Day 10. You don’t have to put on the red light.

So … we thought to let our car thaw out and us to sleep in. It was Saturday after all. A day for a good, old fashioned egg breakfast of the type not popular in Italy. I had seen a menu in a café nearby that listed such things, so our course was set for there. In this old town, a turn to left instead of one to the right clan lead you into some unexpected places.

Take the other night, we took a turn in roughly the direction of our place and found ourselves in an interesting area where you could see people’s living rooms from the street. It was an interesting part of town, because there weren’t any men in those living rooms, but there were a few knocking on various doors. And the living rooms apparently had beds in them, and … we’re just a pair of innocent ‘strayans abroad, but it only took a few minutes to realise we weren’t in Kansas anymore. It took ages and helpful glances at the Google machine to find our joint, which was probably 50m away (as the crow flies) but a dozen narrow streets and sharp turns and a decent 15 minutes walk.

Turn two streets early and you’re in a baaaad place!

Anyway, we wondered down to the funky end of town, down a number of more salubrious and damned respectable alleyways heading to breakfast, when we found a church (you can find a church every 100 metres if you want) that was invitingly open and decorated all pretty in preparation for a wedding. There was a tree out the front decorated with small bags of rice, we assumed for the throwing of, and flowers inside with a special, white kneeling thing setup for the couple’s nuptials. There was even a fellow playing Vivaldi on the white cloth covered synth in the corner. Noice.

We pushed on to our café, Doppio Zero, and ordered the big breakfast, which included coffee, juice an omelette and assorted meats and cheeses. It took a while, but it was worth the wait. The omelette was serviced with toasted bread and slices of prosciutto cotto, Swiss cheese. It was good, but I don’t think it was ordered very often – there was a lot of discussion about the omelette and how to make it.

Pip on stage with snow dregs

Full of egg and such, we headed back out to the streets of Lecce and found the Museo del Teatro Romano, a museum built around an Roman theatre found by accident in 1929. The museum isn’t in the ‘greatest museums I have visited’ category, but provided an interesting diversion for a half hour or so, and a quick romp around the unearthed teatro.

Full of Latin and stuff, we roamed a little further down the strada to a modern art museum called MUST, the historical museum of Lecce. There approach can be described as, ‘where modernity enlightens history’. A lovely gallery with a couple of exhibitions, one about the region’s pre-eminent, papier-mâché artist, whose name now escapes me (embarrassment) and another which was a collaboration with artists from Taiwan. This was a roam most worthwhile.

MUST exhibition

After MUST, we headed down to the amphitheatre, which is in the main piazza at the place where the the old and new towns meet and headed into an amazing cake shop, Cafe Alvino (subtitled – Le dolce fantasie) where we surveyed the broad expanse of cakes before settling on two small ones to have with our coffee in the sala interna. Once consumed it seemed like a good idea to have a wine, before the walk home, which we did.

Afternoon took us back to the supermarket district, which encompassed the department store precinct. Remembering that this was Epiphany eve which is the day Italians swap gifts, the department store was wild. We’ve been to one like this before, COIN (pronounced CO-IN), but never at this time. The toy queue was long and solid, in fact all the queues were long and solid. After COIN, we visited a few more  shops, then hit the supermarket, ostensibly to atone for the chicken disaster of a few days ago. We approached and quickly discovered that our earlier visit had realized us a hen rather than a chicken. So chicken in hand, we returned home and Pip, using the excellent stock she squeezed from the fail bird, made an excellent roast chicken meal for us.

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Day 9. Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

Today we had arranged to meet our man in Cisternino, Pierdonato, to look at some properties there. It’s about an hour and a bit’s drive there and we were keen start early. It was cold when we woke and a quick peek out the window saw a thin layer of snow over everything. Seeing only a thin layer of snow did not deter us, so we headed up to the car to discover that it was covered in about 6 inches of snow that had fallen over night. Still we weren’t deterred – it wasn’t snowing now and the streets were clear.

Always clear the snow of the roof of the car

We pushed all the snow off the roof of the car (remembering the near disaster we had last time we drove with a pile of snow on the roof – it melted in the sun and slid forward down the windscreen blinding us at a particularly inopportune time!) because we learn. We headed out into the streets just as more snow began falling, but still brave and determined. Our man in Cisternino rang Pip at that very moment to advise that there had been a lot of snow in Cisternino and it would be better to delay until Monday, especially considering that his office was closed.

So there we were. In car. GPS primed and destination loaded. Not too much snow about the place … we decided to go to Brindisi, figuring that it was a port town and taking into consideration that the weather app said there was no snow there. Out onto the autostrada and not too many problems, apart from the snow increasing as we approached Brindisi. By the time we reached the Brindisi exit, there were what might as well have been a blizzard. Our tiny windscreen wipers were frozen and our de-misters were on full and the GPS guided us to the train station for some reason. The train station was in great disarray with all the trains ‘in retardi’ for 60minutes due to the weather. 

We took a quick spin around the city in the car as this was most definitely not the weather for walking – strong wind and snow – and ended up back at the station for a fortifying coffee in the attached bar and some shelter from the weather.

No longer brave and facing the prospect of an unscheduled night in Brindisi, we opted to try and drive back to Lecce on the autostrada. By this stage, the snow had covered everything and the traffic had slowed (unbelievable for Italians) and the single file journey back to Lecce in the slow lane at about 30kph took ages. The drivers were hesitant to use the fast lane for overtaking because it had less traffic and therefore heaps of snow and ice, whereas the slow lane was relatively clear, with much less of the slippery stuff. There were also visibility issues and the trip took about an hour and a half instead of 30 minutes.

Upon our return, a quick trip to the supermarket was required for wine and a packet of frozen peas (to ice Pip’s sore back). Both were sourced, though eagle-eyed Pip checked the scontrino (receipt) and rather boldly I thought, went back to challenge the  checkout woman (who frightened me) about an apparently errant 5 euro charge. The peas claimed the woman, they’re expensive. “Well, I’ll put this tiny packet of frozen peas back then”, said Pip. “You can’t put back – only exchange”, said scarypants. So naturally, Pip exchanged the peas for a bottle of gin for 2 euros more. It’s the principal of the thing. I fought the urge to rush back into the shop and say, “No! What will the children eat tonight. Not gin again!”.

The ribollita

This was the perfect night to devour the ribollita that our host had delivered us yesterday, and to settle in to watch end-on-end episodes of Merlin, the only English TV we could find.

Day 8. Blow winds and crack your cheeks

When we were here in 2017 we visited a number of white towns on hills, one of which was Cisternino. Since then Pip has been trawling the internet looking for an apartment that might slot into our affordable price range, and Cisternino had provided a couple to look at, along with the name of an agent with which to look. We headed up on spec – ie. without calling the agent and found a frightfully windy and cold town and no agent. Still, Cisternino is a fine town to visit.

Cisternino

It’s about an hour and a half northwest of Lecce in the Valle d’Itrea and to get their we set a course through Francavilla Fontana, which is really nothing more than a turn-off on the autostrada, but does have a rather fine service station café in the form of the Coimbra Brothers tavolo calda. As we pulled in to the servo, Pip pointed out that there was frozen rain (or tiny soft hailstones) starting to collect on the windscreen, and on the road. Snow! I don’t think it was snow – more likely sleet, but just as cold.

Coimbra Brothers tavolo caldo

Onward and up to Cisternino, (pronounced: Chis-TER-neeno) we arrived and almost had the door blown off the car when we opened it. Blustery is good word to describe it, blustery and frick’n freezing. We remembered this town quite well from our last visit – the old city is rather small and easily walkable, so we walked down and through looking for the real estate agent to surprise. We ended up calling the agent and arranging to return tomorrow to inspect a couple of flats. Busy real estate work completed, we sought out a luncheon venue.

We should have searched harder. We ended up at Mangiando Sotto Le Stelle, which was not the correct choice for our delicate sensibilities. Three tables, run by a family and equipped with a fryer. No English spoken – we were on our own. There was a sign of the counter that said, ‘Pettole’, which we now know means ‘things deep-fried in very thick batter’, which Pip picked, lured by the description of carciofi and bacala and which remained mostly uneaten. I picked a much safer choice – crumbed pork fillet on a bun, which was OK. Anyway, we made haste to leave that place behind and headed back to the car and back to Lecce.

Now despite the fact that our most genial host had provided us with another meal, ribollita this time, which we carefully stored for tomorrow night’s dinner, we headed out to dine at the nearest restaurant to us, Boccon Divino, which is exactly just around the corner. Great food and great wine. Pip had a pasta with speck and I had a delicious pasta soup with mussels, white beans and a beautiful broth. We shared the side which was a hot dish of chicory and capers and the dessert which was a caramel panna cotta. 

Pasta soup with mussels and white beans

The (thankfully) quick walk home was bone-chilling.

Day 7. I met my love by the castle walls

A new town to visit. Otranto, to the south of Lecce on the Adriatic coast. It’s a summer seaside resort and, as is usually the case of these former city states, the owner of a fine castle. 

The most toppest bit of the Aragonese Castello in Otranto

Our shiny Fiat would take 47 minutes according to the navi-google, and the weather was beautiful – clear blue skies and around 5C. I have become adept at maneuvering through the city traffic, though I’m never quite sure about the roundabouts, which bring memories of the dodgem cars at the show flooding back. We found a park handy to the castle (I don’t know how many times I’ve said that phrase at home!) and set off into the old city – the castle is at the top, naturally. The Aragonese Castle of Otranto was first completed around 400 and has been re-built and re-fortified and re-everythinged after each age of technological weapon advancement. Originally designed for bows and arrows, then re-configured with all new thicker walls for cannons, and then with actual cannons that required 15 hefty fellows to to hold the ropes to belay the recoil (I suspect this was not highly sought after work) and on and on until the day that castles could no longer defend against ‘splosions with actual explosives in them.

It’s been recently re-furbed and is largely an exhibition space, though there are excursions into the depths to see the ancient crypts. We tried to visit the castle at the start of our Otranto dive, but we had no cash, and the castle keepers had no EFTPOS connection despite waving the handset around and taking it outside – the thick rock walls I expect.

The castle would wait a few more minutes for us. We headed off into the narrow streets of the old town and wound our way down and to the Cathedral. Side note here – I’ve spent more time in churches here than I have in the last decade. This church, the Otranto Cathedral, has a 12th century mosaic floor (by Pantaleone) which features the tree of life and was designed to be easily understood by anyone who entered the Cathedral – Catholics, Greek Orthodox communities, Jews and Muslims – all those who lived and worked together in Otranto. It’s a breathtaking mosaic.

Breathtaking or not, we pushed on and down to the waterfront, for coffee, because we need coffee, and before we headed back up through the very touristy streets, filled with little ceramicy bits and pieces and restaurants with English menus out the front, and back to the castle, this time with cash.

It was well clean and the  restrooms were well appointed (this is not a feature of many of the castles we have visited – so it’s worth noting), but there wasn’t too much of the to castle see, and what there was, apart from a room or two of historical data, seemed to be turned over to a primary school art show. You pays your castle entry fee – you takes your chances. This castle did appear to have once had a fine moat, though how the water was channeled up to the top of the hill I am yet to discover.

Back to the new town and quick walk up the street took us to the very door of a little trattoria that didn’t have an English menu out the front – the delightfully named Aragonese Ristogarden – which seemed like a perfectly sensible option for lunch. It had only 6 tables and the owner/waiter/chef was an amiable Italian named Luca. So proud of his shiny new trattoria was he, that he showed us pictures of the renovations on his phone. Pip had a sepia pasta with scampi and I had a mixed grill … of pork with pork and pork with a salad of radicchio. It was delicious and Luca was keen to chat to us in slow Italian, so we could understand. But it was time to push on, and we had decided to go to the end of Italy for the afternoon.

The coastal road down the eastern side of the peninsula is spectacular. You could imagine a Bond car chase all the way along. It took us a couple of hours to ooh and ah along the road, through beautiful places like Santa Cesarea Terme and then through some less spectacular towns like Gagliano del Capo, until we reached the end of Italy at Leuca, right on sunset.

The quickest route back proved to be up the other side of the peninsula, to Gallipoli and across to Lecce – all by autostrada.

Day 6. There’s a guy works down the chip shop, swears he’s Federico

Lecce is near the Adriatic Sea on the eastern side of the Puglian peninsula – Gallipoli is on the Ionian Sea on the western side of said peninsula. In my mind, I thought it would take a couple of hours to cross to the other seaside, but nup – half an hour does it. Day 6 was New Year’s Day and I will fight you if you think the lyric of any particular U2 song would fit in here.

Since we were last in this region three years ago, we have held strong in our collective memory, an unassuming little restaurant in Monopoli that we stumbled upon and ate outrageously good seafood at one long afternoon. Unable to shake the memory of this for these three years, Pip and I  sought to re-create the experience by heading to a coastal town and stumbling around until we found a place that would fit the bill. Gallipoli was the place. Sunny, windy and freezing – a good start. The old town is on an island and is walled almost all the way around. We set off around the walls which are above the stupidly crystal clear sea, before heading in to the middle of the old town, which is where the action is.

Part of the action is a beautiful cathedral, the Basilica Concattedrale di Sant’Agata, completed in around 1700. The interior is gobsmackingly beautiful with paintings covering every available inch of the walls and ceilings, and the exterior too is pretty specky, which I find surprising because it faces a very narrow street and can’t be beheld in all its glory except by craning the neck up towards the parapets (but that may be the point). 

The cathedral is surrounded by touristy stalls selling sponges (this is a fishing and seafaring town), shell-stuff (like at Caloundra, only Italian). 

We headed down the street – and then the stumble! We found Osteria del Vico. It was a bit like going in the back door of someone’s house. The owner was sat a table just inside the door next to the kitchen door, with one other table near the steps up to restaurant proper. He told us the only available table was the one next to his at the bottom of the stairs (upstairs there were tables set for about 100 – all empty). We took up his offer and sat at what felt a bit like the kid’s table at Christmas time, while we persuaded the handwritten menu. Unlike us, we plumped for the degustation – five small share dishes, a primo and a secondo – and wine, we needed wine with this lot. This is lot of food.  Within a half hour of us being there, the top part of the restaurant starting filling up with families and before too long, the place (including a table of about 30) was rockin’.

Our food started and they came the raw prawn with us. True, it was in a delightful nutty sauce, but the prawns were fresh in this. There was cubed tuna with ricotta salata, there was octopus on fava beans with fior di latte, palomita (bonito) in olio and at least one other dish which has left my mind. We ate pasta with swordfish and eggplant with cream on top and a crumbed tuna steak and a mixed platter of lightly deep fried, kind of like tempura, seafoods. The Pietrabianca Chardonnay washed it all down and things were fine … and then the accordionista entered the room. Still, not even he could ruin the food excellence we had tasted, but he tried. It cost me five euros to shut him up. Actually, he came to our table on his way out the door and shoved his hat in my face – I gave him a fiver and he promptly shut up and shot out the door – I didn’t even get to request Stairway to Heaven (!)

We left Gallipoli, full as googs and shining from the Prickly Pear liqueur shot we closed the deal with (I liked it, but Pip compared it to perfumed mower fuel) and Pip gave the thumbs up to the chefs (the kitchen opened onto the street next to the door of the restaurant AND it was clean as a whistle!). Then we rolled through the rest of the ville, which seemed to be full of choc-a-blok restaurants in secret rooms that you got little glimpses of as you walked along, returned to the car and set the GPS course for Lecce and (eventually) nosed out onto the autostrada and home.

There was no talk of dinner that night.

Day 5. Sitting here in Lecce

Lecce has a main street running through the old town, called Via Giuseppe Libertini which starts at the Porta Rudiae and turns into Via Vittorio Emmanuele II and ends at the Roman amphitheatre in the main town square. The main town square was the centre of the Cappo D’Anno action – New Year’s Eve celebrations – and a stage was being erected with many lights and sound system bits when we arrived down the street. That far end of the city (from where we’re located) also flowed freely with tour groups, mostly Italian, following a range of tall objects, like Italian flags on sticks, or a giant sunflower on a stick. Sadly, there were no plastic chickens on sticks (I guess they haven’t reached here yet).

Lunch at the Cin Cin Bar

We had taken in the sights of the rather large preceppio in the Piazza del Duomo, a spot that seems to be rather a kiddie magnet at night with purpley projections on the buildings around the piazza. The other items of note along the main drag are the many African lads selling wares ranging from bags and shoes to tin toys and balloons.

No one ever seems to buy their stuff, but neither do they suffer abuse, at least not by the Leccese, who I have seen give them money without taking any items from them. I’m sure the traders of Lecce are not happy with them selling, in some cases similar items, in the street outside their stores.

I did almost lose Pip in one of the stores we passed. For some unknown reason, there is a shop in that street that sells truffles and truffley products, and offers free tastes of said goods. Pip is a truffle nut, though our budget usually only stretches as far as truffle oil, but here was a store that had the shop girl scrubbing fresh truffles with a nail brush at the cash register. There were tastes of such treats as Gorgonzola and truffle butter – OMG! – truffle honey, truffle straight up and who knows what else was in some of those jars. Suffice to say that now have special truffle oil and Gorgonzola extravaganza to eat before we leave.

Truffle ring

The other highlight of our morning’s walk about was an unexpected hail storm with hail the size of chick peas. There were instantly hordes of African lads with umbrellas for sale and the covered footpaths became prime real estate for the tour groups. We braved the crowdiness for lunch at the Cin Cin Bar, then popped back home to get the car and go food shopping at a proper supermarket.

Proper supermarket one (the Eurospin) was closed for inventory, so proper supermarket two (DOK) became our proper supermarket target. Still not sure where in Lecce this was, but it wasn’t in the old city and there wasn’t any easy parking. There was however, the usual two A’strayan folk wandering around with cameras and stupid grins on our faces trying to not buy too much stuff for a. The walk to the car, or b. The walk from the car to home at the other end.

We did buy a chicken with a view to roasting at home, however the chicken had a secret that we did not perceive – that of being a boiler. No amount of roasting that foul (I hope you see what I did there?) could turn it edible, so we’ll chalk that one up to a home cookery fail.

New Year’s Eve ended in a half hour’s burst of exploding fireworks, which we heard from the comfort of our bed.

Day 4. The Leccese twist, and it goes like this

Our late arrival meant that there was no food in the house, save some fruit provided by our host, coffee and milk. We also had a deadline to meet – it seems the car needs to have its parking paid for between 9am and 2pm and then again between 4pm and 9pm. There will be trundling to and from the home to the car bearing euro coins.

Our kind host had paid for the parking last night and, when she showed us into the house made mention of a dish of coniglio stew (bunny for the non-Italian speakers). So imagine our pleasure when she appeared at the door with a large pan of the aforementioned. Wabbit stew with polenta is now the official breakfast of champions.

The rest of day il numero uno in Lecce was spent familiarising ourselves with the local area – as with many Italian towns and cities, there is the new part and the old part. We are hold up in the old part (centro storico) with the tiny streets and behind the walls of the city. We headed out through the Porta and over to a small supermarket to lay in some supplies and go all googly-eyed at the range of yummy things that was crammed into a store the size of your average A’strayan 7-11, only narrower. These yummy things included all manner of fresh deli items; an extensive range of beer, wine and spirits; and all the usual supermarkety stuff. Naturally we knew that this was a stop-gap supermarket and there would be larger delis and more extensive ranges of stuff in one of the ‘real’ supermarkets we would need to drive to on another day.

Pip at Porta Rudiae
Pip at Porta Rudiae

Home early and Pip whipped up a tasty pasta with some mushrooms (freshly plucked from the very earth itself – as witnessed by the dirt around their bases) and a strange, small box of porcini crema. Our travel-weary bones are almost back to full-strength for the days ahead.