Paul's Travel Pics

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Whitewashed Citadel of Ostuni

For one day we felt like we took a break from Italy and teleported onto a remote Greek island, some 800 km away in the southern Aegean.

Whitewashed architecture, throngs of English-speaking tourists, the aroma of grilled octopus in the air -- this could easily have been Paros or perhaps Mykonos, only without the heavy bass of electronic club music in the background.

With a lazy spare day between magnificent Lecce and ancient city of Matera, we stopped for one night at evidently one of Southern Italy’s prettiest towns, la Citta Bianca -- the White City -- of Ostuni.

Located halfway between Lecce and Bari and blessed with a small station on the national rail network, Ostuni makes a logical stop-over for independent travelers like ourselves who wish to experience small town Puglia without a rental car.

Visitors stepping off the local train would be presented with a fitting first impression of Ostuni -- an imposing hill town of medieval residences perched on a knoll, overlooking the haphazard olive groves and the blue Adriatic in the distance. But it is too far to walk, and the community bus is not always timed to the arrival of the hourly train from Lecce.

The 20-seater community bus drops off at the Baroque square of Piazza della Liberta, graced with an elaborate plague column that has become the town’s main traffic roundabout.

This is also where 18th Century Italianate architecture ends and the famously medieval commune starts, just a few steps in the uphill direction.

Despite its origin as an ancient Greek outpost and architectural resemblance to the Aegean islands, Ostuni owes its lime washed houses to the Normans who built this coarsely circular fortress of heavy defensive walls, curvy narrow alleys and archaic rowhouses that seem to be amalgamated on top of one another.

Gracing the highest point is an impressive Gothic cathedral from the 1400’s, fit for a town many times this size and delighting every visitor with an intricately carved rose window.

While tourist number are already soaring during the summer, they could really skyrocket if the town’s application for UNESCO World Heritage status (as part of the Barocco Leccese bid) becomes accepted.

For a quick bite we went with the local favorite fast food, a massive panino crammed with chunks of chewy octopus tentacles and a generous wedge of Caciocavallo cheese, washed down with a Peroni Chill at the sandwich shop of Sapori d'Eccellenza. Adding a simple dish of orecchiette and a dessert of frozen almond creme from nearby Caffe Fanelli, and our cheap lunch came to 16 euros for two.

Bill for Two Persons
Panino con Polpo e Caciocavallo5.5 euros
Peroni Chill2 euros
Orecchiette al Pomodoro6 euros
Crema Fredda alle Mandorle2.5 euros
TOTAL16 euros (CAD$22.4)

While we could have rented a scooter and lazed away our afternoon on the alluring beaches along the Adriatic coastline below, we found it much more interesting to navigate the labyrinth of entwined passageways that swirled around the hill and weaved past (and sometimes right underneath) the local residences.

Our preference should not surprise the thousands of Brits and Germans who routinely migrate to this far southern corner of Europe every summer, driving up prices of vacation properties in the Pugliese countryside and inflating the town’s population by three fold. There is just something inexplicably tempting about the sunshine and slow life at the heel of Italy.

Interestingly this small town seems to boast possibly the highest concentration of real estate agents -- all featuring advertisements in English -- anywhere we’ve traveled with the notable exception of property-crazy Hong Kong. While I had heard of the nickname of Salento-shire prior to arrival, it was still shocking to hear London accents everywhere in the historic quarter.

For one night we joined the armies of seasonal migrants, settling into one of these eccentrically shaped peasant dwellings dating from the Middle Ages, just a few steps up from the ramparts in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in town.

We rented our suite from a local operation called I Sette Archi, aptly named for the series of medieval arches in the proximity of its rental apartments. In fact the entrance to our suite (No. 93 on this winding alley) was conveniently located underneath one of these arches.

While the suite wasn’t overly spacious (especially compared with our apartment in Lecce the previous night), it was cosy and functional with a simple stovetop, coffee maker and bar fridge for keeping our breakfast Prosciutto and yogurt fresh.

Then there were the quirkier elements deriving from the house’s medieval origin: a bathroom and shower stall in the form of a dark grotto, and a loft underneath the vaulted ceiling that would easily turn this into a home for four. For its rock bottom rental price there was no air conditioning, but it wasn’t necessary with the old-fashioned insulation provided by the 2-feet thick stone walls.

A major advantage of an apartment in town was the luxury of an afternoon Riposo in the Italian custom, great for recharging our legs for that unmissible evening stroll when staying in such a charming historic neighborhood.

This was by far our favorite time of the day with the majority of visitors gone and the warm tavern lights reflecting off the town’s cobblestone streets, polished by seven centuries of foot traffic.

For dinner we originally had in mind a couple of restaurants inside the historic quarter, but decided to head for the regular blue collar neighborhoods in hope of finding something not entirely catered to tourists.

Corso Garibaldi 1; on the east side of Parco Rimembranze

And I’m not sure if we succeeded. As much as we intended to stumble upon a hole-in-the-wall Trattoria for some Burrata and Orecchiette, we were quickly sidetracked when passing by this seemingly authentic Pescheria with no English menu. Pescheria Delfino’s fish counter was connected to two separate dining areas: one with a fancy ristorante-type setting, and one with an outdoor patio with plastic chairs. Seeing that there were no customers on the ristorante side, we took the hint and sat next to a table of Italians on the patio.

For antipasto we started with a dish of Carpaccio di Tonno, paper thin slices of red Mediterranean tuna steaks so heavily marinated with lemon juice that the acidity simply overpowered the sweetness one would expect from the raw tuna.

Infinitely better was our primo of the ubiquitous Tagliolini alle Vongole, served here with local Salentine clams of the freshest and most savory quality.

With the fish counter merely 10 steps away I went inside again to pick our secondi, the first of which came in the form of some scrumptious deep fried baby octopi, shrimp and white bait.

With everything else being quite reasonably priced, we decided to splurge on one of the most expensive dishes of our Italy trip -- nearly a full kilogram of grilled Scampi, a regional favorite here on Italy’s Adriatic coast. There must have been a dozen(!) or so large Scampi to be shared between the two of us, and while the meat wasn’t as briny and flavorsome as I had hoped, it was strangely gratifying sitting in an Italian version of the Japanese Izakaya or Hongkonger Dai Pai Dong, sucking shells after shells of Scampi meat and washing down with the local beer.

So much for our original wish for a blue collar Trattoria -- one antipasto, one primo, two secondi, a contorno, some drinks and we end up with the most expensive dinner bill of our 23-day trip. I can’t say it’s overpriced though, especially for that ginormous platter of Scampi that shall always rank among our favorite memories of Ostuni.

Bill for Two Persons
Carpaccio di Tonno12 euros
Tagliolini alle Vongole10 euros
Pesce Misti6 euros
Scampi ~0.8 kilo17 euros
Verdure Grigliate3 euros
Beer3 euros
Coperto x 2FREE
TOTAL51 euros (CAD$71.4)


Fico d’India was the most unforgettable Italian term I learned on this trip.

After our dinner at Pescheria Delfino we went for dessert at Cremeria Borgo Antico, just off the side of the Duomo at the hilltop of the walled town. That was when I spotted a new flavor with no name labels, only represented by a peeled, orangy-pink fruit sitting on the gelato. “What is this called?” I asked, and the store clerk replied with a small sample for our tasting, “Fico d’India” (which I thought was “Figolindia”).

Curiosity overtook me and I ordered a cone of this mystery fruit, which was mildly sweet like watermelon but quite distinct from anything either of us had ever tasted. While the store clerk tried his hardest to explain the fruit to me, he spoke little English and I spoke next to no Italian. At the end asked me to follow him to a dark alley behind his shop ...

... and pointed to a small cactus tree. Ah! This brought back memories of the one time I had tiny cactus spines stuck on my tender lips when I came up with the worst method to peel the fruit after mom brought it home. This time the generous store clerk gave us this peeled prickly pear as a present, and taught us to peel the skin only after immersing it in hot water to soften the spines.

That’s the friendliness of the Pugliese people, and a memorable parting gift before our departure to neighboring Basilicata the next morning.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Lecce - Raw Seafood, Sophisticated Baroque

Strangely my favorite city from our 23-day Italy trip wasn’t the magnificent Venice or romantic Verona, but a distant, ancient provincial capital at the sun-soaked southeastern tip of mainland Italy.

I can list a dozen reasons why I preferred little-known Lecce to heavyweight Venice, starting with its wealth of fantastic local seafood at peasant prices. For starters much of the Gamberi Rossi and Scampi sold at Venice’s Rialto Market actually hail from these southern waters, not to mention fascinating local specialties such as Linguine with Sea Urchin Roe. Remembering that some of the best sea urchin we’ve tasted also came from these Mediterranean waters, Lecce became incredibly appealing for this self-proclaimed foodie.

But to be completely honest, Lecce made it into our itinerary almost as an afterthought as we had a couple days to spare between our prime destinations of Alberobello and Matera, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Only when I browsed through Italy’s tentative World Heritage list did I realize Lecce’s unique architecture and cultural legacy in the deep south.

Located at the farthest corner of Italy’s sparsely populated Adriatic Coast, charming Lecce is often snubbed by Italians and foreigners alike as the remote backwaters, far away from the Milan-Florence-Rome-Naples high speed thoroughfare. I wouldn’t say it’s highly underrated as a destination -- it’s just largely ignored due to isolation.

This is the easternmost terminus of the national rail network, more than 9 hours by semi-highspeed train (i.e. Frecciabianca) from Venice or 5.5 hours from Rome. Like most visitors making it this far, we decided to spend an entire week in Puglia and Basilicata, taking our time to soak up the ambiance and flavors before flying home from Bari.

Historical isolation has fostered a unique local culture at a city physically closer to Greece than it is to Rome. To this date there are towns in Lecce’s outskirt that still speak a Salentine Greek dialect, and one needs to look no further than the local interpretation of grilled calamari to appreciate its cultural intimacy with nations across the Adriatic as opposed to the Romans or Tuscans.

Over 23 days we’ve come across many elegant cities -- Venice, Bologna and San Marino among others -- but there was something genuine and inimitable about Lecce. Centuries of slow and continuous weathering had rendered this once-sparkling town of creamy limestones into a state of crumbling but glorious decay, like the graceful aging of a beautiful lady, still dressed in her 17th Century elegance at every street corner.

The softness of Lecce’s local limestones has long been both a curse, as evident by the heavy erosion on the facades of its old buildings, and a blessing as a valuable natural resource for export. The stones do harden with exposure to the atmosphere over time, though entire building blocks with sponge-like holes from centuries of weathering are still a common sight.

Deep into the heel of Italy’s boot the summer heat waves extended well into late September, which was quite the extreme compared with the alpine frost in the Italian Dolomites less than 2 week ago. Here afternoons are equated with the long southerner Riposo, and popular meeting spots like the Piazza del Duomo only really comes alive after sundown.

The interior of the Duomo would provide an excellent initiation to the so-called Barocco Leccese, Lecce’s main claim to fame as Florence of the South and some of the most extravagant examples of Baroque architecture anywhere in the world. While comparisons with Firenze may be a slight stretch, one has to appreciate the freedom from entrance queues and the pleasure of dirt-cheap Gelato around the corner.

In continuation of the locals’ apparent obsession with the most fragile building materials, many statues inside the Duomo were actually sculpted out of papier-mâché, a seemingly delicate medium elevated into an art form by Lecce’s resourceful artists due to a very practical obstacle -- the scarcity of workable wood in the region.

Three minutes’ walk to the east in this compact historic centre stands a longer-lasting monument thanks to some rigorous Roman engineering. The partially excavated 1st century amphitheatre occupies much of the city’s main square, flanked by a marble column that used to mark the southern end of the Via Appia some 1800 years ago.

It was the Romans who expanded this ancient Greek outpost into a regional metropolis and naval base, complete with an amphitheatre that seated 20,000 and a smaller Teatro for plays. Both have been restored in recent years for hosting summer concerts and other artistic performances.

A few steps north of the amphitheatre leads to one of Europe’s most spectacular and exuberant Baroque buildings, the Celestine church of Santa Croce with its intricately-carved rose window and some of the most elaborate columns and arches anywhere.

This was probably my favorite spot in Lecce -- I could have spent hours just admiring these columns on which hardly any surface was left undecorated with ornate reliefs of angelic figures or botanic motifs. I truly hope that it will only be a matter of time before Lecce and its exquisite Baroque monuments become elevated to full UNESCO World Heritage status.

Around just about every corner stands another stunning Baroque church -- Santa Chiara, Sant’Irene, San Matteo, Santa Maria delle Grazie, del Rosario among others. Strolling through the historic centre was a pleasure especially in the Passegiata hour of late afternoon when the friendly locals come out to socialize, aperitivo in hand, in full expression of that laid-back southern vibe.

And then it was time for an authentic Salentine dinner, lavish with some of Italy’s best seafood and yet down-to-earth in terms of the unpretentious recipes. Here we did not aim for the cheap end -- at such reasonable prices we could afford to feast like royalties on nothing but the region’s freshest seafood offerings.


Viale della Liberta 133; 20 minutes walk (or 5 minutes by bus) east of Giardini Pubblici.

This was our best meal in Southern Italy. Period.

Now this may not look like your typical fancy seafood restaurant -- and it isn’t. Located in a blue-collar neighborhood east of Lecce’s historic quarters, L’Ostrica Ubriaca is more of a fashionable fishmonger with a no-nonsense fish-bar to serve simple dishes like grilled prawns and oyster shooters to a local clientele. This is about as authentically Lecce as it gets -- after all, you won’t find many tourists venturing this far from Piazza Sant’Oronzo.

You walk up to the counter to pick your scampi, sip your wine at the patio outside, and the seafood arrives in your choice of preparation which, if you’re adventurous enough to go with the locals, could be completely raw. It’s actually much less risky than it may sound, thanks to a sophisticated filtration system (as explained to me by the friendly owner Francesco) that keeps the live seafood free of pathogenic bacteria.

So we started with the local antipasto of mixed seafood (9 euros) -- a dozen black mussels and a dozen assorted clams, all served raw with nothing but sea water. I must admit that despite being a self-proclaimed Sashimi addict, I had never been served live mussels and clams that were still squirming in their shells! But once we got past the concept of eating these shellfish alive, it was undoubtedly some of the freshest seafood we’ve ever had.

My favorite was this local variety of clams known as Noci Bianche, which somewhat resembled Manila clams but with a heavier shell and a distinctly rich Umami flavor reminiscent of the Japanese Akagai.

My wife had a sweet Fine de Claire (2.5 euros), not exactly a Pugliese product but a perfect match for our bottle of local white frizzante, the Salentine substitute for champagne, before we moved onto even better things.

This was the one unmissible local seafood that I’d always wanted to try, a half dozen of the prized Gamberi Rossi di Gallipoli (1 euro each), again served completely raw and flavored only with a few drops of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. I half-expected this raw shrimp to sport a stick-to-your-tongue texture similar to a Japanese Botan Ebi, but this was much firmer, a little more saline and, while these weren’t moving around on our plates, just as fresh and enjoyable.

After a good 45 minutes we finally moved onto grilled seafood, starting with a half dozen of these gigantic local prawns at the very affordable price of just 2 euros a piece. There’s something about the saltiness of Mediterranean waters that fully brings out the sweetness in crustaceans, and these were certainly among the best grilled prawns we’ve had anywhere.

Somehow we still found room for one final dish of a whole grilled calamari (9 euros), though in retrospect I would have loved a taste of the local favorite of Tajeddhra (rice with potatoes and mussels). That said, the edges of the calamari were so perfectly charred that my wife wouldn’t have swapped it for anything else.

Our entire feast of nothing but the best seafood, no gut-stuffing pasta, one bottle of local wine, and finishing off with a free Limoncello (Thanks Francesco!) on the house, came to about 24 euros per person. This is one restaurant I would recommend to any foodie visiting Lecce and Puglia in general, as I have not come across any other seafood restaurant of such incomparable (and at times intimidating!) freshness at such friendly prices.

Bill for Two Persons
Misto Frutti di Mare9 euros
Ostriche Francesi2.5 euros
Gamberi Rossi di Gallipoli 1/2 Order6 euros
Calamaro Arrosto9 euros
Gamberoni Arrosto12 euros
Bottle of Frizzante di Salento9 euros
Limoncello x 2FREE
Coperto x 2FREE
Discount-0.5 euros
TOTAL47 euros (CAD$65.8)

The other recommendable eatery that we came across was much closer to the main sights, in fact just a few minutes’ walk from either Piazza Sant’Oronzo or the Duomo. While the clientele was understandably much more touristy, the theme of Salentine seafood was still front and centre.

Via Dasumno 3; about 3 minutes walk northwest of the Duomo.

As the name suggests this is one of Lecce’s oldest Osterie, hosted inside an old Renaissance mansion with tables stretching out into the open-air courtyard in dry summery weather. If I recall correctly the waiters turned down my walk-by reservation and told us to return promptly at 19:30, which we did. Within the next 20 minutes a queue was starting to form outside the restaurant.

That popularity was understandable given the osteria’s offering of authentic Salentine cooking focusing on the region’s abundant seafood, served at reasonable prices such as 8 euros for this antipasto of Pepata di Cozze. In a way these peppered mussels were exactly the quintessence of everything Salentine -- fresh, straightforward and unabashedly fiery, much like its people.

I had been looking forward to this Pugliese delicacy for weeks, craving for the distinct sweetness of Mediterranean sea urchin roes that we last tasted at the Greek island of Mykonos a few years back. Here in Italy it turned out more elusive that we thought, as this was the ONLY restaurant on our 23-day journey that served this rare (pardon the pun) treat.

But this wasn’t the right phase of the moon, as Francesco at L’Ostrica Ubriaca had warned me earlier in the day as his fish-bar served sea urchins only about one week each month. As Francesco explained, the custard-like delicacy is actually the reproductive organ of the sea urchin and is best harvested at new moon, which was 11 days ago. But since we were leaving Lecce the next day, I decided to take the risk.

And Francesco was right -- the flavor of the roes had grown quite bitter, so much so that I failed to finish the entire dish of Linguine. So here’s the lesson-learned to fellow seafood lovers: enjoy your Ricci di Mare / Ahinosalata / Uni Sashimi only under a new moon.

The best course of the evening turned out to be the more ubiquitous dish of Grigliata Misti, especially that meaty and tenderly grilled cuttlefish. One thing I still wonder to this date ... what do the Pugliese do with the cuttlefish ink that is so well-utilized in the North Adriatic (e.g. Venetian cuisine)?

Bill for Two Persons
Pepata di Cozze8 euros
Linguine ai Ricci di Mare12 euros
Grigliata Misti12 euros
Beer4 euros
Bottle of Water1.5 euros
Coperto x 23 euros
TOTAL40.5 euros (CAD$56.7)

Not only did we have the best seafood here in Lecce, we also stumbled upon the best gelato of our entire trip at the small but centrally located Gelateria degli Angeli, just around the corner from the Duomo.

Do your tastebuds a favor and try their housemade Caramelized Figs flavor, infused with such heavenly, gooey syrupiness that we had to go back for a second round.

Yet another reason to love Lecce was its wide availability of cheap accommodation near the historic centre. We rented a VERY spacious apartment -- living room, kitchen and all -- from Le Comari Salentine at a price I wouldn’t even expect amidst the crumbling economy of Greece (as of 2015), let alone in Italy.

At about 70 square metres this was the largest living space we rented so far in Italy ... until our cave house in Matera a few days later. While the furnishing was far from extravagant, the apartment was very clean and perfectly functional with the indispensable air conditioning here in Southern Italy.

Also essential was the apartment’s central location, 7 minutes’ walk from the train station, 10 minutes from Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and a couple minutes to the bus stop on Viale Otranto for a quick bus ride to L’Ostrica Ubriaca. Did I mention that the daily breakfast pastries -- the Leccese favorite of creamy Pasticiotto -- were all included?

As we left for Ostuni we probably wished we had a couple more days in this wonderful historic city. Breathtaking sights, fascinating local culture, warm and gracious people, excellent seafood and rental apartments at bargain prices, as well as some of the best deals on leather goods (48 euros for a hand-stitched men’s cross-body messenger bag!). What’s not to like about Lecce?