SUNDAY, MAY 13 – LECCE, ITALY
Mussolini vowed he’d make the trains in Italy run on time and he did. Now Italy needs another fascist to work on the buses. I’m in Lecce 40 euro poorer after the “deficiente” (moron) here three days ago sold me a bus ticket from Otranto to Lecce when there is no bus to Lecce. In fact, without some ingenuity and kindly Pugliese cab driver, I’d still be standing by Otranto’s port all day like a hooker waiting for the sailors to come ashore.
After my 10 ½-hour adventure from Vieste to Otranto, the return trip was supposed to be the easy one. A two-change journey all the way to Rome. Instead, I had to use every syllable of my Italian vocabulary just to catch my train in Lecce.
This is a prime example of how awful traveling in Italy can be on the wrong day. A mere 10 hours after dining on some of the most scrumptious food in the world in an atmosphere so romantic it would make trappist monks horny, you’re left with a map in one hand and cursing to the gods or travel agent, whomever happens to listen.
I got the bus stop near the travel agency at 7:30 a.m., well in time for my 8:55 departure. I sat at a closed restaurant next to the closed travel agency and saw Bad Sign No. 1: No one else joined me. Bad sign No. 2: I didn’t see anything resembling a bus drive by. Bad sign No. 3 came when 8:55 rolled around and no bus. Then came 9, 9:05, 9:10. Then came the profanity: “FUCK!” “DEFICIENTI!” “ASSHOLES!” Some scuba divers looked up to see who was screaming. That tells you a little about my voracity. They were 50 feet under the Adriatic at the time.
I called Marina, the hotel clerk who said she’d look up the bus departure on the Internet. As I hung up, an absolute goddess in skin-tight clothes, stilletos and fashionable sunglasses parked at the agency and walked up the stairs. Stumbling over my words as if I was at my first junior high dance, I asked about the bus. She said it leaves at 9:30 across the street near what looked like a public restroom where a hippy couple were doing their wash.
You won’t see that on any Alitalia posters.
The bus finally showed at 9:37. Relieved I told the guy, with a smile, he’s late and I was nervous.
“Dove va?” (Where are you going?) “Lecce?”
“Non Lecce. Solo Maglie.”
OK, get me to Maglie and I’ll get the connection. For about 15 minutes I was in the lap of luxury. I was riding in an Italian Pullman, a high-end bus complete with movie screens, reclining chairs and a wide aisle. And I was his only passenger.
He dumped me in the bus station’s crude parking lot. The office was closed and one bus sat idle. No driver was within sight. The only people around were an elderly couple waiting for a city bus and a portly local who told me there’s no bus to Lecce on Sunday.
“Prende taxi,” (Take a taxi) he said.
Now I’m cursing up a storm winging my roller bag around like I’m in a hammer throw ring. I called Marina again who looked up on the ‘Net and said, no, there is no bus to Lecce on Sunday. The Italian who sold me this ticket didn’t even hear that I would return on Sunday. If he didn’t, he didn’t tell me I’d be abandoned if I returned on Sunday. I don’t know. The bus office at this train station is closed. He’s probably at home, earing leftover orchiette and drinking his fourth Peroni.
Fortunately, the closed bus office in Maglie had a cab number and a young kid in a blue sedan with no taxi sign took me to Lecce for 40 euro, a steal considering he had my testicles in his gearshift.
The episode made for a downer end to my Puglia adventure. And what an end it could’ve been. Last night was one of those Italian nights you dream about when you’re trapped at your desk at 3 in the afternoon. I had a terrific story on Puglia but didn’t have a single quote. I had no insight into life here in the past or any comment about what makes these overtly friendly Pugliese so nice. Marina found a friend who spoke English and she agreed to meet me at L’Ora e Mezzo.
Maria Rosaria Micolani teaches English at a school for tourism and marketing. She’s one of the most unique looking Italians I’ve ever seen. She was very dark-skinned to where I thought she was an American Indian. In fact, her students often ask her if she is. She stands a well-proportioned 5-2 with long, straight black hair she wears down the front of her shoulders and one of those classic Italian figures Bernini regularly carved in marble. I figured she was about early 40s.
Over a prosecco, we talked for an hour abut life in Puglia. She said the big reason the Pugliese are so friendly is they’ve had invasions from so many people over the centuries.
“Invasions?” I said. “Your cathedral has 700 skulls from the beheadings the Turks gave you in the 15th century.”
“But that was only the Turkish men,” she said. “The Romans, the Venetians, the Normans, they all came and built roads, castles, fortresses.”
She said Otranto was nothing but a fishing village 30 years ago. Maybe one or two restaurants, one bar. Her father had a big house and would put up visitors who had no place else to stay. Northern Puglia started getting visitors first then about 20 years ago southern Puglia, known as Salento, got discovered. Then in 15 years it became overrun. She said in August when the Italians visit, there are lines outside pizzerias and you have to nearly crawl through narrow alleys the crowds are so large. And it’s hot, real hot.
We talked about food and wine and travel. She’s been all over Europe and to New York. She favors the UK and Ireland to work on her English which is nearly fluent if heavily accented. After I put my notebook away, I started looking at her differently. We had hit it off, she was attractive and there’s no insight into a culture than through the eyes of a local. The waiter at Altre Buffo had recommended another restaurant called Piccolo di Vino. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my Puglia stay and top off my story on Pugliese cuisine than for an attractive Pugliese explain the food to me.
So I asked her to eat with me later.
Conflict of interest? Not really. I’m not writing about her. I’m writing about her region. I’m also using her for insight into my chosen cuisine.
Do you buy that? Didn’t think so.
Too bad. The evening was fabulous. Peccato di Vino is like a lot of romantic restaurants in Puglia. It’s squeezed into the side of a narrow, dark alley on an elevated, well-lit deck. White tablecloths and candles cover the tables that are too close to each other to have private conversations.
My seat was an arm’s length across the passageway to the cathedral that housed the chilling bone room where they kept the skulls and skeletons of the 700 locals wiped out by the Turks 600 years ago. It seemed like an odd memorial and a real lousy apperativo. Much better was the Jento, a dry white wine that I sipped while waiting for Maria. I chatted with an elderly Massachusetts couple who had just finished going Meg Ryan over the orchiette and sausage. They had spent two weeks in Puglia and were spending one more – in cooking school. Pugliese cuisine truly is like crack.
Maria arrived and knew the menu and went down the list, explaining it like a history teacher with a textbook. The meal was nothing short of a fantasy feast. It started out with a little mixture of tomatoes, parsley and garlic in a large wooden spoon. Then I ordered a half portion of impetata di cozze. The “half” order was about two dozen black shells holding some of the biggest clams I’ve ever seen: juicy, orange-pink morsels with a cheesy flavor.
Along the way we had a basket of bread: puccia con olive, fat, doughy chunks with big black olives, alla pizza iola with a biting cheese flavor and traditional Pugliese bread with the soft, yummy dough surrounded by the hard, crunchy crust. Also, farellini, the hardy, curly crackers served with every Pugliese meal.
All this time Maria talked about the regional quality of the cuisine. Everything we were eating came from within a few miles of our table, includiong the clams. That’s one reason I saw virtually no fat people at the city beach that day. All the food they eat is natural and caught or picked or killedwithin hours of consumption. I’ve been in Puglia six days and I had yet to see a fast food restaurant.
Then came the main course. My orchiette with salcccia is a simple dish: orchiette pasta with sausage topped with shaved provolone cheese. But the pasta was fresh, the salsiccia was big juicy chunks of lean meat and the cheese, despite its thin slivers, had a bite to it. I was in mid orgasm when the cook stepped out to the table. Vittorio Nicolardi was a tall, distinguished looking gent with silver hair, a silver goatee and white cook’s frock. And he knew Maria from school when they were kids.
“I’ve always loved Maria,” he told me. And he meant it. Maria looked a little shocked. “I had no idea,” she said. “We were only just friends.”
We had only ordered a glass of wine but the Salice Salentino, one of Maria’s recommendations from a wine store we visited earlier, was so good we found ourselves nearing the bottom of it. As Maria helped herself to a third glass, the conversation changed. She asked me how a handsome guy like me has never married. I have no idea why. I’m getting grayer and every night on the road makes it harder to clean up well at night. People’s image of travel writers having a girl in every port has never seen a travel writer after visiting too many ports.
Soon the grappa came and then Maria poured another glass from the bottle the manager had conveniently left on the table. We started to laugh and joke and I found her staring into my eyes to where I thought I had a piece of sausage stuck in my teeth.
She doesn’t live far from the hotel and she walked with me back to it. At this point, my mild attraction to her when she walked into L’Ora e Mezzo turned into raging testosterone. Marina was still working the desk and I went through the awkward, time-consuming ritual of paying the hotel bill. I finally led Maria outside where she quickly said, on purpose I’m sure, “It was nice meeting you.”
She gave me a big hug and, “You’re someone special.” What that means in Puglia I don’t know. But, as I sat alone at scruffy bus stops the next day, I had a lot of time to ponder the one thought that crosses travel writers’ minds way too many times.
I’ll likely never see her again.