About three weeks ago, I visited a Norman-Swabian castle in a town called Sannicandro di Bari. I still don’t really know what Norman Swabian means. Wikipedia tells me that this particular castle dates all the way back to 916, the Byzantine period, and was then restored by the Normans in 1701. Puglia is full of this kind of architecture: every town I have visited so far seems to have its own Castello Normano/Svevo.
I was up early, ready for a cultural Sunday. Katie came along with us, so after a quick breakfast of the usual cappuccino and cornetto alla crema, we set off with Antonella, Franco and some of their friends to get to the castle. The drive seemed very short, Sannicandro is on the other side of Bari but after passing the stadium, IKEA and shopping centres in Bari’s periphery we rolled into the little town and parked right in front of the castle.
The previous times that I had looked round castles had consisted of walking round in circles and seeing a lot of stones, without knowing much about them. The tour round the Castle of Sannicandro was much more lively: actors pretended to be mistresses, knights and barons and staged scenes that might have taken place during the castle’s Norman heyday. At the first mention of ‘interactive’ experience, me and Katie looked at each other with ‘Oh God No’ in our eyes, but fortunately we were not asked to perform and happily watched from the sidelines. We were introduced to a funny character named Pandolfo, who had a fondness for wine and showed us all his weapons and an old-style board game. This was particularly great for the children in the group, whose gasps and laughs were quite contagious.
We were shown the kitchen, where the Castle’s cook was preparing a feast and told us all about her duties, then we were taken to a gruff architect who told us how the castle was built. We were shown into the ‘Signore’s’ room, his bedroom, his bathroom, his armour and his creepy wife who didn’t move from her post by the window. He then let us participate to a ceremony where one man of our group was given a knighthood in order to fight in an impending battle. Some grave surreal chanting was pumped out into the stone hall and the rites were duly performed with a careful regard for health and safety of course.
This concluded our tour, and we headed out into the drizzly weather to find the restaurant that had been booked for lunch. It was a trattoria called Il Mascondiglio , and I don’t think I’ve had as much to eat in a long time. There were never ending antipasti: it was brilliant. Plenty of water, plenty of wine, and then a procession of delicious starters like bruschetta, bresaola, scamorza (a kind of cheese) smoked in the oven, ricotta, mozzarella, mushrooms, involtini di carne, a basket with some kind of bean cream in it and then seafood. This was particularly interesting for me and Katie, as it was a chance to sample raw calamari and sea urchins. I’d been told about these sea urchins already by Leo, Antonio and others, and suddenly here they were in front of me, black and spiky on the outside and bright orange on the inside (who knew?). It turns out that the creature inside is sort of creamy in texture and you need to take out the good stuff with a knife and spread it on bread or eat it alone; there was a disagreement about this. I actually liked both of these new things, particularly the sea urchins, which apparently only people from Puglia eat.
The meal was not over then, Katie and I shared two primi: orecchiette con rape (pasta with turnip tops) and pasta with salsiccia e funghi, sausage and mushroom. They were both delicious and we soldiered on to finish them, but then were full as anything and could only muster a couple of profiteroles between us. Just before dessert arrived though, Antonella was determined that we try ‘fave’, fresh broad beans, and asked the waiter to bring some over. He brought a whole bunch of them, so I had to take the leftover ones home in my handbag, along with a bone for Toby.
Since we were in the area, it was decided that we would go for a wander round the Centro Storico of Bitetto. This little town was in the middle of a carnival celebration: the bunting was up, the children were out in costumes and remixes of Katy Perry were blasting across the square. We made for the old part of town, where we found a church with a fantastic green and yellow dome. Pictures were taken of balconies and winding streets, other people’s front steps and archways. We offended a little dog on our way around, then walked back to the car as dark was approaching. We drove back to Molfetta via Bari, taking lost country roads flanked by endless olive trees and then suddenly ending up in the bright lights of the city centre.
All in all, this day out taught us a lot more about the region, some of its history, some of its food, and about the lovely long lunches that Italians have on Sundays, so different from the roast dinners of England. Having been in Rome the days before, I felt tired but also happy to have taken in so much in one short weekend.