Monday, 15 January 2018

A walk around Gallipoli

Puglia is having a bit of a moment as a destination, since being widely dubbed the 'new Tuscany' by weekend travel supplements

 A little more remote to reach, compared to the more popular Tuscany and Umbria, it's the long, thin stiletto heel of Italy's boot, with olive groves, vineyards and a national park in between long beaches and two seas - the Ionian to the west and the Adriatic to the east. 

My encounter with Puglia last summer began here, in Gallipoli, a small port town on the Ionian, very close to the bottom tip of the stiletto.

We'd driven up the arch of the foot along the Gulf of Taranto, bypassing the city of Taranto (known for the Tarantello, the famed fast and frenzied dance invented to ward off the effects of tarantula bites) - a large, industrial and economically depressed region where we saw migrants from north Africa walking along the roadside - a glimpse of the harsher aspects of Italy's poorer south.

A bridge connects from the mainland to the old town part of Gallipoli which is a tiny island consisting of a castle fort and two ports - one commercial and one for fishing.

Away from the crowded cafés and restaurants of the port areas, there's a labyrinth of narrow streets to explore ...

with Baroque churches, small shops, and evidence of neighbourly street life

... all ultimately leading back to the sea-front, where at sunset you could contemplate horizons stretching to the seafaring routes of the Mediterranean.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Ruins, buffalo and lizards in Campania

Only an hour's drive south of the Amalfi coast, heading down the geographical boot of Italy, is a wee detour well worth the taking - to the archeological site of Paestum, on the coast of the Tyrrhenian sea.

The ancient Greeks built a large city here in 600 BC, with three huge temples, and named it after the god of the sea, Poseidon.

Of the city walls, forum and amphitheatre, only the foundations remain, but the three temples, dedicated to Hera, Athena and Poseidon are mostly intact, with their massive golden coloured stone pillars still standing after more than two and a half thousand years.

The Romans later took over the city and (as they did) changed its name from Poseidonia to Paestum, while renaming the temples Juno, Minerva and Neptune : same gods, rebranded. 

 The massive Temple of Neptune/Poseidon

It thrived throughout the Roman empire and only fell into disuse and neglect in the Middle Ages, to be rediscovered and protected from around the 18th century when the likes of Goethe and Shelley inspired a touristic interest in Italy's antiquities.

There's a wonderful photograph of a company of soldiers in the second World War in the ruins of the Hera temple where they'd set up office in preparation for the landing beaches nearby where the Allies would invade Italy.

Paestum felt far more impressive than Pompeii, was better preserved, and without the crowds that pack Pompeii a much more worthwhile experience.

From Paestum a short drive up into the hills gets you to Il Cannito, guest house in the wilds of the Parco Naziionale del Cilento.

This is buffalo country - though the buffalo are reared on farms, not wild, and are the source of Italy's mozarella di bufala. While getting lost on dirt roads in the hills trying to find the isolated Il Cannito we had a close encounter with some mozarella-producing buffalo, but I was too surprised to take a picture.

Owned and run by the Gorga family, father Luigi found the ruins of a farmhouse in this remote spot in the national park and reconstructed the original stone house to a simple guest house with only four rooms.

I loved the interiors - simple, with a fantastic eye for modern design, paintings by artist friends of the family and daughter Antonella's photographs (the one below of her brother Nicola swimming in the nearby Tyrrhenian sea).  

We cooled off in the pool with bright green lizards for company and later had a drink on the terrace watching the sun go down - this time with owls for company.

Dinner was cooked by Mama and was fresh, simple and delicious, including this ravioli filled with buffalo mozarella (naturally) topped with white summer truffles.

Breakfast outside the next morning was a perfect start for the drive south ...

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Amalfi blues

The Amalfi coast is a frustratingly mixed-bag experience: both dreamy coastline and commercialised, tourist-riddled nightmare. I have the same response to it as to (for example) Venice and Cinque Terre: if only one could magically vacuum-suck out the massed crowds (along with the tacky industries that support them) and make them vanish, leaving the unadulterated experience (in my head at least) of 1960s dolce vita glamour and drop-dead views.  
But that would include me!

Nonetheless, I discovered some perfectly lovely, less frequented places on my last trip there.

After a short walk around the Pompeii ruins in the rain (the site underwhelming even if it was the worst weather in which to see it: not well maintained, its historic educational potential sadly underused) ...

 Pompeii city walls

This specialist guide was patiently explaining some historical facts to a lucky private group
Hazy view of mount Vesuvius from the Pompeii ruins

... and having braved some hectic traffic around Naples, we crossed from Sorrento to the other side of the peninsula, the Amalfi coastline, along a winding cliff-top road with fantastic views, and dipped down into Nerano, where the sun was shining in this little sea-side village on the tip of the peninsula nearest Capri.

View from Taverna del Capitano, Nerano

The destination was the Taverna del Capitano in the middle of the village on the sea-front. The taverna is basically a handful of rooms attached to a restaurant of the same name with a great local reputation.

The rooms are very small and basic, but totally comfortable and clean, and best of all, have windows and doors opening directly onto the sea, with these views ...

... and a night-long sea breeze and gentle lapping of waves - after discovering that the restaurant's reputation is fully deserved - the work of chef Alfonso Caputo, who owns and runs the tavern with his wife, mother and a handful of staff who give attentive and genuinely warm personal service.

Early next morning - before coffee on the little balcony terrace of the friendly Capitano - I watched the beach being prepared for the day 

and boatmen getting ready for the day-trippers who would soon be flocking down the path for boat rides to Capri, Positano, Amalfi and Li Galli

Capri had been a tempting, possible plan for the morning, but quickly lost its attraction after seeing the coach-loads being disgorged to queue in massively long lines for the boats.

We decided to drive on instead along the scenic corniche towards Positano and Amalfi ... 

... only to encounter wall-to-wall (or cliffside to mountainside) traffic: a painfully slow congestion along the narrow roads (constructed in a time when these were fishing villages with no tourism!), which were also lined with parked cars wedged up (illegally) against the sides as people parked and walked many many kilometres into these popular towns.

Added to the melée were oversized tour buses, suicidal Vespas, pedestrians braving their lives, plenty of tempers fraying, and much pointless, frustrated hooting

Even out of season, parking in or anywhere near either Positano or Amalfi was impossible, and - considering the crowds and tatty souvenir shops - not even desirable.

(no wonder the Italians invented the Vespa and tiny (stylish of course, that comes with the territory) cars!) ...

On the other hand, past Ravello, the little seaside towns of Minori and Maiori, lacking the celebrity status of Positano and Amalfi, were amazingly crowd-free - just locals enjoying their beaches (of which there are many more, and larger).

I loved watching families enjoying the beach - here a grandfather with grown children and grand-children 

here two stylishly dressed women chatting barefoot in the sea

and here an elderly man who'd parked his chair in the lapping waves!

Maiori harbour

The same is true of Praiano, less congested, and perhaps less picturesque but more authentic in my view, than its better known neighbours

Tucked away in the cliff face below Praiano is the entrance to Casa Angelina. Its access is via an alarming series of unimaginably narrow hairpin bends, at the end of which you're rewarded with a fantastic modern design. The all-white interior is a deliberate neutral backdrop to a collection of artwork, sculptures and Murano glass creations ...

... and to the main event - huge picture windows with views to die for of the Amalfi coast, all the way from Capri in one direction to the toe of Italy in the other.

Casa Angelina is a little gem of understated luxury, whether to stay or just drop by for a drink or lunch on the terrace.
I took the opportunity to work off lunch by walking down a very very long cliff-face path to the sea below

Boy, did I regret it walking back up ...

But regret seeing this part of the world? Not a bit.

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