I take back anything good I’ve said about Italian wine. They don’t need preservatives and phosphates, the mine fields of American wine, to produce a nuclear explosion in your frontal lobe. I’m writing this with one eye closed. It’s to lessen the pain from a savage hangover from the most lethal Italian wine I’ve ever had. Fumbling through my notes from last night, the guilty product is something called Cantele, a brutal Chardonnay from Salento, the part of Puglia just north of this tip of Italy’s boot.
On my first night in Otranto, I found a terrific local bar called Ora e Mezzo (Hour and a Half) where a 20-year-old bartender named Francesco spokely virtually no English and talked to me for two hours while plying me with poison. His first mistake was he poured it like a 20-year-old. You pour wine up to the point where the wine glass curves in. That helps preserve the flavor. He poured it nearly to the rim where I needed two hands and a straw to start drinking it. But he liked soccer and women and Puglia so we had plenty to talk about.
He said September is the best time to come here. The tourists have all but left and the water is warm and the weather is beginning to cool. There aren’t many tourists now and no Americans. I’m still amazed at how shocked Pugliese are when they meet someone from the States. This is Day 5 in Puglia and I’ve seen two Americans and one was a young kid who sounded like a native Italian speaker bringing his portly girlfriend to Italy to meet relatives. My Italian went real well except for when I asked, “Il tuo vino ha preservativi?” I meant to ask if his wine had preservatives. Instead I asked, “Does your wine have condoms?” Preservative is conservante. Oops!
I needed a laugh. Frankly, I needed a drink. My trip from Vieste to Otranto was something out of the 19th century when Italians moved by ox cart. From Vieste to Otranto is about 180 miles. It took me 11 hours and seven changes to get here. It takes less time to fly from Denver to Tokyo.
At least it was scenic. I took the “later” 6:15 a.m. bus that went the coast route and it was spectacular. We drove along the foot of thick forests dropping down to a dark blue sea. Wildflowers of yellow, red, orange and pink dotted the landscape. Every time we turned we saw another secluded cove with the Adriatic Sea sitting there like an inviting bathtub after a long day. The beaming sun, even just after dawn, cast a giant shadow on the icy, still water.
Only one other person, obviously a local kid because he slept through the entire drive, was on the bus. In the town of Monte Sant’Angelo, high above the sea, a troop of high school kids climbed aboard. They weren’t much different than American high school kids. Sullen. Yawning. Fiddling with their iPads. Not a single one of them was reading a newspaper. But they were very well behaved which made me glad I don’t take these kinds of trips in the States. There’s nothing more obnoxious than an American teen trying to impress his friends.
Once we curled inland toward Foggia, the trip turned into the Puglia milk run. When I arrived in Foggia the train clerk told me there’s a problem with the rail and I must take a bus to some town called Trenitapoli. That was absolutely jammed with people trying to get to Bari or Lecce or anyplace else south. A stylish, beautiful woman sitting next to me slept the entire 90-minute trip, oblivious to her head pounding against the window.
Once in Trenitapoli (trenee-TOP-oly, not tren-IT-apoly as I called it and got strange stares from every frazzled train conductor I asked), it was mass confusion. No one knew when the next train to Bari was or the track. For the first time, I wasn’t the only person on an Italian train deck with a dazed look on his face.
We finally got herded onto a train that was an hour late and thankfully, I wouldn’t miss my train to Otranto. The dapper train official told me another train to Lecce was right on the heels of our arrival in Bari, which did nothing to satisfy the whining woman sitting opposite me. When she wasn’t screaming at the shockingly calm train official – he’d obviously worked Italian trains for a few years, which reached their modest peak under Mussolini – she was looking at her watch every 15 seconds as if waiting in a burning building.
The weather has started to warm. It was probably in the high 70s in Trenitapoli and I wanted the full blown wind. My hair was last looking decent somewhere in Portugal. But being an Italian woman, she was extremely well coiffed, with gorgeous, long brown hair and lips nearly as full as her hips. I relented so she could look nice when she finally met her married lover somewhere in the Pugliese peninsula.
Then came a whirlwind of changes. Bari to Lecce went right along the Adriatic coast. Past vegetable farms and orange groves I could see a ribbon of the blue sea. I had the whole compartment to myself and I sat there with the wind blowing in my face and looked at the most remote region in all of Italy.
Then came more confusion. To reach Otranto, literally a dot on the bottom of Italy’s geographical heel, I had to change train companies. I went from the Trenitalia, which covers everything from the slow dirty intercity trains to the sleek, speedy Eurostar, to Ferrovie, which is something out of the 19th century. The wide open cars with just a few seats rumble through tiny villages at about 30 mph. They haven’t been upgraded since World War II (where is the ol’ fascist when you need him?) but at least the windows were soldered open and not many people were going to Maglie that day. In Maglie, another backwater Pugliese town of farms and dust, I had to change again to Otranto where I finally arrived at 5:30 p.m.
I seemingly walked an hour to reach this hotel, the Bacconcino d’Oriente. It has an odd African theme to it. It’s all gold and orange with bright wooden doors and paintings of Sub-Saharan women with pots on their heads. My room is big with a big closet and a shower where I can actually wash my hair without getting wrapped in the shower curtain like a worm writhing in his cocoon.
I’ve seen nothing of the town but a harbor lined with very touristy restaurants. I rewarded my negotiating a tricky party of travel with a nice meal of seared tuna in mango sauce at Laltro Baffo, a modern, elegant restaurant where I had my last good wine of the night.