Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Day 5 - Gioia del Colle

We rise a little late this morning, unaware of the whirlwind of activity that is yet to unfold on what will be our busiest day yet. We shuffle from our room at the B&B, a comfortable room with, as the name implies, a bed and attached bathroom, that shares an entry foyer with three other similar rooms. The almost embarrassingly low price of €40 per night includes a continental breakfast, an even bigger bargain when we consider that the room is as large as most of the hotel rooms we have stayed at in Italy. We are greeted by the owner, Franco, as we enter the breakfast room downstairs. Waiting with Franco is Angelo, who is ready to show off his native land.

We quickly eat and head outdoors, where the temperature has failed to rise significantly from the frigid cold of the previous night, despite the welcome addition of bright, clear sunshine. We stroll for a few minutes from the centrally located B&B to the Norman Castle, located in the center of the historic district, where we purchase tickets for entry to the Castle and its museum as well as to the nearby archaeological site, which is our first destination.

We return to Angelo’s car for the brief drive out of town to a nearby hill, Monte Sannace, site of an archaeological park and nature preserve. Uncovered a couple of decades ago, Monte Sannace was the center of a flourishing pre-Roman civilization of the Peucezi people, who came and went from the scene over the course of a thousand years, beginning in the 9th Century B.C. Conquered by the Romans in the 1st Century A.D., all that remains is this excavated town and some fragments of their civilization displayed in the museum back in town.

We wander around the ruins of the old town walls, large stones made of tufa, a manufactured stone cut into large blocks. The walls enclose a large area of the hillside, chosen for its strategic defensive position above the plains below and because of its fertile ground and plentiful water supply. At one time perhaps a thousand Peucezi lived within these walls, some in simple two room houses whose foundations we can still see, others in the upper class enclave of the acropolis, the high portion of town, where the houses sport more and bigger rooms and such amenities as wells, bathrooms and, for your deceased relatives, indoor tombs. The simple, rough stones that remain give the impression of brutish people living in skins and dragging their women around by the hair, an impression that is dispelled later when we discover the beautiful artwork, delicate jewelry and see the impressive clothing worn by these people on display at the archeological museum in town.

Included on the grounds of the park is a trullo, one of the stone farm houses that dot the Puglian countryside. These conical white structures were favored by local farmers as secure, warm places for them to live, sleep and eat with their families, sometimes numbering in double digits. Resembling stone igloos we enter the transplanted trullo and appreciate how it protects us from the outside cold, where we have alternately been treated to freezing winds and light snow.
We return to Gioia del Colle and visit the Norman Castle and museum, the former of which was built in the 12th Century and home to Emperor Frederick II, one of a series of Norman defensive fortresses built across the Puglian peninsula to protect his empire. The castle is one of the best preserved Norman castles in Italy and its massive weight attests to its impregnability. Speaking of impregnability, we are treated to the somewhat gruesome story of Bianca Lancia (Bianca of the spear), a local woman from Gioia del Colle who was the first woman to steal the heart of the king. Unfortunately, he jealously thought her to be unfaithful and locked her away in a dark dungeon in the castle, whereupon she cut off her breasts and had them presented to the king to protest her innocence. According to Angelo’s version of the story, overcome by admiration and swayed by her action he married Bianca, but either she died soon after. (The English brochure says that she committed suicide by cutting off her breasts). In either case, the story brings to mind the idea of "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

It is Sunday, which is market day, and we stroll along the main street of the historic center browsing the antichita (Italian for junk), old postcards, record albums (even an old victrola) being sold by locals undeterred by the cold wind and occasional snow showers, when we spot a contraption we recognize as a chitarra, a wooden plank with metal strings strung across, resembling a guitar, used for rolling out and cutting spaghetti alla chitarra. We express our interest to the seller, a man who either loves Americans or loves to rag on them, who, between serenading us with lines from the Beetles or Frank Sinatra ("Meester, I love America") gives us a special American discount which no doubt consisted of jacking up his bottom line price by a few euros. Against Angelo’s advice we pay for the chitarra and move on, only now wondering how we will manage to get it home with us.

It is now lunchtime and Angelo has invited us to have Sunday lunch at his house with his family, an honor and treat for us. The family lives nearby, just outside the historical center and we ride the elevator to the fifth floor and enter a warm multiroom apartment that houses Angelo, his parents, his older brother Armando and his younger sister Maria Grazia. We meet the family, including Armando’s girlfriend Anna Rita, and their warmth and smiles put us immediately at ease, despite the minor language barrier. After some moments of final preparation of the meal we take our seats for the upcoming production, where the main characters are food and family, and the curtain rises. We are treated to an appetizer of tomato bruschetta and a plate of marinated anchovies. Next, Angelo’s mom presents a baked pasta with meat sauce, which Armando declines to eat, claiming to be a vegetarian. When the next course arrives, thick, succulent slices of polpetone, a giant baked meatball, Armando’s vegetarianism deserts him, and we can see why, as it is delicious. Desert includes local mozzarella (we are told that mozzarella from Gioia del Colle is the best in Italy and we cannot disagree), cream filled pastries and a delicious homemade torte, the handiwork of Maria Grazia. The family’s entire liquor cabinet is offered to us for after dinner (lunch) drinks and we politely oblige. When the curtain falls two hours later, we give it a standing ovation, thankful for having been given front row seats to the best show in town.

As we crowd into the elevator with Angelo, worried that our increased weight might crash the lift, we thank him once again, remarking how much we enjoyed being included in his close knit family and he replies that "the most important thing," expecting to hear him talk about the importance of family to him, "is that you are enjoying yourself and learning about Gioia del Colle and Puglia." Surprised by this surprise ending, it actually makes sense. It is obvious that the most important thing to Angelo (and his family) actually is family. The previous two hours have made that abundantly clear. But this is a man so passionate about Puglia and even more passionate about his home town of Gioia del Colle that our wellbeing and satisfaction consume him. He is evangelical about creating converts to his cause of making Gioia del Colle known to the world. Like the protagonist in Field of Dreams, he fervently believes if they know about it, they will come and he is hoping to enlist us in his effort.

Angelo shrewdly takes us next to a local winery, perhaps realizing that the quickest way to our hearts is through a wineglass. One of the many hats worn by Angelo is export manager for Tenuta di Viglione, run by the magnetic Gianni Zullo. The tenuta produces the D.O.C. wine Primitivo di Gioia del Colle, one of two D.O.C. primitivo wines produced in Italy. Primitivo, like many Puglian wines, has suffered from poor quality in past decades and is only now breaking into the popular consciousness but the primitivo grape, which is the same grape that is called zinfandel in California, is capable of producing extraordinary wines. Gianni guides us through the production process, showing us the four wines he produces, including a D.O.C. primitivo and a riserva. There is no indoor cantina for tourists and it being a cold day, gives us a bottle to try when temperatures warm up.

Gianni and Angelo show us to the property next door, where Gianni is renovating an old farmhouse into an agriturismo, a guesthouse on a working vineyard which he hopes in several years will draw tourists to the Puglian countryside, much like tourists have flocked to California’s Napa Valley. The building is bursting with possibility, and in time this will be a magical spot, with large rooms and terraces looking out onto the lush, green Puglian countryside, dotted with grapevines and olive trees. We can hardly wait for a return visit.

We say our goodbyes to Gianni and begin the drive back to Gioia del Colle through these green fields and we are struck by the overwhelming beauty of it all. This is a beauty different from that of Tuscany or Umbria or Piemonte. In place of steep hills or rocky cliffs, this area of Puglia is mostly flat, punctuated by gently rolling hills. For those used to seeing grape vines crammed into small terraces, the arbors that here and there dot the open countryside give a sense of openness and calm. The sense of bounteous nature is heightened by the sight of birds in flight, a rarity in northern Italy. There is a pleasant country feel to this place, with large farm houses (most of which are built around a trullo that predated the emergence of the larger farmhouse) that evoke not peasant dirt farmers, but rather a comfortable choice in favor of country living in a land of bounty. The ride back to Gioia definitely feels like a journey home.

We part with Angelo for a couple of hours and reconvene later for yet another meal. He is visibly excited to be taking us to il Borbone, a restaurant just outside the city center that, according to Angelo, serves the best pizza in the region. Although we have nothing to compare it to, we have to agree. Angelo struggles to finish a pizza capriciosa, piled high with various meats and vegetables, swearing to order a simple pizza margherita next time; Suzy manages well with her pizza fume, topped with speck and smoked scamorzza cheese and Bill finishes off his pizza with arucola, bresaola and lemon juice. Dessert is a molten chocolate filled chocolate torte, that, when punctured, bleeds gooey chocolate into a pool of crème anglaise. An obligatory grappa finishes the meal and puts an exclamation point on a day that has introduced us to Angelo’s Gioia, a true jewel that adorns Puglia and our Italian experience.

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