Puglia journal: Italy’s inane bus system can’t spoil romantic meal next to 700 skulls

Some of the 700 skulls, courtesy of the Turks in 1480, in Otranto's cathedral.

Some of the 700 skulls, courtesy of the Turks in 1480, in Otranto’s cathedral.

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.

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Puglia journal: The Puglia milk run consists of seven connections and 11 hours

My hotel in Otranto, the Bacconcino d'Oriente.

My hotel in Otranto, the Bacconcino d’Oriente.

FRIDAY, MAY 11 – OTRANTO, ITALY

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.

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Puglia journal: Vieste a romantic hideaway on the spur of Italy’s heel

Cheese vendor Costanzo Laprocina with a backdrop of caciocavallo cheese in his shop in Vieste, Puglia

Cheese vendor Costanzo Laprocina with a backdrop of caciocavallo cheese in his shop in Vieste, Puglia

TUESDAY, MAY 8 – VIESTE, ITALY

Sometimes in travel you find yourself in such an idyllic place that you think you’re the only person in the world this happy. This is one of those times.

I’m on the rooftop of Rocca Sul Mare, my hotel here high above the Adriatic Sea. The rooftop is barebones, just four random small wooden tables and chairs in an area that could hold the passengers of a small cruise ship. But this is the low season and I have this spot – and view – all to myself.

I’m staring out at a lighthouse, perched atop a long, nearly barren rock with the blue sky providing the backdrop. To the left are the whitewashed buildings of Vieste. They aren’t the blinding bright white of Santorini but the rougher edge gives it more of a seafaring look. The seven-story apartment house has all the air-conditioners exposed and radio antennas and satellite dishes sit atop some of the buildings. But so do big orange planters and red-tiled roofs.

Vieste is like many 2,000-year-old Italian towns. It’s a network of narrow, windy, hilly alleys barely enough for two people to pass without rubbing elbows. You walk past tiny trattorias and enotecas and people’s stoops where the locals gather to gossip and children kick soccer balls against the walls. But Vieste is on the edge of Gargano National Park, on outcropping that sticks out into the Adriatic like a small spur. Taking the bus into town, we passed a spectacular gold-sand beach set against the backdrop of a towering rock formation, Scoglio di Pizzomunno. And the beach was empty as were every restaurant that served.

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