London (Saturday + Sunday)
After landing in London, we boarded the “Heathrow Express” to the city center. Halfway through the journey, the train stopped and we encountered an engineering works delay. Quite an ironic start to the journey. Mike fell asleep during the delay, only to get terrified by a train passing in the other direction and then exposing me for sleeping. We stored our bags before stopping for a cheap English-style breakfast.
We then walked an absurd distance through Hyde Park to checkout Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Our jet lag malaise was made even cloudier by a London half marathon taking place in the middle of the historic area. We navigated through the chaos to Borough Market, which was packed. After stopping at a bar, and Mom overcoming her Apple pay tap to enter the underground troubles, we checked out tower bridge before making our way to the east end, Bethnal Green, to an old bakery, Rinkoff, for cronuts. We then checked into our room and later to Tesco to pickup an assorted snack dinner.
London To Bari (Monday)
I was awoken up at 2 AM from Nick trekking to the restroom on the creakiest wood floor I’ve ever heard. The night before we debated our route to Gatwick, and decided the best route that early in the morning was via Uber. The flight was ‘a carnival’ for the Hasidic Jewish kids on board according to Mom. Mike couldn’t sleep because he was constantly bumped by kids sprinting up and down the aisles as the flight attendant tried to keep ‘only 3 in a row’. The parents couldn’t have been bothered to monitor the kids, hold their infant or even sit in the same row as each other!
After walking to the rental car lot, a Škoda Octavia station wagon was laughingly presented to us by the young workers after they looked at the size of our baggage. The joke was on them, this hatchback trunk fit our luggage and we set out for the historic center of Bari. After parking just outside the old city walls, we tackled the parking meter, striking twice out until the friendly female attendant explained we only had to type the three numbers of our license plate before selecting how many minutes we needed on the meter.
Salumeria Proscutteria Matteo 1938 provided us with lunch sandwiches. Freshly baked rolls, cured meats, pickled vegetables and cheese for only $6?!?! I think we are going to enjoy Puglia. We then walked through the tiny, winding and narrow streets of the old town, on alert as cars or scooters sped through. We walked past old ladies rolling orecchiette outside their first floor apartments and toured San Nicola Basilica.
We then drove to Bari’s shopping district, and a message on the dashboard screen popped up asking if we wanted to automatically park. I clicked yes, assuming a perfect parallel entry, and next thing I know the Octavia is reversing at a fast speed while not cutting the wheel at all! We love tapped the car behind us, before I could fully press down the break. The old man sitting on the park bench next to our car’s day was completely made as he was chuckling and shaking his head.
Next, we drove 45 minutes to Matera to check into B&B La Casa di Ele. The host was energetic and excited to welcome us, sitting us down to run through a map of the city and explain the history of one of the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. It was nearly abandoned in the 1950’s, labeled the shame of Italy before the country rebuilt it. UNESCO later named it as the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
For dinner, we walked to Ristorante Da Nicola, for burnt wheat orecchiette with local greens and Aglianico, a local grape wine. I took pole position in the two-week race to 400 by ordering a Podolica (local cattle) steak for ‘2 or 3’ according to the waitress. The post-dinner walk back was cold and frigid.
A Walk Through Matera (Tuesday)
A complimentary hotel breakfast should not be this fresh, this diverse, or this luxurious. We walked into the dining room to a full spread starting with a lemon angel food cake made by the mother of our host, that was lighter than the clouds that surround the gates of heaven. Complimenting the cake was a decadent pastry filled with a surprisingly unsweet custard and black cherry jam. Next were the savory options: fresh mozzarella, ricotta, speck and prosciutto. For third dessert, a thin brownie like chocolate cake served as the finisher.
Walking through Matera sounds simple on paper. But the more modern buildings were built directly on top of the ancient ones, resulting in steep staircases, inclined streets, narrow alleys and a challenge to navigate. First, we wandered past an guy, and for 2 Euro he gave us a brief and unofficial tour of some old caves in Italian, which I poorly translated to the group.
We then walked up to the top corner of the city to the Duomo, our jaws dropping at the gold plated ceilings and frescos. Next was a visit to the Sassi, cave dwellings the impoverished citizens lived in for centuries next to their livestock, fires and toilets, all without windows or insulation.
Baccus was our host’s recommendation lunch. The mixed antipasto was the chef’s playground. The small plates were creatively presented; a pastry swirl filled with aged cheese, zucchini flan (amazing), a cup of fried sweet peppers, and the Burger Charlie, a burger with a cuttlefish ink died black bun with pickled onions and mustard. For pasta, I had cod ravioli, the pasta sheets were died pink with red wine, served in a lemon caper sauce.
Naturally, we got lost after lunch, navigating in this curvy, complex city seems impossible. We went into the catacombs of a church to a tiny, claustrophobic crypt where they gutted the dead. Ghave Coffee kept us warm and wondering how inflation hasn’t hit this city. Next came St. Francis Assisi Church and the Church of St. Mary of Idris. We listened in on a Spanish tour of the most important frescoes in Matera, through the centuries they were painted over each other leaving odd combinations like baby Jesus being held by St. Peter and not Mary.
We then shopped in the main modern street of Matera, to buy an orange chocolate Colomba (Easter Bread). Finally, it was gelato time. Vizi degli Angeli has attracted attention with unique flavor offerings. Thyme with marshmallow was extraordinarily herbaceous, leaving me wondering if an herb forward dessert can satisfy my cravings.
After flying the drone at a nearby Church parking lot and giving a SnapChat one bite Easter Bread review, we headed for a nondescript and light dinner after Birrificio wanted to remain local and refuse a party of five.
Ostuni and Alberobello (Wednesday)
Before leaving for Matera we enjoyed one last heavenly breakfast: cakes, cold cuts and yogurt. I’m gonna miss waking up to that.
We then headed for Antica Masseria Brancati, an ancient olive orchard, for a tour of the grounds. Pietro was an excellent guide, teaching us why the Roman’s planted the trees 30 feet apart and how one tree went 65 years between producing a full harvest. We then stopeed at a 3,000 year-old tree which had grown sideways and was propped up by stones. Next we toured the ancient olive mill, followed by the more modern one before tasting the flavor profiles of olive oils produced in October, November or December.
The approach into Ostuni, it’s white washed city walls perched high atop a hillside, smells of significance. We drove into the city, and with our new-found Barese parking knowledge paid the meter and walked to Osteria Ricanatti. We walked down a few steps into a cave dining room, with five or six white table clothed tables and only three other diners. The family was all there working, father and wife, their teenage daughter as a co-waiter and the younger daughter watching videos on a phone eating risotto for her after school snack.
We opted for the $35 business lunch. It opened with a glass of champagne and some brilliantly plated appetizers: a pulled pork sandwich served in a pancake, a meatball with ricotta, an eggplant tart, eggplant in a ricotta foam. Oh, did I mention the hot, crispy shell and the chewy yellow interior of the pan di semola? My main course was a medium rare slice of suckling pig with aioli and greens. For dessert was a trio of bites of dark chocolate tart, strawberry gelee, a spoon of dulce de leche. We walked out of the Osteria like kings. What kind of business do I need to be in to make that my typical lunch? What would that meal have costed in New York or London? Did we just rob this small-town family blind?
The Duomo sits atop Ostuni, so we headed up the streets, stopping in stores for ceramics and a handmade linen shirt before touring the church. We later drove to the next wonder of central Puglia, Alberobello. Not a treacherous drive by any means. The ancienct trulli, coned houses, were built on two hills in the center of the town as well as on the farms that dot around the city center. We got out and walked the streets like it was Disney World, was this place constructed for tourism like Harry Potter World? It was so different to any other town that we had seen. The streets weren’t super crowded, so we shopped. The old Italian woman sowing towels in the store asked if we were Americani then grunted and flexed her shoulders, indicating that it was obvious due to our stocky build. We then crossed the town to Belvedere Park, fit with a bocce court to take photos of the Trulli alongside the Asian photographers, all wielding top end DSLR cameras and high speed lenses.
Our final drive was to Lecce, staying at B&B Corte dei Figuli. The Commander got out and walked into a fellow travelers’ room instead of the main reception area. We unloaded the car to wait in the for Vito, the lady laughing as she said his name and that he would be back.
Vito came in five minutes later like a tornado, walking and operating at a speed that no other 50+ year old could match. He spoke zero English and instead kept his Google Translate app up as he gave us a tour of the breakfast room. I have no idea how the app could decipher his mile-a-minute prose but we got the gist of the translation.
For dinner, we parked near the university in Lecce and after having no clear plan, stumbled into 00 Restaurant. It boasted local beer, cocktails and an eclectic menu. Nick ordered a double sandwich, which was a two-tiered club sandwich cut into four pieces served on a cutting board amidst a heap of french fries. He will never be able to eat at Subway or Jimmy John’s again. The rest of the meal was fried swordfish with pickled vegetables, grilled veal, paccheri with wild boar and gnocchi with pumpkin puree and pork.
Central Lecce (Thursday)
Vito was the life of our breakfast. I used the Lavazza espresso machine and didn’t know I had to stop the machine, spilling some over my cup and spastically ran across the room to shut the machine off. Only Vito could be frying bacon, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor and giving instructions in three languages using Google Translate at the same time. His breakfast fruit pizza tart was essential eating. A quote from the man himself, “Shelly ate two pieces of breakfast cake, he’s a fat cow.”
We drove into cold and windy central Lecce and went atop the frigid bell tower and later into the Duomo. Next, we went to Santa Croce, the facade dominated by ornate carvings and statues whose crypt still contained remains and was only partially excavated. Cucina di Mamma Elvira for lunch served chicory with fava puree, impossibly tender grilled octopus and horse meat nuggets which tasted like beef stew. Next we stopped at Natale for gelato, the salted pistachio was some of the tastiest ice cream I have ever had.
We then shopped, looked at the half excavated Roman amphitheater before the Commander claimed he was betting $10K on a US Women’s soccer match. For dinner, we had excellent wood fired pizza at La Succursale before pouring gasoline into our stomach by ordering Grappa Baricata, the more aged version of the post dinner digestivo.
Part 2 to come!