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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Puglia

On day two of my stay in Polignano a Mare, I rented a bicycle for 5 hours and rode along the seaside road to the small village of Santo Stefano, location of the historic Abbey Santo Stefano. Along the way, I saw olive groves and trulli, the conical-roofed stone buildings that are traditional in this agricultural region. On the way back from visiting the abbey and eating lunch, I stopped to swim at one of the many coves that provide sea access.

The first view of the Abbey Santo Stefano from the road.

Boats anchored on the beach in front of the Santo Stefano abbey.

Inside the abbey courtyard looking toward the sea.

A trullo in a field overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

The view of Santo Stefano from the olive groves behind it.

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After spending quite a bit of time on the Balkan side of the Adriatic–a week in Croatia and later 5 weeks in Albania, it was finally time for my first visit to the heel of the boot! From Durres, I took an overnight ferry to Bari, the main port in the Puglia region of Italy (which is the region that appears to be the heel of the boot on a map of Italy). The overnight ferry was quite a deal: 68 euros and I had not only transportation to Bari, but also a private cabin with a shower for the night. Combine that with the very good prosecco available at the bar for 3 euros per glass, and I was set! Once I reached Bari the next morning, a 30-minute train ride would take me to Polignano a Mare, where I rented a small apartment for 2 nights. This was my “relaxation” phase of my trip home–two nights in a quaint sea-side town in rural Italy. When I finally arrived in Polignano, it was everything I had hoped for! The owner of the apartment met me at the train station and drove me the short distance to the wall of the old city; from there we had to walk with my suitcases because no cars are allowed within the city walls. The apartment was adorable and the old city itself was like a mini version of Dubrovnik. It was gorgeous!

The buildings of Polignano a Mare go right to the edge of the cliffs over the turquoise Adriatic waters.

I cannot rave enough about how wonderful Polignano was! I found an adorable café with a tiny balcony overlooking the water, where I had an amazing, local lunch of burrata verdure (burrata mozarello on a plate with local veggies, including cherry tomatoes, grilled eggplant, rugula, and grilled peppers) and rigatoni al forno with a house-made tomato sauce, accompanied by a local white wine. The owners of the café served me espresso while giving me lots of interesting information about the town and what to do in the area, as well as just providing an interesting conversation about each other’s lives. This was a great start to my stay there, and I found it to be true that everywhere I went while I was there, people were unbelievably friendly and helpful. Another great thing about Polignano was the cute library right at the edge of the city walls that had free wifi access–my apartment didn’t have it, so this was a lifesaver since I needed to finish coordinating the rest of my trip. Finally, the swimming cove right next to the city provided a close, easy spot for spending some time in the refreshing cold water of the sea.

The beach at Polignano a Mare

The same beach, viewed from the bridge behind it.

This cute little stray kitten was sneaking out from under a house. He did not want to be petted!

Buildings in the main piazza of Polignano

My first night, I ate an amazing dinner of local fresh fish at a nearby restaurant. I ended up talking to the Swedish couple next to me, and we we had to move inside during a sudden downpour, we just sat at the same table and continued our conversation. It was a great night, and one of those times that traveling alone feels really good, because it makes you more open to talking to strangers when having someone with you to talk to might have prevented it.

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I had two of the best meals of my trip in Padova! I love Italian food and wine, so I was really anticipating this weekend, and Italy did not disappoint. The first night, I ate pasta with a light cheese sauce and squash blossoms, and baked fish with cherry tomatoes and olives. I’m not sure what type of fish I ate, because I ordered the branzino, but they had run out of branzino so they recommended this off-the-menu option instead. For dessert, I had a pastry dish that I believe is called “craquatella” (I have no idea if that is the correct spelling), which is like a glorious Italian version of strawberry shortcake. There were very thin, crackly rectangles of pastry layered with pastry cream and fresh strawberries, sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was delicious with a glass of prosecco.

My second night in Padova, I decided to explore off the main roads and was rewarded with an amazing discovery, the Re Porco Osteria. It was such a wonderful place I ended up spending 4 hours there! The very genial waiter/host (who was serving the entire restaurant) came to my table and explained each dish in English, one by one. I began my meal with a lake fish, grilled with basil and olive oil and served with a puree of fresh green peas and garnished with sundried tomato. The chef, who recommended the dish, very kindly explained both the dish and his cooking philosophy to me. I’m not sure why sundried tomatoes here were so much better than the ones I get in the U.S., but they were so completely different. Instead of being wrinkly, leathery and tough, these were bright red, and tender, though with the same concentrated flavor I expected.

I followed this first course with an orzotto with cheese and asparagus, and finally I had rabbit cooked sous vide with porcini mushroom sauce. I don’t usually eat meat, but I was eager to try both a traditional meat and also to try a dish cooked sous vide, which I had read about but never encountered. It was definitely a meal to remember. I drank a balanced, deep straw-colored gewurtztraminer with the meal, and afterwards had two small glasses of limoncello, which was made in-house with lemons from Sorrento. I don’t usually like spirits, but this limoncello was one of the best drinks I have ever tasted. I realize my description of this meal seems hyperbolic, but this restaurant truly can only be described in this manner. It may have been one of the best meals I have ever eaten!

Side view of Il Santo

Padova has some really amazing churches and squares, including “Il Santo,” or Basilica di Sant’Antonio da Padova, and the Prato della Valle, an elliptical square that is like an island since it is surrounded by a water-filled concrete ditch. The Prato della Valle was lovely, but my major complaint about the city really affected my ability to enjoy the square: the entire place, as well as many other squares, was surrounded by ugly tents full of cheap merchandise, making it impossible to take a nice picture of the square like the ones you see when you look it up on the internet. Il Santo is dedicated to Saint Anthony, and despite my fatigue of churches, it was quite beautiful and impressive; one of the small side chapels had one of the most beautiful paintings I have seen so far in a church. The square outside also houses the Gattamelata statue by Donatello, known to be the first bronze cast equestrian statue since antiquity.

Donatello's Gattemelata statue

As a great city for lovers of renaissance art, Padova’s crowning artistic experience is the Scrovegni Chapel, which requires reservations to visit and is truly a marvel. Giotto completed it in 1305, and it is remarkable to stand inside and think that you are looking at 700-year-old paintings that remain very vivid even today. Before you go inside the chapel, you have to wait in a climatization room for 15 minutes, as they have instituted many protections to try to preserve the chapel. Luckily, they have a really informative video for you to watch that explains the provenance of the chapel (Scrovegni concern was his deceased father’s usury, as well as his own), and the symbolism in the paintings. When I was eating at the Osteria, an Italian lawyer I conversed with told me that the Chapel used to be wide open for visits and completely free, and it was always empty (and you could smoke inside!), but that when they started charging for entries, it suddenly became crowded and a popular tourist site. Funny how that works.

The unassuming exterior of the Scrovegni Chapel, which used to be attached to a much larger structure, hides a true treasure of early Renaissance art.

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