Puglia journal: A day at beach a quiet respite from celebration of Santa Maria di Marino

My lunch atop my hotel roof in Vieste.
My lunch atop my hotel roof in Vieste.

For a tiny beach town, this place is as loud as Fort Lauderdale over spring break. It’s the celebration of Santa Maria di Marino, the patron saint of Vieste. I think every town in Italy has a patron saint, but I’ve never seen one as beloved as this Santa Maria.

Vieste puts on a festival for seven damn days. And these aren’t somber moments of quiet solitude in cathedrals. It’s bombs and opera and church bells and rock music. My first night here my pausa was awakened by a series of explosions that sounded as if Vieste was lousy with suicide bombers. Then last night the square had Italian rock music blaring until at least midnight. If any Viestenians, or whatever they’re called, wanted to sleep in their evening, that was ruined at dawn when the church bells rang for a good 15 minutes.

It’s just after 8 a.m. and the band is playing again. It’s the same god-awful parade music I heard when I walked to the beach yesterday. This troupe of small-town musicians were all decked out in suits and ties and playing horn instruments very loudly and very poorly. They sounded like a reunion of mental inmates.

Last night, however, was a pretty nice slice of rural Pugliese culture. After a scrumptious dinner at the hotel, I walked to Piazza Vittoria Emanuele – another constant in Italian towns – and the whole square was lit up. The raised gazebo was all ablaze in lights of blue, red, white and green. The Christmas lights rimmed the piazza in blue, yellow, red and white lights with elaborate designs. Inside the gazebo a classic orchestra played while three opera singers belted out old Italian standbys like “Volare.”

I loathe music but when you hear a human voice belt out sounds like that up close, it’s a time of instant respect if not heart murmurs. The singers were good and right out of central casting. The lead singer was a robust man with a sharp, dark suit and slightly receding headline who clipped every high note and waved his arms for emphasis. The woman soprano was a heavy set woman with spectacular, thick, dark hair and a shocking pink scarf that protected her throat from a slight night chill.

Italians do love opera, though. Half the town sat on folding chairs, sat on stoops of gelaterias or stood, clapping at every pause. They were from all walks of society: old men in fishing caps, young men in sneakers, hot babes in heels and skin-tight pants, little boys that didn’t seem bored.

I can listen to opera just so long. After a while it starts sounding like cats being tortured in very fine surroundings. I walked around the piazza and it had the air of a public fair. Booths lined one street, all selling something very Pugliese. You know Traconte, that white nougat candy sold in lots of American candy stores? That originated here. A short, plump, bald guy with bulging forearms handed me a sample of the soft version, something I’ve never had. Traconte is known for jaw-breaking hardness and surely endorsed by every dentist in the world. This melted in my mouth and the slice of pure chocolate in the middle made it a new taste sensation for a chocolaholic like me.

Then my love for the Pugliese dimmed when I paid 5 euro for a slice and walked 30 feet to see another booth selling twice that much for 3. I learned one thing: Speaking Italian doesn’t keep you from getting ripped off.

But here I’m doing more than talking. St. Christoper, my own patron saint of travel, smiled broadly on me and cleared up the weather. It was gorgeous, about 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I walked 10 minutes through the piazza and past the bus stop to the spectacular beach I drove by Monday afternoon. It was as good as a European beach can get. It’s not the classic beach of tourist posters. There were no palm trees or turquoise water. But the sand was golden, the water clear and hardly anyone was on it.

The white monolith provided a nice backdrop, not to mention cut off the wind that still had some bite to it. I rolled out my hotel towel, laid down and buried myself in the Caesar historical novel. The only people I saw looked like locals. Some young guys walked down the beach bitching about life. Two couples took their dogs and waded out into the water. The Adriatic in May is not warm. But it’s warm enough to swim and after the initial shock on the nipples and face, a few dozen strokes felt as good as I’ve felt this whole vacation.

I’m learning more and more about Pugliese cuisine. On the walk back, I walked past a cheese shop where huge balls of white provolone hung from a ceiling behind an old-fashioned cash register. The glass case below was filled with cheese.

The owner was a guy named Costanzo Laprocina. He’s a Pugliese and third generation cheese man who takes as much pride in his daily cheese production as I do in this journal. He gave me samples of nearly every cheese he had: the cacao cavalo which was a little too hard, the fresh pecorino which was just right and the cacao ricotta which tasted so sweet you could put it on gelato. I bought a hunk of pecorino, half a stick of Pugliese sausage and a bottle of Negroamaro (what a great name) for 9 euro and had a terrific, if windy, picnic on my rooftop veranda looking out at the lighthouse.

Later I watched the cook make pasta. Stefanie Osman was a Pugliese of Turkish descent who looked like one of the hot women you imagine when they take off their apron and protective hat. She had beautiful dark eyes and olive skin, but I was just as impressed how she rolled out a whole table full of orchiette and fusilli in about 10 minutes. She’d take a knife, put it on a little pad of dough, and curl it backward. The dough would form a little ear. Then she’d wrap some dough around a metal skewer, twist it and it formed a little fusilli tube which can be filled with cheese or meat.

The hotel owner’s wife, Maria Teresa Mafrolla, which is curiously the name of he street the hotel’s on, told me that orchiette was never sold in the markets. The Pugliese had to make it themselves. And in Puglia, tons of family would come over to feast and orchiette made for a good offering. Also, they serve it mostly with vegetables and fish. That makes sense. The National Park of Gargano is filled with vegetables and there are 400 kilometers of coastline in Pugliese.

Well, this is making me hungry. I’m grabbing breakfast and heading back to the beach.