Sunday, October 15, 2006

Masseria Loves Company

This morning I am sitting outside on a pool chair (I can’t spell chaise longes), an open umbrella shielding me and my laptop screen from the soft, hazy sunlight and milky blue sky, while a cool gentle breeze occasionally rushes around my ears. To my right is a beautiful expanse of light blue seawater, pumped and cleaned and conditioned in an enormous outdoor stone pool, alternating in places as massive slabs of unfinished rock and punctuated by exquisitely crafted rock walls, one terraced above the other, the whole rising from the water and planted here and there with grasses, cacti, shrubs and olive trees. A small waterfall tumbles from the head of the garden, splashes down a channel that it seems to have followed for years and fills the pool, its gentle huss a soothing background tune for this scene. Matching deck chairs set out in pairs and trios and tall cream colored umbrellas line the perimeter of the pool deck, stretching as far as the eye can see until they disappear in endless gardens.

Beyond the pool is a heavy whitewashed building, Moorish looking without any obvious Moorish decorations, its simple white stone forming a number of large rectangular spaces that are joined together into a single large structure, their outlines forming perfect right angles of perfect straight lines, the lone outside stairway defining the only other angle as it rises up to an open rooftop terrace. This is the building where we ate dinner last night and this morning it, and the entire grounds seem completely deserted, save for an occasional staff member who saunters by unhurriedly, dressed in a uniform that is particular to the spa, pool, restaurant or reception.
Another large, whitewashed building, lower slung than the first, is directly ahead. Slightly to my left is what appears to be a set of meeting rooms, sage bushes growing on its flat roof, palm trees here and there. Pomegranate trees, bending under their heavy fruit, line a walkway to the left which is lined with other strange bushes and trees, as the walkway disappears into a grove of olive trees that the guest book says comprises 100 hectares. I am not sure how big a hectare is, but by the looks of it I am quite sure it is quite a lot.

Songbirds chirp overhead, hopping from tree to tree.

* * * *

I stop to write this reflection, my first impression of Day 6, before I have written yesterday’s (Day 5) account, breaking my usual discipline of writing each day’s story before moving to the next. I do this for two reasons. First, I have risen a little earlier than I would have liked so that I can use the hotel’s high speed internet connection in order to post my Day 3 and Day 4 stories, only to find that the connection is not working. I am, to say the least, slightly perturbed that a resort of the caliber of the Masseria San Domenico cannot offer me a high speed internet line. I am generally anything but the ugly American, but this really burns me. Sitting by the pool, soaking in the beauty of this place, however, has restored to me a sense of calm and balance and I don’t want to lose it by focusing on recounting yesterday’s travel day, which was largely uneventful. The second reason is that if I should die later today, I want to leave this record of this remarkable morning hour I spent in relaxation by the pool.

* * * *

The Masseria San Domenico is farm that has been converted into a hotel. Masseria is a term used in Puglia to describe the fortified farms that dot this fertile region. I am not quite sure against what or whom they were fortifying themselves, but one notices a feature in this countryside that is not common in other places around Italy – walls. Plots of land are clearly defined from each other by low walls made of stones piled upon one another. Inside these walls farmers did their daily work and, in the case of the masserie, small communities of workers were organized and defended against outside threats.

But the atmosphere at the San Domenico is anything but threatening. Rated one of the top properties in Puglia it is hard to imagine any care or hardship here. Armies of staff buzz about (but quietly and unobtrusively), as guests saunter from the pool to the spa to the dining room. Everything manmade seems to be made of white stone, which might have given the place a South Beach sort of feel were it not for the incredible lushness of the place. Everywhere you look there are plants and bushes and shrubs and trees, most of them sagging slight under the weight of fruits or flowers. A gentle breeze seems to blow constantly. It is hard to get motivated to do anything but sit.

But after several hours of doing just that we find a small, hidden store of initiative and ask at the front desk about the possibility of playing some golf. Not a problem we are told and a few minutes later we are arriving at the front gate of San Domenico Golf.

The course is completely enclosed by walls and gates and we are not exactly sure where or how to enter. We approach the electric gate, buzz in and announce our name. They are expecting us. The gate slides open and before us in the distance is yet another heavy Moorish stone building that is the clubhouse. A flat, immaculately maintained golf course stretches to the north and south, running all the way to the Adriatic.

We enter the clubhouse and are greeted at the reception desk by an English speaking woman who takes care of everything for us – greens fees, clubs, pull carts, balls, token for the driving range. All is available for a price, which we have neglected to ask about until now, and we are slightly nervous about what we might have just got ourselves into. Instead, the tab is ridiculously cheap and we happily strap it on and head to the driving range.

After a little practice it is off to the first tee, which has been marked number 16. This is not some Euro to Dollar or English to metric conversion. The course is being prepared for some European tournament in the near future and the holes are being reconfigured, presumably to improve its television appeal. We follow the numbers on the scorecard map rather than those on the signs and never get lost.

Not that a few ball are not lost. This is a rather benign course unless you drive the ball far to the right or left, which we do with regularity. Off the fairway is rough that, if it stood straight up would be about two feet deep. Instead it lies down at a height of about 6-8 inches, like a giant green combover. If you are fortunate enough to find your ball in it, it is nearly impossible to get out of.

I actually put together my best three shots of the day on the first hole, carding a birdie, and visions of European championships begin dancing in my head, even without the aid of grappa. That bit of wishful thinking is soon put in its place and I begin to worry that I have not bought enough balls to last the nine holes that we are playing.

San Domenico (St. Dominic), for whom the golf course is named is, as Jeff tells me (based upon his extensive research) the patron saint of golfers. Scholars are divided on the exact number of major championships he won during his lifetime (one camp includes in its total the results from the Greater Assisi Open, where Dominic defeated the hometown hero St. Francis on the third hole of sudden death in one of the great matches of the medieval period; others do not include statistics from Assisi, arguing that the monks who transcribed the records from ancient scorecards erred, believing it was good to have a higher score) but his work in aiding the poor by reselling used golf balls at a substantial discount is beyond dispute. Jeff’s research is, of course, completely made up but we are still convinced that it contains a kernel of truth somewhere.
After a grueling day of nine holes of golf and lunch on the patio overlooking the ninth hole, we return to the Masseria, completely exhausted. Our extreme physical state calls for some sitting around the pool and relaxing on the patio outside the room. Finally, in order to regain some strength we decide to drive to nearby Ostuni to find dinner.

On the map Ostuni looks like it is about three minutes from Savelletri, for how could it take any longer to drive a tenth of an inch on the map? It is only after we arrive in Ostuni about 45 minutes later that we notice the warning on the map that objects on map may be farther away than they appear. Indeed, although the distances look short, it generally takes a bit longer to get where you are going in Puglia.

But the drive is worth the additional time. Ostuni is an ancient walled town (there must have been a glut of these on the market when Italy started building towns because just about every place we visit is "an ancient walled town"), its buildings gleaming white (apparently, we are told, because the entire town is whitewashed annually). Although it is nighttime, the entire city is bathed in light from the outside, making it visible for miles as you approach. We are looking for a restaurant suggested to me by our old friend Richard Lasner, but have no idea where it is, so we follow signs to centro, the city center, and find a parking space that is slightly smaller than our car and at an angle bearing no known Euclidian relationship to the street or sidewalk. And so we start walking through a town the size of Detroit, expecting to simply walk to the restaurant for which we are looking.

The peril of asking for directions in Italy for someone like myself who speaks and understands just enough Italian to be dangerous is twofold: you look foolish asking for directions because you sound like a two year old and you look even more foolish when you are completely unable to understand the response. Mi dispiace signore, ma perche chiede in italiano quando non parli italiano? (Excuse me [mister], but why do you ask in Italian if you don’t speak Italian?).
Tonight, however, everything works perfectly. Asked and answered in Italian. We resume our journey to the restaurant secure in the knowledge we know where it is. It also helps that our guide points to where we are going.

We wander up the hill into the historic center of Ostuni, which is quite beautiful and quite crowded. The streets, mostly pedestrian-only (or perhaps completely pedestrian only but with Italian motorists taking a few liberties) are made of stone and are full of young people out for a night on the town. Large groups of ragazzi duck into and come out of a surprisingly large number of bars and night clubs. It is a Saturday night and Ostuni is hopping.

We at last find Richard’s recommended Osteria del Tempo Perso (via G. Tanzarella Vitale, 47, Ostuni, tel. 0831.30.33.20, It is nearly empty at 9:30 and we are somewhat nervous that it is closing down, especially when they ask us if we have a reservation. But we are seated and over the next hour the place fills up, presumably for the second time this evening.

I order a strascinate integrale con cime di rape e mollica di pane, a whole wheat orechiette pasta that is topped with rape (turnip greens), the whole delicious concoction floating in a garlic sauce. Richard has recommended it and it indeed made the entire drive and walk up to the old town worth the trip. I follow this with some delicious lamb chops, a little coffee and of course, some grappa. A bottle of local Primitivo di Manduria, chosen by the waiter is both obligatory and delicious. Jeff orders a few dishes, but is still suffering from grappa withdrawal, being a courageous dinner companion without so much eating dinner.

The drive back to Savelletri seems shorter than the drive to Ostuni. Perhaps it is the grappa; perhaps it is the fact that we take the highway back. But within a few minutes of returning I am fast asleep, body and soul relaxing and unwinding in a fortified farmhouse called a masseria, secure that marauding nomads will be kept at bay, at least for one more night, by the army of staff here at the San Domenico.

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