Five thirty in the morning is an ugly word and ugly time in any language, in any time zone. But it is at 5:30am, local time in Perugia, that my alarm clock rings, waking me from a terrible night sleep interrupted throughout the night the by young Perugian collegians who chose to congregate outside my window and sing college fight songs ("Go Perugia, fight on for old St. Stephen") and a balky stomach that has been giving me fits for the past day, perhaps as revenge for having eaten too many big meals or, more likely, for not ingesting enough grappa.
In any case, I shower, close up my bags and check out of the hotel and walk down to the car park where I have left the car, hoping that I understood the attendant correctly that the garage would be open all night. We have a train to catch at 6:57am and we have not left a whole lot of room to spare for unexpected surprises.
Well, practice pays off. I meet Jeff in front of the hotel, having planned the route from the garage to the hotel the day before. We depart ahead of schedule, not a car on the road. Quickly disappearing in our rear view mirror are small armies of uniformed men in jumpsuits who are finishing up the assembly of the numerous tents that will house chocolate displays at tomorrow’s Eurochocolate exhibition. Our time in Perugia has been wonderful and rich, the only regret my intestinal distress, but it is time to move on to Puglia, a less well known region in the south of Italy. The heel of the boot.
We bob and weave our way down the hill of Perugia along the route we had practiced the previous day. Everything looks different at 6:00am, however, coming at you faster because there is no light to see signs and familiar landmarks. We end up in on a small one way street that is clearly not one we had traversed the day before, so be back up and retrace our steps nearly to the top of Perugia and try again. This time we make the right turn and soon we are in front of the train station with fifteen minutes to spare. Had we not practiced the route I would be writing you from Perugia, telling you how wonderful the Eurochocolate has been.
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Italian train stations are pretty grim in general and Perugia’s is no exception. They are pretty easy to navigate, however, especially if you speak a little Italian. I have purchased our train tickets in advance online at www.trenitalia.it. There is an English version page and it is pretty easy to use; just enter your departure point and destination and the system will prepare a number of alternate itineraries. You can purchase your ticket online using a credit card but remember to print out your itinerary or at the very least, your PNR, a record locator code that you will need to retrieve your ticket from the ticket machine in the station. (If you are traveling from a smaller town, you should check the site to make sure your station has a ticket machine because no machine, no tickey. No tickey, no ridey.)
We get our tickets and a couple of bottles of water, find out which track the train will be arriving and departing from and begin the arduous voyage from the waiting room to the track. At many, if not most Italian train stations, the tracks run parallel to the station and you gain access to them by passing under the other tracks via an underground passageway. This necessitates carrying all of your baggage down the steps, dragging them a few yards down the hallway and back up the steps again. When you emerge from the tunnel you are about 15 feet from where you started, but generally require a change of clothes.
The train ride, which requires two changes of train (at Foligno and Ancona) is mostly uneventful. The first two trains are intercity type trains, a little long in the tooth but perfectly comfortable. We have nearly an hour wait in Ancona before boarding our sleek, lithe Eurostar train to Bari so we stop for a caffe and head for the more comfortable waiting room which inexplicably has many open seats. Upon entering the stench of urine is so overpowering it is a wonder that anyone can sit in there. Ah, the romance of train travel.
We board our final train, looking for our reserved seats, numbers 65 and 66 in carozza (coach) number 4. There is an illustration on the platform that shows the car numbers, helping you to wait in the right place for the train to arrive. What the sign doesn’t show is the middle aged man and his old mother sitting in seats 65 and 66 in carozza 4. This has been our experience previously. Reserved seats numbers are just suggestions that Italians may or may not follow. Apparently this bitter pair prefers the window and they look in no mood to offer them to us.
After some sleeping and writing we head to the dining car where a full meal can be had for about E20, which includes pasta, a meat dish, bread, dessert, coffee and, of course, wine. We are both hurting mightily from the previous four days’ overindulgence and sleep deprivation and order something light, with, of course, some wine. The meal helps pass the time and keep us away from the burning glare of our seatmates.
We arrive in Bari on time, waste some time debating whether to walk or take a cab to the rental car agency about a mile up the road and ultimately catch a cab with a friendly cabbie who promptly charges us E17 for the 3 minute ride. "Luggage, you know" he weakly offers as the reason for the charge. The cost of two plane tickets from Bari to Rome, which we are taking on Monday are E9 each, making the 2 kilometer cab ride nearly as expensive as an hour long flight. No wonder the Italians haven’t won any Nobel Awards for economics lately.
We hightail it out of Bari and find the motorway toward Brindisi, our destination the Masseria San Domenico in Savelletri di Fasano, about half way to Brindisi. We stop briefly in Polignano a Mare, a seaside town built into the cliffs above the Adriatic and a place Suzy and I visited last February. Polignano offers some breathtaking views from balconies and walkways along the sea. One restaurant, the Grotta Palazzese, features a dining room hewn out of the rocks perched above the crashing waves below. There is a hotel there as well, featuring rooms that look out over the ocean (Hotel Ristorante Grotta Palazzese, via Narcico, 59, Polignano a Mare (BA), tel. 080.424.06.77, www.grottapalazzese.it).
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We arrive at the Masseria San Domenico (72010 Savelletri di Fasano, tel. 080.482.77.69, www.masseriasandomenico.com) just as the sun is setting. Had management had the courtesy to place any signs at any of the dozens of intersections we crossed and recrossed as we looked in vain for the hotel, we probably would have arrived with an hour of sunlight to spare. A phone call to the reception proved no more helpful than our random wandering, the receptionist repeating over and over the not-so-helpful information that the hotel is "between Savellestri and Torre Canne." Unfortunately, there are precious few signs for Savellestri or Torre Canne and any signs that do exist pointing you toward these (apparently fictitious) places are not followed up with additional signs confirming that you are on the right track. Two words of advice for anyone staying at the Masseria San Domenico (and I would highly recommend that you do stay here, despite our difficulty arriving); do not follow the signs to San Domenico Golf (even though the two places are related and not all that far from another) and do head to the road along the ocean and follow it until you get to the granite factory. The entrance is just past it.
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I cannot do justice to describing the Masseria San Domenico and I certainly don’t want to try to do so at the end of a day that has been tiring and a little frustrating. I will endeavor to bring you some sense of this place tomorrow, after I have had a good night sleep, my stomach settles and I stop muttering about missing road signs. Suffice it to say that a 5:30 departure, eight hours of train travel on three trains, an overpriced taxi ride and driving around in circles for an hour all seem well worth it.