Archive for the ‘Italy trips’ Category

Three sixty-something guys went cycling for eight days through Italy, more or less Florence to Rome. The trip turned out to be much more of an athletic event than expected, with some of the steepest hills I have ever cycled.   Also, I had heard that Tuscany was over-touristed.  Could we, on bicycles, discover the real Tuscany?

This trip began as a vague idea.   Lyman and I had been searching for the next big bike ride in Europe, preferably Italy, Spain, or southern France.   Lyman’s friend (now also my friend) Randy Greenberg, a computer professional, taught Lyman some tricks when searching online for air fares.   We needed a low price to anywhere.

I live in Chapel Hill NC. The closest airport is Raleigh/Durham.   Lyman and Randy live in Austin TX.   Using Randy’s suggested apps we found round trip on American Airlines RDU airport to Rome airport in early April for only $ 533.00!!     Short flight to Charlotte NC, then nonstop to Rome!!     Only $633.00 round trip Austin TX to Charlotte to Rome!!   Lyman and I could go most of the way on the same airplane!!

These deals were too good to pass up.  As it turned out, these prices were only available for a few days.   Lyman and I agreed to fly to Rome in early April.    A few days later Randy agreed to join us.    We hurriedly bought the tickets while the price was still low.   We could work later on the details.

The flights going over had issues.  There were thunderstorms in Charlotte that delayed me twenty-four hours.   Due to that same weather Lyman and Randy were transferred by American Airlines to British Airways who subsequently lost Lyman’s luggage (i.e. bicycle) for an even longer amount of time.    We were two days behind schedule when at 12:45 PM on a Thursday we stepped off the high speed rail line at Santa Maria Novella station in central Firenze (Florence).   It had taken us from central Rome to Florence in under two hours.  Disclaimer: I have great friends Mandy and Iano who live in Florence.  With all the hassles we had been through we wanted to start bicycle riding immediately.  My apologies to Mandy and Iano for not calling you up while in town.

In the Florence train station we put together our folding bicycles, all Bike Friday brand.  We would make a good commercial for them.

 

 

 

Randy Greenberg

 

 

Lyman Labry

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

 

 

Over the next eight days we would cycle most of the way back to Rome, taking a circuitous route.

 

Otherwise from random we picked the town of Empoli for the first night because it was about twenty-five miles from central Florence.  We knew nothing about this town.

Finding a bicycle route out of Florence was challenging.   Larger Italian cities have confusing layouts.  Streets change names.  Roads change one-way directional status seemingly every block.

Finally we did break out of Florence.  Heading towards Empoli that first afternoon we were being chased by rain storms.  There was a gravel bike path along the Arno River some of the way.

 

Randy is very outgoing.    Despite the language differences he managed to start a conversation with this couple and convince them to pose for a picture   They were out picking rapa, a type of edible greens.    You can see the dark rain clouds in the background.

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

 

Eventually the bike path ended and we cycling on conventional roads with the traffic, threading along the Arno River.  As it was getting dark and as rain started we luckily made it into central Empoli and under the shelter of an awning.

Empoli does not seem at all touristy but very Italian.

We got drinks and snacks at a table on the street and watched the locals go by, or stand around our bicycles.

 

The rain eventually slowed down and I called a hotel just a couple of blocks away.   Asking in broken Italian, I was able to secure a room with three beds for eighty-five Euro, breakfast included.   What’s not to like?

After checking in and showering we looked for somewhere to eat that evening.   The only real restaurant open in Empoli was the fanciest looking restaurant we ate at our entire trip.     The food was delicious and really not all that expensive.

First course was one portion each of tagliatelle with artichokes.   I believe artichokes are in season in April.

For the main course I got tuna, seared rare.   The vegetables in the center were as delicious as the fish.

 

Randy got mixed fried seafood.

 

Lyman got another fish entree whose name I cannot recall.

 

 

The service was friendly and helpful.   At the end this guy poured us glasses of some kind of dessert wine, on the house.

 

The next morning I was impressed by the minimalist decor at the hotel breakfast.

We picked as our bicycle destination this second day somewhere we had indeed heard of, the hill town of San Gimignano.   We would once again have to dodge the rain.

Leaving Empoli we cycled through the streets of town.

 

 

Eventually we transitioned to pleasant country roads.

The bike riding this day varied between steep rural roads with little traffic, and relatively flat roads along the valley floor that teemed with large trucks.  After a few hours we parked our bicycles in front of this place for lunch in the town of Certaldo.

In this working class town we talked to two guys about our age on on the street before entering the restaurant.  They told us what to order: they said to get pasta meccanica followed by codfish cakes.    Following a practice of old Roman families I read about somewhere years ago we all got the same thing, which was what those guys suggested.

 

 

We had coffee but skipped dessert.  Just we were leaving it started to rain.   We ducked over to a covered outdoor cafe to wait out the rain with post-lunch beers.      We sat in this cafe for over an hour until Randy’s very handy use of cell phone weather maps indicated (correctly it turned out) that the storm was going to pass just to the south of us in our ride to San Gimignano.   As soon as the rain let up we biked off with still threatening clouds in the distance.

 

 

San Gimignano is a true hill town, visible from miles away.  This day it was surrounded by storms, sitting at the top in a defensible position with its distinctive medieval towers, threatening those who would attempt to bicycle up that steep hill.    The roads got steeper as we got closer.

 

 

 

We had taken a back road to avoid traffic.   The scenery was lovely and the pavement smooth. However, in all my bicycling I had never seen a grade so steep.    I have always prided myself on not walking my bicycle.   I did make it up this hill, but I cannot remember being so winded.   My sixty-three year old lungs were burning bright.    Lyman, Randy, and I were all windedly making jokes about having heart attacks.

Lyman approached the entrance to the walled city of San Gimignano.

 

The center of town is, or course, at the very top of the hill.   We found a nice hotel on the main square.  This was the view out the hotel window.

 

That night at the hotel we had ribollata, the Tuscan vegetable soup.    We walked around the town after supper.

 

 

According to Wikipedia tourists have been coming to San Gimignano since the late nineteenth century.     We walked around after breakfast the next morning.   Our fellow tourists were out in force.  Many had just arrived by tour bus.  Sure, there were some Americans here.  There were also Asians; Chinese.   There were French, Germans, British, and Italians from other parts of Italy.   Many came with with Selfie sticks.

 

 

In our modern world we all stare at our phones, or take pictures of everything.

 

On this Saturday morning there was a small farmer’s market.   Artichokes indeed are in season.   I bought Tootie a jar of honey.

 

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

From the back side of town you could just enjoy the view.

 

Our bicycle destination this third day would be the larger city of Siena.   We wanted to make our bicycle route as scenic as possible, on roads with the fewest cars.

Google Maps has a defect that has plagued me here in the USA, it does not differentiate between paved and non-paved roads.   At one point this day we found ourselves pushing our bicycles through the mud.

 

 

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

Stuck in the mud I advocated turning around.    I was outvoted.   The road luckily did improve dramatically just over the ridge.

By the time we had found a larger main road it was already past time for lunch.    We were on the outskirts of a town called Colle di Val D’Elsa, which sat, of course, up on a hill.   On the outskirts, down on the principal two line highway was Pizzeria Osteria 900.   A sign out front advertised two course pranzo (lunch) twelve Euro, wine and coffee included.

We were the only customers.   It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip and certainly the best value.    The apparent owner was a thirty-something looking woman who later told us she had moved to Italy twenty years ago from Albania.   The waiter, her son,  looked about twelve years old.

Once again we all got the same thing.   First course was pasta with what she described as homemade ragu.  Delicious.

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

While we were eating the pasta we could hear in the kitchen the woman pounding to flatten chicken breasts.     Second course was lemon chicken and we each got a contorno (side dish) of carrots.   Italians do NOT like to mix different kinds of food on a plate.

 

It was all wonderful and we pressed her to accept more money for additional wine as we each had quickly downed the included one glass.    She charged us six Euros for an additional half liter.

Woozily back on the bikes still had another fifteen or twenty miles to Siena.    On the way we chose a short but steep climb to get a coffee at the medieval walled town of Monteriggioni.

 

There were a lot of tourists in this small town.  More local was a was a Catholic procession on this day before Palm Sunday, accompanied by strumming guitars.

 

Shops sold leather goods, a product of this region.   I pondered whether I could show my face in Chapel Hill wearing shoes like this.

 

Back on the road we cycled further on towards Siena, mostly uphill.

Compared to the hill towns Siena (population 54,000) felt like a real city.     It is about the same population now that it was in the year 1350.   I am sure there are a lot of tourists but they did not seem to overwhelm the place.

 

 

We biked into the central city and stopped for a beer, to ponder our next move.

photo by Randy Greenberg

We found a somewhat shabby but low cost hotel room with three beds.  After supper that night we walked around the city in the dark.   Just a couple of blocks from the hotel is the Piazza del Campo where they have been staging the annual Palio horse race for almost four hundred years.

 

The next morning this was the view out of our hotel window.   The second photo is Randy’s bicycle on that same street.

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

 

We biked out of Siena on this Palm Sunday morning.

 

 

For quite a distance we shared our route with a footrace, likely at 10-k.

 

Our destination this day would be the hill town of Montalcino.     From more than ten miles away you could see Montalcino looming in the distance at the top of a hill/mountain.    The hill appeared larger and steeper the closer we got.

 

 

 

 

 

We fought our way up this mammoth hill, arriving central Montalcino just as it was begining to rain.   To celebrate our ascent we bought a bottle of relatively high-end wine, a Brunello di Montalcino.

Because of the rain we ended up spending that night in Montalcino at this hotel, Albergo il Giglio.   It was all quite nice.

 

The next day was another beast of a climb, first riding east to the hilltop town of Pienza, then turning south to the hilltop town of Montepulciano.

This is the three of us after admiring the view from Pienza.

Halfway up some hill, Lyman and Randy paused to scope out the situation.

 

Some workers were thinning the olive trees, then burning the branches.

 

Yes, there are a lot of towns around here whose name starts with Monte.    Montepulciano was another great hill town, requiring another huge sweaty climb.

The hotel we found here was run by a woman about our age who clearly had artsy tendencies;  I wish I had taken her picture.  That evening we wanted a lighter evening meal.    We first sat down at an informal pizza joint but loud Lynyrd Skynyrd music convinced us to leave before ordering.  At a restaurant down the street a woman indicated they were open.    When we entered, she walked into their dining room and turned on the lights.   Obviously we were the only customers.

Pici is a form of homemade pasta frequently seen in Tuscany.   We had it several times.

 

Each strand is made by hand.  Traditionally this was peasant food, and the noodles contain only flour and water, no eggs.  Dough is rolled thin on a flat surface, then cut into strips.   Each strip is then rolled by hand into a tubular shaped.    They are then boiled and combined with sauce.  This younger woman and who I assumed was her mother were the only ones there.  They invited us into the kitchen after the meal and showed where they were making pici.

On the way out the older woman wanted to pour us a complimentary sweet liquore but for some reason we declined.   I am still not sure why.

The next day we bicycled about fifty miles, including some major hill climbs.  In mid-morning we stopped for a cappuccino at a gas station bar.    European gas stations frequently have nice bars.   No paper cups here, unless you ask.  That is Randy’s hand and water bottle on the right side of the picture.

 

After a serious climb we ate a sandwich for lunch al fresco in a small hill town, San Casciano Dei Bagni.   We chatted with two twenty or thirty-something Australian guys who were quite nice but ultimately seemed like clueless idle rich.   They had flown over in Business Class to be in Europe for several months but did not really have a plan.

Although that town had been seemed to be on a hilltop, after lunch we climbed even higher.   I looked back at the town.

 

The afternoon cycling was delightful along roads with no cars and surrounded by silence.    Sure, the hills were steep but at least the road was paved.    Until it wasn’t.   Cycling on gravel roads is trickier.    We pressed on.

 

 

We finally cycled into a river valley and along smoother, flatter roads with more traffic.    We had now left Tuscany for Umbria.  Our destination that evening was to be the town of Orvieto.  We really had no idea what to expect, and could not believe what we saw ahead of us.  Orvieto is built on almost vertical cliffs.   It was astonishingly formidable, especially after having cycled all day long.    Fourteenth century invading armies would certainly have been intimidated.

We somehow got up that hill and collapsed into a cafe to order a bottle of wine!   The bartender provided some nice free appetizers.

 

Dinner that night was at Trattoria La Palomba.    I had called an hour or two earlier for a reservation.  Italian restaurants like to be called, even on short notice.   It was packed but they had a table waiting for us.    This place is a little higher end than most other restaurants we ate at on this trip.

There was strangozzi (shoelace) pasta with shaved truffles.

 

 

It was followed by delicious meat main courses.  I got palomba, a type of dove.   The excess sauce was spread on toast.

 

Lyman ate roast lamb.

Randy got cinghiale, stew of wild boar.

 

And my favorite, a contorno of chicory greens.

 

 

We also split a dessert.

It was all wonderful, really.  Eating at places like this is what I like to do.

 

The next morning we walked around the vibrant city of Orvieto.

 

 

This included the cathedral with its distinctive multicolored marble.

 

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

Lyman, who is an architect, has a good eye for details, like noticing this door hinge.

 

This was to be our final day of bicycle riding.   Our flights home departed the next day from Rome airport.    Our biking destination this final day was to be the small city of Orte.

Of course this bike ride began with a steep downhill from hilltop Orvieto.   First we had to bicycle through the city gates.

 

We cycled along a river valley.

About 11:45 AM we were passing by a small town and Randy announced that he was running out of gas, he really needed to eat something.   We were not ready for lunch yet, so he went into a cafe by himself to refuel while Lyman and I waited outside.   In America this would have been done at a Mini-Mart.   Here in Italy they have much more style.

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

 

The downhill “road” from that small town was so steep that we had to walk the bicycles.

 

An hour or two later in a dingy, flat, and drab looking town we had lunch at a motel/cafe/pizza place.   I am always on the lookout for great vegetable dishes.   Here to accompany the pasta was vignarola, the Roman stew of braised spring vegetables, especially artichokes and fava beans.

 

photo by Randy Greenberg

After lunch we still had about fifteen or twenty miles to Orte, our train station.   The cycling turned out to be much more challenging than expected.   Along the Tiber River the narrow flat valley was consumed by a rail line, an autostrada (freeway), and an older highway packed with trucks.   Google Maps also showed a network of smaller roads more amenable to bicycling.   Some of these roads were flat and well paved.

Sometimes the roads were much worse.   To our dismay these smaller roads frequently zigged at steep angles up the cliffs lining the river.    Sometimes the pavement just stopped and the roads became rutted gravel.   These were some of the steepest grades I have ever experienced.

 

 

 

Sometimes when things go bad they actually get better.  The roads improved.   Our destination town of Orte, we discovered, sits on a cliff overlooking the Tiber River.

The rail line does not actually go to Orte, it goes to something called Orte Scalo, at the bottom of the hill by the river.    We thought this meant we would not have to climb that hill, but got so lost in finding Orte Scalo that we ended up at the top of the hill anyway!  We arrived at Orte Scalo train station about five in the afternoon.   Orte Scalo is the end of the line for an hourly Rome area commuter train that, with seventeen stops, goes all the way through Rome then beyond to terminate at Rome Fiumicino Airport.  We took our bicycles apart and carried them onto the train for the two hour ride.  From there we took an Uber to an Airbnb near the airport.

Fiumicino is a beach town and has at least one really good seafood restaurant, Ristorante Sfizi di Mare.   If you ask they will serve, for a flat charge, a meal of seafood appetizers, dozens of dishes brought one after the other.    Sicilian seafood salad was just one of many.

 

It made a pleasant final Italian meal before our outgoing flights the next morning.

 

 

On a  clear day in downtown Milan you can see the Alps rising in the distance.     Thirty miles north of Milan at Malpensa Airport majestic mountains are even closer, they rise as a backdrop.   Flying in and out of Malpensa, you can see glaciers in these craggy peaks. Yet much of the area south of these mountains towards Milan is almost as flat as The Netherlands or Louisiana.  The Po River is the largest of several rivers flowing south from the mountains to the Adriatic.   While many of the levees along the Po may have been recently built, this area has a more than a thousand year history of damming, channeling, and canalizing these rivers.

My buddy Lyman and I had chosen Milan because it was a a place we could fly to for free on airline miles and take a  week long bike ride.

We landed at seven on a Sunday morning.   We both had folding bicycles that fit in a suitcase.   We put our bicycles together, checked the suitcases at a place in the airport, and headed off into Italy.   All over the world there are rarely well labelled instructions on how to leave an airport by bicycle; Milan Malpensa was no exception.   We at first found ourselves on some kind of freeway.   We found a way off that busy road.  We followed Google Maps, looking for a supposed bike path along a canal.  We passed through a small village on a road that transitioned from Paved Road to Unpaved Road to Grown Over Path Though the Woods.  We had to trust Google, and the path eventually put us on a delightful paved bike path that parallels the Ticino River.  This heads south for about twenty miles.  If you turn left slightly at a canal intersection, you can follow another razor straight canal bikepath that deposits you right into the trendy Naviglio neighborhood of downtown Milan.   That is only a mile or so from the historic center with the enormous cathedral Duomo.

 

We stayed one night in Milan, and headed out the next day along a canal, south towards Pavia.   We had to cross the Po River on a dangerous narrow bridge filled with traffic.   For the next six days we slept each night in a series of small cities that line the Po River.    We then turned north and rode to Sirmione on the large Alpine lake Lago di Garda, before biking back towards Milan and taking the train the rest of the way back to the airport.

Pavia.   Piacenza.  Cremona.  Sabbioneta.  Mantua.   Sirmione.   Except for Mantua, I had not heard of any of these cities previously.  Yet any one would by itself fill a week’s worth of exploration into art, history, and architecture.   Architecturally, each offers a more thorough urban experience than much larger cities in America, like say, Atlanta.   Each has its own unique history, culture, and cuisine that goes back thousands of years.    Although these small cities are less than fifty miles apart, Pavia, Piacenza, Cremona, and Mantua each has a unique cathedral, built somewhere between the year 1000 and the year 1400, filled with Renaissance art.

 Duomo di Cremona, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta

In central Cremona:  Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta

 

Cremona, with the Torrazzo tower in background, 343 feet tall, completed in the year 1309

Cremona, with the Torrazzo tower in background, 343 feet tall, completed in the year 1309

 

Building on the right is the Palazzo Ducale in Mantova, 500 rooms, home of Gonzaga family from 1328 to 1707

Building on the right is the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, 500 rooms, home of the Gonzaga family from 1328 to 1707, when Mantua was sacked by the Hapsburgs.

 

Sirmione, on Lago di Garda, a resort since ancient Roman times

Sirmione, where we spent our last night, on Lago di Garda, a resort since ancient Roman times

 

 

We had not really planned this trip much in advance.  I did not even realize that this area south of Milan would be so pleasantly flat, or contain so many bike paths.   But especially from Cremona to Sabbioneta to Mantua to Sirmione, one can travel all day on lovely bike paths that top the levees containing the Po River.   Finding your way is not always easy; bicycling in Italy is not like Holland; bike paths stop and start, and sometimes dump you on a busy highway or narrow bridge.  One has to constantly look at the map.   This was the first European trip that I had been able to get my smartphone to work correctly,  it helped tremendously.

 

Lyman packing up outside our hotel in Milan

Lyman packing up outside our hotel in Milan

 

 

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Bar catering mostly to bicyclists on a sunnday

Bar catering mostly to bicyclists on a sunny Saturday north of Mantua

 

 

 

As expected, food was wonderful.   In America (and much of northern Europe)  there are a fair sprinkling of pretty good places to eat, but you cannot depend on circumstance.   In America, you have to ask, and look,  for places with good food.   In Italy, as in Spain, France, and Portugal, there is a tradition of excellence, and one can just stumble onto wonderful food.    For lunch we normally just rode up to these places, in tiny towns, with barely a sign.   Some seemed filled completely with just men;  truck drivers and farm workers eating like kings.

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We had great penne with pesto, at the place labelled "BAR"

We had lunch at the place labelled “BAR”

 

First course, penne with pesto, in the place labelled "Bar"

First course, penne with pesto, in the place labelled “Bar”

 

We had great linguine with clams at this truck stop along the bike path.

We had great linguine with clams at this truck stop along the bike path.

 

There were alway lots of interesting people to look at.

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Puglia is the heel of the boot of Italy.  It is relatively flat.   Other than the weather, everything on this weeklong trip was great.   The weather was mostly cloudly, intermittent rain, windy, daytime highs in the low sixties.  But what variety,  so many things to see!    In one small portion of one region of Italy,  I biked a circuitous route from Bari to Lecce and back in one week.   This route showed tremendous variety of both cultures and physical landscape.

The airplane ride over was fine, but the interior of the American Airlines 767 from New York to Rome looked something like a third world bus, filled with what seemed tour groups.    Pieces of the plastic molding on the ceiling were coming apart, everything was dirty and worn.  I connected in Rome with Alitalia to Bari airport.

As the airport bus pulled into the downtown Bari train station, it had to stop abruptly because two young women pedestrians were crossing the street.    They smiled at the bus driver, then intentionally took their time in getting out of the way, as if flirting with him.   This genial and relaxed attitude prevailed in much of Puglia.

I stayed in Bari two nights, one on arriving Italy and one on departing back to America.   Bari is a port city, full of the clichés about port cities.   There is graffiti everywhere.  It is dirty.  It is relatively poor.   Yet for an American the street life was amazingly vibrant.   It seemed like everyone in the town, young and old, comes out on the street from six to nine in the evening, just to be out on the street.

Bari, on the street

The downtown shopping district had the usual chain stores like Bennetton.     People milled about.   Even by European standards, people in cafes seemed to be eating or drinking nothing at all, just lingering over a coffee purchased long ago.

Most of Bari has the wide street grid like we think of Paris.   In the historic thousand year old  core of Bari, in what  the Italians call a Centro Storico, streets abruptly become sidewalk size, meandering in strange angles between medieval buildings built right up to the street.   My guidebook says that until recently it was considered dangerous to walk in this area at night.

Centro Storico, Bari

Where the Centro Storico ends on the harbor, bars and restaurants spill out onto the plaza looking over the square and the water.  Young people milled about, many with Peter Anderson haircuts, hair greased and swooped in all directions.  This was a much more edgy vibe than the tourist safe, aristocratic feel that I sensed three days later in Lecce.

Restaurants in Puglia do not even unlock their doors for dinner until seven or seven thirty, and no one eats until about nine.    Because of my jet lag, I could not wait for nine o’clock.   In a doorway on a very narrow street in the Centro Storico a woman was frying these 2 x 2 inch squares,  sold five for a Euro in a white paper bag sprinkled with salt.   Tasting what I purchased, I found them to be essentially breaded fried polenta squares, or grits.   I walked around munching on these delicious things, trying to find somewhere else to eat.  My dinner that first night ended up being two glasses of white wine at a sidewalk café, mixed with platefuls of tapas like appetizers, mostly olives and cheese, served to me by what looked like the daughter of the owner.

My first day of bike riding was to Matera, about fifty miles south of Bari.   The oldest part of Matera is called the Sassi de Matera.   The city is on a cliff, falling into a steep gorge.   From a distance it looks somewhat like a typical Italian hill town, but most of the Sassi buildings are really caves, drilled into the soft local rock.    People have lived in these cave dwellings for really, thousands of years.  My guidebook says that there are over sixty cavelike churches in Matera.    As recently as about 1950, people here were living in stacked cave homes, frequently with farm animals, with an average of six children per family, and a fifty percent infant mortality rate.  The Italian government in the fifties built high rise housing projects on the outskirts of town, and most people moved out of the Sassi.   Now the Sassi has become a tourist attraction, and artist types are moving in.   My hotel, owned by a Brazilian, set  me up in a tiny stone space with a ladder up to the sleeping portion, and very modern bathroom fixtures, carved out of a former cave church.

Matera

The next day I rode across rolling plains.

Countryside near Matera

Towns in Puglia from a distance look like big cities, since almost no one seems to live in the country, and towns abruptly start with six/seven story apartment buildings pressed close together.

Lunch that day was on a Styrofoam plate, in a town called Gioia.   There I finally found the Good Fast Food I had been looking for since my arrival.  These were vegetable dishes cooked in a Puglian way.    The main casserole was made with rice, potatoes, zucchini, and mussels.   The stuffed peppers and eggplant were even better.

Lunch in Gioia

Good Fast Food

As I said, the terrain here changes quickly.    I was leaving my previous region of rolling plains and passing into a rockier region called  the Valle D’itria.   The farmland now was cut up into small rocky plots, divided by stone walls.   The distinctive houses of this region, with conelike stone roofs, are called trulli.  Most trulli now seem to be either abandoned, used as a toolshed or guesthouse, or converted into second homes for British vacationers.  The style has also been appropriated for much larger vacation homes as well.

Trulli style house

I stayed that night in Locorotondo, which has a Centro Storico of all white.   You have to be careful walking around because you become completely lost in this maze of streets.

Centro Storico of Locorotondo, near my hotel

Saturday dawned early with strong winds and cold temperatures.   The Puglians in April still wear winter coats.   Fortunately, the wind was blowing in my direction.    I stopped at a great farmer’s market on the way south.   In many ways, it was not that different from the one in Carrboro, which is also on a Saturday morning.

Farmer’s market in Ostuni

This day the wind helped me find the gumption to ride all the way to Lecce, a distance of more than sixty miles.   This one day, by bicycle,   took me from the rolling plains near Matera to the rocky plots divided by stone walls of the Valle D’itria, to the flat plains of the Salentine Peninsula.  I had passed all the way through the region with the Trulli houses.

The roads here must be the only flat straight roads in Italy.   I went on two stretches between towns at ten miles each, arrow straight, with not much traffic.   This does inspire people to drive fast.   While most drive very small cars, the SUV owner types of Italy drive big Audis and BMWs.    A big Audi roared by me at what must have been eighty miles an hour, coming what seemed to be about six inches away.   That freaked me out for much of the day.

Lecce is an amazing place.   The population is listed as a hundred thousand, but it feels much bigger.    Its Centro Storico is large, and much of it was re-built in the Baroque era, centered around a central Piazza del Duomo, with a Cathedral.    The streets in the prime early evening hours are filled with well-dressed people.   There are expensive and not so expensive stores.   Great restaurants.   I would challenge that the quality of the urban space, as an urban space, is better in Lecce than anywhere in America, San Francisco and New York included.   And of course, by European standards, Lecce’s best claim is that it is the “Florence of the South.”

Duomo of Lecce at night

Lecce has spent time and money promoting itself as an artistic center, and I saw many galleries and other places where painting and sculpture were in process.  However, all the music I heard was American or British.   Even the Saturday evening art walk was centered around playing American jazz.  In the streets there was lots of classic rock, Queen and Led Zeppelin.

Near center of Lecce

Sunday morning there was an amateur old car show in one of the piazzas.  Interesting old Fiats and Alfas, just like the ones in the Sicily scenes in The Godfather.      This guy was showing his antique motorcycle.  Italians dress for the occasion or the profession.   If you are biking, you dress in bike clothes.  Motorcyling; motorcycle clothes.   Waiters and sales clerks all seemed to take special care to dress the part.

Motto Guzzi

Note the soccer players are also all well dressed

Monday morning I headed back towards the Valle D’itria; this time in the direction of the town of Martina Franca.    Lunch that day was in Francavilla, a flat seemingly working class town on the plains.  This must have  been the fanciest restaurant in town.    I had been looking forward to orecchiette con cime de rapa (orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe) which is a Puglian specialty.   I tasted amazing, even though it really was just broccoli rabe and pasta, no apparent cream or butter, not even much oil.   I think they must have sautéed it in anchovies or something.    I was the only customer until later in the meal, when two guys in suits came in.   The waiter then turned on loud music, the Bee Gees.    Second course was fish, followed by a stiff expresso.

Just when I was comfortable in the boring flat plains, expecting the next town on the map to look like the previous, the town of Oria approached.   It sits on a cliff overlooking the Salentine plains, where the rocky hills of the Valle D’itria begin.    God must sit overlooking those plains, because there is a cathedral in that town, at the highest point.

I stayed that night in Martina Franca only eight miles from Locorotondo, where I had stayed three days earlier.  It has a similar all-white Centro Storico.   Even nicer, if that is possible.   Dinner that night was really great.   Sausage, which Martina Franca is famous for.   There is a big Opera festival each summer in Martina Franca.  I met a guy at the restaurant who lives in Venice and teaches voice, and was visting Martina Franca for lessons.   I could not figure out his accent, it turns out, although he did NOT want to admit it, but he was American who has lived in Italy for thirty years.

Martina Franca

Garbage collection in Martina Franca

My ride the next day was back towards Bari.    When thinking of travelling Europe, I usually try to stay away from the beaches, because many Italian and Spanish beach towns look like a bad version of Florida, populated by Brits.    But this day, riding high in the hills of Valle D’itria, going to the beach was a treat.

Note the pointed roofs of the trulli style houses in the background

Sheep on the roadside, outside Martina Franca

About lunchtime the sun finally poked out, and the wind was now blowing at my back, and I could see the sea in the distance.   It was about five miles away, down a very steep cliff with several miles of coastal plain.   It was a wonderful descent on the bike back to sea level.   Going downhill is even better than having the wind at your back.  This time I had both. Right where the road runs into the beach, there was a seafood restaurant, with people in it, overlooking the water.   What luck!  As I was ordering the proprietor asked me, in broken English, “English?”   I said, “no, American.”   He smiled and walked away, as if to say “Wow, what a relief.”

View from the doorway of seafood restaurant, Il Capitolo, near Monopoli

The final day of riding was a day-long trip, twenty something miles each way to the old coast city of Trani, and back.  Lunch in Trani was at the fanciest place I had eaten on the entire trip.   Delicious, of course.   But even this place was only thirty-five Euro, tax and tip included.   Most of the meals on this trip were about twenty.

Pasta course of lunch in Trani

On the way back I saw several groups of boats and fishermen.   They actually did sell squid by the pound, straight off the boat.  This was before I had to fight the traffic and suburban sprawl of getting back to Bari, so I could shower and get my bike into the suitcase, for the evening flight to London.

Near Trani