The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy


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From Puglia to Piemonte

In the beginning of May, school was out for few days of holidays. I decided to go and visit Mum and Dad at their new flat in Villanova Mondovì, a little town in the mountains pretty much as far away from Molfetta you can get while still remaining in Italy. That’s what we have low cost flights for, even though I must say travelling with a planeful of Italian can sometimes be a chore. It seems to be a universal understanding that no one takes hold luggage, instead choosing to cram as many items as possible into a suitcase that is clearly too big for the cabin. And they clap when you touch down, which British people would never do.

Landing in Turin, I had a big hug from Mum and Dad, along with the usual complaint that I am always the last one off the aeroplane. Lily and Cassie were obviously head over harnesses to see me, wagging their tails and covering my coat in little white hairs. I was taken back to the quiet little village, the brand new apartment and shown my bedroom, where about 1/5 of my stuff is kept.

I had a chilled time in Piemonte, in terms of relaxation and temperature. I went out without a coat on the 2nd of May and shivered all the way around Cuneo. Thank goodness there are so many arcades because it tipped it down. This didn’t impede the typical mother-daughter activities of shopping and lunch out, as well as shopping for sweet souvenirs for Antonio from the best chocolate shop in town.

The weather got a lot better the next day and even allowed us to go shopping for tomato plants and read in the sunlit garden. It seems very unfair to the occupants of the other flats that they have tiny triangular gardens while my parents have possession of a long lawn where Lily and Cassie can career around playing football and flattening herbs. Anyway, it works for my father’s gardening habits.

On Saturday we also hosted a dinner party: my dad’s colleague and his family came over to eat. The whole morning was spent shopping for the starter, wine, cakes, breadsticks, meat until we were quite worn out already. I spent most of the day cutting the tops of beans, burning my fingers on roasted peppers and cutting up strawberries. My job was also to ascertain which moka made the best tasting coffee because one of them was really appalling, sorry Mum but you need to throw that one away.

The evening was very busy for me from start to finish as I entertained two very active little girls, aged 6 and 2. I found that my Italian had improved a lot since the last time I saw them; really I spent an awful lot of the time answering two sets of inquisitive questions about nail varnish and Finding Nemo. There was a fight about who would sit next to me and a drawing workshop that continued all evening. I did manage to chat to their parents for a while, who teased me for the Southern Italian accent that I have apparently developed over the year. They did say that I spoke well though, so I have confirmation that the year abroad has been useful in that way.

On Sunday we went for a drive among the vineyards over the mountains, towards Barolo where we had lunch in a little Osteria that we had visited two years before. The meal was obviously accompanied by the famous red wine, the meat itself was braised in wine and I tried some other Piemontese specialities like ‘bagna cauda’ and hazelnut cake with zabaione. We chatted about the future, the dogs stayed silent under the table and we just felt the lack of Izzy, our fourth member, as we wandered around in the sunny streets of Barolo. Dad tested out his flashy new iPhone on the views while we were driving over the hilltops.

In the days I spent with Mum and Dad, I enjoyed the things that I always do at home, spending the whole of Sunday afternoon baking biscuits, playing Mum’s new piano and driving the car (probably the second time this year). It really is an impressive part of Italy: Villanova is nestled in a bowl of mountains, still topped with snow and clear against the blue sky and the trees. It’s a landscape entirely different from that in Apulia, but no less beautiful.

 


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Elly at Teatro Petruzzelli

The sun has finally arrived. This means more time outside in sunglasses, less time inside, especially since I’ve been on holiday for 2 weeks. This is why Apulian updates have been few and far between, but I still have some memories of Bari and Molfetta I’d like to get down in writing before they disappear into the abyss of unrecorded time. Not that that would happen, I’ve got a pretty good memory.

April was a pretty cultural month for me: I went to the theatre three times within the space of four weeks. By ‘theatre’, I don’t mean just any poky little building, but the grand hall of the Teatro Petruzzelli, in the city centre of Bari. I watched a varied bunch of shows: a film festival screening, a ballet and best of all a work of absurd theatre.

1) Bari Film Festival: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The main square of Bari came alive in the first week of May when a film festival took place. The space was filled with posters, booths and exhibitions, advertising all sorts of different films: me and Katie were intrigued. We decided to go and watch Wes Anderson’s new production, The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’d seen several stills and images offering the same attention to detail and colour palette that defines Anderson’s films, so I was interested to see what the story would be. We made our way into the grand hall and were told to head right to the top of the theatre. Spiralling up the many staircases, we saw the inside of the theatre for the first time. The grand coral coloured exterior conceals a scallop shaped theatre, adorned with gold on the ceiling and furnished throughout in red plush and gold banisters. It’s a truly grand place, but we headed right up to the least grand bit, with plain seats, the last level before the ceiling. In fact, it was a bit frustrating because the screen was sectioned by an annoyingly placed gold bar which meant you had to slouch or sit upright like a poker to see properly. In the end we found a happy medium and managed to watch the film, in English wow! Ralph Fiennes and the supporting cast gave a great performance but I must say that the plot was a bit too fanciful for me and I ended up just looking at the camera angles and the pervading pastel colours.

2) Giselle

I had an impromptu trip to the ballet in mid April, to see the final performance of the ballet Giselle. I vaguely remember watching Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake on a primary school trip, but this was the first ballet I really could appreciate. We were sat about mid way up the theatre and arrived perfectly on time for the first act. It’s a good thing that we searched for the story beforehand, because as ballet is a great deal of leaping around and not so much plot explanation, a bit of forward planning is necessary to catch the narrative intricacies. Basically, Giselle falls in love with a nobleman who she thinks is a peasant boy. On discovering that Albrecht is actually betrothed to a noble lady, she goes mad and dies, something quite spectacular to see. The dancers were really excellent, the set quite simple, nothing over the top. The second act was particularly striking: Giselle rose from her grave to protect the grieving Albrecht from the ghosts of dead brides. The lighting was done beautifully in this part, and the orchestra was fantastic throughout, playing music composed by Adolphe Adam. I’d love to see other ballets in the future: the Petruzzelli was a great place to watch it, but I’ll keep a look out at the Grand Theatre in Leeds too.

3) Histoire du Soldat: absurdity in Italian

My third and final time at the Teaatro Petruzzelli was a surprise. Antonio invited me to Bari with little hint at something special, so I wore my best dress and turned up at the station around 7pm. He soon revealed that we’d be going to see a play at 9, an absurd piece of theatre called Histoire du Soldat, conceived by the composer Igor Stravinsky. We walked around Bari Vecchia for half an hour, while he explained the story to me. The play would relate the story of a soldier who gave his beloved fiddle to the Devil for a book providing him with unlimited economic gain. As we can imagine, this doesn’t exactly end well for the soldier and the play shows the results of his choice and his bargaining with the Devil. The interesting thing about the play was that it was performed by one actor, who used a green coat with a red lining, to play the role of both the soldier and the devil, and even an old lady at one point. The performance also involved a doll, which he danced with to the discordant and anxiety inducing sound of Stravinsky’s music.
Antonio led me inside the theatre up to the 3rd floor, where we had a place in a booth right above the stage on the left hand side. We could see everything perfectly and even had a little view of the actor when he had to change his clothes for each different part. It was perfect to lean on the gold bar and look over all the stage, to hear the musical instruments right underneath our seats. Although the language was very hard to understand (due to the theatricality of tone and the fact that the Devil shouted pretty much everything he said), I was captivated by it: the music and the story. Antonio explained the parts I had missed in whispers and I managed to follow quite nicely until the play ended. It also felt nice to be dressed up, whereas the other times I had not made a real effort, this time we were both dressed properly and it added to the occasion. It’s a good thing my heels were comfortable because we went for a long walk around the illuminated centre of Bari, including Piazza Garibaldi, a lovely park with a fountain, and then Piazza Ferrarese where we had some really good pizza. Katie was having me to stay over, so Antonio walked me home along the seafront (I have to admit I put my trainers on for that!). All in all it was a perfect evening, and the next day we travelled back to Molfetta together leaving Bari behind in the pouring rain.

Which picture is scariest, the Devil or me in the kitchen? :P


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Foreign Fruit

We all know our apples, bananas and pears, right? I came to Puglia thinking that my fruit and vegetable knowledge was pretty on point, but it seems I was wrong. The Italians around me have been attempting to educate me by plying me with seasonal produce. Here are some new fruits that I’ve discovered while living in a countryside villa in the South of Italy:

Cachi (Persimmon)

It took me ages to figure out what a ‘caco’ was, since apparently persimmons come in different varieties. I discovered the soft kind in early October when I first arrived in Puglia. I’m not a fussy eater but I must admit that I can really only handle a small amount of this fruit: its sugary flavour quickly gets too sickly for me and the texture can accurately be described as gloop. Nonetheless, it was good to finally try a fruit that I’d previously only heard of in the Sims Playstation game (Sims have eclectic taste in food it seems).

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Nespole

This is a fruit that I’d never even heard of before: nespole translates as loquat or medlar. They look a bit like orange plums, like cousins of an apricot. The taste is sweet but also slightly sharp at the end. They’re quite fun to eat as well, by chopping off the end, you can pop out the two flat brown stones and eat it whole.

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Gelso (Mulberry)

The mulberry is currently in season, with the tree in the garden shedding loads of little white fruits looking somewhat like elongated raspberries. Another fabled and untasted fruit in my mind, I was told that the mulberry only grows in places like Southern Italy and Uzbekistan (?). The tree apparently also hosts the cocoon of the silk worm: the whole process was explained to me over lunch one day. My host family often engage in the argument of whether the tree is supposed to bear white or purple berries: both colours taste lovely, and can be added to my list of “fruits that double as sweets”. This also includes strawberries, raspberries, grapes and cherries.

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Down here, getting your 5 a day is not a chore, its yet another cultural experience. Let me remind you about turnip tops.


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Eating Easter: An Ode to Ricotta

As Easter approached in Molfetta, people began to get excited not only about the impending processions, but also at the prospect of eating their traditional Easter food. I’ve already talked about the chunky “pizzarello” sandwich, so now it’s time to turn to the various delights that sweeten up the Easter weekend.

I was told about the ‘scarcella’ at least ten times over the course of April, by my host family, by friends and by students. It took me that long to memorize the name: without seeing Italian names written down, they seem to go in one ear and out of the other. The ‘scarcella’, I’ve been told, varies depending on the tastes of the person who makes it but it can be loosely placed on the border between the categories of cake and biscuit (a bit like Jaffa Cakes, I suppose).  At Antonio’s house, I ate a fairly simple kind: a thick crumbly biscuit shaped like a big heart, or even like a dove, with a white sugar glaze and coloured hundreds and thousands. The lemon flavour was quite subtle, these were delicious with milk at breakfast time. I later sampled other ‘scarcelle’: one made by Antonella’s friend, this one softer with a lemon marmalade/jam/curd/whatever in the middle, and then one made by a local pasticcieria with the full Epicurean works. This masterpiece was filled with cherry jam and a layer of marzipan, then covered in an egg white glaze and chocolate piping.

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Another sweet discovery I made this Easter was the Neapolitan “pastiera”. The pastiera is a kind of wheat tart, made with a cooked grain, ricotta, egg and candied fruit filling. I’d never heard of such a thing but I helped Antonio’s mother make not one, but two tarts over the Easter period. Number one was consumed over a week or so in little aromatic squares: I suppose it could be described kind of like a solid rice pudding flavoured with some special essence called ‘Millefiori’ or ‘a thousand flowers’. Number Two was baked a couple of days before I went to Mondovì, up North in Piemonte, to visit Mum and Dad. The pie, 50cm in diameter, was sliced and packed with care in Tupperware and cling film and a big box with Botticelli’s Venus on the front. Then it was slotted into my hand luggage, all four kilos of it, and smuggled through security at Bari airport. I looked back at Antonio with an OK sign to show that the operation had been successful. But then, nowhere in Ryanair’s Terms and Conditions is there written ‘no food, no tarts’. Had they opened my suitcase, they might have thought I was some kind of dealer for Italian baked goods. Do they even exist? If so, someone get me in touch with one, I need my ricotta fix next year.

Italians take their love of gastronomy to an extreme level on national holidays. At Easter, families gather together around a table laden with food, wine and water, for a meal lasting three hours plus, bringing together several generations. It’s great, but really not healthy or reasonable at all. Still, it only happens a couple of times a year and at Easter, any guilt that we feel should go towards the Passion of Christ, not our waistlines. Let’s forget about gluttony, just for argument’s sake…

On Easter Sunday, Antonio invited me to have lunch with his family at a restaurant in the countryside near Ruvo di Puglia, a town near Molfetta. It was an “agriturismo”, a kind of farm located up in the Murgia, the gently hilly Apulian fields lined with olive trees and vines winding up tall stakes. The landscape is full of undulating yellows, greens and browns, the hills topped with a line of hazy light. We drove along the country paths from Corato towards the Coppa Agriturismo, and when we got out of the car, I was instantly reminded of Scuderia Castello in the hills above Lake Garda. That  eternal smell of horses, reminiscent of early morning feeding time, trotting after a wheelbarrow at the age of 9, almost getting our hands bitten off by a rogue piebald. Then a donkey rolling in the sun reminded me of the famous trio of placid animals that let us brush them the wrong way for hours at a time.

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At Scuderia Castello in 2012

We headed inside the restaurant, which was a refurbished stable with cool light bricks and a high arched ceiling. There were six of us around the table: Antonio’s grandfather was particularly jovial, calling me by a different name each time (Marilena, Gioconda, Josefina, Silvia and Silvana among the many) until I just looked his way every time a girl’s name was mentioned, just in case.  There was a lot of laughter and a lot of dialect and a lot of food, but that goes without saying. It started with at least eight different types of anitpasti, including roasted vegetable skewers, meats, freshly made ricotta and mozzarella, a variety of focaccia and fritelle. The highlights were some cute little toast canapés with designs of ladybirds and bumblebees. We took pictures to show Izzy, for inspiration. It was delicious but we were apprehensive about the shedloads of food still to come. The next courses were orecchiette with a lamb sauce and then some kind of crêpe stuffed  with the classic combo, spinach and more ricotta. Then it was time for a walk to try and make some room for the rest, fennel, grilled meat, and finally dessert and coffee. The chocolate biscuits and scarcella remained lonely and untouched as we reached maximum capacity.

Despite this calorie explosion, Mother says I haven’t gained weight; that I’m just toned.  I’m inclined to believe her rather that admit that I’m on a one way street to “paffuto”. But ah well, no one can say I’m not making the most of the local cuisine. Especially ricotta.


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Easter in Molfetta: Passion, Processions and Pizzarelli

At school today, students and teachers alike heaved a collective sigh as normal duties resumed. The five-day holiday flew by like the traditional Easter dove (colomba): it’s back to school for two days, before a long weekend commemorating the Italian liberation. Needless to say, there was a restless atmosphere this morning as the teenagers are all very much looking forward to sleeping all morning again.

I’m very glad I stayed to see Molfetta’s Easter festivities, even if a spell of horrible weather interfered with my plans somewhat. After having been promised great things, I finally got to see some of these processions everyone was talking about and ate plenty of traditional dishes and desserts, as per usual. It seems that for the Apulians, traditions and holidays have to involve food in one way or the other. That’s just fab, but it does nothing for your figure. I was told yesterday that my face is definitely more paffuto, which is a cute little term to mean plump or chubby. Great. In response, I whacked out my new muscles. Yeah I’m no longer a weakling:

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The first experience I had of the religious rites of Easter was the procession of the Madonna Addolorata, on the Friday before Easter. The statue of the suffering Virgin Mary was to leave the church called the Purgatorio, at 4 in the afternoon, to be carried around the city for eight hours and then come back round by the port and ‘retire’ into the church again. The idea is that the Virgin is looking for Christ, knowing that something bad is going to happen, and then coming home without having found Him. I headed to the final stretch in front of the Purgatorio, just in time to see the statue make her slow approach. The statue is carried by select memebers of the Confraternita della Morte (the Confraternity of Death, which in English sounds like a terrible horror film). Following the statue of the Virgin was a black cloth, carried by more black hooded figures. They wandered in a deathly swarm, some carrying candles and some encouraging little children who were also taking part in the procession. This macabre group was followed by the band, who were playing very moving funeral marches, with brass instruments and drums. We couldn’t help being involved in the experience: even if not to the same extent as some of the molfettese gathered there in tears, I certainly felt compassion growing with every note they played. Here’s a link to one of the funeral marches composed by Amedeo Vella. Be prepared, it’s called ‘a Tear on the Grave of my Mother’ and so might kill your mood just a bit.

What impressed me was the atmosphere in the crowd gathered there. There was a kind of subdued buzz as the Madonna approached but when she was in the vicinity, a veil of sombreness fell over the street. This continued until the Virgin had climbed the steps and was safely inside the Purgatorio. Then, in true Italian style, the crowds fanned out to the various gelaterie in the vicinity to get their late night ice cream fix. The children of the procession were given juice cartons and the band stopped playing. The next processions would arrive the weekend afterwards, when we would see the statue of Jesus Christ on Friday, and then of the Madonna carrying Christ in her arms on Saturday.

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On Thursday, I made plans with my friends to go and see the sepolcri. On the day before Good Friday, all the churches in Molfetta set up candles and flowers around statues and crosses to represent the tomb of Christ. Each one is different and it’s traditional to go and visit an odd number of them (not an even number) with family and friends. As the evening approached, the clouds darkened and by the time I arrived at the Liceo Classico, it was already raining. I had to wait a little while: being infernally punctual, so unlike the majority of Italians, I always arrive ahead of everyone else. I huddled in a doorway for a while breathing in the smell of foccaccia, before I saw my friends arriving. We exchanged news and they explained the customs of the Easter weekend, including the Confraternita of Santo Stefano, who would lead the next day’s procession. It has some kind of crazy initiation process ie. you have to be related to at least 10 people who have been in the group for 10 years, be relatively high up in society and maybe even sell a kidney, who knows. In any case, it’s something taken very seriously in Molfetta, as I saw from the sepolcri.

We visited a church on Corso Umberto with a very simple layout, lilies and gold cloth, before making our way towards the central cluster of churches. We had to queue up outside Santo Stefano, because that’s where the statues would be coming from that night. After almost being murdered by a lady’s wild umbrella, we stepped inside and saw several statues of Christ, made by the sculptor .. along with incense, candles and flowers, this was a pretty elaborate sepolcro. Then we went inside the Purgatorio, where the statue of the Madonna was sitting, dressed in velvet cloth. Apparently there is a whole series of rites to prepare the Virgin for her outing, only known by a small group of married women. And she has real hair.

At this point, it was around 10pm and absolutely freezing. I was actually shocked by the sea wind that buffeted us around ,and the on-off icy rain. The weather last week was enough to make me get my thick jumpers and duffel coat out again, when I had been wearing sunglasses and reading outside just the week before. The streets of the centro storico were like wind tunnels and I got caught in the rain on the way to the gym, turning up to do exercise like a drowned mouse with a broken umbrella. My friends reassured me that it wouldn’t last and that soon I would think back to the cold longingly, as temperatures climb to unbearable levels of heat.

We tried to warm up by eating a Molfetta must-have of the Easter period, a pizzarello. Some people don’t see the point in a pizzarello and I can sort of see why: it is basically a tuna sandwich, maybe with capers and tomatoes, inside a kind of huge crunchy roll. I would agree that you can make the same thing at home, but what I find special is the tradition of it: everyone eats the same thing on Venerdì Santo, all the bakeries sell the bread, you can buy them in the street of dubious quality and every paninoteca offers its festive wares with signs in the window.

We sheltered by taking a look at the Duomo’s sepolcro, a very simple layout of white and gold. It was a nice chance to take a look at the inside of the church too: usually I avoid visiting churches in case I accidentally interrupt a service or a wedding or something. I could not deal with that level of awkwardness. When we regrouped outside the Duomo, we made a plan to get away from the sea edge because a chill wind was whipping round our ears. Someone asked where my red hat was and I had to explain the tragic fact that I cannot find it anywhere. We went to hide in a café, where I had a hot chocolate and tried to reassure the others about their level of English. This means…that we visited 4 churches, which is an even number. I can’t believe I’m still alive.

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RIP red hat, wherever you are.

The statues were due to come out of the church at 3am. But it was just. Too. Cold. Instead of self-imposed torture of kicking around in the wind for another 3 hours, we decided to reconvene the next morning to see the end of the procession. Unfortunately, the weather was against us once again and our plans were cancelled as the Madonna was taken back into the church early. The rest of my Easter weekend was to involve food, food and more food. Stay tuned to find out what specialities Puglia had to offer for Pasqua.


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Making It to Matera

A couple of weeks ago, I ticked another region off my list by visiting Matera, a famous town in Basilicata. I would have gone there with my family, but there’s only so much you can cram into a three-day holiday especially when you get lost all the time without a Sat Nav.

It was a bit of an impromptu day trip in a way: I met up with Katie and Anna in Bari on Friday night, and we only decided where we were going the next day at midnight over some fairly strong sangria. Katie had invited us to stay over at her flat in the city centre, so I didn’t have to take the last train back to Molfetta at the buzz kill time of quarter past ten, and Anna didn’t have to travel even further North towards Foggia where she works. We had a pizza and a wander along the seafront, which is very pretty at night with rows of lights along the water. You have to be careful in Bari Vecchia: it is well renowned to be a bit of a rough area, not to be ventured into alone. So we skirted around the dark alleyways and followed groups of people towards a bar called the Flying Circus. An old man who likes to walk around the square in glittery glasses and a hat scared the living daylights out of me, and we were asked if we were Russian. When we said we were English, we were asked if we were sure we weren’t Russian. Erm…

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We woke up at a reasonable time the next day to decide how we were actually going to get to Matera. Public transport is a great thing, however Italian websites for buses are sometimes not up to standard. It takes some kind of instinctive knowledge to guess where you have to catch the train/bus you need and especially where you need to buy the tickets. We left the house after a bit of breakfast, which involved a long discussion about tea and the perfect mug to drink it from. Sadly, as a dissenter from the mainstay of British lifestyle, I could have no part in this and sipped my espresso instead.

With a little help from Katie’s flatmate, we sort of figured out where to go next. After asking in a bar and two newsagents, we were sent to the other side of the station to ask for train tickets. We went into a tiny little station that looks a bit like an art gallery: this housed the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane train line, with trains directed towards places like Corato, Altamura, Gravina and (yay) Matera. Tickets bought, we chilled in the sunshine by the fountain drinking orange juice that was pure E numbers, until we were attacked by a pigeon and decided to move. It’s a good thing we enjoyed the sun while we could, because we were stuck inside that little train for a long, long time. It reminded me of that seemingly interminable journey to Alberobello with Mum and Izzy back in October. The trains stopped in towns that I’d never heard of, or sounded confusingly like ones I had been to before (there is a Bitetto, Binetto and a Bitritto within a short distance of each other…). We shared a whole pack of Mediterranean flavour taralli as a sort of ‘lunch’ before arriving in this weird underground station. At the last minute, we found out it was Matera Centrale and had to bolt off the train, almost leaving our crackers behind.

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It was only a short walk from the station to the central part of Matera, the so-called ‘Subterranean city’. We came across a square with a cute little market, with books, antiques, records and jewellery. We also met a Labrador puppy to top it all off. After a browse and even a bit of accidental haggling, we walked into the most impressive streets of the old town. Matera is built of “sassi”, houses carved out of stone, rippling into the distance, stacked on top and beside each other in a way that you can’t quite comprehend. The views are really stunning and a walk around it only served to show that it well deserves its forthcoming title of ‘City of Culture’, due in 2019.

We walked quite a bit, up winding stairs and through stone archways, without a map and only following our sense of direction. Fortunately we didn’t get lost, and even ended up near the Duomo where we could look out at the whole historical centre and even some of the countryside in the distance. We all stared for a bit, quite speechless in a way. The town has been used for several films, as a setting for Ancient Jerusalem. Ever seen ‘The Passion of the Christ’ with Mel Gibson? Me neither, but it was filmed in Matera.

After fulfilling our touristic curiosity, we did what we do best: went for another trip round the market and then a hot chocolate in a bar at the top of a building, looking out over the Sassi. We also met a course mate from Leeds University, who had travelled down that weekend from Tuscany. It’s very eerie how that happens.

The trip back to Bari was as slow as the arrival really, but it was a rewarding day out to see another hidden wonder of Italy. Some of the places tucked away down here in the South of Italy are so mesmerising: I’m glad that this year I’ve had the opportunity to see all these peculiar towns and traditions that I’d never even heard of before my year abroad. I’ll save this enthusiasm for the report I have to hand in at the end of April; but I feel like I’ve ticked a good few places off my list of places ‘to see’ and cannot wait to do more as summer approaches. Roll on the Easter holidays!


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Introducing Castel del Monte, Trani and the Boyfriend

The third day that my family spent with me in Puglia was also action-packed. I worked for two hours in the morning and left the school with a headache brought on by chalk dust and twenty students shouting ‘beach’ in unison. Never mind – my parents picked me up, we chased a half-ready Izzy out of the house and headed towards Castel del Monte.

Castel del Monte is one of Puglia’s top attractions. It’s even on the back of the Italian one cent coin. Translated literally to ‘Castle on the Mountain’, it wasn’t a surprise that we had to head inland towards Andria, through the sunny olive trees, deep into the countryside to get there. We saw it in the distance as we were driving through the greenery: Dad said that it looked like a power station or something (romantic…). When we arrived, we did the compulsory ‘are-dogs-allowed’ check and with an affirmative answer, walked up towards the castle.

It was fairly windy up there but apart from almost losing my scarf and keeping my dress in check, it felt amazing to look out across the Apulian countryside. The Castle rose up in its precise hexagonal structure, overshadowing us with a certain stately quietness. We were the only people on the hill, walking around the castle. The air felt fresh and the atmosphere tranquil. Of course, I wanted to visit inside.

Me and Mum paid a small fee to enter the castle while Izzy and Dad stayed outside, lounging around on the rocks and shirking cultural improvement. We read (I translated) panels explaining the history of Federico II, the great King who came and took over Apulia, filling the territory with such great relics. Castel del Monte was built in the 1240s and it’s a World Heritage site. It’s fairly small, but its geometrical structure inside was just as impressive as the external view. All the rooms were connected: built in the same light stone with vaulted ceilings. We went to the upper floors and imagined what it must have been like furnished in its time of use. Apparently it was a refuge from the Plague and a prison before it fell into disuse – cheery. We ended up going round and round in circles looking for the exit, a tiny spiral staircase. Mum threatened to fall down but luckily she didn’t and we came out into the sun alive.

More driving took us from Castel del Monte, through Andria and towards Trani. By the coast, the sun had appeared in all its glory: I stole Mum’s sunglasses again while we walked by the port. We sat down and ate pasta with mussels and some focaccia, followed by an ice cream for Izzy and the usual argument when I wanted to try a bit. It’s my vice and she hates sharing yoghurt ice cream (“You can’t buy it in France! She can have it all the time! I never get it!”). I did have a coffee and a zeppola, a little doughnut filled with custard, with a cherry on top.

We went to the beautiful Cathedral of Trani and looked out at the sea, while Lily made friends (sort of) with a red English setter. It’s one of my favourite places that I’ve seen so far in Puglia: by day and by night, the Cathedral is stunning. The port curves round in a sweeping semi-circle, with lined up boats, giving off the smell of fish, opposite cafés and bed and breakfast. Trani is more popular with tourists than Molfetta, and also with young Italians for its lively evening atmosphere.

Taking advantage of family time, we all went shopping together at the Città della Moda, an outlet village just outside of Molfetta. I’ve been there several times, mainly to go to the cinema but also to buy my entire gym outfit last time Mum and Izzy came to see me. This time, my purchases were better: I bought a jacket and shirt, while Izzy bought a shirt and Dad got some long needed jeans. It’s incredibly rare to get him anywhere near a shopping centre so thank goodness he bought something. Of course then we headed to Decathlon, the sports shop where he buys all his multi coloured T-shirts. He loaded up his basket good and proper while me and Izzy messed around taking selfies by canoes and horse vitamins. The hilarious thing was that when he got back to the hotel, Dad discovered he had in fact accidentally bought…tank tops.

Friday evening was a pretty important event for me because it was to be the official meeting between my family and Antonio. I was excited to see my boyfriend because having been up and down and around to Venice and Lecce and back, it had been quite a while since I’d seen him. We were going for a meal all together and my English family would be conversing with my Italian Antonio. I felt a bit squirmy and nervous worrying about the language barrier and first impressions.

I really didn’t need to. Antonio arrived wearing his best shirt and I made introductions and Dad spoke Italian and Antonio spoke English (which he speaks really very well), and everything went swimmingly. The restaurant we chose was a bit quiet, ie. we were the only ones there, but we ate reasonably well, with antipasti and a primo and then even a dessert. The waiter was quite eccentric, balancing two forks on a bottle to impress my sister (he failed on his first attempt, embarrassing…) and putting roses on the table, one of which Antonio gave to me (aw). Then we walked along the port for a bit, I had to go quite slowly as I’d put on my heels. When will I learn that the old stones of Molfetta and high heels don’t match? There are a lot of circular holes in them. Mum and Dad drove Izzy back and we arranged a departure time for the next morning: then I had Antonio all to myself, sitting on our favourite bench by the port and talking until it got cold. It was a sweet evening, a lovely mash up of English and Italian.