Tag Archives: Puglia

Festas, fiestas, and a little Italian heat

One effect of Boston’s summer heat is that it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Delft’s seasons don’t run as hot and cold, and there weren’t many genuine shorts-and-tank-top days (by my reading, not the TU Delft undergrad-girl reading) per summer. I like the hot-hot days, and for the last four summers I’ve associated them with the Mediterranean: Ostuni. Dubrovnik (lord, it was hot in Dubrovnik). Barcelona. Ventimiglia.

The places where everything shuts down in the afternoon because it has to, because the only thing you really can do is swim or siesta after a fresh lunch with a glass of white wine. The places optimized for that thing you always heard about as a kid where you could cook an egg on the pavement.

With our warmest days peaking around 90 F, OK, it hasn’t been Mediterranean hot. And as I look out my front windows to a suburban leafy street where cars and the occasional rogue cyclist rush by, the atmosphere is rather altered as well. But this past Saturday, sick of unpacking boxes and sorting through old photos and files and whatnot, I went online looking for weekend activities and found another Italian echo: the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, MA.

I have memories from growing up of the Catholic church in our town having a carnival every summer. (A kermis, we’d say in Holland.) But when we were in Italy it was my thrill to stumble several times upon Italian saint festivals: lights on cobbled streets and men in their suits in the evening heat, somber-faced as they carry a gigantic statue through the town, while women behind them bark prayers into megaphones. The local band follows with a march. Gelato is scooped late into the night and the saint eventually retires to the church for another year.

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Last summer while in residence at the lovely Palazzo Rinaldi, I was taken by my hosts to a small nearby village for an event known as the Festa della Pita, the identifying feature of which is that men hoist a tall stripped tree trunk, and then try to climb it to earn prizes.

This perfectly primed me for the Pita’s horizontal cousin in Gloucester: the Greasy Pole competition. During the five-day tribute to the patron saint of the seaside town’s fisherfolk, a thick wooden pole is stuck out over the water, slathered with grease, and given an Italian flag at the far end. We made the one-hour drive to Gloucester on Saturday with greasy-pole viewing high on our agenda.

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

We headed to the beach after a quick stroll through the town: quaint and pretty, with some tempting Italian cafes, and gift shops selling over-priced sea-themed trinkets. The pole and platform had been erected a short distance out from the beach, nearby a massive conglomerate of boats: a floating party, of everything from kayaks to speedboats, with swimsuited people moving between. It was a hot day, but the water was still cold.

The opening act for the greasy pole was the Seine Boat Race—three rowboats labeled the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, each manned by about ten guys, racing each other to some point on the horizon and back. The race was fun enough, but heavily negated by the long maneuvering of the boats into position and a ridiculous string of false starts. A cheer went up when a large, pontoon-style boat ferried all the contestants out to the platform for the greasy pole, where I can only presume they took some time to sober up in the hot sun and remember why they had agreed to do this. As the crowd on the beach grew enormous, the first man stepped up onto the pole, promptly fell off, and the action was underway.

A greasy pole contender

A greasy pole contender

The objective for these men–some in bathing trunks, others in everything from superhero costumes to a suit–was to get that flag. As each man’s effort tended to last between zero and four seconds, the line cranked right along. After a half-hour, only one man had made it past the halfway mark, but had tumbled into the water before grasping the flag. We began seeing repeat contestants and wondered how the rules were defined: does the event simply continue until a) everyone quits or b) the flag is won?

Although attempting the greasy pole seemed fairly unsafe (some contenders fell straight to the water, but others smacked various body parts off the pole en route), the local police, fire department, and Coast Guard were all represented on the water–I suppose in case anyone were to become seriously injured. This struck me as an American touch.

Beachside crowd

Beachside crowd

Around the one-hour mark, our interest began to wane, and we were making our way along the beach when a roar from the crowd turned our heads. A man made his way half, then two-thirds the length of the pole–he was within arm’s length of the coveted flag–and though he fell into the water before grasping it, he managed to dislodge the flag, which fluttered down after him. Does that count? I barely had time to ask myself before the entire beach surged. People went wild with cheering; the contestants on the platform all began jumping into the ocean; “Who was it?” a stranger asked me eagerly–“Did you see who it was?”

I confessed that I did not know any of the contenders. The whole group swam toward shore, the champion with the flag held high, and as soon as they reached land, he was pulled up onto others’ shoulders and whisked away into the streets.

Carnival, Gloucester

Carnival, Gloucester

We had intended to drive home and make dinner, but the lure of the seaside atmosphere became too strong; so we wandered the town while the sun sunk and had seafood at a restaurant. Probably two hours after we’d left the beach, through the restaurant windows we saw the champion pass by, still clutching the flag, flush with celebration. The entire place cheered, and to me, it felt like summer.

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The Brew Thickens

Counter space is at a premium in this apartment right now. And some of us are in a perpetual state of over-caffeination, from trying out… the new espresso machine.

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When we moved to Europe, I didn’t care for espresso, unless it had been incorporated into a latte. I aspired to like it, but I found it too bitter and gone too soon. I have long been a steady coffee drinker, rarely without a mug in hand when I’m working, especially in the cold months. Espresso and I had a volume problem. Shortly after moving to Delft, we bought a basic filter brewer (I even blogged about it), and I would get excited when we went to Schiphol Airport because there was a Starbucks, and I could order my big 16 oz coffee to drink for roughly an hour. (Now there are Starbuckses in the Hague, and I don’t really go much. But it was a “home comfort” thing in the early days.)

2010... See how happy coffee made me?

2010… See how happy coffee made me?

Espresso trickled into our lives gradually. We were occasionally shamed at home by guests. There were times when friends, after dinner, would say, “Let’s have some coffee,” and Tim would get up and brew a big pot and we would pour some mugs and put them on the table with a sugar bowl and some milk and our European friends would blink a few times, say, “Oh… you make American coffee,” and then politely take 1-2 sips before asking us how we could drink this watery business. (The idea of coffee after dinner was new to us, too—closing the evening meal with an espresso regardless of the hour.)

There were some pivotal cups along the way. A couple years ago when the canals froze I was laid up in bed conquering some terrible stomach illness while Tim went skating with a Dutch friend. After hours in the cold, they warmed up with some coffee back at the other guy’s place. Tim came home raving about how good the espresso was, and how his friend had this fantastic machine, and gets a certain kind of beans, etc. (I think it was akin to trying a fine Belgian ale if you’ve only ever had Miller Lite.) A few months later, brainstorming birthday-gift ideas, I emailed the friend and said, “Hey, Tim really liked the espresso at your place. What kind of machine do you have?”

This was when I learned that a good home espresso machine could cost upwards of €500. Birthday ideas drifted elsewhere.

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It wasn’t long before we stopped asking for “American” coffee when we traveled. If I’m in Paris, or Rome, or some little Spanish town—I want what the locals are having. In 2011, the first time we went to the Puglia region of southern Italy, we rented a little place equipped with the standard Italian “moka pot,” or stovetop percolator. I referred to it as “the coffee fountain,” for the way it would spurt and bubble. We bought one of these as a souvenir, and would occasionally bust it out at home on Saturday mornings or holidays. (It was fancy coffee.)

There were other travels, and other delightful coffee moments. As I scrolled through photos for this blog post, I realized how many specific instances of coffee I could recall.

Coffee the morning of my 30th birthday, Milan

Coffee the morning of my 30th birthday, Milan

coffee while reading in Oxford, UK

coffee while reading in Oxford, UK

Earlier this year, back in Puglia in the town of Ostuni, we were urged to try a local coffee specialty that was on all the cafe menus: the latte di mandorla. It was espresso, poured over a cup of ice with almond milk or almond syrup. “Don’t add sugar!” the waiter told me dramatically. This sweet, icy espresso drink was perfect for the sweltering southern heat. It just—fit… with the place, the atmosphere, everything.

latte di mandorla, in Ostuni

latte di mandorla, in Ostuni

I don’t remember exactly when we began talking seriously about an espresso machine. Tim was adamant that if we were going to get one, it wasn’t going to be just any old piece of junk, and so the research began. The aforementioned friend took him to a shop in Amsterdam and interpreted Dutch while options were discussed. The machines were pricey, as we had known, and so the idea went dormant for a while.

This August we went to the States, land of giant take-away coffees available at every intersection. The first few times I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through, I would turn in excitedly and order my old standby: medium-French Vanilla-cream-no-sugar. It still rolls off my tongue. And… I found myself sipping it, telling myself I enjoyed it, but internally a little confused. Maybe there was too much cream. Finally, toward the end of the trip, I said the fateful words:

“It just doesn’t… taste like anything. I only taste the milk.” And Tim at one point cautiously indicated that, yes, he had missed… espresso.

It was within three weeks of our return that the Quick machine came to live on our kitchen counter. We’ve been finishing dinner with a decaf, and I’ve been spurting milk everywhere trying to make lattes. The filter machine is feeling, understandably, a bit marginalized. It doesn’t know that in places like Delft’s Coffee Company, American-style filter coffee has just been introduced, like it’s the new wave.

Filter coffee in Delft (I tried it. Didn't love it.)

Filter coffee in Delft (I tried it. Didn’t love it.)

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Shopping at the Cantina

Let me tell you two things that are delicious and inexpensive in Puglia: wine and olive oil. But don’t buy them at the shops in the bigger towns toting “traditional Apulian products.” Find the co-ops and cantinas.

We asked the hostess at our rental where to buy local wine, and she told us to visit the Cantina Sociale del Locorotondo. (Having been there, I am now amazed to find that this place has a website, let alone a website with multiple language options.) We thought this would be a wine shop, perhaps, and followed the signage in Locorotondo to a large warehouse-y building with flags flapping out front and a huge parking lot.

It appeared deserted, but the sign said “Aperto” so we wandered in (getting a confidence boost from another family showing up at the same time). My first impression was that if this was a store, it was not a store I knew how to navigate.

It seemed that you did not wander around and shop, but there was a glass case near the door showing which wines were available. There was also a small table for tasting. Tim, not daunted by unfamiliar circumstance, hung around to watch how the locals did it. Shortly thereafter, he engaged in conversation with a local man who spoke some English, and had come to refill his wine jug: from the taps, of course.

Protocol, it turned out, was minimal. You could buy bottles, or you could bring any receptacle you had your hands on and pay by volume from the taps. The man kept impressing this upon Tim: “Don’t you have a bottle? A water bottle, anything? It’s cheaper!”

At this point it should be noted that the bottles of wine were starting around €2 (with the “high-end” running around €10). We considered filling up our Nalgene just to say we did it, but in the end kept our water and bought the wine bottled.

The cost was so low and our taste buds so curious that we decided to be extravagant and do a tasting at home that night of several of the local wines.

We later had a similar experience tasting and buying olive oil at a cooperative outside Ostuni, and made a quick stop at the Cantine di Marco (again, great website) outside Martina Franca. The Cantine di Marco had a more upscale setup with a little wine bar for tasting, but by this point we had loaded up our suitcases and could buy no more.

Tim had returned to the Locorotondo cantina after our tasting to pick up a couple bottles of what we liked (ask us sometime about packing wine for checked luggage—our track record is excellent) and had arrived at a fortuitous moment.

The cantina was receiving a fresh drop-off of local grapes—ready to be turned into new wine.

*If you go: the cantina also has a small shop in the center of Locorotondo (which also sold pastas and some gift items), but for the full experience head to the warehouse. It’s completely walkable from the town center, and there’s plenty of parking.

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A Trulli Nice Rental

OK, just say it: hobbits. Insert several Bag End references here. The Puglian dwelling known as a a trullo brought hairy-footed heroes to my mind. Even my Lonely Planet guide book makes a Tolkien reference—although, on closer thought, I’m not sure why. Isn’t the main feature of hobbit dwellings that they’re hole-y, and built into the ground? Well, I digress. Suffice it to say that for our week in Puglia, we rented a trullo, a building unique to this area.

Trulli are small, round or with several round components, and feature conical roofs made from local limestone. Far from being a tourist or historical relic, they are still worked and lived in today. In the countryside where we stayed (outside Locorotondo), I was amazed at how many of these structures dot the landscape of olive trees and modern homes.

Roadside Trulli

We found “our” trullo on British site Holiday Lettings, and it seems funny to think back because we weren’t looking for a trullo at all; we had no idea what it was. We weren’t even looking for Puglia. We were simply looking for a peaceful place, for two people, probably in Italy, with a kitchen, where we could go for a week. We had a list of criteria for the nearby area: good food, wine, beach, mountains. The trullo jumped right out at me because of the description of the area’s food culture, and also because it had a private pool and outdoor cooking area for a reasonable price. To be honest, it seemed a little “too good to be true,” and I was nervous about renting it because the site disassociates itself from responsibility for the listings. But we corresponded with the owner; harassed her really, I think (she may never rent to Americans again), in our search to authenticate her… and then went for it.

Little kitchen area of our trullo (actually, this is most of the interior).

When we asked for directions prior to our arrival, Enza told us in her minimalist English that we would not find it on our own, and that she would meet us at a local pizzeria. She did, and she was probably correct. We followed her (as she zipped easily along the crazy local roads) home to a property set back off the small road. “Our” trullo sat just in front of (but separated by a small fence from) the owners’ home, and at first the proximity was a little jarring for me. However, the majority of the week we saw/heard hardly anything of their family.

Abandoned trullo

We spent a lot of time in the trullo and in the pool, because in the middle of the day in Puglian August, it gets hot, hits 90 F and keeps on going. But the trullo—with its limestone walls and few little windows—was always cool. It’s impressive, and part of the reason for the design and material choice. We had asked if the trullo had air conditioning, but we never needed it. We ran a fan at night, but it was mostly because I like white noise.

While trulli are cute and special, there is such a thing as trulli overkill, and that thing is called Alberobello. Alberobello is an UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is a whole town of trulli.

As I previously mentioned, Alberobello was the only place in Puglia where we really encountered other non-Italian tourists—and lots of them. This town was swarming with tourists, and every other trullo was a shop selling the most appalling trullo kitsch. Ugh. I literally got a headache in Alberobello. The view from the “new town” looking over the trulli city was pleasing for a couple moments. Other than that, there was a wine shop called Enoteca L’Anima del Vino. They had a good selection (and local wine is so affordable), and if you spend too long in Alberobello, you may need to stop in.

Lone trullo: much preferred

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When the Saints Go Marching (in Puglia)

If you read the NY Times Frugal Traveler back in June, you knew I was headed to the region of southern Italy called Puglia (Apulia, in Italian): basically the back of the boot. We rented a trullo near the hill town of Locorotondo, and drove there from Bari airport (about an hour) after flying Easy Jet from Milan.

There was a notable lack of non-Italian tourists in Puglia (though vacationing Italians were everywhere). The only town in which we encountered more than three or four other non-Italian tourists was Alberobello (which swung quite the other way and was so touristy it gave me a headache). I had to rely on my phrasebook; Tim had to rely on our GPS (gulp); and we enjoyed some truly local experiences— several of which were… festivals.

One of our first nights in Puglia we drove to the gorgeous seaside town Polignano a Mare. The town rises on cliffs out of the sea. The beaches at the bottom are perfect. And the streets were… filled with men in suits carrying instruments. There were also some wooden white arches. And then, while we were eating dinner at Osteria Leone, a whole group of altar-guys and a massive crucifix appeared over my shoulder.

Had I consumed too much delicious Puglian wine? No: it was the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian! I grew up Catholic, but my scant expectations at this point came from the stories of my friend Amy (to whom this post goes out). Amy lived for a time in a little Italian enclave of Cambridge, MA, that still hosts a yearly to-do in honor of these same two saints. (You can attend it in September 2011.) Crowds gathered and we dined and shortly after 8 PM someone struck up the band and the parade began. (The parade also frequently halted, as illustrated in this video.)

The parade headliners were the statues of Cosmas and Damian, carried (no small feat) through the old town by six or so men. The saints were followed by various societies, orders, religious persons, and bands. At one point there was someone praying into a megaphone and people were responding.

After completing our meal we took a walk through a small carnival, and saw those white wooden arches illuminated.

I loved this entire night, and part of the reason was that this festival was not something anyone was doing for or to attract tourists. This was simply life: a local festival in a beautiful town on a summer evening. Luckily for me, we got to experience the whole thing all over again two nights later in Locorotondo, where the festivities were in honor of St. Rocco. The parade began with the chiming of all the bells in town (quite a few), and fireworks overhead.

Waiting for the sun to set. The parades began around 8 PM.

Locorotondo's band was outstanding. I would gladly have listened to them play a whole concert!

Waiting for St. Rocco to pass by

Locorotondo's lights

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