October 30, 2011 Bari and Alberobello

Mary: I have a terrible night’s sleep mostly because Daylight Savings Time is changing back to Standard Time and I am concerned that none of my several timepieces will get it right. So I need to creep around in the middle of the night trying to make sense of the various times I get off my iPad, my watch and my phone. I’m on vacation. Why do I need to obsess over this?

This morning we are off to Alberobello, home of trullis. Trulli are conical shaped dwellings made out of limestone and/or tufa without benefit of any type of mortar. The most popular story for these odd dwellings that popped up during the 18th century is that the land taxes had become so high in Puglia that people would disassemble their homes before the tax collector came. We plan on taking a walk around Alberobello and having some lunch.

This area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and on a pleasant Sunday afternoon it is filled with tourists. The trulli have been turned in gift shops, restaurants, and guest houses. There are a remarkable number of them. We stroll around and then stop for a salad and a plate of orecchiette which seem to be the regional pasta of Puglia.

Little street lined with trulli

The trulli you see on most of the travel sites. They have Christian symbols on their roofs.

John: After returning from Alberobello, we spend some quiet time in the room, then head out around 3:30 to visit the Cathedral of San Sabino, where yesterday there had been a wedding in progress, so no viewing then.

This is a very large Puglian-Romanesque church, whose present form dates to 1187 (minus one of the bell towers, which collapsed in 1613). In the main part, there are few decorations, just fragments of frescoes that seem to be in multiple layers. The real treasure is to be found below the main body of the church in the “Succorpo”.

Cathedral of San Sabino

We descend to the exhibit just before it is scheduled to close. We thank the caretaker profusely. We encounter one of the best archaeological displays I have ever seen open to the public. There is mosaic flooring from the 11th century (with images of fish and octopi). A few feet below, there are also remains of floors and walls from earlier basilicas on the same site from the 6th and 9th centuries. Further along and even lower down, we come to evidence of Roman times, complete with a piece of a Roman road, the Via Traiana (Trajan’s Way), that split from the Appian Way at Beneventum and headed down the coast.

Mosaic of an octopus from an earlier church

Foundations from the Paleo-Christian church

Some serious funding appears to be going into this excavation, preservation and display (probably not all public funds, we conjecture). It’s in sharp contrast to many of the antiquities we have seen in Italy, such as Pompeii, Ostia and Benevento, which seem to be losing the battle to vandals, climate, pollution, and just the general wear and tear of tourism.

Mary: Tonight is supposed to be our pizza night. I am excited. The pizza from southern Italy reminds me of the fabulous pizza I had as a child growing up on the Jersey shore. But the diet gods will not allow it. Many restaurants are closed on Sunday evening and our choice for pizza is shuttered. The nice lady behind reception suggests we go to Al Pescatore which is nearby. Fish? Yes, that sounds good.

So what follows is a pictorial account of our all-protein way too much fish dinner.

Antipasti - Frutti di mare crudo

Too much raw fish. Too many heads.

Primi - Rigatoni with mussels, squid and shrimp in a light tomato sauce

It doesn’t really matter what we want to order. The menu is really worthless. This is what they are serving and we are eating it. The pasta is a little too al dente and we’ve just eaten the same seafood in the antipasti except now it’s cooked.

My secondo - various fried seafood and fish

I know I shouldn’t have gotten my selection fried but I just wanted something a little more familiar. Little fishes with their heads on is actually not too familiar. I pass some of this stuff off to John.

John's secondo - Grilled shrimp and prawns

The carnage

As I said, way too much fish. There are no vegetables on the menu. I think tomorrow will be an all-vegetable day.

Tomorrow, we leave Bari for Lecce even further south. We have had a wonderful time in Bari and environs and look forward to the next phase of our adventure.

October 29, 2011 Bari and Castel del Monte

Mary: After breakfast at the hotel, John and I decide upon a walking tour of old town Bari. We hope to visit several churches and take a look at the waterfront. The patron saint of Bari is St. Nicholas who is our modern Santa Claus! Although much of his story has been debunked as just myth, he seem a right jolly old elf who helps children and gives away gifts.

In this bas-relief we spot on our walk, St. Nicholas is flanked on his right by three children in a barrel whom he brought back from the dead. An evil innkeeper had been keeping the children in brine so he could serve them to his patrons for dinner. Pretty ghastly.

St. Nicholas saves the pickled children

Next we go to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Construction was started in 1087 and finished about 100 years later.

Basilica di San Nicola, Bari

Inside there are several pictures of the saint. In the fabulous Vivarini altar painting below St. Nicholas is standing just to the Virgin’s left and is holding three golden balls. The balls are an attribute that he is usually shown with. They come from the story of his throwing bags of gold through the windows of three girls who were too poor to have a dowry. So between the two stories, he is kind to children and gives gifts – Santa Claus!

Madonna and Saints

We try to get into several old churches but they either locked up tight or having a wedding. We will have to try again tomorrow.

John: We finish our ramble around the old town of Bari and are hungry for lunch. We go the restaurant, Giampaolo, across from the hotel,only to find that it opens at 12:30, in about 10 minutes. We return at 12:30 and are told “10 minutes”. We return in 15 minutes and find everyone still scurrying about getting ready to open. Some minutes later we are seated. It is clear that Italians have invented the art of software schedules.

We order starters and pastas. Mary has a salad and orecchiette with turnip greens. The stems of the turnip greens are included and are a high point of the dish.

Orecchiette with turnip greens

I start with “Pepata de Cozze” which are a giant bowl of mussels a la moules mariniere, but with a healthy does of ground black pepper to give the broth a zing. The dish is great, but huge.

Pepata de Cozze or a giant bowl of mussels

My pasta is fresh tagliolini with clams in a light tomato-accented broth. Yum.

Tagliolini with clams

As you imagine, this was not a fast lunch, and having started late, we are concerned that we may be pressed for time seeing Castel del Monte, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located near Andria, about 60 km away.

Not wanting to face the same narrow streets as we did on the way in yesterday, we fight Jack the GPS for a while, but finally get to our target. We park the car, take the shuttle bus up to the castle, and tour this amazing structure. “Structure” is all there is, other than text explanation. Reconstruction is ongoing; much of the structure and all of its furnishings and decoration were destroyed or stolen over the last 500 years or so. Nonetheless, we learn a great deal about the castle and its builder.

John at Castel del Monte

ALERT: History Rant!

Frederick II is my second-favorite Swabian (after my good friend Waldemar). Living from 1194 to 1250, he was a member of the Swabian House of Hohenstaufen, and holding the titles of King of Sicily (which included southern Italy), Holy Roman Emperor (which gave him much of northern Italy) and King of Jerusalem (the grand prize, which he achieved through negotiation rather than actual fighting). As such, various popes were afraid and jealous, and worked hard to put upstart Fred in his place. (One pope objected to the fact that Jerusalem was won without shedding blood. What were the Crusaders to do?)

Frederick spoke six languages, including Arabic. He was a poet and scientist, and strove to understand and appreciate Islamic culture. But in the end, the popes prevailed, and Frederick’s dynasty crumbled shortly after his death in 1250. We are left to wonder what would have happened had European leaders who followed Frederick adopted his world views. Would relations between the Christian and Islamic worlds be significantly less contentious than they are today? We discuss this and other questions deeply on the way back. For some reason Jack plots a totally different (and direct) course than our outbound leg. We are puzzled.

We get back in good order, check our emails, and visit the hotel bar for wine, snacks and ham and cheese panini. It’s a white wine called “Fedora” of the Castel del Monte DOC, produced by Rivera vintage 2010. It’s a blend of Pampanuto, Bombino Bianco and a little Chardonnay. We recognize only one these grapes, but the wine is very tasty nonetheless.

Tomorrow, we hope to visit the trulli houses of Alborobello and finish some church-viewing here in Bari. We have to be careful, though. Europe exits daylight savings time tonight and we don’t know whether our US-tuned smart phone will automatically compensate or not!

October 28, 2011 Canosa di Puglia to Bari, Italy

John: We have spent a difficult night at the Cefalicchio Country House just outside of Canosa di Puglia. As we have mentioned in yesterday’s post, the internet does not work. There are mosquitoes. The doors do not lock; in fact they barely close. The main door knob has fallen off and shattered into many shards of porcelain. The hot water in the bath runs out.

At breakfast, the staff put us (and themselves, we conclude) out of our misery and inform us that the internet situation will not be fixed any time soon and that we should seek other lodgings. The owners are away on holiday in Egypt, we learn. The staff have been trying mightily to help but this is a management issue in our book.

We make our escape, schlepping our stuff down the 28 steps and through gravel to the car. The staff have suggested we look around the center of Canosa and find an Internet Cafe. This proves more difficult than it sounds, as well as being a not-very-attractive town. So we bail and head for the coast, direction Barletta.

Mary: As the final coup de grace, I am hit with an exuberant sprinkler as I take a last picture of Cefalicchio Country House 🙁

Mary soaked by sprinkler

John: We get to Barletta okay, but are not impressed. Lacking the internet, we remember our guidebook. We set our sights on what looks like it will be a nice hotel in Bari, down the coast about 60 km. Our fingers are crossed.

We get to Bari and drive towards the hotel. At this point Jack, our new GPS, decides to have a bad satellite day. Maybe not his fault entirely, since the streets are narrow and the buildings tall and close to the street. But we finally succeed in getting to the Palace Hotel in Bari. (The Italians have an exquisite sense of where their fenders and bumpers are, where the pedestrians are, and where the motorbikes will suddenly appear. I try to go with the flow.)

Mary: John tends to be quite a conservative driver at home. In Italy he becomes Giovanni Pilati, seasoned Italian driver. It is quite unnerving.

John: The hotel proves to be quite nice. Internet (though our iPads cannot get signal in the room, only our PCs), air conditioning, a shower, and no mosquitoes. Whew.

Our room in Bari

After a small but random lunch of deep-fried eggplant-wrapped tagliatelle in a nice tomato-cream sauce, we head out to explore Bari.

Eggplant wrapped, deep-fried tagliatelle

First we go to the Swabian Castle a couple of blocks away by the waterfront. This was first a Norman fortress, built over Byzantine ruins in the 1100s, added on by their Swabian successors in the following decades. Then the French Angevins, and finally the Spanish in the 1500s.

Mary in front of Swabian castle in Bari

We first encountered the Norman and Swabian influence in southern Italy last time in Sicily. These Vikings and Black Forest types certainly knew how to pick vacation destinations! And what a mix of decorating styles: Norman, Romanesque, Gothic and Moorish all blended together.

Moorish influenced Swabian double arch

Capital of Swabian soldiers

We’re happy that we were able to avoid a disaster today. Tomorrow, more exploring in Bari and the countryside.

October 27, 2011 Benevento to Canosa di Puglia, Italy

Mary: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Well, maybe not the best or the worst but certainly in that spectrum. On Thursday morning we start off with a walking tour of Benevento. It is a lot like a lot of southern Italian cities we have been in. There’s definitely a better section and a grubbier section. So first we have to pick our way through sidewalks littered with trash and then we arrive at a Roman amphitheater! The juxtapostion of the old and new are always quite startling.

John at the Romano teatro in Benevento

As interesting as the amphitheater is, the best thing that happens is that we run into a bunch of schoolkids. They are in their early teens. Of course they pick up right away that we speak English. John shouts out “tutti in foto” and they all come charging in to be a part of “Today’s Worry” history. We meet Girardo, the outgoing organizer, and Rocco, the big kid who knows more English than anyone else. They are excited when we say we are from California. I guess in their minds it must be all about movie stars. Anyway, much like our experience in Monreale, Sicily a few years ago, they make our day and we make theirs.

"Tutti in foto!"

We continue our walk around Benevento and arrive at the Arch of Trajan built in 114.

Arch of Trajan, Benevento

As I mentioned before, I am always taken with how Italy is such a blend of old and new, traditional and modern. In the photo below you can see part of the arch, a vegetable stand to the left, a tourist, John, in the center, an old couple making their way across the square and a guy on a motorbike.

Time capsule

Walking up the street a ways, we next come across the Lombard church of Santa Sofia built in 760. The outer facade is plain with a 13th century bas relief over the door. Like many churches in this part of Italy, it has been rebuilt after being partly destroyed by earthquakes more than once.

Church of Santa Sofia

Inside there are 8th and 9th century frescoes depicting the life of St. Zacharias.

Fresco fragment in the church of Santa Sofia

What a great morning we have had. As we head toward our next stop in Canosa di Puglia, we reminisce about the fun we had meeting the shoolkids and the amazing architecture spanning so many centuries. And then the day starts its downhill slide.

Certainly the Cefalicchio Country House looks great from the outside.

Cefalicchio Country House

And the staff goes out of their way to fix us lunch.

John at lunch with show kitchen in background

But there is no internet – a fatal flaw. We tell them we need to have internet access because of John’s business. I do not mention that I need to write my blogs. They promise to work on it. In addition there is no one to help with our luggage and we must schlep it up 28 stone steps ourselves. And there are mosquitoes in the room. Plus you can’t lock the doors and they don’t even shut without an inch gap (allowing for more mosquitoes to get in.) We eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. But staying here is looking bleak. We will have to make a decision in the morning.

October 25-26, 2011 Pleasanton, CA to Benevento, Italy

Mary: Much like last trip, John will be helping with the blogging. I feel like a juggler with three blog balls up in the air. I am so glad that John is keeping Today’s Worry from dropping. If you are interested, there are also posts up today on The Adventures of Clark and Lewis and Dining Lite.

John: Departure day.. We awake at 4 AM, shower, finish our last-minute packing and run through our checklist many times before our friend George picks us up just before 6 AM. We have left some extra time to allow for traffic. There is no traffic, only darkness. We check in, rather on the early side and head to the Admiral’s Club for a pre-breakfast breakfast bagel.

Lewis peruses the menu

Mary: Today we seem to have a lot of pictures of Clark and Lewis and not too many of us or sights. This is probably because we look like zombies after the long flights and we really haven’t seen much except the inside of airports, the car and the hotel.

John: The flight to JFK is uneventful and gets in ahead of schedule. Mary even has a sleep. We settle down in the JFK Admiral’s Club and have some wine and munchies. Clark and Lewis enjoy the whole experience.

Yay, for snacks!

John: Next, on to Rome! The flight is good; we both get some sleep (a miracle). We land on time, breeze through immigration (no passport stamp, though), baggage claim, customs, and car rental. We’re on our way in record time.

We had landed in a light drizzle. As we drive south on the A1, the rain gets heavier. A few kilometers before we are to get off the autostrada, traffic stops. It appears that a truck has jackknifed across the road and cars can get by only on the right shoulder. This costs us about 20 minutes. Lots of emergency vehicles. We hope the truck driver is OK.

The big backup

John looks tired

John: We finally arrive at our hotel, the UNA Il Mulino, in Benevento. It’s in a converted mill complex, very new. Our room is large with plenty of closet space space and a fine enclosed shower. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful.

Mary: I am very impressed with the hotel. Our room is enormous. This is just a one night stop so I wasn’t trying for anything too exciting just clean and not too expensive.

Clark and Lewis are ready for bed

John: We have dinner at the hotel restaurant, Le Macine. We really do not want to have to drive anywhere else today. It’s a very good choice:

– tasty bread and exceptional fennel-flavored bread sticks.

Fennel bread sticks and bread

Mary: Just want to say that in the old pre-diet days we would have eaten all the bread and all the breadsticks and probably asked for more. We had a couple of breadsticks and a couple of slices of bread. The end.

John: – an antipasto compliments of the chef: sauteed calamari strips, fried artichoke slices, and garbanzo beans in a garbanzo puree.

Antipasto compliments of the chef

Mary: I cannot even tell you how good the fried artichoke chips were.

John: – a small rigatoni-like pasta with white beans and local cheese for Mary’s primo, and artisan tagliatelle with broccoli and mussels for John.

Plate of goo

John's primo

Mary: John made the better choice here. I had a plate of goo. It was okay. I tried to avoid as much goo as possible.

John: – grilled fish filet, (maybe bass), served with fried spinach, sauteed fennel and a wonderful cauliflower puree with black salt grains and local olive oil. Best fish I have ever had in Italy.

Our secondi

Mary: I think the fish was swordfish.

John: – for wine, we have a local 2008 Caudium Aglianico made by Masseria Frattasi. A nice light red that goes really well with all our courses.

And so to bed. Tomorrow, on to Puglia.

October 24, 2011 Erev Italy trip

I’m ready but I’m not ready. Usually by this time I have studied all the routes, looked for the restaurants and know every sight there is to be seen. That was supposed to be my task for this past week. Sure, we have a broad outline of what we want to do and the hotels are all in place. But the minutiae, which is my balliwick, was supposed to get done in the past seven days. But I got sick. In fact, even today I am still dragging from a flu-like cold that has left me sapped of energy. So I think we are going to have to wing it a bit.

And maybe I’ve bitten off a little more than I can chew. I have this blog to write. I have Clark and Lewis’s blog to write. And I have my food blog to write. That’s a lot of writing. Depending on how fast the internet uploads are, it may take a really long time. I envision eating a late lunch, maybe around 3 PM, and then scurrying back to the room to crouch over my computer, typing away as the Mediterranean light fades.

We are really looking forward to visiting Puglia. It’s been on our list of places to see for a while now. Also, going back to Sicily is thrilling. When you’ve been conquered as often as Sicily has, the result is a fabulous conglomeration – architecturally, culturally and gastronomically.

So hopefully I will recover the rest of the way tomorrow as I sit on the airplane. Maybe there will be naps! John and I are notorious for not sleeping at all on these long flights. And I will bound off the plane in Rome ready for adventure!

October 16 & 17, 2011 Sleepover!

On Sunday Jonathan, Nathan and Sam came to our house for an awesome sleepover. After playing outside on Jonathan’s old skateboard, Rad Licks, we came in for dinner. So I’m a grandmother and I can feed these kids exactly what they’d like to eat. On this occasion it happened to be Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Nathan calls it the orange American mac and cheese. BTW, Nathan and Sam’s parents are much more responsible about feeding them than I am. Nathan ate three bowls. We also had sliced apples. Then we had ice cream with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. It was all a hit.

I was, of course, concerned about bedtime. Nathan and Sam don’t sleep over too often and I was afraid that they would be uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. But they adjusted quite well.

Sam climbing on his crib

Nathan in his pajamas playing intently with his tow truck

The night went pretty smoothly and, the next morning after John left for work, Jonathan and I took Nathan and Sam to the park. Nathan has always enjoyed the park because it has digging machines in a sand pit. Sam enjoyed the seesaw and the climbing structures.

Jon and Sam play on the seesaw

After park time, we went to the Hopyard for lunch. The kids always enjoy French fries.

Nathan at the Hopyard

Jon and Sam at lunch

After lunch we played outside. Nathan zoomed around on his scooter. Sam played with balls. Sam was so exhausted that he fell asleep on the floor when we came inside. After some videos and when Sam woke up, it was time to go home. The boys were excited to see Mommy but I was sorry to see them go. (I did have a little lie-down after they left, though.) I hope they’ll sleep over again!

October 8, 2011 Las Vegas with Jonathan

Originally we were going to drive home through Yosemite N.P. It’s an interesting ride. You get to go on the Extra-Terrestrial Highway, see the old mining town of Tonopah, take a ride on what we call roller coaster road (CA 120 in California east of US 395 has a series of dips and hills) and finally end up in Yosemite N.P. coming in at Tioga Pass at almost 10,000 feet. Unfortunately this week of freakish weather has left the Sierras with a coat of snow and has closed the road. So we decide to make the most of our boring ride home with a stop overnight in Las Vegas.

Not being big gamblers, we decide to stay at a Residence Inn south of the strip for a quick getaway tomorrow. Tonight, though, we plan to go to Caesar’s Palace and have dinner at Mesa Grill. Jonathan is very enthused. After battling monumental traffic due to construction on I-15, we spend a little time at the Shadow Sports Bar. (Since I, of course, allocated way too much time to get to the casino.)

Jonathan at the Shadow Sports Bar

Then it is on to the Mesa Grill. After perusing the wine list and choosing a bottle of Albarinho, we order some appetizers.

Crispy Squash Blossoms with Ricotta, Corn, Basil, Hot & Sweet Yellow Pepper Sauce

Blue Corn Pancake - Barbecued Duck + Habanero Chile-Star Anise Sauce

Rough Cut Tuna “Nachos” Mango - Habanero Hot Sauce + Avocado Crema

We all think that squash blossoms are pretty spectacular, John and I also really like the blue pancake (Jon less so) and the tuna is just okay.

Then we order dinner and some problems start. I have the Sixteen Spice Chicken with Tamarind Barbecue Sauce, Red Cabbage and Jicama Slaw. I am not a fan of the bitter sauce but mostly not a fan of the overcooked chicken. The replacement is much better.

Mary's chicken

John orders the Cascabel Chile Crusted Rabbit with Toasted Cous Cous, Fava Beans, Smoked Red Pepper Sauce and Queso Blanco. He says the breast in very good but surprisingly the thigh/leg portion is dry.

John's rabbit

In the background of John’s dish are three sides we order – Smoked Chile Collard Greens, Roasted Corn with Chipotle Aioli, Lime and Cotija and Chipotle Sweet Potatoes. The greens are fine, the roasted corn is cosmic and the sweet potatoes are disappointing. They are undercooked and crunchy. We’ve had this dish at Mesa Grill before and it was fabulous. So fabulous, in fact, that we’ve spent the last seven years trying to perfect for our Thanksgiving dinner. We send the sweet potatoes back.

Unfortunately I do not have a picture of Jonathan’s Cornmeal Crusted Chile Relleno with Roasted Eggplant and Manchego Cheese, Sweet Red Pepper Sauce and Balsamic Sauce. Apparently Jon’s first relleno explodes in the fryer so he is served his dinner somewhat after us. But he likes it a lot.

Finally we end with some crema di tequila. So, so good. I guess Clark and Lewis agree.

Clark and Lewis hit the sauce

After dinner is done and the check presented, the manager comes over and tells us that all the entrees have been comped due to their inability to get the dinners out together. So all in all, a pretty good dinner at a good price!

October 1-9, 2011 Jonathan visits in Utah

The big excitement last week was that Jonathan flew to St. George to spend the week with us. St. George has recently built a new airport and is trying to attract more visitors. Jon got a great price on his ticket which made flying preferable over driving.

Jon arrives at the new St. George airport and gives Clark and Lewis a ride

Since Jon was able to get to St. George by lunchtime, we had some lunch at the Mongolian Barbecue and then went in search of golf clubs for him to keep in St. George. This errand was dispatched quickly with some awesome used clubs bought at a real discount. Then it was home for a favorite activity – cooking.
John cooks shrimp for tacos

Shrimp and beef tacos, yum!

And then the weather deteriorated. By Monday it was alternatively pouring rain, windy, cold or hailing. Sometimes all three. Who would have thought that the first week in October would have such horrible weather? It is usually a beautiful time. The Huntsman World Senior Games are held the first week of October in St. George because you can usually count on the weather being great. Not this year. But Jonathan stayed in good spirits.
Jon goofs around with Lewis

When ever there was a clear moment we tried to squeeze some activity in.
Jon on the tennis court

Jon and John played some golf but the conditions were pretty poor. They rushed through rounds to avoid thunderstorms and even got caught in a hail storm.
Jon at Sand Hollow

We had a couple of quite good meals at the club here. There’s a new chef and it looks like an improvement is underway.
Mom and Jon before dinner at the club

All in all it was a pretty fun week regardless of the weather. Many thanks to Ryan, Nathan and Sam who wanted Jon to come and spend this week with us. Our last evening was spent in Las Vegas but that deserves a separate post.