Thursday, August 4, 2011

Italia Part One

So we left France in the midst of an unpredictable summer for the sunnier southern climes of Italy. It's amazing how quickly the pretty French Riviera coast give way to the industrial parks and greenhouse clad hills of the northern Italian coast but it isn't long before the distinctly industrial landscape turns into the prettier Ligurian coast, home of Santa Margarita, Sestri Levante and Cinque Terre. Then it was into Tuscany past Florence, Chianti and Orvieto through Umbria and into Lazio.

This might be a generalisation but Italian drivers seem to have a death wish, driving two metres behind your bumper at 130 kph weaving, lights flashing, overtaking on the inside, cutting in and virtually slicing the side of the nearside bumper as they jump in, which brings out the worst in any normally quite sane driver....

We approached the toll after nine hours on motorways expecting to pay a large wedge of euros but miraculously the barrier was inexplicably up so we sailed through without paying a dime! Happy days!

After two rainstorms, 40 degrees of heat and two terrible service station stops, we reached Formia, between Rome and Naples, at teatime. Bufala mozzarella is the speciality of the region with tiny farm shops on the side of the road selling only that...a little local farmer sold me four huge hunks for 8 euros and threw in a small one to taste which was divine.

We went to a fab little trattoria il Gatto e la Volpe for supper, where we tucked into octopus and potatoes, fritto polipi, pasta with swordfish and olives, gnocchi with clams, pasta fagioli with mussels and good old grilled chicken with peppers. Along with a bottle of prosecco and dessert, the bill came to a very un-Riviera total of 93 euros.

After breakfast and a swim at the hotel, (thank you Trip Advisor, 2/2 so far) the journey continued. Cutting across country from Naples to Bari, you drive through lush dramatic mountain ranges which resemble Hawaii more than southern Italy.

As well as being one of the poorest areas of Italy, Puglia is also conversely one of the most gastronomic regions, with basic ingredients being given a twist to make them more palatable and interesting by the great mamma cucinas. So at Trattoria Piazza Plebiscito, we enjoyed antipasti with tempura aubergines, griddled courgettes with mint, mashed fava beans with spinach, local tiny mozzarella knots, mussels with peppers and tomato, the list goes on and on...

Norma has been unable to order a glass of Prosecco since arrival. She usually asks for a glass of proscuitto or a glass of bruschetta, as long as it has three syllables and ends in a vowel it passes for a glass of Italian bubbly. As she says, there is no end to her language talents.

The stone house we rented is just phenomenal...comfortable, uber-stylish and well equipped. We have a daily routine of finishing on the cabanas by the pool, pictured above, with a bottle of Prosecco every evening in the sunshine. That photo is the reason we booked the house, it ticks the cool contemporary vibe while being surrounded by five acres of olive groves, giving us all the privacy any hermit could possibly desire.

On our second night here, we were greeted by Francesco walking up the drive with some friends. He grew up here and what he doesn't know about our village Ceglie Messapica and Puglia in general isn't worth knowing. He wanted to show his friends the grotto in the garden, which goes 52 metres deep and was a hide-out for persecuted Byzantine monks in the 7th Century. There is a fresco of Christ as well as the local saint San Michele on the walls.

The Norm and I have been running every other day. It's very hot, 36 degrees is not unusual, so we have to go by 8am and now she has set this amazing TRX gym equipment thing in the garden which uses your own body as resistance. It's very clever and a bit like boot camp so not quite what I had planned for my hols but my body will be a temple by the time I leave!

Puglia is everything we hoped for and more...the people are so friendly and hospitable I'm even picking up a bit of Italian much to the girls horror! Today I booked a restaurant table for tonight without lapsing into French, English or double dutch much to Tony and handyman's amusement but they soon shut up when I told them they can take it in turns to book in future.

We have adopted a kitten called Bella, she eats swordfish, scambled eggs, smoked salmon and every other leftover every morning and loves us. In fact, she is my Oscar substitute.

So far we have visited Martina Franca, a beautiful baroque town nearby which is worth coming to Puglia on its own, Lecce, known as the Florence of the south, Ostuni (in last week's Grazia as the cool hang out and yes it lives up to the hype although it's a little touristy too), Gallipoli, a bit disappointing and good old Ceglie, which is the gastro heart of the region. With that in mind, we have bribed the teens with fish finger burgers and pesto pasta salad to stay home and have a movie night while we sample the local Michelin starred Cibus, one of the most celebrated restaurants of the region. Hello bacchanalian feast, goodbye waistline.....