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Trani, Italy 11 October 2011

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Back to Bella Italia

As soon as we knew for sure our ferry would be leaving, a cloud lifted, and we were able to relax into modern Dubrovnik, and enjoy it. We had cappuccini, and bought toothpaste at a lovely organic food store, Bio & Bio. We walked back to the old town from the port, enjoying the beautiful blue waters from high above. We returned to the Indian-inspired restaurant and had salad bar; we noticed that many of the customers were repeaters, too. 

We kept our room an extra night so we could be comfortable until ferry time, than dragged our luggage to dinner -- not too hungry, and wanting not to be full on the Adriatic, we struck out a couple of times before we found an elegant fish restaurant just off the Stradun, where we ordered salad and Ribarska Juha, fisherman's stew. We expected to pay an arm and a leg but ended up with 140 kuna we are still carrying around five days later with no prospect of exchanging them. All in all, a great last day in an strange and fascinating and off-putting and mysterious country.

mouse over for context

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The moon was rising over the Pile Gate as we dragged our bad dogs up the ramp; we knew what bus to catch and where to get off (unlike many of our busmates) and made our way easily through passport control and onto the barge ... er, ferry. Jadrolinska, the Croatian State Ferry operator, doesn't have much PR savvy. Or maybe they just don't care, which would be very Balkan of them. Our room was small and the beds separate (of course), but we didn't expect to do much but lie in them until sunrise. Back on deck, we sat on a bench to watch the moon over Dubrovnik. When the ferry pulled out, we watched the city recede. Our beds rocked and rolled and we didn't really sleep, and we up before sunrise to watch the sky lighten and the Italian coast approach.

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Transport Days are Hard Marches

After a delay waiting for the harbor pilot, we finally bump up against the shore and are allowed off to face the Italian authorities. A big tour group has them a-twitter, so we're processed as EU citizens. The customs guy gives us the eye and passes us through, picking instead on some Croat visitors. We're on the quay and it's not quite 9 am. Bus tickets at the Tabacchi (we're old Italian hands) we (sorta) figure out the bus to Stazione Centrale, and once there, again sorta get the gist of the airport bus. Sure enough, after some amazing threading of traffic by a cowboy bus driver we're at the shiny new Bari Airport, and in just a few minutes have our car keys in hand. "The car's is in space 59," says the nice rental clerk in fairly unbroken English, waving her hand vaguely out a door. "A map? How do we get to Trani?" "All finished." (That means they've run out of maps.) "Just follow to Foggia."

We drag our luggage out the door, and after a few minutes of frustration find the sign that points to the rental car park ... you need a rental car to get to the rental car park, it's so far. BUT in no time we're on the SS16 and rolling up the coast, and there is some correspondence between the map and the road signs. We're on a freeway, and the traffic is insane, with vehicles going as slow as 50 kph and others going 150kph. It's like Bump'em cars, only for reals.

One of the greatest joys of Italy is that once you're off the well-beaten tourist track, if you weren't born here -- and by here I mean within ten kilometers of wherever you are -- you're stumbling around in the dark. Main streets never have names ...because, after all, you've been walking up and down that street all your life, right? Why would it need a sign? Side streets sometimes do, but often aren't on maps. So finding your destination is always a game of chance. We roll the dice a few times, and after three or four times around the neighborhood we think might be right we find a likely street, and eventually a name on the street -- right street! No numbers, but finally a tiny placard on a giant apartment complex indicates that herein somewhere one may find Il Sole B&B. Nobody answers the bell (of course) but a nice Nonna lets us in and points us in the right direction, and, sure enough, late as we are (half an hour) Mario still awaits, lets us in, takes our money, shows us our tiny apartment, issues vouchers at the bar around the corner for a cornutto (croissant) and cappuccino for the breakfast part of the B&B, outfits us with the three keys necessary to get through outer gate, main door, and our room's door, gives us a map that shows "nearby" restaurants, and we're on our own.

By now, we're hungry bigtime, so we set out for the "short walk" to the recommended restaurant. Three plus kilometers later we not only have not found the restaurant, but we have found zero open restaurants, and have seen a depressing slice of South Trani. We are fit to spit nails. We drag back to the car -- it's hot and sticky and as we walk the people have disappeared from the street (it being siesta time) and the place looks like a nuclear bomb disaster site. We start driving toward what looked like it might be civilization...

...And suddenly the streets start closing in. First it's one way, then the parking goes away and it's barely wide enough for our car and twisty as only an old Italian town can be. Rochelle's eyes are rolling and she is grasping her knees to keep from squeaking in anguish. Then the alley gets narrower...

Suddenly, in a spot of sun, there's fellow in a tocque blancsmoking a cigarette. Why do chefs smoke? That's a question for another time, I guess. "Chef!" I say, in the same tone of voice the dog in Up! used to say "Squirrel!" "Where can I park?" Miraculously, a tiny square opens up (with water along one side -- without, I should note, any barrier between pavement and water -- we have found the port) and I can squeeze our little Peugeot into a space and we make haste toward the door into which the chef-like creature has vanished.

Boy, are we glad we did! Like Verona, we have stumbled onto the best restaurant in Trani, a town known for its restaurants: Osteria Corteinfiore. A little gift to the weary travellers from Saint Anthony?

Behind a nearly invisible doorway and a crowded entry, there's a seating area with draperies and modern chandeliers and linen tablecloths and napkins and six glasses at each setting -- well, maybe only three. At this point we are sweaty, peckish, Western Americans at their uncouth worst, but we are seated in a favored table and fawned over by a succession of waiters. And Oh, Boy! What food!

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The images here are of four of five "Fantasies from Michele the Chef": Tuna barely cooked, peppered on the outside with smoked salt over baby string beans; baby octopi in a sage butter sauce; white fish whose name I forgot lightly braised with pickled this and that and rucola (arugula) on a skewer; potatoe and fish cakes with marinated pimento (what we call red pepper) -- each on a separate dish, each as painterly and perfect as one could wish, none more than a few perfect mouthfuls.

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And that, dear reader, was the appetizer. Also a lovely fettucine with clams in butter sauce and one of the nicest mixed salads we have had on this trip.

Afterwards, somewhat in shock, we wound our way out of the maze past Trani's gorgeous shoreline cathedral and a squat business-like fortress, and miraculously wended back through this complicated town to our digs at the far side of town -- the high-rise low-rent district? We took a well-deserved nap, and later went out in the opposite direction and by some miracle found an very adequate pizzaria, Cinque Sensi, where we were well treated despite being the only Anglos they'd seen in a long time. 

We didn't have the courage to go back to Corteinfiore a second time, but we did return to Cinque Sensi the second night, because it was easy to find and across the street the men were playing spirited soccer, and we enjoyed watching them after dinner.


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Monte Sant' Angelo

The next day, up early and away north after "breakfast" -- Italians don't "do" breakfast -- around the salt pans and the industrial smear of Manfredonia then up the twisty mountain road to Monte Sant' Angelo to the place where the Archangel Michael has appeared four times. There's a historic town here buried in a carapace of horrid 1970s cracker-box apartment buildings; from below, you'd never know, but once you're at the top, you can almost forget the squalid housing and enjoy the narrow steep streets and the tight concentration of habitation that has been doing business at this address for nearly two millennium ...that we know of. You might remember the Longobardi from Cividale in north-eastern Italy? Well, this was their farthest southern outpost, and it was to them that Mike the Arch showed himself, in a grotto in the rocky top of their mountain stronghold. The Longobardi are long gone, but there's a coincidence between Mike's appearance and their conversion to Christianity.

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This place is one of the principal places of pilgrimage in Europe, and the focus of the journey looks, from the Fortezza, like a fairly unassuming church with an interesting hexagonal steeple. One expects a grandiose church behind the facade, but finds instead a long, winding stairway down, down the hillside to a grotto mostly lit by the flickering LED "candles" favored in places where centuries of candle-soot have darkened the ceilings and cannot be sustained further -- like Assisi. (Somehow, the LEDs don't do it for us.)

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You will not be surprised to learn that Mike's Minions forbid photography, and so I am likely risking Hell to show you the attached. It may surprise you to learn that like so many other businesses in Italy, Mike and his staff take a long lunch, from 13:00 until 14:30, and we were the last ones down the tunnel and were gently hustled through our devotions and back up again to sunlight. Rochelle liked the feel of this place, and I too got a strong sense of otherness, if not holiness, here, that I could have enjoyed sitting with for awhile.

Archangel Mike, of course, is the fellow who did God's dirty work in casting the devil out, and he is all over this town. We bought a postcard of the statue in the grotto, and if you mouse over the grotto picture you'll see it. 

mouse over for close-up of Archangel Michael

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We wandered down the streets of the village, surrounded by children escaping school for lunch, and sizing up the restaurant offerings. Not exciting ..but wait, what's this, a restaurant without a sign? Was it there when we walked past the first time? Is it an apparition, like Archangel Mike?

And so began what may have been the most personal, and therefore interesting, lunch of the trip. We were attended by Robert, a slender and energetic fellow who struggled successfully with our bad Italian, and interpreted our wishes to chef Pio Schiavone, who created an amazing lunch: risotto al mare, with wonderful bits of octopus and squid, whole baby clams and mussels, and the very essence of the far-below ocean; baby lamb from their own pasture, and I mean baby, with ribs smaller than chopsticks; a wonderful semifreddo; and to finish, a delicious 2-year-old grappa that warmed without burning right down to the pit of our stomachs. Memorable!

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With visions of the superb ethnographic museum in Dubrovnik, we bought the two-fer ticket at the Fortezza, and after lunch visited its Italian equivalent here, and found a sorry place. The best part was the view from the window down, down, down past the town to the ocean 800 meters (the better part of 2400 feet) below. What we could see from the displays was that life on top of this mountain was a pretty hardscrabble existence except for appearances of the Archangel and occasional churchmen come on pilgrimage. 

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The grappa having (mostly) worn off, onward in the Dark Forest -- Foresta Umbra. This whole piece of land, called the Gargano Promontory, feels like a piece of Croatia that failed to make the break with the Puglian table-land, and so rests here like a spur on Italy's boot: high, karstic, isolated, and miraculously forested. The road winds down into a valley and back up onto the forested highland, and from there we could catch glimpses of Monte Sant' Angelo on the ridge opposite. The forest sweeps onward for miles and miles, until the karst drops off precipitously into the sea. It's dry-land forest, not a hint of water on the surface, and yet the trees, some more than a hundred feet tall and with three-foot thick trunks, are brightly green and healthy, a very diverse forest of hardwoods here, then pines toward the edges.

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Above us, the canopy is thick and bright, and little light trickles down to the ground. Italian roads are mostly devoid of decent places to pull out and take pictures -- indeed, in our whole 50 kilometers through the forest we found only one or two unspoiled by human "improvements" -- few trailheads, but lots of fenced picnic areas. We have noted before that the Italian notion of a national park differs markedly from ours. 

The excellent but narrow road winds along through the woods with no apparent goal except to let one drive through the forst -- perhaps it follows some old trail that brave folk blazed through this primary forest. How this much fuelwood and indeed timber has survived into our time is a mystery and a bit of a miracle.

Right in the middle of the park, several campsites and a ranger station, the remains of what might once have been a hotel or hostel, and many fenced picnic areas and parking areas. There may be trails, but we were unable to see evidence of them. When it rains, water may run down one of the many streams that show signs of watercourses, but this land is a sponge.

There are many in-holdings, farm houses and the tilled dark bottomland typical of this kind of land, that we saw also in Istria across the Adriatic.

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The land is mostly fallow at this time of year, the Italian agricultural pattern being a single crop annually and then the land rests through the winter ... a good explanation for the long fertility of the land. Clear signs, as well, of livestock allowed to forage the forest, which is park-like, with very little undergrowth but a thick overstory that keeps the light out. I can easily imagine Italian children being taken here, and told it is the Foresta Umbra, and finding new and frightening meaning in the fairy tales that include "the deep woods" in them. 

Finally, we broke put of the forest and down the escarpment on the eastern side and into the city of Vieste, a destination much loved by Italians for its beachs in little coves and its remoteness from the vast Italian tableland leading up to it. Getting here is an arduous trek, with twisty narrow roads fraught with tour busses and other travelers. The road south of Vieste feels much like Big Sur, with mountains falling steeply into a deep sea. Deeply indented valleys protect small coves and, often, small resort establishments. Here, one of the deepest canyons gave onto a tableland reminiscent of the penisulas below the road to Hana on Maui. 

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