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Olives and Grapes: Traveling along Italy’s East Coast

A trip through Italy's east coast, where the most delicious olives and grapes in the world come to life, where a country shines its beauty.

Lime grove, Puglia

Our travels this summer and early fall took us from the north to the south of Italy. Up and down the whole of the country, the landscape abounds with olives and grapes. Different varieties, different growing methods, with Emilia Romagna's abundant fruit in the middle, it binds the country.

With over four months spent in Italy this late summer and fall, we’ve had more time to travel.  Our daughter spent her semester abroad in Scotland, giving us the opportunity to take a six-day jaunt through the Highlands before settling her into her apartment.  When we returned to Italy, our flight landed in Bologna, we retrieved our car, and drove north to Treviso in the Veneto.  Our first time in the North, except for Venice, it really is different.  People are better dressed, seem more purposeful, restaurants have more interesting menus, the bars are more chic.

We selected Treviso because my husband Jesse was purchasing a new guitar from a young and talented luthier located in Spressiano.  Treviso is just 20 minutes south and a lovely town.  Canals, well-manicured parks, many neighborhood squares, good restaurants, a really homey bar for our morning cappuccino.  We stayed in one of the two well-appointed rooms at Palazzina 300, with casement windows opening out onto the main square, buzzing with residents young and old until midnight.  We were in Treviso for only one night, so we were unable to take part, but based on all the signs that we saw, there was lots going on culturally– music, theatre, art.

Main square, Treviso

Not to mention the Palladian villas scattered all around the Veneto near to Treviso.  It would be well worth a few days’ stay to visit all of these magnificent villas built for Venice’s upper crust by the fashionable architect of the day, Andrea Palladio.  (That day, by the way, being the mid-1500’s.)  A genius at neo-classicism, the villas exude balance, symmetry, tranquility and harmony, even as their intricate details evoke luxury and precision.  There are some 20 villas in the Veneto region, and the city of Vicenza boasts many Palladian buildings.  We had time to see only Villa Emo, which was beautiful and simple, with many frescoes inside and on the external main portico.  Best buy in the gift shop– the coloring book with outlines of the interior frescoes, complete with a colored pencil set.

Portico, Villa Emo

Our next trip the first week in October took us south to Salento (the heel of the Italian boot) in search of extended summer and more beach weather.  Taking suggestions from Italian friends, our first stop was Polignano a Mare, known for stony cove beaches, the most romantic restaurant on Earth (a bit too rich for our taste), and crystal clear water.  We arrived on a Sunday evening and town was packed.  The center was closed to traffic, as were surrounding streets, so we left our car just outside the pedestrian zone and walked the half-kilometer to our hotel.  The whole town is vertical– built into cliffs, and the centro storico has many lookout points with stunning views of the Adriatic.  Our hotel, Dimora Santo Stefano, had a small attractive room, and stairways not for the fainthearted!  An excellent breakfast was served atop the roof garden with views of the sea and surrounding buildings.

After a walk along the seawall, we ventured to the pebbly beach of Lama Monachile.  It’s famous for its arched bridge, and diving competitions from the overhead cliffs.  It is a tiny cove with exquisite clear water and when a burst of sunshine emerged, it was warm enough for swimming.  Beautiful experience!  We really enjoyed the beach, but after a few hours of mid-day sun senza ombrelloni, thought it best to move on.

We headed back to our car to drop off the beach towels, and weren’t we surprised to find that our car had been broken into, and rolled down the hill in an attempt to start it.  All the electronic systems under and around the steering wheel had been pulled out and disconnected, the ignition keyhole was hanging by a wire off the steering column and the passenger door was dented where it had been pried open.  A kindly bystander insisted on driving us to the carabinieri… (“No, no,” we said, “It’s lunchtime.”  His wife came outside and ordered us in no uncertain terms, “You go with my husband.  Lunch isn’t ready yet.”  We filed our denuncia with the police officer, called the car leasing company, and within 90 minutes, the car had been towed to a dealership in nearby Monopoli.  Every local to whom we told this story swore the clumsy perpetrators were not from Polignano– without a doubt, they were from Bari!

Puglia lock up

The next day, in our new rental car, we headed southwest to Gallipoli on the Ionian coast.  The landscape was extremely barren.  Few buildings along the highway, and those we saw were either ruined or abandoned.  We noticed in this part of Puglia a different way of growing grapes.  The wire structure supporting the vines, rather than running horizontally between concrete posts as in Marche, formed a grid atop the posts bridging the rows– the leaves forming a canopy from which the grape clusters were hanging.  Interesting.  The olive trees too were amazing and different– they were huge, ancient, solid, lumbering like elephants, with thick twisting trunks and swirling branches.  A sight to behold.  Many trees were thriving, but many were dry and bare due to a fly-borne bacterium that is confounding scientists.  The Guardian describes it much better than I can, here, where we see again, the prominence of olives and grapes.

But what a contrast, the emptiness around Gallipoli compared to the bustling sophistication of Treviso.  The masseria where we stayed, Li Foggi, was simple, tasteful and luxurious.  (A masseria, by the way, is a country house or estate in the Puglia region where the land barons once held forth.  Many have now been converted into lodging for tourists.)  There were beautiful beaches nearby and surprisingly historically significant towns, but the roads leading to these attractions were empty of stores, people and houses– the few discernible estates fortified behind impenetrable walls of stone and trees.  When I went for a walk around the property, I encountered only angry dogs and the Vivaio Li Foggi which, according to the masseria concierge, was a quite old and established plant nursery which had been providing uninfected new plants to olive growers plagued by this invasive bacteria.

This same lovely concierge understood right away the kind of people we are and sent us to fantastic restaurants.  The first, in the town of Taviano and called Mezzo Gaudio, was located in an old garage.  Plank wooden tables, two inches of water beneath the wooden floor when the rainy evening produced a flash downpour, dogs, cats, chipped plates, bikes and two guys who really like to cook.  The menu changes daily and we feasted on ricotta drenched pasta, roasted pork, broccoli rabe and tiramisu in little tulip cookie cups.  Inspired cuisine!  On the second night she directed us to the town of Ruffano in the middle of nowhere, to Farmacia dei Sani, an old pharmacy converted to a first class restaurant by the daughter of the family/owners.  The brother who manages the floor, serves, and runs the bar, appears big and gruff, but thanks you “from his heart” when you make a reservation, and calls all the women who cross his path “Stellina,” or Little Star.  The food here too was really interesting– fresh, local, thoughtfully prepared.

We visited the town of Gallipoli one cloudy morning and found it, like many Italian tourist towns, a stream of foreigners flowing past endless shops with “authentic” souvenirs.  Barely worth a visit.  But when the sun came out, we spent one and a half days on a beach called Punta della Suina, or Pig Point.  Smooth, clear water that never got deep, sandy beach, interesting trees leading to the beach, great tiki bar with delicious whole grain panzanella bowls for lunch.  Happily, we got in our swimming/beach time despite all the aggravation with the car.

On our last night near Gallipoli, we found the town of Nardo, recommended by my friend Saranella.  Wow.  Again, there was nothing around it, but here emerged a bustling, thriving town with entirely modern outskirts and a centro storico overflowing with the most spectacular baroque masterpieces.  Many Baroque buildings and arches can be found throughout the town, but the main piazza was breathtaking with its open panorama, four-story tower, church and municipio or town hall.  The restaurant we found was unremarkable, but the aperitivo in that main square was unforgettable.

Torre the dog, at Masseria Torre di Nebbia

The next day we headed north with the goal of stopping in Andria, where my dearest friend’s relatives hail from, and seeing nearby Castel del Monte.  We didn’t spend enough time in Andria after finally finding a place for lunch (superb bruschetta), but there are many interesting churches and quartieri there.  Castel del Monte was a hunting lodge built by Frederic II.  Solid, imposing like Mordor, geometrically complex with its octagonal shape and round towers at each of the eight corners, and a legendary owner– Frederic II is said to have ruled Christians, Jews and Muslims in relative peace– it is definitely an attraction to see.

Torre di Nebbia, the masseria where we stayed that night was a fabulous wedding venue with a huge outdoor patio and an attractive dining hall for at least 100 guests.  There were only five rooms– all in a row beneath the arches of what was once a big barn on this almond-growing estate.  As the first to arrive that evening, we got the biggest room.  It was spacious and well-appointed, but so over-designed, it was kind of comical.  The closet was hanging from the side wall– I certainly couldn’t reach it.  The lights were moody and inadequate for reading or putting on makeup.  There was a big Jacuzzi tub but the connector to the shower hose was broken.  There was a big, weird white plastic module that dominated the room, holding the TV, and just one uncomfortable schoolhouse chair to sit in.  Despite its oddities, the people here were nice, the food was excellent, they had great dogs and the property commanded an expansive view that must be typical of Puglian farmland– broad, flat, richly colored with sky, vineyards, textured land and Castel del Monte looming in the distance.  When I walked down to the almond orchards in the morning, one of the friendly dogs accompanied me as my appetite rekindled for coffee and cornetti.

We’d had a really good wine that night and the masseria’s owners directed us to the nearby cantina where it was made.  We bought six bottles of Pezzalaruca for four euros each, plus 3 liters of the most amazing oil– Pugliese oil is strong, pungent, spicy and awe-inducing.  Those wise, ancient trees really know what they’re doing.   It was market day in this town of Corato, and while we were stuck in market traffic, I jumped out of the car where a guy was selling vegetables from his truck.  For five euros I got an armload of cime di rape (or broccoli rabe), a kilo of string beans, a cestino (or little drawer) of cherry tomatoes and half a dozen pears.  Happy to be back in my kitchen, we feasted that night on cheap, delicious, home-cooked food, like only Italy, and I guess Puglia, can produce.

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