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.
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:
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.
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.
Anyway, as many as there are similarities each little town has its own character.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At some point, a lavender field amidst the vineyards surprises an innocent passer-by.
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.
Have no fear, there’s some fantastic wine to be enjoyed.