wine Posts

7 (Really Cool) Things to Do When You (Finally) Arrive in Puglia

Okay, so maybe your idea of what’s cool and mine are different, but if you can go along with me on this, we can get past the issue.  Let’s just agree that if something is sensually pleasing, a bit rare and puts a smile on your face, it’s cool.

Having dispensed with the definitions, I present you with the 7 things you should do when you visit Puglia that meet the criteria for cool.

1.  Stay in a trullo

The Valle d’Itria area of central Puglia is the only place in the world where you can find the conical-rooved structures known as trulli and there are plenty of them around for you to rent during your visit.  The stones that are used to construct these unique buildings can be a meter or more thick and ensure that you will be cool during the heat of the summer and warm during the winter.  Legend has it that the mortarless stone roof of the trullo was designed to be quickly removed when the tax collector approached so as to decrease the property owner’s tax burden.  (Only that area under-roof was taxed.)  This is, perhaps, among the earliest and crudest attempts at tax evasion in Italy but, have no fear.  Tax avoidance has evolved into an artform since those days, one that is practiced throughout the country.

At the risk of appearing self-serving, this is the trullo you should sleep in

At the risk of appearing self-serving, this is the trullo you should sleep in

2.  Eat burrata

Just imagine a sack about the size of your fist made of mozzarella and imagine that, inside that sack is a helping of sweet cream and strands of more mozzarella.  Well, that’s exactly what burrata is and it’s luscious.  Cut the ball open and the thick, creamy filling oozes out and provides a buttery exclamation point to the fresh mozzarella and to anything else on the plate.  My favorite way to eat burrata is over fresh tomatoes drizzled with our own olive oil.  A true Pugliese will not eat burrata past the day when it was made so buy it fresh and eat it that day.

3.  Dip your toes into the Adriatic and Ionian Seas–on the same day

Have lunch in Otranto at one of the many restaurants along the Adriatic beach in the town and then make the 44 km (28 mile) drive across the heel of the boot to Gallipoli on the Ionian coast and, after touring the seaside town, have dinner.  In both places you will find the freshest of fish and other seafoods including a primo of spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti with clams).  You’ll never look at pasta the same way.

Gallipoli, on the shores of the Ionian Sea

Gallipoli, on the shores of the Ionian Sea

4.  Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site at Alberobello

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “Gee, I wish I could visit Hobbiton,” then you should schedule a trip to Alberobello.  The centro storico of the town is made up almost entirely of trulli.  At one time, these trulli were residences.  Today, however, the structures house restaurants, souvenir and craft shops and bodegas featuring Pugliese offerings.  Walk to the top of the hill to the trullo church, a beautiful example of trullo architecture taken to more modern times.

Alberobello at Christmas

Alberobello at Christmas

5.  Taste the wines of the Salento 

Some of Italy’s and, indeed, the world’s best wines are being produced in the Salento area of southern Puglia.  The red wines from primitivo, negroamaro and malvasia nero varietals can be deep and complex.  The rosatos range from light, citrus-based and crisp to medium-bodied and flavorful.  White wines from the region are made from verdeca and a white grape indigenous to the area around Locorotondo (not technically in the Salento, but close enough).

Primitivo di Manduria

Primitivo di Manduria

6.  Watch locals dance the Tarantella

The tarantella is a dance originally set to mimic a person’s reaction to the bite of the wolf spider or tarantula.  It is a high-energy display and it seems that everyone in southern Italy has mastered it.  The pizzica as the dance is called in parts of Puglia is not just a physical demonstration, but is a clearly emotive experience and simply watching the choreography unfold evokes some degree of empathy.

Dancing the tarantella

Dancing the tarantella

7.  Take a cooking class

The food of Puglia is, not unlike that of other regions of Italy, unique and more than worthy of investigation.  The pasta of Puglia is orrichiette (little ears) and is traditionally served with a thin tomato sauce and rape (broccoli rabe), a bitter green similar to chicory.  You can learn how to make the pasta though I can say from experience that forming the pasta in just such a way as to allow the sauce to collect in the hollow is an art that takes practice.  I have yet to become even modestly competent in the art.  Much of the cuisine of Puglia comes from the sea so your education will likely include the preparation of octopus, mussels and local fish such as bronzino and orata.  If you prefer a meat course, perhaps you will work with fillet of horse or donkey, both of which are popular in the towns of inland Puglia.

Octopus, Pugliese-style

Octopus, Pugliese-style

 

I could go on and typically I do, but I’ll stop with 7 items.  But please feel free to suggest others.  Just make sure that they’re cool.

Photos (as always) by the beautiful and talented Jessica Coup.  See her work at www.jessicacoup.com.

Of Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate: Part 1

Among the reasons that Jessica and I moved to Italy is the relative ease with which we could travel to other parts of Europe.  Since settling in Puglia, we have visited such places as Amsterdam, Malta, Munich, Salzburg, Croatia and many parts of Italy and done so without investing a great deal of time or money.  With the exception of Amsterdam and Malta, however, all of these excursions were done by car (or CRAMPER) or ferry.  We often spoke of doing a trip by train and availing ourselves of the rail system for which the Continent is renowned.  Recently, we stopped just talking about it and began to seriously plan the journey.  Arranging the logistics for the 15-day, 10-city tour seemed daunting at first but, after the route was plotted, the Interrail tickets bought, the train reservations made, the flights booked, and the hotel rooms reserved, the real anxiety set in.  We were well-familiar with navigating airports, but train stations were another animal.  We entered our first train terminal confident only in the fact that we would learn much in the coming two weeks.

The first leg was a two-hour flight from Brindisi to Geneva, Switzerland, and a quick (and free) train ride from the airport to the center of this incredibly expensive city on an alpine lake.  After checking into our painfully-expensive (though quite austere) hotel and dropping off the small backpacks that represented our only bits of luggage, we took a stroll along the lakefront, noting the number of Bentleys, Porsches and big Beamers, and past expensive hotels.

“We’re not in Puglia anymore, Toto,” I said, but to Jessica, not Toto.

Geneva where beauty comes at a price

Geneva where beauty comes at a price

We had an incredibly expensive dinner at an amazingly mediocre Indian restaurant all while listening to a husband and wife full-throatedly talking about women’s breasts (Husband: “I never realized how many different kinds of tits there were.”  Wife: “Neither did I and I have tits.”) as their two teenage sons sipped on their Coca Colas.  We went back to our hotel.  We arose early the next morning so that we could stop at the first Starbucks we had seen in many months before catching the train to Lausanne.  We had to wait for the Starbucks to open that morning, inexplicably since it was nearly 7:00 when we arrived but we would learn that Switzerland is a late-rising culture.  We savored each drop of the two grande cappuccini we ordered and Jessica scraped the bottom of the little plastic cup of yogurt she bought, our having spent the equivalent of $24 for the three items.

A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

It is only a half-hour trip from Geneva to Lausanne so it was much too early to check into our next over-valued hotel room.  We checked our backpacks at the hotel before heading out to catch a bus to the Chateau de Chillon, which made all the more perplexing the question we got from a fellow bus-waiter.

Chateau de Chillon, a little place on the lake

Chateau de Chillon, a little place on the lake

“Are you guys going to the hostel?” the young stranger asked.

“No.  Are you saying that we look like we’re going to a hostel?”  I responded.  He didn’t react.

I should note here that Soul of the Heel is not a travel blog so please don’t expect to read boring descriptions here of museums, castles, forts, government buildings, blah, blah, blah. If you want that, google Rick Steves who was our constant guide throughout the trip and from whom you can learn such things as the fact that the hot dog is called a wiener throughout most of Europe because it was “invented” in Vienna (Wien, in the German language) by a guy from Frankfurt except that in Vienna itself, it’s called a frankfurter.  Got it?  Anyway, we found Lausanne to be like Geneva in the respect that, at the slightest provocation, businesses extracted large amounts of money from us.

The next morning, Jessica passed on the Starbucks yogurt so our cappuccini bill was only $20.  The train we caught that morning took us to Bern, Switzerland’s capital city.  The town center boasts six miles of shopping but we could afford none of it.  Bern was, like the rest of Switzerland, it seems, expensive.

The Bern streetscapes are charming

The Bern streetscapes are charming

Our fourth day on the road started with a train ride to Zurich, a city where things are very expensive.  In this northern Switzerland city, we stayed in a hotel called an Ibis Budget Hotel.  Our room had a bunkbed, the shower was right next to the bed, and the stall where the toilet was had a swinging door.  The mattress felt like something manufactured by Weyerhauser and there was no thermostat.  The place would make a Spartan uncomfortable and was just a tiny step up from camping.  But, at least it was right next to train tracks and just across from an open-all-night bar.  (I just don’t know how people can afford to drink all night here.)  I guess this is why we only had to pay $130 for the night.

We roamed the streets of Zurich, passing stores with familiar names and high prices, and came upon a restaurant that announced Mexican fare.  Since Mexican cuisine is not readily available in Puglia and, despite the fact that I had never heard anything about the quality of Mexican food in Switzerland, we stopped.  The lack of authenticity in what was set before us was obvious when we tasted the “Hot Sauce.”  Instead of being spicy, the red sauce was simply warmed ketchup.  Oh well.  At least the meal was expensive.

A stroll along the river in Zurich is a must-do

A stroll along the river in Zurich is a must-do

Zurich's version of a parking lot

Zurich’s version of a parking lot

We left Switzerland and it left us with some indelible impressions:

1.  It’s expensive.

2.  It has a natural beauty that few places possess with stunning mountain views, quaint architectural elements and dramatic lakescapes.

3.  The country’s renowned neutrality extends beyond its politics and characterizes its food, wine and, in many respects, its culture.  There just isn’t much there to distinguish them.

4.  The trains run perfectly on time, a function, I suppose, of there being so many clocks around.

After a day in Zurich, we strapped on our backpacks, jumped on yet another train, and, without having had a single morsel of chocolate during our 4 days in Switzerland, headed to our next stop: Heidlberg, Germany.

Next:  Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate:  Part 2

Three (Unassailable) Reasons You Should Not Retire and Move to Another Country

I believe I speak from a position of “been there, done that,” when I advise you to stay where you are, as you are, and continue to live a life in which your hard work is rewarded with a bi-weekly check automatically deposited into your joint checking account.  No recognition of your toil can be more satisfying than that electronic transfer of funds and no better barometer of your value as a human being can be found than your value as a good employee to your bosses.

The reasons for continuing to work at your job and avoid the temptation of chucking it all and trying to find a comfortable existence in a foreign country are numerous, but here are my top three.

You LOVE your job.

Come on, just admit it: you love your job.  It has become your social network, your basis of self-worth, your very identity.  What would you ever do with your time were it not for the challenge of the to-do list you embrace every morning?  Oh, sure, you could take the huge step of substituting your daily work efforts with those of learning a new language, making new friends and adapting to a new culture, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  It’s very hard work and, since you’ve been at your job for decades and can almost do it in your sleep, why take on a new intellectual challenge and push yourself?  Just sit back in the comfort of your life and, whatever you do, don’t take those kinds of risks.  Pay no attention to Eleanor Roosevelt who unwisely said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  I find myself faced each day with a new challenge–speaking a language that I am not fluent in, dealing with a culture with which I am unfamiliar and eating foods that are, well, different– and it is uncomfortable.  I’m no longer a “vice president” or an “executive.”  I just have to be me and that’s scary.  I yearn for the days when I could simply show up at my office, take up my position behind my desk, look and feel important and read and respond to emails all day.  Now THAT’S living.

Would YOU eat this?

Would YOU eat this?

You can’t afford it.

Be honest.  You can’t afford to retire.  No matter how much money you’ve saved, regardless of the size of your 401(k) plan, and despite your stock portfolio that’s growing by the day, you’re silly if you think that you’ll ever have enough money to hang up the ol’ spurs (assuming you’re a cowboy) and ease into a life of leisure.  You have been raised to acknowledge that you must work until you have not only enough money to support yourself post-career, but you must then die quickly enough to ensure that your children can live the life that you might have had you been less responsible.  You should ignore the fact that there are many places in the world, absolutely amazing places, where the cost of living is lower and the quality of life is higher than where you are now.  And the mere thought of, perhaps, changing your life in ways that would allow you to live a less-costly life, is ridiculous.  Why should you sit on a beach at sunset, spread a blanket on the sand and dig into the bread and cheeses that you packed, washing them down with a crisp white wine, when you can go to an expensive restaurant and let someone else do the work, right?  And who would have the nerve to suggest that you resign your health club membership and, instead, get your exercise by riding your bicycle to the local market?  Trust me, it’s better that you work for a few more years and a few more years after that and, if you’re lucky, you will one day have almost enough money to begin to live before you die.  I made the mistake of retiring when I COULD, not when I should have. Another “couple a mill” in the bank and I could fly to Croatia instead of taking the ferry and I could still be drinking wine from expensive bottles instead of out of plastic jugs.  Forget that we can go to Croatia or Greece by ferry or go just about any place in Europe by car or, after just a half-hour flight, be in Malta.  And nevermind that the wine we buy by the jug comes straight from the producers and is the same stuff for which people in the US pay $20 a bottle.  I just wish that I had stayed at that desk and made more money so that I could spend it on those $20 bottles instead of having to buy the same wine for the $1.50 I pay now.

Dubrovnik, Croatia...

Dubrovnik, Croatia…

Greece...

Greece…

Malta...Ho hum.

Malta…. We just can’t afford to do much in our retirement.

You’ll be bored.

If your retirement is anything like mine, you’ll be spending it sitting on your butt, just thinking, sometimes with your mouth hanging open.  Your mind will become undisciplined and wandering and you will find yourself constantly trying to figure out what to do with your newly-found leisure time.  For Jessica and me, our typical day begins late in the morning since we stay in bed until we feel like getting up.  Our first hour is spent drinking a cappuccino under the span of a 200-year old olive tree that spreads just outside our front door.  Boring.  After a cappuccino, there’s really nothing to do but to have another one, so we do.  Sounds exciting, huh?  After that, just to kill some time, we might take a drive to one of the medieval hilltop towns scattered about the Pugliese countryside and wander aimlessly around its historical center, looking at buildings that were old 500 years ago.  Yawn.  Or, if we’re desperate, we might go down to the sea–Adriatic or Ionian doesn’t matter, they’re all the same, right?–and have lunch.  Okay, the fish is pretty good because, you know, we actually watch them bring it in off the boats but it still makes for a pretty dull day.  Afternoons are the worst, though, with all of the shops closed and everyone either napping after a big lunch or lying on a beach.  Oh, to still be sitting at my desk!  Sometimes things get so incredibly, mind-numbingly dull, we get in the car and just go.  A few weeks ago, we drove to the Amalfi Coast (At least it was a change.) and next week, just to avoid the excruciating boredom, we’ll be going to Rome for a few days.  In the evenings, there is just nothing at all to do so we just go into town, sit in a little piazza and eat local foods or maybe a pizza and drink local red wine.  Anything to make life interesting.

I just spend most of my time lying around.

I just spend most of my time lying around.

Sometimes, out of sheer boredom, we'll drive over to the Amalfi Coast.

Sometimes, out of sheer boredom, we’ll drive over to the Amalfi Coast.

Occasionally, I'll put on a tie just for ol' time's sake.

Occasionally, I’ll put on a tie just for ol’ time’s sake.

 

So, please, do yourself a favor and keep your day job.  The life of a retiree just isn’t for you.  Or, is it?