Sunday, February 12, 2006

Day 4 - Amalfi to Puglia

We arise once again to bright sunshine streaming through our windows, signaling the beginning of another beautiful day on the Amalfi Coast. We have breakfast sent to the room and carry it out to the upper terrace, the one with the more expansive view of the town of Amalfi but it becomes quickly apparent that a cool ocean breeze has dropped the temperature about ten degrees lower than yesterday. We struggle to enjoy the outdoor experience but within ten minutes we give up and move indoors, having breakfast just inside a large set of sliding glass doors that afford us nearly the same view, but free from the cold winds.

After puttering around and enjoying our room, we pack up and hit the road for our drive from Amalfi to Bari, variously estimated for us as a three, four or six hour drive. We avoid being struck by cars as we cross the coastal highway to our car, which is wedged in a spot smaller than the car itself in front of the steps of a Saracen tower, across from the hotel. On the right is a perilous drop down the stairs and into the entryway of the bar/restaurant. On the left is an Italian police car, occupied by a baby faced traffic cop who, despite his youthful looks exudes the same menacing air projected by all Italian police. We definitely do not want to stray right or left as we back into the buzzing traffic of the coast road.

We head back toward Salerno (or was it Sorrento, or perhaps Sapporo?) where we will pick up the A14/A16 toward Bari in the heart of the southern region of Puglia (or Apulia). The drive is uneventful but for the dozen or so times we nearly sideswipe oncoming cars or motorcycles, a number of which seem to think it a good idea to overtake slower moving vehicles on blind corners. On the other side looms the immovable but eminently scrapeable barrier wall that seems to be itching rough up Earl Schieb’s best paint job. A moment of levity punctuates the white knuckle, oath filled journey as our progress is slowed by a SITA bus, the local passenger bus company, in front of us. As the bus runs interference for us, scattering oncoming traffic and pedestrians like a 16 wheeled Pamplonan bull, we wonder out loud how two oncoming buses can manage to pass when one of them takes nearly 2/3 of the roadway. Then, as if on cue, rounding the next bend is another SITA bus. The answer to our question is simple – they nearly meet in the center of the road and then proceed to loudly scrape their other sides along the cliffs or guardrail. This works well for those inside the buses needing to get somewhere quickly. For those of us who cringe at the sound of chalk or fingernails scraping on chalkboards, it is not nearly so good a solution. In any event, we had noticed the previous evening that most parked cars’ traffic-side side mirrors had been folded in (those that hadn’t been were snapped off or shattered) and now this self defense strategy seemed to make perfect sense.

We finally leave the bus and the narrow, winding roads of the Amalfi Coast behind as we make our way onto the autostrada, headed for the town of Bari on the other coast of Italy. The drive, although a couple of hours long, goes quickly, as we pass through mountain tunnels along the coast and emerge in a flat region marked by nothing higher than gentle rolling hills. This relative flatness contrasts with the jagged contours of the coast but even more noteworthy is the greenness of it all, where before the predominant colors had been the grey of the cliffs and the blues of sky and sea.

We pass by Avellino, home of the Campagnian white wine Fiano di Avellino and settle on Benevento as our choice for lunch. This requires a little work, however, as the town is ten minutes or so off the autostrada. We double back through countryside dotted here and there by a building, but largely unpopulated until we reach Benevento. We had imagined it to be a charming, sophisticated little hamlet, as it, like Avellino, is home to one of the region’s other excellent white wines, the Falanghina. Instead, we find a rather unattractive town, seemingly uninhabited and devoid of any apparent character, its drab architecture dominated by ugly brick boxes built by the government as work projects for its impoverished populace. We circle the town several times before finding an acceptable looking trattoria, park and have a utilitarian lunch of crostini and pasta, washed down with a pitcher of local wine that does improve over the course of the meal.

We return to our car and make our way to the Adriatic coast, arriving just north of Bari, the one of the principle towns of Puglia and an important port and ferry destination. But we pass on by Bari, our destination the close by town of Gioia del Colle, where we are to meet our host for the next several days, Angelo Coluccia.

We call Angelo by cellphone as we arrive in town and he drives across town to escort us to the bed and breakfast that will serve as our home in Puglia. We greet Angelo, a young man who passionately promotes all things pugliese and who we have been importing a line of Puglian food product from for several months. Despite our commercial relationship, we have never met Angelo, who tracked us down through some canny internet research and convinced us to take a chance selling some of his delicacies of Puglia. His high quality samples were very compelling.

We instantly take a liking to this energetic, smiling ambassador of Puglia. Not a sentence goes by where he is not extolling the virtues of Puglian extravirgin olive oil or its wine or its culture or its history. He shows to our room in the B&B and we arrange to meet later for dinner.

We drop off our bags and decide to invest the hour and half break in exploring Gioia del Colle. Our B&B is around the corner and run from by the owner of the trattoria/pizzeria "Ciocco," which we learn later is a character from Dante’s Divine Comedy known for his excessive appetite. The room is a simple bedroom with bath in an apartment building with several other such rooms. It is comfortable and warm (an important fact, as the temperature is a good 40 degrees colder here than when we left Amalfi in the morning) and will serve nicely for the next couple of days.

The street on which Ciocco is located is the main street of Gioia del Colle, an attractive, wide street lined with nice stores. We stroll down the street and then begin making our way along adjacent streets, struck not just by how clean and orderly everything is, but how much bigger and more developed than we had imagined. For while our expectation of Puglia as a somewhat impoverished rural province will be tested over the next days, it is obvious that Gioia del Colle, while not on the American radar screen, is a prosperous jewel of a town.

And as we re-connect with Angelo a couple of hours later for a guided walking tour of the downtown area, which largely retraces our steps, we learn that Gioia del Colle is indeed a jewel; its name is Puglian dialect for the jewel around the throat, symbolizing a lost jewel of an ancient queen that was found in this place. As we wander the streets it is apparent that to Angelo all aspects of Gioia and greater Puglia are priceless jewels and we are eager to discover all that it has to offer.

We finish our walking tour and settle into the trattoria Ciocco, where we meet Franco Colone, the genial owner who is also our host at the B&B. The restaurant is mostly below street level and we are seated in a large vaulted room that at one time served as a wine cellar. Very fitting indeed.
We impose on Angelo to order for us, to ensure we experience the typical Puglian foods and he does not disappoint. We start with a mixed antipasti platter which arrives at the table in waves of small plates, coming and coming until there is no more room on the table, despite the fact that there is an empty seat. Puglian fare, Angelo tells us, is based on several factors, most importantly extravirgin olive oil. Beyond that, however, the bounty of the farm, especially an abundance of vegetables, plays a central role and the antipasti is tilted largely toward succulent vegetables and local oil. Several different preparations of eggplant tickle the taste buds, while lightly grilled zucchini glisten on the plate, reflecting the light with its thin layer of green olive oil. Marinated peppers, salty with fresh capers are a delight and small chunks of polipo, or octopus add a delicate, tender final act. We clean nearly every plate, punctuating bites with a foccacia baked in a woodburning oven and lightly flavored with olive oil and are ready to leave.

Our waitress will have none of our attempt to escape, however. She insists that we try some pasta and within minutes Angelo and Bill are enjoying a plate of orrechietti with rape, a slightly bitter and pungent green that slides down the throat. Suzy orders a sublime cavitelli with ceci (chick peas) pasta that is her favorite of the trip.

We are not allowed to leave now until we try some meats, so a small plate of zampinelli, a local sausage that in local dialect means "little cats’ feet" because of its resemblance to them is presented, along with a thinly shaved meat stuffed with fontina cheese. No cats were harmed in the making of this meal, and at least three humans are extremely happy.

We finally convince our waitress that we will return tomorrow and that she can force more food on us then. But for now we depart, take an evening stroll through the historic center of Gioia and discuss tomorrow’s itinerary with Angelo over caffe and grappa at a local coffee bar. Our introduction to Puglia is complete and we return to our B&B with an ambitious itinerary ahead and settle into a comfortable night’s sleep, with dreams of little cat’s feet dancing in our heads.

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