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Todayville Travel: Spring in Italy- Rome and Puglia

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First in the two-part series ‘Spring in Italy’

“Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.” “Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”

On a lonely country road near Ostuni, in the Province of Puglia – the heel of Italy’s boot – I stopped to photograph a field of poppies in an olive grove. After a few happy snaps I jumped back in the car and motored on. Fifteen minutes later I reached for my daypack and realized in horror that I had left the pack (complete with camera lenses and phone) on the rock wall that fronted the poppy field. We sped back. The bag was gone. Impossible. We hadn’t been gone half an hour and there were no other cars on the road.

Poppy field in Puglia

While I lay morosely in the ditch, tearing hair and gnashing teeth, my wife Florence calmly analyzed the situation: “Why don’t we call your Iphone?” We expectantly dialed from her cell. No answer. I moped back to the roadside. Florence then suggested, “Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.”

“Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”

We broke bread, cut cheese and sliced salami. I tried vainly to enjoy a cold Peroni on this otherwise beautiful day. It seemed impossible that, in the short time we had been away, someone could have spotted my satchel in a rock crevice on this remote country lane. “There must be another explanation,” I muttered, “maybe a conspiracy.”

An hour later we were disconsolately packing up when a faded 1960’s era Fiat Panda pulled up and stopped tentatively beside us. An elderly man with glasses thick as an olive-oil bottle gazed out from behind the wheel. He eyed us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. A young boy with equally opaque glasses – obviously a blood relative – peered shyly from the passenger seat. Together they began a lengthy, incomprehensible Puglian discourse – and only when satisfied that we understood the situation, did they proudly retrieve my bag from the back seat.

“Mille, mille grazie,” I said, confused but genuinely grateful. I wanted a picture but the old signor waived us off and the aged Fiat puttered slowly away. “Yup,” Florence remarked, “a conspiracy.”

For years my patient wife has been suggesting, “We should spend a month in Italy.” And for ages I nodded – and deferred. But last spring when the annual request edged toward an ultimatum, in the interests of marital harmony, I acquiesced.

“And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.”

As seasoned travellers we often tour by the seat of our pants, plans random, frequently pulling into a strange town late afternoon searching for accommodation. This has worked well in some places but, in a country where you no speaka da lingua, advance booking is wiser – and infinitely less stressful.

So when the plane touched down at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport in early April, our four weeks of lodging – three nights here, four nights there – were all booked. Even our ride into Rome was arranged. A driver awaited us, patiently displaying a “Mr. and Mrs. Feehan” sign. And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.

We didn’t organize this trip on our own – nor did we use a tour company or travel agent. We employed a much better resource: Sandy, an acquaintance who loves Italy, has been there many times and knows exactly where to direct a couple of adventurous travellers in the land of the Azzurri.

Our friend fashioned the entire itinerary: four days exploring Rome, ten days in the south, a few days biking near San Marino and a final 10 days in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Her planning was so meticulous (right down to AirB&Bs in the heart of each town plus offering detailed day-trip ideas) that I feel we owe her a substantial commission – or maybe just a nice spaghetti dinner.

So for those looking for some free advice and a fool-proof schedule for your upcoming trip to Italy, Sandy’s phone number is…

Rome is a remarkable, fascinating place. This ancient capital of the empire is overflowing with architecture, museums, statuary, Roman ruins and wonderful old neighbourhoods. And despite the sprawling megalopolis that is modern Rome, its iconic sites (the Coliseum, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon and St. Peter’s) can all be visited in a day’s stroll.

Rome at night

 

Enjoying Trevi Fountain with a few hundred intimate friends

But Rome is overwhelmed with tourists. On average 40,000 people a day cue up to shuffle obediently through the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. April is allegedly shoulder season – and we had booked a “private tour” – but we still had to share Michelangelo’s artistic brilliance with a giant throng of gawking souls, heads uniformly craned toward the majestic ceiling.

The Vatican Museum

Like many big cities Rome is a little seedy. Pope Francis has allowed the homeless to camp within meters of St Peter’s Square. Unfortunately this generous gesture does not add to the curb appeal of the Basilica. We felt a little uncomfortable at night, dodging snoring vagrants, cardboard houses, used needles and other discarded paraphernalia.

Times are tough at St. Peter’s Square

I’m not a big city guy so after four days with the hawkers and beggars and tourists snapping pictures with their “selfish sticks” I was happy to pick up our rental car and head for sleepy Puglia, in Italy’s delightful south.

Although it has millennia of history, Italy is actually a new country – only a few years older than Canada. Giuseppe Garibaldi rode in on his horse and unified all the disparate kingdoms in 1861. But even today northern Italians tend to look down their noses at their southern brethren. And reciprocally a hint of proud defiance defines the Puglian character.

Puglians are defiant- but fashionable!

Our first stop in the south was Matera, a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its cliffside cave dwellings or sassi. These grottos have been continuously occupied since Neolithic times and the humble Materans are enormously proud of the “negative architecture” of these underground abodes.

One warm afternoon while we strolled a grassy cliffside path, a well-dressed middle-aged man stepped out from the shadows, cigarette dangling from his lips. He introduced himself as Fabrizio and invited us to visit his family sasso and the kitchen where traditional (tipica) food was served.

Fabrizio

“Quanto?” I asked suspiciously, concerned about the cost. “For the cave, free,” he said, “and if you wish something to eat, you decide what to pay.” It was nearly 1 p.m. and we were somewhat peckish, so we warily accepted his invitation.

“I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.”

Thus began the most interesting and enjoyable afternoon of our Italian visit. After showing us the intricately hand-carved rooms where the ancients slept and stabled their animals – as well as the cisterns where water and wine were stored – Fabrizio led us up a narrow passage to his open-air kitchen overlooking Matera.

The view from Fabrizio’s kitchen

Then he started the service. First, the antipasti: crusty bread with four olive oil dips, each infused with a local herb, then bruschetta made from shredded garlic and ripe dried tomatoes, then an amazing assortment of meats, cheeses and vegetables.

I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.

Fabrizio chatted constantly while he worked – a knowing smile on his face – educating us on local foods, customs and lifestyle. There was also an unending supply of wine, “vino rosso della casa,” vinted from primitivo grapes, which have been cultivated in this region for thousands of years.

“Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?”

There were so many courses I can’t recall them all – fish and more cheese were in there somewhere – but I know we finished with dolce (sweets) and a jolt of espresso.

Fabrizio’s motto is “less is more” but I’ve rarely eaten more in one sitting. Three hours after stumbling in on this amazing gastronomic and cultural experience, we stumbled out into the late afternoon sun. As we left Fabrizio called out, “Won’t you have some pasta Bolognese?” I think if we had kept eating he’d still be bringing out dishes.

And what was il conto you ask? He humbly, delightedly accepted 40 euro – about $60.

A couple of weeks later on the flight home, over the drone of jet engines, I asked Florence, “Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?” She raised her eyes toward the heavens, shook her head and said, “It must have been a conspiracy.” Then she smiled and nodded off.

Ostuni at night

Trulli House

Next time: Riccione and the Tuscan Hills

 

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

 

Enjoy an excellent adventure in Texas.  Click below.

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Todayville Travel: A ‘soft egg’ in the Nahanni Pt. 1

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This is the first in a three-part Yukon road trip series.

In German weichei means soft egg. It defines a person’s character. In Canada we call them wimps. Charly Kudlacek is from Frankfurt, Germany and, as eggs go, is hard-boiled. We met Charly and his wife Marion in a remote campground at Summit Lake on the British Columbia portion of the Alaska Highway. The place is so-named because of its location on the highest point of this international byway.

The “Alcan” starts in Dawson Creek, BC and ends 2237 kilometers later in Delta Junction, Alaska. Remarkably the highway was built in just eight months during 1942, designed to stave off a possible World War II Japanese invasion. Although June was nigh, Summit Lake was still covered in ice. We arrived late evening and set up camp. A solitary beaver, freshly emerged from winter lodging, coolly went about its business. Canadian summers are brief. We Albertans tend to enjoy them near home, with perhaps a visit to the mountains or a couple of weeks sunning and boating on a warm lake
in the Okanagan. I’d never been north of Grande Prairie, so we decided it was time to see more of Canada in its season of warmth; the great white north converted green by boreal springtime.

The Alaska Highway’s largest wooden bridge near Dawson Creek, BC.

My trip planning is poor: peruse a map, devise a vague strategy, perhaps talk to a couple of friends who have been to the parts unknown. I’ve attempted advance planning – reading about the sights, the flora, the fauna – but somehow it just doesn’t sink in for me until the experience actually happens. I learn as I go, waiting to see what’s around the next corner.

Charly was apologetic. “In former times I was not so slow and the distance would be much greater.”

A stranger at a campground in Fort Nelson told us about a bush pilot who flew floatplane charters from Muncho Lake, B.C. to remote Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park, in the Northwest Territories. I had no idea where Muncho Lake was. I checked the map and found it was two days up the road, directly on our path to the Yukon. I phoned and spoke to Marianne of Northern Rockies Lodge. She and her husband, Urs the bush pilot, own this beautiful spot on Muncho Lake. “Urs is in Vancouver getting the
floatplane ready for the season,” said Marianne in a thick Swiss accent. “The lake still has ice and he can’t land until it clears. Perhaps call again in a day or two.”

That was the night we camped at Summit Lake and met Charly and Marion. I asked them if they’d like to join us on a trip to Virginia Falls – if the ice cleared and Urs could fly in. I waxed eloquently, inflating my meager knowledge of the Nahanni (which I had gleaned from a guide book fifteen minutes earlier). The floatplane seats nine and Marianne had told me Urs wouldn’t fly with less than four paying customers. Germans have a propensity for austerity exceeded only by Scots, so I was not optimistic that our Alaska Highway adventure would include a spur-of-the-moment side trip to the Northwest Territories.

“We shall sleep on this,” announced Charly. In the morning crispness Charly informed me in a precise clip that, “Marion and I have slept on this and agree that we shall join you if the conditions permit.” We spent the next two days in the company of our newfound German friends, enjoying wonderful hiking in this remote corner of northeastern BC, enchanted by the sight of moose, grizzly bear, stone sheep, caribou, wood bison, and a countless variety of flying creatures.

Charly and Marion have made five trips to Canada. They have seen more of our home and native land than have I – an embarrassing admission. They never arrive unprepared. Their well-appointed rental camper van was fully equipped, except for an axe. Charly brought his own finely-edged Fiskar from Germany. After a particularly tiring day-hike up a melting mountain creek, Charly asked if I would like to join him for a short run down the highway. Naturally, I was stupid enough to acquiesce. 10 kilometers and an hour later I stumbled back to camp, lamely following his tireless legs.

Charly was apologetic. “In former times I was not so slow and the distance would be much greater.” When I collapsed into bed that night Charly was alternating between calisthenics and wood chopping. In the morning I stumbled out into the bright sun and found him washing in the cold creek. He’d been up for hours, eaten his morning repast of eggs, meat, cheese, tea, fruit and five pieces of bread and had completed 50 pushups and 100 sit-ups. Then he buckled down to real breakfast: a hearty bowl of Muesli.

Charly surveys a dicey path on the rotting ice

Did I mention that Charly is older than I? He is no weichei. They say the Irish (my heritage) would rule the world were it not for Guinness. After
observing Charly for a few days I have concluded that there is somewhat more to the equation. When we arrived at Muncho the lake was still half frozen and, crucially, ice still surrounded the lodge where the plane was to land. But Marianne told us Urs was en route from Vancouver and would be arriving soon. Sure enough, as we set up camp, a canary-yellow de Havilland floatplane droned overhead.

Marion is no weichei either

In the morning Urs told us that the landing had been dicey. He had spent a good portion of the night breaking a slushy path to get the plane ashore. “Night” doesn’t mean dark here in late May. The sun sets after 11 pm and is up again by 4 am. The interval is simply dusky. “What about tomorrow?” I asked Urs. “Can we fly to the Nahanni?” Urs is a big man, clad always in blue jeans and red suspenders. His name means “bear” in Swiss German. He looked at me, then warily at the lake. A wind had come up. We could see a wide river of rotten ice moving northward. Open water was within 300 meters of the Lodge. “Perhaps… if the wind continues and does not reverse direction.” I crossed my fingers. Our window of opportunity was closing. Charly and Marion had only one day to spare before continuing on to Whitehorse, Yukon. Our schedule was more relaxed, but without them we couldn’t do the charter.

Urs wouldn’t be caught dead without his red suspenders

In the morning the ice had moved. It was a bluebird day. But still Urs was worried. He would decide at noon. I’m not renowned for my patience; but I am a biblical Job next to Charly who paced the morning away, unable to control the situation, awaiting word from Urs. “Impatience. This is a minus point for me,” Charly admitted.

A stone sheep casts a stony gaze

In the past I’ve mentioned a phenomenon known as “the Feehan thing”. This entails arriving at the last possible moment, uninformed, ill-prepared, sans reservation, but expecting top-notch service. Invariably it works like a charm. At noon Urs announced the flight was a go.

The de Havilland sits ice-free in Muncho Lake


He gently lifted the retrofitted 1959 de Havilland off the emerald waters of Muncho Lake and banked over the Lodge. Our hour and a half flight crossed the BC border at 60 degrees north, swiping a corner of the Yukon Territory before entering the NWT. Urs treated us to a spectacular 360-degree view of Virginia Falls before landing upstream of the cascade. He touched the plane down softly, wary of deadheads floating down the swollen Nahanni River. We were Nahanni’s first visitors of the year, arriving even before Parks Canada set up camp for the season.

The Falls, a world-renowned UNESCO site, are twice the height of Niagara Falls. An icy spring pillar hung precariously down the center of the water’s 102-meter descent. Downstream the torrent curved through ochre cliffs en route to its confluence with the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean three thousand kilometers away. Our stay in the Nahanni was brief – after just a few hours aground we were skimming back up off the river. Urs offered us a last spectacular glance at the Falls. Then the old plane banked southward, skirting vast unexplored ridges of the Northwest Territories. In the early evening light, the northern-most tip of the Rocky Mountains appeared, signaling our return to British Columbia.

Virginia Falls roars with Nahanni’s spring melt

It was well past 8 pm when the de Havilland touched down perfectly on the calm waters of Muncho Lake. The sun was still high in the sky. We hopped from the plane’s floats to the dock and bid goodbye to our German friends. Before heading down the road Charly offered a heart-felt hug – confirming that, inside, all good eggs are soft.

The Rocky Mountains end where B.C. meets the Yukon

Next time: Dawson City and the Dempster Highway

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

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Click to read Part 1 of Gerry’s adventures in Italy.
Click to read Part 2 of Gerry’s Italy adventure.

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Red Deer

Todayville Travel: Spring in Italy Part 2

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Second in the two-part series ‘Spring in Italy’.

“My head was down, focused on my churning bicycle pedals and the relentless climb up a twisting cobblestone road. What was I doing here? I’m not even fond of biking.”
The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is located smack dab in the middle of Italy. At 62 sq. km. it is one of the smallest nations in the world. Although only a few dozen kilometers from Italy’s Adriatic Coast, San Marino’s summit is almost 800 meters above sea level. And crowning this mountainous micro-state is the medieval Fortress of Guaita. My destination.

But I wasn’t looking up. My head was down, focused on my churning bicycle pedals and the relentless climb up a twisting cobblestone road. What was I doing here? I’m not even fond of biking.

I needed the exercise. We had been in Italy for almost two weeks and had yet to actually earn any of the fabulous meals we had devoured.

It was a tough three-hour slog to San Marino’s pinnacle – but an easy glide back down to the coastal town of Riccione, and the Belvedere Hotel where we were ensconced for four nights. The Belvedere is a “biker’s” hotel. Marina Pasquini, the proprietress, is a dynamic effervescent woman. Marina exudes the qualities of both caring mother and astute businesswoman. Her staff love her – and feed off her magnetism. This osmotic energy carries through to the guests – who are treated like family.

Marina is a wonderful cook. So after a gruelling 70-kilometre ride, I felt justified in accepting a second helping of her traditional Friday night paella. Marina is also an observant woman (I wouldn’t try stealing any silverware from the Belvedere). When we checked in she noted I was toting a ukulele:

“Would you like to play at lunch this afternoon? You’ll be biking up to a farmhouse and winery in the hills.”

“I can’t carry the ukulele on my bicycle,” I replied.

“Don’t worry, we can bring it up for you,” she said happily. “It will be wonderful.”

How could I say no?

Marina and her Friday night paella

“…I enjoyed driving in Italy. Despite their crazy reputation, I found Italian drivers really get it (unlike some folks piloting cars on Alberta’s highways)…”

On the ride up my wife Florence had bike problems. Her chain kept falling off. Our guide Dani-boy was nonchalant and pleasantly attended to each messy repair. When we arrived at the farmhouse his hands were black with grease.

Thanks Dani!

During lunch I scoured my brain for an appropriate tune to entertain a group of bicycle aficionados in the Rimini hills of Italy. After a four-course meal, a sweet dolce and plenty of vino di casa, the group was rambunctious. I tentatively plinked the ukulele.

An exhausted Gerry enjoys the view from the summit of San Marino

My truncated version of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” went over well.

Then I recounted Florence’s bike chain maladies by singing (with apologies to the Beatles):

“Chain, my baby’s got a tangled-up chain,

And it ain’t the kind, that you can cl-e-e-e-an,

But Dani-boy, fixed her chain for me. Yeah.”

The crowd went wild. Bike enthusiasts can be real nerds.

Dani-boy had a genuine tear in his eye. Despite their hot-blooded temperament, Italians can be surprisingly sentimental.

On our last Belvedere morning, as we checked out, the skies opened up. Disheartened cyclists, decked out in jerseys from around the world, sat and scanned the dreary sky. The ride was off for the day. Rain, steep narrow roads, zany Italian drivers and over-enthusiastic bicyclists do not mix well.

Marina was in the foyer to bid us arrivederci, offering a genuine hug – and a request that we soon return.

We were off to Tuscany, the final leg of our month-long stay in Italia. The GPS indicated that our AirBnb in Lucca was three hours away. But as per our usual modus operandi we took the road less travelled and turned what should have been a short jaunt into a seven-hour odyssey through the twisting narrow country roads and unsurpassable beauty of Tuscany.

The road less traveled

I enjoyed driving in Italy. Despite their crazy reputation, I found Italian drivers really get it (unlike some folks piloting cars on Alberta’s highways). I survived a month driving in Italy without incident: no fender-benders on narrow cobblestone streets, no roundabout collisions – and not one Italian offered a gesticulation as to where I might go and procreate.

However… it will be a miracle if the post office doesn’t eventually deliver a slew of photo-radar tickets and one-way street infractions. It is not an understatement to suggest that compliance with Italian driving laws is impossible. And Italian roads require super-human navigating skills. Florence (and our GPS) performed admirably – we were lost fewer than a dozen times.

When we arrived in Lucca our hostess met us outside the town walls, helped us park and escorted us to her lovely apartment in the heart of the Old City. (Our AirBnb experience throughout Italy was amazing. Our hosts were uniformly friendly, helpful – and available. Many even stocked the fridge with Italian delights for our arrival.)

Lucca

One fine afternoon we signed up for a wine-tasting tour in the famous Brunello region of Montalcino, near Sienna. En route we passed vineyard after vineyard, interrupted only by ancient olive groves. And it seemed every Tuscan hill was topped by an alluring fairytale-like village – with stone spires guarding the verdant fields of Italian spring.

“Mario loves making vino, his passion for sixty years. He has a certain – pardon my French – joie de vivre.”
Mario Ciacci is the octogenarian who founded and still oversees Abbadia Ardenga winery – although these days Mario’s role seems limited to entertaining customers, dancing with the lady guests – and sipping a little of his own beautifully-aged Brunello. He proudly walked us through the vintner’s process – and his priceless cellar – before serving us a simple lunch coupled with a multitude of his Abbadia vintages.

Mario Ciacci woos the ladies – when not making wine

Mario loves making vino, his passion for sixty years. He has a certain – pardon my French – joie de vivre. Mario is also a seasoned salesman; in addition to my traffic tickets, any day now we’re expecting an overseas shipment of Brunello wine.

After three nights in Lucca and four in Sienna we moved on to Orvieto for our final few Italian nights. In each of these towns the itinerary was simple: explore the narrow, confusing streets of the city core for a day, then hop in the car and tour the surrounding countryside for a couple of days.

Ponte Della Madallena near Lucca

“The gold-gilded façade of the Duomo is spectacular at sunset.”
All of these walled cities have their unique character but Orvieto is perhaps the most charming – and interesting. Built atop a flat butte of volcanic tuff, the town has remained impregnable for millennia. Its high walls provide a natural defense that could not be breached. The city was also immune to enemy siege. Water was drawn from the ingeniously designed well of San Patrizio and food literally flew in through the windows: the people farmed pigeons. Thus both food and water were readily available without leaving the protection of the fortress.

Orvieto is home to one of Italy’s most striking Gothic cathedrals. The gold-gilded façade of the Duomo is spectacular at sunset. And beneath the streets an ancient labyrinth of tunnels was carved into the tuff, designed for quick escape. (Perhaps flight from this siege-proof city would have been necessary had Orvieto been infiltrated by stool pigeons?)

Duomo in Orvieto

We’ve been home for some time now and the traffic tickets have yet to arrive – but I take solace in the fact that when they do there will be a hearty glass of Brunello at hand to ease the pain.

If you go: The Belvedere Hotel specializes in hosting bike enthusiasts from around the world.

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

 

 

Read about Gerry’s adventures in Hawaii

Enjoy an excellent adventure in Texas.  Click below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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