1998 was a momentous year. I had just turned 50 and was divorced. A college friend and I decided to take a momentous trip to celebrate. I was imagining New York City or Chicago, but a few days later an ad appeared in the newspaper: Fly to Milan on Continental for $432. And thus began my love affair with Italy.
Flying into Florence for the first time in 30 years was pretty exciting. Renting a place in the Chianti region of Tuscany was over the top. And the top was exactly where we were. We rented an apartment in a converted convent, on the top floor, eye level to the bell tower. The bells rang at 6 in the morning every day. It seemed as if they were in my bedroom! But we did not want to miss a minute of daylight, so we got up with the bells, showered and dressed, were off for the day. We often came home late, in the dark, exhausted, but full of bella Italia.
Over the years I continued to come to Italy. Once a year quickly grew to twice a year then more– and suddenly I had created a small business. I brought travelers to Italy. I am careful not to say tourist. Tourists, to me, are those who move as fast as they can, seeing every famous site, checking it off their list, taking thousands of pictures and never once stopping to chat with the man who sells fish at the market or the woman who makes the wonderful fresh pasta. I encourage those who travel with me to explore on their own, go down a dark alley to see what is around the corner, try a gelato that is NOT chocolate, the only flavor they recognize, and engage with the shopkeepers, the restaurant owners, the cheesemaker.
I have become very familiar with quite a few parts of Italy—having traveled from the lakes in the north, to Venice and Verona, all through Tuscany and Umbria, south to Rome and the Amalfi Coast and most recently to Puglia.
I have one thing to say about Puglia. What took me so long? Puglia is magic. It is poetry. It fills one’s soul. It is, to quote one of the funny travelers with me “like going to Greece but you don’t have to get on a boat and the food is better.” From the sparkling white city of Ostuni to the ancient hillside of Matera to the trulli in the UNESCO city of Alberobello, Puglia is filled with some of the most unique sights in all of Italy. Another thing I try to teach those who travel with me—don’t expect every town to be famous for something. We don’t go to a town just to see one sight. We go to take it all in. The churches, restaurants, shops, gardens and people—they all come together to give each town its personality. And Puglia has plenty of personality!
We still have a lot to see and explore, but my short list of favorite places starts with Locorotondo. This is a small town with nothing there…on the surface. I deliberately separated the group and let everyone wander on their own. I could hear their exclamations echoing as they walked through the spotless little town, seeing a cat sunning himself in a window, a huge pot of geraniums on a front step, a tiny coffee shop with only two tables outside. One of the ladies found a small dress shop where the owner made all the clothes by hand. There was a tiny chapel, which only held a handful of people. We met for a drink and everyone had a story to tell about what they had seen. This is what it is about—not a quick, superficial look, but taking the time to dig in a little. To see people doing their every day work.
We loved the towns on the seacoast, as well. We were very close to Monopoli and Polignano a Mare. Visiting the small harbor in Monopoli, we saw a crowd of people gathered. We walked over to see what was happening. A fishing boat was tied up at the dock and the local citizens were buying seafood straight off the boat—fish and octopus and shrimp that had been swimming just hours, possibly minutes, earlier. It was a beautiful sight. As I turned away, a man motioned me over to his car. The trunk was open and from it he was selling fresh strawberries. He held one up and without thinking I opened my mouth and he popped in it. It was sweet and juicy and tasted of the sun. I can still feel it on my tongue. I want to go back and have another one…served just like that.
Everyone needs to come to Italy once in their life. It gets under your skin. Once won’t be enough. But do yourself a favor—don’t save Puglia for the end of your travels. Go early and go often. Linger a while. Sit by the sea and listen to the waves. You will never want to leave.
Travels with Kyra