot about olives in Apulia

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.

Apulia, Italy
Oleanders as big as houses lining the Apulian motorways

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.

Lecce, Apulia, Italy
An unforgettable view from our apartment’s window: St Matthew’s church in Lecce, Apulia

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.

A breathtaking view from our apartment’s terrace over early evening Lecce, Apulia
A breathtaking view from our apartment’s terrace over early evening Lecce, Apulia

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:

(serves 2)

– 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!

Lecce, Apulia, Italy
The magical terrace in Lecce

Do come back for more on our Apulian trip. This one post can’t do it all the justice.

UPDATE: my other post about our Apulian trip

and another one on Lecce

We need to talk about Istria, Croatia

A fantastic sunset colouring everything violet in Istria, Croatia
A fantastic sunset over Oprtalj

Oprtalj is a tiny hilltop town set in a countryside of lush Mediterranean forest, manicured vineyards and cultivated olive tree groves. In a word, it’s a land of infinite shades of green.

Manicured vineyards in Istria, Croatia
Manicured vineyards in front of Arman winery

Oprtalj is very similar to its neighbours Grožnjan or Motovun or Buje yet at the same time very much different. They’re all filled with charming stone houses and cottages, some derelict some wonderfully renovated, and all offer breathtaking views across the valleys to the Adriatic or inland.

A view towards the Adriatic from the terrace in Grožnjan, Istria
A view towards the Adriatic from the terrace in Grožnjan, Istria

Anyway, as many as there are similarities each little town has its own character.

One of many tiny courtyards in Grožnjan, Istria
One of many tiny courtyards in Grožnjan, Istria

Grožnjan exudes everything art, for instance. There are plenty of galleries and artists’ studios (some of them even work outdoors). There’s this gorgeous terrace acting as a main square with beautiful view, where excellent coffee is served along with homemade pies. At the entrance to the old town some local farmers sell their produce on the improvised tables under the safe shade of a huge tree.

Mediterranean smells abound in Grožnjan, Istria, Croatia
Mediterranean smells abound in Grožnjan, Istria

There’s a spectacular deserted graveyard behind St Martin’s church in Buje that’s filled with grave stones scattered all around a terraced lawn. Old gravestones carry all kinds of personal information about the deceased which might not mean much to today’s Facebook generations used to everything being published anyway.

Door leading onto deserted graveyard at St Martin’s church in Buje, Istria
Door leading onto deserted graveyard at St Martin’s church in Buje, Istria

There’s a last resting place of one lady from Umag, a woman of force, donna di forza, who left behind a devastated husband, had given all her heart into educating their three sons who all grew up to be prudent, and dedicated her life to taking care the poor recognized the power of Christ. Among other things. On some gravestones even crusaders’ symbols can be seen.

A stupendous but derelict graveyard monument in Buje, Istria
A stupendous but derelict graveyard monument in Buje, Istria

The sign on the town main square’s tower implies the sleepy town of Buje is not so sleepy all the time. The school is one of the buildings lining the square on the hilltop. The tower bears the plaque of Venetian lion since the town had been a part of Benetian Republic for several centuries. The Baroque church next to it was built on the sight of a Roman temple.

Football not allowed in main square of Buje, Istria
Football not allowed in main square of Buje, Istria

At some point, a lavender field amidst the vineyards surprises an innocent passer-by.

Lavender field amidst the hills of Istria
Lavender field amidst the hills of Istria

And then, when exhausted after all those steep hills and rocky lanes, a plate full of this fragrant dish might feel like a cherry on top of a much deserved cake.

Lunch of truffles over pasta in Livade, Istria
Lunch of truffles over pasta in Livade, Istria

Have no fear, there’s some fantastic wine to be enjoyed.

A box of wine by Franc Arman winery, Istria, Croatia

At the back of the Oprtalj village in Istria the view stretches over the endless green
At the back of the Oprtalj village the view stretches over the endless green

Istria NW map with some points of interest (added August 17, 2016)

Small Potatoes

There’s more to taking a day off than you might imagine when you apply for it at work. Trust me, I speak from experience.

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The last time I took a day off to have some peace and quiet at home our bedroom got (nearly) flooded. There we were in the small hours of a Friday morning watching the water pouring in through the ceiling. Don’t ask. The day was spent on waiting for the repairmen and cleaning the mess up. All’s well that ends well, right?

After a couple of weeks, we both took a day off and arranged to visit some friends who were vacationing on Krk, Croatia. The motorbike was fresh out from the service, the weather forecast was fantastic, no worries at all. Off we went. To cut the long story short: the brake problem caused us touring four countries including Slovenia, Austria, Italy and finally Croatia. In a day. Don’t ask. A serious rehearsal before taking the summer holiday.

Maybe this is the universe communicating we’re not meant to take days off. I don’t know.

One version of a simple potato salad - the addition of capers and kalamata olives makes all the difference

One version of a simple potato salad – the addition of tiny capers and olives makes all the difference

Cruising around the beautiful landscapes that day made me long for potatoes. The neat fields we were passing were full of flowering potato plants and green beans climbing up the poles next to them. I love potatoes prepared in almost every possible way but my firm favourites are:

  • mashed potatoes (irresistible when lots of butter and a spoonful or two of sour cream alongside the milk are mashed within)
  • potatoes braised in a roemertopf together with some carrots and a piece of meat (veal for instance)
  • French Fries (especially the Californian ones – the slim cuts).

So, while we waited at the bar adjoining the repair shop I found these two mouth watering (so summer) recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi: Green beans with peanuts and lime and Braised new potatoes with broad beans and pink peppercorns. To join the two vegetables … so good … yum.

Yes, it totally felt like a potato day.

 

Cycling in Nockberge, Austria or What a Difference a Week Makes

It’s been a bit more than a week since our trip to Istria but we’ve managed to change the scenery completely the last weekend. We ended up in the warm embrace of the Austrian Alps.

It was unseasonably hot throughout the last week (thanks God, we needed it) and even in the Alps it was fantasticly warm.

We went on a cycling trip, this year’s first, and it was wonderful. Although, were I asked the next day, I’d have some other words rolling off of my tongue as I could feel very well the difficulties and aches of sitting down.

A view over the mountains and pasture in Nockberge region in Austria

The Nockberge region is obviously meant to be known for sweeping curvy roads and painfully steep ascents. It is also a home to delicious meat, especially beef, and the Zirbe trees. The essential oils of their wood exude characteristic smell that is famed for its (scientifically proven, no less) health benefits, above all improving one’s sleep. Last but not least, there’s also the intoxicating brandy made with Zirbe cones to be tried.

The houses that we passed are proverbially well taken care of. The Austrians, like their neighbours the Germans and the Swiss, take caring for their property very seriously indeed. The lawns are all manicured (I can happily report the modernisation has found its way to the remotest of valleys: we saw two lawns being mowed by a robot!) and blossoming plants of all colours and shapes are boxed onto balconies, decorating the terraces and the garden borders.

There was no one in sight, although the day was very fine. It seemed as if everybody had lunch indoors at the same time but once we reached Ebene Reichenau it was as clear as day: there was a Dorffest going on.

A village fest in Nockberge, Austria

The countryside is typically Alpine, of course. Lots of greenery and dense woodland. Lots of water too: many streams heading downhill in a bouncing rhythm over the rocks provided a noisy companion during our laborious progress upwards.

Refreshing sight of a sream rushing down Nockberge, Austria

We saw the busy bees on the way. Check the neatly piled stacks of wood behind the beehives: the winters are cold and long around here.

Everything is neat and tidy in Austria

We met some cows lazying in the grass …

Cow resting in the meadow in Nockberge, Austria

… and a horse now and then.

We reached our peak in good time.

A romantic view of a church atop Nockberge, Austria

Within 15 minutes, after we returned to the valley and rested over coffee before considering a late lunch, the clouds locked out the blue sky and it started to rain. Really good timing, I said.

Pizza treat in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria

Some Italians run a pizzeria by the main road in Bad Kleinkirchheim. I can’t remember when I ate the whole pizza all by myself. No leftovers this time.

The Weekend of Doing Nothing

I’ve finally warmed up this weekend. Up until Friday I was constantly cold partly because of the weather that stubornly refused to bring the warmth (at least this is a natural fact, something that can’t be controlled, so what the hack, right?) partly because of the office air-conditioning already turned on ignoring the actual outdoor conditions (simply bloody too much). So, a sunny and warm weekend at last delivered the long desired comfort.

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I enjoyed it very much. Contrary to everybody else who’ll be going on and on about what they’d been up to this weekend my reply to the eminent question of What did you do over the weekend? will be simply Nothing.

We drove to the Croatian coast for the weekend, true. Left the town pretty early on Friday, a rare indulgence, true again. We had a lovely late lunch of fresh fish on the way just on the edge of Karst. The nearer we got to the coast the warmer it was getting. The early evening was the colour of antique gold. We had a glass of amaro before we called it a night.

On Saturday we slept late, later than usual at least, and had coffee in bed. We drove to Umag, the nearest town, for breakfast …

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… and shopped at the local market. There are all kinds of vegetables and fruits in season right now, some of them our favourites: fresh cherries, crisp peas, sweetest carrots, young soft cabbage heads, fragrant strawberries, the not-yet-too-bitter radicchio verde, fantastic lettuce and whatnot. After that, we took a short stroll through the old town.

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We stocked up with a stack of magazines and newspapers at the newsagent’s and grabbed a fresh loaf of white bread at the baker’s. The one that we always crave for back home.

Then, we did some work around the house but nothing too exhausting. We enjoyed the sun and the warmth and the calmness of the day. We took a really long walk along the coast and admired the macchia and pine trees and the sweet up-coming smell of the summer.

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Before we turned in we had a glass of local pelinkovac, a remarkable wormwood liquor. One would assume we’re heavy on the alcohol but rest assured the quantities we had were purely medicinal.

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On Sunday, I went for a morning run and when I returned my man had already laid out a sumptuous breakfast. Afterwards, we read. And we read. We lounged in the sun and read. I podded the peas and then read some more. We were delighted by the birdsong and a tender breeze.

We cooked risotto primavera (simplified but nonetheless delicious) for late lunch and watched the tranquility pass us by.

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During our drive back home I watched the moon moving slowly over the sky of dying light. It was huge and deep yellow.

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Come to think of it it was no nothing at all.

Before & After

Whenever I have a couple of days off I take to flipping through outdated newspapers and magazines. I find it unfair to not consume the editions that I selected myself in the first place: unfair to authors and unfair towards the money spent on them. Doing so, I usually notice some things I missed before, or see them with a fresh pair of eyes.

You know, how there are places around the world that everyone longs to go to? Venice, New York, Paris, Rome, Cairo, Sydney to just name a few. The places that have grown for centuries and developed a certain type of attraction, a vibe in a modern language, but managed to keep and maintain the connection with their history, residents, visitors. Places where locals tend to be annoyed by hordes of tourists.

I come from a mid-sized Mittel Europa town and have never really understood the anti-tourist lament. I never believed it existed, actually. Mostly, I thought it more of a PR move. Until I started on purpose to try to sense my vacation destinations as if I lived there. It’s a whole new attitude, people. I recommend it highly. Not only does it make the travelling and staying in a foreign place more humble and modest (and therefore the richer in experience), perception of your hometown changes: you evaluate the pros and cons more self-confidently and you gain the understanding of that before mentioned lament. That not only exists but is true and by all means completely (mostly) justified.

As travellers the humans act as conquerors. As if the fact that we can afford to travel gives us the right to expect that everything must be done to serve us. I used to despise the fact that on a Sunday every shop in Vienna is closed. I thought them downright crazy to leave the thousands of strollers on died-out shopping arteries unattended. Recently, I started to appreciate that fact. Let them have their way, its on them to have it their way. It is I who should adapt.

So, when I spotted this:

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Paul Signac Maisons du Port, Saint Tropez, 1892; taken from Sotheby’s ad in FT Weekend 30 April/1 May 2016

I reached for my phone to find this:

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My iPhone shot of the place on 2 October 2011

What do you think? Did this place survive and earn the notorious reputation because of the tourists or in spite of them? What changed significantly is the density, quality and value of the moored fleet. The old town hasn’t changed that much, has it? I bet the locals lament over stupid tourists all the time.

Vienna Calling

There are many good reasons why visit Vienna. These two were a big draw for us this spring:

Two posters announcing great exhibitions in Albertina Gallery in Vienna

The grand imperial city, poetically located in a draught position between the East and the West, saluted us with grey skies and clear, cool air washed by spring rain that we, as it seemed, have just luckily avoided. Not that we cared, really, we came to have a good time. And were served accordingly.

Doors leading to Palmenhaus in Vienna

I dare you to open the door.

It was on one of our walks that I detected my first peonies this year, not really altogether there yet but showing great potential.

View of Burggarten in Vienna: first peonies in bloom

Our every trip gets latticed by food and Vienna has some lovely offerings, I can tell you that:

Delicious meal of tafelspitz in restaurant Plachutta in Vienna, Austria

I start craving the Tafelspitz as soon as we set the date for a Vienna trip. There’s something homely about it but very Austrian indeed: freshly made from local produce, very filling but definitely unskippable. I’d like my horseradish sauce more piquant but I don’t complain at all. I down four servings of delicious broth before you can say Jack Robinson. Then, the rest of the meal.

You’d have to be downright crazy to miss the wonderful Esterhazy cake or Milchrahmstrudel at Demel’s afterwards.

Cakes and coffee at Demel, Vienna

The quintessential coffee served the old-fashioned way (and the only proper way for that matter) at Meinl’s am Graben will spruce you up again.

Coffee break at Meinl am Graben in Vienna

Back to business, both exhibitions are just wonderful. Each of them gave me a light headache, in a good sense. The Russians’ works of art are clearly beautiful and powerful, the German’s clearly huge and impressive. The stories the art tells are universal: the past lurks from behind the present however much we try to pretend to ignore it, influences it heavily, always using the language of art as a vehicle to prod in our faces, and our intellect, to stimulate our brain and cast the light on the path we’re treading now. We’ve been here before, the humankind, we should know better.

 

Wonderful painted ceiling at Museumsquartier, Vienna

Since Vienna has always been artistically and culturally savvy there are many choices. It’s down to your tastes and wallet condition (highly acclaimed classical musicians and artist, that are the essence of Vienna, come at a price) and how far in advance you start to plan (Staatsoper and Musikverein events sell our quite fast). Anyway, there are always very good exhibitions, national (Klimt anyone? Schiele? Kokoschka?) or international, taking place in the many fabulous museums and galleries. The MuseumsQuartier is an example of how well art can be incorporated into city’s everyday. So, there are always many options to explore.

There’s obviously more to Vienna than this but, mind you, it’s only been a sleepover. We’ll be back soon enough.

 

More info (selected):

www.albertina.at

http://www.mqw.at/en/

https://www.plachutta.at/en/home/

www.demel.at

http://www.meinlamgraben.at/Home

www.wiener-staatsoper.at

https://www.musikverein.at

http://www.kameel.at/

PS

When planning a weekend in Vienna please consider that everything, and I mean everything, is closed on Sundays. The Austrians still have it the old way: they work up to 6 PM on Saturdays, after that it’s weekend for all. So, Saturday is for shopping and eating, Sunday for art and outdoors.

 

 

When Is the Best Time to Visit Venice?

Anytime. Really. Well, a proper downpour might not be the desired weather to accompany you but any other choice of weather is just fine. Just go.

One of numerous canals in Venice with parking slots for gondolas
One of numerous canals in Venice with parking slots for gondolas

I’ve been a faithful returning visitor for the best part of my life and I’ve never grown tired of it. Been there countless of times, on day trips, for a couple of days or just a night, summer, winter or spring, slept in desirable luxurious old school hotels by Grand Canal or in shabby pensioni at the end of a scary dark and damp calle, by train, bus or car, and it still overwhelms me every time. It must be the most magical place in the world. I’ve been quite lucky to have so many opportunities to see and feel La Serenissima, I know, and I am grateful for it. Every time another visit is planned I’m just as impatient to get there as a child promised a toy. Once there, it’s pure joy, content and tranquilita.

One of my favourite views during any careless stroll through Venice in Castello, one of the Venetian sestrieri
One of my favourite views during any careless stroll in Castello, one of the Venetian sestrieri

I can clearly remember my first time in Venice. There was an aunt in our extended family that was very dear to us all. She never married and had no family of her own, thus she was very fond of my brother and me, her favourite nephew’s offspring. She considered us two treasures: we were allowed more when we were in her care than at our grandparents’ (not to mention the parents), she was never restrictive, never resentful and always in a good mood despite innumerable broken glasses, vases and decorative lamps. She always had a great story up her sleeve to calm us down after rioting in her wonderful apartment. She would take me to cinema and buy me exquisite pieces of clothing. She took me to holidays on the beach every summer until I finished primary school where she let me harvest the mussels off the rocks on the beach and have them for dinner. Although appalled at the sight of slimy orangey flesh within the black shell, she did try one just to please me. Aunt Olga was a woman who was invited to dine in the most elegant Parisian restaurants, travelled the world, probably had a fair number of suitors yet kept her life simple, modest and devoted to us. When I was 9 or 10 she decided it was time I saw Venice. So we went.

Grand Canal of Venice in a timeless view from Accademia bridge
Grand Canal of Venice in a timeless view from Accademia bridge

It was summer and the sky was as blue as it gets, it was most likely packed with tourists, noisy and what not, but we had a marvellous time. Although I went to Venice a myriad of times after that it was with her that I had my one and only gondola ride. We had lunch in a restaurant overlooking a canal, the dining room lined with heavy velvet curtains in burgundy, the tables set with thick tablecloth so that no noise was produced when a glass was put on the table, very romantic and elegant. We saw all the basic sights, St Mark’s, Rialto, Campanile, Orologio, the pigeons. It was a beautiful trip.

So, don’t hesitate if contemplating a trip, don’t waste too much time on planning what to see and how to squeeze it all in, just go and feel it. Spend time on the walkways, look up to spot the wonderful altanas, enjoy glimpses of hidden courtyards behind rotten walls, breathe in the smelly, salty air and watch the way locals shop at greengrocers’ around the corner or have a glass of aperitivo before dinner. Just go.

A lonely wisteria adorning a calle in Venice

 

Pigeons are a longtime trademark of Venice

A winter fog over Piazza di San Marco and Il Campanille
A winter fog over Piazza di San Marco and Il Campanille

Jump!

I felt a last minute sensation the second I caught a glimpse of the almond tree in its final blossoming stage. At the same time I felt grateful for that occasion. It was rather late in the season, after all.

Blossoming almond tree

But the rewards on our trip to the coast were great nevertheless. There were blossoming peach trees galore and glorious magnolias of different shapes, colours and sizes aplenty. Wisterias have already woken up from their hibernation and proudly displayed their fat buds, which were just about to explode in fragrant bloom.

The day itself was as fresh as a daisy, bright and colourful just as the market day before Palm Sunday. A splash of colour all around.

A colourful market stall before Palm Sunday

The air was dense and heavy with sea salt, a little bit hazy but quite warm: neither coat needed nor the gloves.

Early spring mist over the sunset

The hedgerows and garden trees have already been trimmed, all ready for the Easter time show-off. The land work must have already started too although the fields even now, in the first days of spring, looked abandoned and cast-aside. I guess the soil needs more sun and its warmth to be ready for a serious makeover.

The birds were happy to perform for whoever wanted to listen, a brisk vivace at one moment and a joyful allegro at the next. It was a good day, breaking out of the ordinary for a while. Can’t wait for spring to jump out of the closet!

The tree top in early spring full of chirping birds