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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Pets in Puglia

Anyone who knows me even a little a bit is aware that I like animals an awful lot, especially dogs. A Jack Russell or a whippet in the street is likely to make me lose track of engrossing conversations and regress to a childish state. Let’s not even get started on puppies. When saying my goodbyes before coming to Puglia, the canine members of my family were almost harder to leave than the human ones. After spending all of last summer receiving boundless love and playing football with my dogs Lily and Cassie, I just wanted to pack them into my suitcase and bring them with me.


I’m not entirely destitute of animal company here in Puglia as it turns out. I’ve got a fair number of four-legged friends running about, a head count that has recently grown due to the expansion of a certain cat’s family tree.

First there are the dogs. Nera is an excellent guard dog. She announces any intruder and protects the house with quite the fearsome bark. I had to let her get used to me at first, to realise ‘Oh OK, this person lives here now’. It took quite a lot of time before she stopped going mental every time I tried to climb the steps. She’s a beautiful dog though, and now I get the privilege of only being barked at a couple of times a week, and even sometimes tickle her tummy.

Toby on the other hand is a huge softie. A darling. Where Nera is a bit suspicious of strangers, Toby doesn’t care as long as you’ve got two legs. He is in equal parts trusting and lovable. He’ll throw his considerable weight onto you at any given opportunity and wag his tail, looking in through the window. He plays fetch with lemons, carries away plastic dishes in front of his face and curls up to sleep in the tiniest spaces possible. He’s always a happy presence trotting around innocently, or lying in the sun like a furry pancake.

The feline situation here has been getting a bit out of hand since the family found a little red-gold stray about two years ago. She was named Ariel, but after quickly getting pregnant and giving birth to three kittens, she soon received the honorary title of ‘Mamma Mic’ (oddly pronounced ‘meech’ and meaning kitty). So the little green eyed cat has since then been defined by her maternal functions, the mother of Pallina. The favourite of the litter, Pallina is yellow eyed and long tailed, and teased as the stupid and trouble making cat, a defect blamed on the fact that she was brusquely washed and blow dried a few days after birth. In the months of February and March, we began to notice a certain ballooning of Pallina’s svelte figure until it was unmistakable that she would be reproducing any day soon. Sure enough, on a day where she was looking so remarkably podgy with her back legs thrown out behind her, she popped out five kittens: four female black, white and red ones, and one little male boy, recently named Mufasa.
So for the sake of clarity and to take into account the rapidly expanding dynasty of cats in the garden, Mamma Mic has been renamed ‘Nonna’ (grandma) and Pallina has gained the Mamma accolade, although frankly she doesn’t seem to give two hoots about her children, and would much rather be fed herself than give them any milk. One morning, she took off for a bit of a holiday, coming back just in time for lunch.

Of course, it’s great to have these animals around to stroke and talk to in stupid voices but I do miss the one and only dynamic duo, Lily and Cassie. By now, the pair are very well travelled, having toured Puglia in the car with us. Here they are in Alberobello. And also, the best photobomb on record (that photo of Lily? yeah, it was meant to be of Cassie).


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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.


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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Lecce, Brindisi and nearly Greece

And it was back on the Apulian road for the Cooke family, early(ish) on Thursday morning. Of course I was up first to take care of Lily and Cassie, who from 6am onwards demand breakfast, exercise and attention. I also made sure that Izzy had enough croissant and Nutella inside her to last until lunchtime. Although judging by this photo, you wouldn’t think so.

We drove southwards again, this time hugging the coast and following the signs to Bari first, then Brinidisi and finally arriving at our destination, Lecce. I’d been told by travel blogs and people around me that Lecce was like the ‘Florence of the South’ with its beautiful baroque architecture. The Salento is certainly a part of Puglia that I would like to see more of when the weather gets warmer. On the day we spent there in early March, the sun shone through the streets of the Centro Storico and I even had to borrow Mum’s sunglasses which went great with my thick duffel coat.

As usual, our first thought when arriving was ‘where can we get some good Italian food?’ After almost two hours drive, we parked near one of the arches entering the old town and wandered through the stone streets, coming across a different church and ornate balconies on every corner. We happened across Piazza del Duomo where we stood in the sunshine for a while and bought a map of the main sights of Lecce. Dad and Izzy generously agreed that we could see everything I wanted to look at, provided that they didn’t have to go in any museums. Some things never change.

As luck would have it, Antonio had recommended a restaurant that we should try in the Centro Storico of Lecce. It was simply called ‘La Vecchia Osteria’ and we found it quite easily, using my shiny new map. Three pairs of puppy dog eyes (Lily’s, Cassie’s and mine) succeeded in getting the owner’s permission to bring them inside. So far, so good.

In fact, the meal was excellent. We all had some antipasti to start: mine was Anitpasti della Casa, a perfect mixture of all the Apulian things I love the most. If I could put together a personalised antipasti platter, that would be it. There were roasted peppers, capers, cime di rape, courgettes, ricotta, olives and more. Next we decided to have a pasta course: Mum went for some ravioli, while Dad, Izzy and I all followed Antonio’s special advice and ate ‘Ciceri e Tria’, one of Lecce’s specialities. This was essentially tagliatelle pasta with chickpeas in a sort of thin spicy sauce, with pieces of fried tagliatelle on top. We all enjoyed it very much: I’d definitely have this Salento special again. It was extremely filling though, so we were happy to walk off our meal afterwards. It had also become warm and crowded in the Osteria because a family party had turned up to squeeze onto one long table. An Italian family party is usually composed of lots and lots of people: this group was sat elbow to elbow, feeding children bread and tucking into the food being brought out every five minutes by hot-footed waiters. It looked like this banquet would last all afternoon.


Ciceri e Tria

We wandered around the old town in a slow loop, passing through Piazza Sant’Oronzo to look at the coat of arms of Lecce on the paving stones and the column with Sant’Oronzo, the city’s patron saint, perched on top of it. Dad went in a bookshop and bought a map (we would NOT be having a repeat of the day before) and we made our way back to the archway through small quiet streets glowing bronze in the sunlight. It was interesting for me to see the differences between the many old buildings of Lecce and the ones I have seen scattered across the province of Bari. I’ve grown accustomed to bright white stone cathedrals and Romanesque towers against blue sky but not so much that their beauty is lost on me. We also went to the Castle of Lecce but instead of looking round it, we chased pigeons by the fountain with Lily and Cassie, terrorising the neighbourhoods of Italy as usual.

This was plenty of exercise for us and also for the dogs, whose tiny legs are about ten times shorter than ours. I said arrivederci to Lecce’s baroque façades and we clambered back into the car to drive back up North. We would be taking a detour however, to find the vineyard producing the red wine that we had tasted on our first meal together in Molfetta. Of course. It wouldn’t be a family holiday without hunting for a vineyard in the middle of nowhere. Many hours of my life have been spent in a car, trawling across green nothingness and miniscule villages in France or Italy, searching for ‘Domaine so-and-so’ which doesn’t even seem to exist. And then a sign appears out of nowhere, with curly handwriting and a nonchalant little arrow, beckoning us to a country house and cool cellars, usually complete with a dog to stroke. This scenario repeated itself many times during my formative years but now that I’m older, I can at least have some wine when we finally arrive.

By some miracle, we came across the Tormaresca vineyard fairly easily. Once there, however, it proved very difficult to get inside. It seems that this site takes care of production and logistics more than sales to the public because there were two different entrances. We first went down a bumpy dirt track with puddles on it, spraying a poor scruffy dog that was wandering by the side of the road. This was definitely not the way in: warned off by signs of private property, we tried the next one. This didn’t look right either, but approaching the metal, factory-like structure ahead of us, we found an intercom and eventually gained access to the building. We headed down a long corridor with a thin window into the cellars: barrels stood lined up in rows, at least three deep, presumably with wine maturing inside them. We were received into an odd meeting room, told that we could buy some wine but not taste any. I suppose they didn’t want to open a bottle, but my parents are used to the generous French wine sellers of Languedoc Roussillon, who let you try so much that you can barely drive home afterwards.

It was around half past four by this time and still a pleasant afternoon. We followed signs towards Brindisi, planning to look at the port before heading back to Molfetta. It was not the nicest route I’ve ever seen, although by heading through the industrial area of the city we came across the long searched for Audi garage, only to find that they didn’t have any cables for iPhone 5s. Doh. The next misadventure was a wrong turn at a roundabout, which took us on a slow downwards incline towards a ferry. That’s right, we almost ended up on a boat to Greece, maybe even Albania. This provoked a swift reverse back up the hill and another bout of laughter. Eventually we made it to the seafront of Brindisi, which is actually fairly modern and well-kept, in time to have a walk in the fading pink light by the harbour.


Man, were we tired by that point…on the way back we stopped off at a big supermarket in Bari to buy some things to make a meal at home that evening. We shared a big salad and some of the wine that Mum and Dad had purchased, taking a break from incessant visits to restaurants and letting Lily and Cassie get some rest. There would be more walking to be done the next day.

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Polignano a Mare and Many, Many Detours

On the 5th of March, I left work early to get to the Garden Hotel where my parents were staying. After stumbling along the edge of a busy road that was a lot longer than I thought, we went to pick up Izzy and the little dogs to start our day out. Needless to say Izzy was not ready and assaulted me with complaints about the fact I don’t own a hairbrush. Really, you would understand if you saw what happens when I brush my hair


Something like this

We then set off down the motorway, planning to first visit Castellana and then go to Polignano a Mare. However, we took the wrong road and ended up heading down the coastal route instead of inland. This would not be the last directional mistake we made that day. It didn’t matter much though, we changed plan and arrived in Polignano with the sun shining.

I’d already seen plenty of pictures of the pebble beach at Polignano, a kind of cove closed in by high cliffs and boasting bright blue waters on a hot day. That’s the first place we went when we were dragged away from the car by Lily and Cassie. We followed a family, who seemed to know where they were going, down the Roman trail: a path of winding steps set into greenery. Unfortunately, these plants and low stone walls were ideal hiding places for cats, Lily’s number one enemy (on a par with birds). After a fair bit of barking, we made it down to the beach and me and Izzy took some selfies, for tradition’s sake.

After heading back up some steeper steps, we found the entrance to the ‘Centro Storico’ of Polignano, which was similar to the old parts of other Apulian towns I have visited. It had the usual white stone steps and coloured doorways, flowers trailed over balconies, tiny bed & breakfasts and ceramic shops. We met another cat and came across a bar called ‘La Casa del Mojito’ and stood on all the windy lookout points over the sea, which was deep blue against the rocks. Crossing a bridge and heading downwards along the seafront, we found the statue of Domenico Modugno, the singer-songwriter who was born in Polignano. He seemed pleased to see us.


By then it was about 1 o’clock and we were faced with the the typical tourist dilemma of ‘we’re hungry but this is the South of Italy so there all of the restaurants will be empty’. We took the plunge and walked into one called Osteria di Chichibio, where we were met by a giant spread of fresh seafood and a friendly waiter who said that dogs were allowed in on the condition that if they misbehaved they would end up on the grill. About three different restaurants used this joke over the course of the holiday but we didn’t mind as long as Lily and Cassie could come in and be angels as they usually do when they lie down under tables. For some reason, this is the only time that they are completely calm, to the point that you forget they are they until they unexpectedly snuffle your leg and make you choke on your pasta.

The lunch we had in Polignano was probably some of the best food we had while my parents were here. The atmosphere of the restaurant was very pleasant: white tablecloths and walls lined with fancy wine bottles and shelves of interesting trinkets. Me and Dad had the same asparagus and seafood pasta, while my mum and sister had non-prawny alternatives. We had been offered pink fizzy wine, bread and taralli so the portion was a perfect size, especially since the food was rich. Obviously there was space for dessert: I was so content with my favourite tiramisu that I left my sister’s chocolate soufflé alone. Last time she was in Italy, I committed the capital offence of stealing the “best part” of a chocolate soufflé in Alberobello, a memory that has stuck with her and made her reluctant to let me taste any of her food. I plead innocent; she’s just very attached to chocolate pudding.


We still had a lot on the agenda for our first family day out in Puglia. Back in the car, we used the fairly rubbish GPS map on my phone to head towards Castellana, where there are some interesting grottoes. The Apulian countryside is flat, full of olive trees, small roads and interesting villas: we passed through a lot of little towns before reaching Castellana Grotte, following the brown signs indicating a top tourist destination. With the number of signs we saw, you’d have thought it would be swarming with visitors, but when we pulled up in the desolate car park we began to reassess our expectations. Mum refused to come because she was in heels, and anyway taking two Jack Russells into a cave would probably not be the best idea. Dad, Izzy and I went to investigate: we found the ticket booths closed and another group of wandering tourists but no trace of opening hours or notices. Ah well.


Instead, we took an impromptu trip to Alberobello, despite Izzy’s misgivings (“not those houses again”). You can tell when you are getting close to the town of the trulli when by the roadside you see clusters of little huts with conical roofs, sometimes incorporated into modern houses, sometimes lying in poetic disrepair between the trees. The weather wasn’t looking so good, but it only drizzled a bit as we walked around the little white town. Dad was pleased by the trulli: they are really so precisely made and it’s fascinating that people could live in them. We did a loop of the town before going back to the car park, where Lily had yet another stand off with a stray cat.

From this point, the day started to go a bit wrong. We drove through the countryside following signs for Bari, passing through all sorts of towns along the way, including Putignano, which is famous for its carnival processions. Once we had reached Bari, we made the fateful error of trying to find an Audi garage because Dad needed an audio cable for his new phone. I will stress here that it was all his idea because soon after our fruitless tour around the garages of the industrial zone (everything except Audi), we were bound inland on the wrong road to Foggia, passing Terlizzi, then Ruvo and then coming off the motorway in a shower of rain in a town called Corato.

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We were lost and I only had a vague sense of where we were, not any idea of how to get from Corato to Molfetta. There were barely any road signs to be seen, or if we did see any, the writing was worn off, leaving a plain blue rectangle shining unhelpfully in the darkness. First we were frustrated, then on the brink of an argument, then we started to laugh. Crazy pedestrians were launching themselves in front of our car to cross the street, people were pulling out from nowhere: Dad was incredulous about the terrible driving we saw that night. I was texting Antonio, who is from Corato, to tell him about our misadventure and get directions out of there. Try as he might to understand where we were and patiently guide us out of there, I couldn’t see a thing and could not fathom what road he was talking about. In the end, we drove out of the city centre and suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sign for Molfetta. We swung to the left and embarked on a long, long curvy road, barely wide enough for two cars, lined with close olive trees on either side. Dad put on his full beam and once in a while we saw more signs, with Molfetta 10, Molfetta 8 written on them, until finally we emerged from the country trail into the industrial area of Molfetta, by the big shopping centre I know so well. We were a little stunned by our trip. It was such a massive detour that we had mood swings between despair and hilarity at the situation we had got ourselves into. In the end, all we wanted was a pizza and an early night. Well, Mum and Dad had an early night: me and Izzy put the dogs to bed and then stayed up late chatting. Because that’s what sisters do.


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Carnival Weekend in Venice and Verona

As early as January, I made plans with language assistant friends to visit Venice for the February festival that is Carnevale. Venice is well known to the best place to celebrate carnival: the masquerade tradition involves pretending to be someone else amidst music, dance and hedonistic processions. We knew that we would encounter crowds of tourists going nuts over masks and costumes as well as the usual gondolas but with a four-day weekend off work, it was the perfect opportunity to take a trip up North and experience the party atmosphere.

Day 1

Saturday the 1st of March saw me tiptoeing through the sleeping streets of Molfetta, trying not to roll my suitcase too loudly. I got the train with Katie to Bari airport and boarded a flight to Venice-Treviso airport, Treviso being the actual city of arrival (sneaky old Ryanair). To be fair to my least favourite airline, they have started allowing you to take an extra little bag on board, jazzed up their website and even (good gosh) allocated seats! Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this last fact until I had tried to get on the plane at the wrong end, and had to burrow back down the stairs through a crowd of sighing passengers.

We boarded a bus that would take us from the Airport to Piazzale Roma in the centre of Venice, and ate a whole bag of Apulian taralli between us, as a consolation for the awful weather lashing against the windows. We couldn’t see anything as we drove onwards, and when we arrived, we had to grab our suitcases and run through a downpour to try and catch the right water taxi to our hostel. We bought a three day ticket, got on the right Vaporetto, thought we had got on the wrong boat, got off and then got back on the right one again. It was cold and people were taking pointless pictures of water, but we kept our spirits up because Venice was still impressive as we pulled up to the Zitelle stop to check into the Generator Hostel.

The Hostel is pretty swish inside, all black and white floors and carefully chosen mismatched furniture. The rooms were also modern and very clean. I would recommend it as a place to stay for a few nights, the only drawback being the slightly unfriendly staff (Izzy would have things to say about our reception). We met up with Charlie and Sophie, dumped our stuff, said an awkward hello to the girls sharing our room, and then trotted back onto the Vaporetto to have a look around the main island.

Even if I had received some odd looks in sunny Bari for wearing wellies, it was entirely justified that day: people were gliding around like fluorescent ghosts in waterproofs and umbrella wars were breaking out in the streets. We wandered in the rain, looking around until we found a weird little lunch place in a backstreet, that sold gnocchi and tigelle, tiny sandwich specialities from Modena. We then tracked down some masks for the Masquerade ball that was being held at the hostel that evening. Bombarded with the choice of colours, glitter and feathers, I eventually chose a black and cream one with gold trim.

Then the weather got worse. So much worse. Suddenly, the vicious weather gods decided we were in for some misery: torrential rain started, whipping us horizontally with freezing water. We hid in a doorway but to no avail. It started hailing so much that it physically hurt your thighs when you walked. We were desperate to get back to the hostel, but it was what Italians would call a ‘casino’, a total and utter confusion of soggy people and water taxis ploughing through rough waves. We struggled to find the right station to get on the boat, split into two groups and finally got onto the crowded Vaporetto bound for the hostel. I looked like a drowned spaniel and wanted the ground to swallow me up and take me to the Bahamas. The weather can really have an impact on your appreciation of a city, and the four of us were not impressed with the situation, at all. However, our mood improved once we had temporarily changed into pyjamas, dried our hair and filled the radiators with sodden coats and socks (wellies only do their job up to a certain point, then it becomes a squelch fest inside them).

We made friends with an American room-mate, and prepared for the ball. Not knowing what to expect from the dress code, Katie and I had had a stressful dash round Bari’s shops the evening before. Luckily we both found some black dresses, which matched the other girls’. In fact, Katie and Charlie had even bought the same one: this can easily be explained by the ubiquity of Zara here in Italy.

Masks on, we took a few photos and went down to experience the revelry of Carnival. The evening was a dark blur of loud classical music, American accents, the freakiest masks I’ve ever seen (including a dragon), prosecco, half-naked dancers, creepy finger puppets and fruit lying around for show. There was next to no actual food, which was very disappointing: the table that was supposed to be “groaning with sweetmeats and delicacies” according to the party’s advert, was actually quite able to support the measly array of cheese chunks, bread and gherkins that we were offered. Seriously. It was soon cleared off because the aforementioned dancers had to do a dance and take even more of their clothes off to reveal gold body paint. One of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a while.

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Day 2

Day 2 started late, and gingerly, as prosecco on an empty stomach does not make for a fun morning after. The weather was improved however: we watched some music and magic acts in Saint Mark’s square under grey skies, went for lunch and then strolled on to the Rialto to look at the bridge. We got to appreciate the views of Venice from the water taxi, as the sun came out to shine on the water. All the walking and crowd jostling can get quite exhausting however, so we headed back to the hostel for a rest before going out for the evening. We all felt like eating a big pizza and then ice cream, so that’s what we did before going back to Piazza San Marco, taking bad pictures and trying to avoid being hit on the head by those glow-in-the-dark things that street sellers push on you. What would possess anyone to buy one, I don’t know. We were glad to get back, because the next day we’d decided to visit Verona: a relatively early start for a Monday morning.

Day 3

Over a muesli breakfast that we probably should have paid for, we had more conversations with American travellers. The Generator seems to attract a lot of people from the US, who take advantage of time in Europe to see loads of cities: we met some au pairs, some free spirits and a snowboarder. We didn’t hang around long, because we had to board a train to get to Verona: a journey that takes an hour and twenty minutes, more or less. It was such a beautiful day of sunshine that I felt rather silly in my wellies, which, apart from heels, were the only shoes I had packed. I almost broke my neck in them about five times, tripping over the pavements in Verona. With this natural clumsiness, all the bodies of water and with Charlie nearly pushing me in a canal, I’m surprised I came back to Molfetta unharmed.

Verona was really lovely, the façades bright and colourful as we went through the arch into the old centre of the city. We had a picture next to our fellow countryman Shakespeare, then wandered towards the Arena, before heading to Juliet’s house. We were feeling very happy with the pretty surroundings and the sun on our faces, and even more so after our stop at the famous balcony by the door covered with coloured padlocks professing people’s love for each other. The walls were also lined with spots of chewing gum, which made quite an interesting effect, but was also pretty disgusting in my opinion. We went to find somewhere to have lunch, singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ on the way.

We ate pasta in this dark little restaurant in a side street, very rich but interesting combinations. I had leek, cheese and speck pasta, while Charlie had some pumpkin ravioli with chocolate shavings on it (crazy, a very weird flavour). After eating all this food, what we did next was a terrible idea. We decided to go up the Torre dei Lamberti, the clock tower in the main square of Verona. The choice to face the 386 iron steps instead of taking the lift was something I regretted about a quarter of the way up. At the top though, once we had caught our breath from the climb, it was taken away again by the lovely view over the city and the hills in the distance. Luckily we decided to go down again just before the clock struck four, or else I think our eardrums would have had a shock from the massive bell tolling the hour.

We rounded off the trip with a bit of shopping and, as per usual, got lost next to a main road on the way back to the station. At least the way back was quiet, except for a Venetian man who wanted to practice his English by asking invasive questions, and we spent the evening walking on the island of Giudecca, marveling at how weird Venice is to be floating amidst all that water and watching distant Carnival fireworks from a bridge.

Day 4

On the Tuesday, Charlie and Sophie had an early morning flight, so we said our goodbyes bleary eyed and, for me, still in stripy pyjamas. After breakfast, Katie and I headed out again to fit in some cultural fun before our impending return to the South. I went into the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) alone (Katie had already been the year before) and wandered around taking in the regal atmosphere of the courtyard. I almost injured myself yet again on the Golden Staircase, craning my neck so far back that I almost fell over, and looked through all the rooms of stern looking Doges and artefacts. The residence of the Doge was impressive, but the main institutional chambers were even better, the ceilings so ornate, the floor space so wide and in the huge Senate Chamber, the enormous painting by Tintoretto was really wonderful to see. I then went into the Armouries, which impressed me less because I imagine that the weapons killed people, and then down to the Prisons, an experience which was slightly marred by loud French people making annoying comments up front.

When I got out of the Doge’s Palace, I saw that Piazza San Marco was full of water. For a second, this confused me because it hadn’t rained, but then it dawned on me: ahhh, the famous high tide was upon us. I felt smug again in my wellies: other people had to fork out 10 euros for flimsy unattractive plastic moonboots to continue their Carnival excursion. Katie had been trapped near the Rialto, and couldn’t make it back to where I was without being ankle deep in water. Another problem was, that the water taxis were being altered because of the high tide, so I had one hour to return to the hostel, get the suitcases and meet Katie at the bus stop to go to the airport. I asked three or four different people which line to take, grabbed the cases and finally made it to my destination, with 15 minutes to spare. We returned to Bari without problems, just slight exhaustion, which I tried to keep at bay with espresso and the thought of meeting my family at the airport. That’s right: the very evening of my return from Venice, Mum, Dad, Izzy and my two little dogs were coming to visit, ready for a fun-filled, jam-packed week of seeing where I live. It was raining when we landed in Bari, provoking comments from my family, which I fully expected (“I thought you said it was always sunny”). From there it was back to Molfetta and out for dinner to celebrate my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Katie and I discussed whether we preferred the North or South of Italy when we were waiting for the plane. She said that she liked the North better. For me, Italy is so varied in all its regions and cities and people that I couldn’t say that I prefer one half of the country or another. What I do know is that I was very happy to get back to Puglia, to the coast, to the people I have met here: this part of Southern Italy has made a strong and positive impression on me.

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A Mini-update from Molfetta

I can almost hear the tumbleweeds drifting across my neglected little blog. Blogging about your year abroad requires a fine balance between writing and doing. Of course you can fill pages and pages with new photos and chitchat about the customs of the country you’re falling in love with, but not at the expense of going out and living in it. This week has been one of my busiest times since arriving in Molfetta. Since I wrote about my trip to Giovinazzo on that sunny mid-February weekend, I have:

– Been to Rome for the second time. I was unexpectedly invited on a school trip dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and discovering the history of the Jewish community in the capital city.

– Visited a Norman castle in a town called Sannicandro di Bari, and then eaten my body weight in Puglia’s culinary delights

– Tried Aquagym for the first time and almost died

– Been to Bari to see Saving Mr Banks: how bizarre to hear the songs of Mary Poppins sung in Italian

– Picked a load of oranges in the sun, spring is officially on the way.

All of these experiences have been great and soon I hope that I’ll have a spare moment to document them properly. Tomorrow morning, I’m off to Venice for a potentially rainy Carnival weekend: masks at the ready, it’s going to be a great trip. And THEN, the very afternoon I get back to Molfetta, my family will be arriving. They’ll tumble out of the car after a 13 hour trip from Mondovì, dogs and all: the following days will be my chance to show off how beautiful this region is and to spend time with them all.

Until then, here are some photos of my every day life in Molfetta: