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Todayville Travel: Spring in Italy- Rome and Puglia

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First in the two-part series ‘Spring in Italy’

“Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.” “Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”

On a lonely country road near Ostuni, in the Province of Puglia – the heel of Italy’s boot – I stopped to photograph a field of poppies in an olive grove. After a few happy snaps I jumped back in the car and motored on. Fifteen minutes later I reached for my daypack and realized in horror that I had left the pack (complete with camera lenses and phone) on the rock wall that fronted the poppy field. We sped back. The bag was gone. Impossible. We hadn’t been gone half an hour and there were no other cars on the road.

Poppy field in Puglia

While I lay morosely in the ditch, tearing hair and gnashing teeth, my wife Florence calmly analyzed the situation: “Why don’t we call your Iphone?” We expectantly dialed from her cell. No answer. I moped back to the roadside. Florence then suggested, “Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.”

“Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”

We broke bread, cut cheese and sliced salami. I tried vainly to enjoy a cold Peroni on this otherwise beautiful day. It seemed impossible that, in the short time we had been away, someone could have spotted my satchel in a rock crevice on this remote country lane. “There must be another explanation,” I muttered, “maybe a conspiracy.”

 

An hour later we were disconsolately packing up when a faded 1960’s era Fiat Panda pulled up and stopped tentatively beside us. An elderly man with glasses thick as an olive-oil bottle gazed out from behind the wheel. He eyed us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. A young boy with equally opaque glasses – obviously a blood relative – peered shyly from the passenger seat. Together they began a lengthy, incomprehensible Puglian discourse – and only when satisfied that we understood the situation, did they proudly retrieve my bag from the back seat.

“Mille, mille grazie,” I said, confused but genuinely grateful. I wanted a picture but the old signor waived us off and the aged Fiat puttered slowly away. “Yup,” Florence remarked, “a conspiracy.”

For years my patient wife has been suggesting, “We should spend a month in Italy.” And for ages I nodded – and deferred. But last spring when the annual request edged toward an ultimatum, in the interests of marital harmony, I acquiesced.

“And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.”

As seasoned travellers we often tour by the seat of our pants, plans random, frequently pulling into a strange town late afternoon searching for accommodation. This has worked well in some places but, in a country where you no speaka da lingua, advance booking is wiser – and infinitely less stressful.

So when the plane touched down at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport in early April, our four weeks of lodging – three nights here, four nights there – were all booked. Even our ride into Rome was arranged. A driver awaited us, patiently displaying a “Mr. and Mrs. Feehan” sign. And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.

We didn’t organize this trip on our own – nor did we use a tour company or travel agent. We employed a much better resource: Sandy, an acquaintance who loves Italy, has been there many times and knows exactly where to direct a couple of adventurous travellers in the land of the Azzurri.

Our friend fashioned the entire itinerary: four days exploring Rome, ten days in the south, a few days biking near San Marino and a final 10 days in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Her planning was so meticulous (right down to AirB&Bs in the heart of each town plus offering detailed day-trip ideas) that I feel we owe her a substantial commission – or maybe just a nice spaghetti dinner.

So for those looking for some free advice and a fool-proof schedule for your upcoming trip to Italy, Sandy’s phone number is…

Rome is a remarkable, fascinating place. This ancient capital of the empire is overflowing with architecture, museums, statuary, Roman ruins and wonderful old neighbourhoods. And despite the sprawling megalopolis that is modern Rome, its iconic sites (the Coliseum, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon and St. Peter’s) can all be visited in a day’s stroll.

Rome at night

 

Enjoying Trevi Fountain with a few hundred intimate friends

But Rome is overwhelmed with tourists. On average 40,000 people a day cue up to shuffle obediently through the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. April is allegedly shoulder season – and we had booked a “private tour” – but we still had to share Michelangelo’s artistic brilliance with a giant throng of gawking souls, heads uniformly craned toward the majestic ceiling.

The Vatican Museum

Like many big cities Rome is a little seedy. Pope Francis has allowed the homeless to camp within meters of St Peter’s Square. Unfortunately this generous gesture does not add to the curb appeal of the Basilica. We felt a little uncomfortable at night, dodging snoring vagrants, cardboard houses, used needles and other discarded paraphernalia.

Times are tough at St. Peter’s Square

I’m not a big city guy so after four days with the hawkers and beggars and tourists snapping pictures with their “selfish sticks” I was happy to pick up our rental car and head for sleepy Puglia, in Italy’s delightful south.

Although it has millennia of history, Italy is actually a new country – only a few years older than Canada. Giuseppe Garibaldi rode in on his horse and unified all the disparate kingdoms in 1861. But even today northern Italians tend to look down their noses at their southern brethren. And reciprocally a hint of proud defiance defines the Puglian character.

Puglians are defiant- but fashionable!

Our first stop in the south was Matera, a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its cliffside cave dwellings or sassi. These grottos have been continuously occupied since Neolithic times and the humble Materans are enormously proud of the “negative architecture” of these underground abodes.

One warm afternoon while we strolled a grassy cliffside path, a well-dressed middle-aged man stepped out from the shadows, cigarette dangling from his lips. He introduced himself as Fabrizio and invited us to visit his family sasso and the kitchen where traditional (tipica) food was served.

Fabrizio

“Quanto?” I asked suspiciously, concerned about the cost. “For the cave, free,” he said, “and if you wish something to eat, you decide what to pay.” It was nearly 1 p.m. and we were somewhat peckish, so we warily accepted his invitation.

“I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.”

Thus began the most interesting and enjoyable afternoon of our Italian visit. After showing us the intricately hand-carved rooms where the ancients slept and stabled their animals – as well as the cisterns where water and wine were stored – Fabrizio led us up a narrow passage to his open-air kitchen overlooking Matera.

The view from Fabrizio’s kitchen

Then he started the service. First, the antipasti: crusty bread with four olive oil dips, each infused with a local herb, then bruschetta made from shredded garlic and ripe dried tomatoes, then an amazing assortment of meats, cheeses and vegetables.

I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.

Fabrizio chatted constantly while he worked – a knowing smile on his face – educating us on local foods, customs and lifestyle. There was also an unending supply of wine, “vino rosso della casa,” vinted from primitivo grapes, which have been cultivated in this region for thousands of years.

“Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?”

There were so many courses I can’t recall them all – fish and more cheese were in there somewhere – but I know we finished with dolce (sweets) and a jolt of espresso.

Fabrizio’s motto is “less is more” but I’ve rarely eaten more in one sitting. Three hours after stumbling in on this amazing gastronomic and cultural experience, we stumbled out into the late afternoon sun. As we left Fabrizio called out, “Won’t you have some pasta Bolognese?” I think if we had kept eating he’d still be bringing out dishes.

And what was il conto you ask? He humbly, delightedly accepted 40 euro – about $60.

A couple of weeks later on the flight home, over the drone of jet engines, I asked Florence, “Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?” She raised her eyes toward the heavens, shook her head and said, “It must have been a conspiracy.” Then she smiled and nodded off.

Ostuni at night

Trulli House

Next time: Riccione and the Tuscan Hills

 

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer.

Todayville is proud to showcase Gerry’s stories developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

Here’s another great adventure from Gerry

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Join Gerry for a wild ride through the Slums of Mumbai Pt. 3 of a 4 part series

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title Slums of Mumbai

This is the third in a four-part series on India

The Slums of Mumbai 

It was in the rooftop restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel in Mumbai, that we first encountered Joe Tourist. He was at the other end of the open-air bistro, ordering sushi. “Hey,” he shouted across the floor at the flustered waiter, “make that four tuna belly and throw in an extra order of unagi.”

Ordering sushi in India is ill-advised – for a couple of reasons. First, there is a near-zero probability that you will actually receive what you ordered and second, in the days following, you will almost certainly regret your decision to consume raw fish netted from the Bay of Bengal.

While events unfolded on the far side of the restaurant, we sat quietly enjoying a soft Indian evening and a delicious appetizer of aloo gobi and paneer fried in onion gravy. On the street far below the honking traffic crawled while pedestrians strolled Mumbai’s broad malecon, which serpentines along Marine Drive. 

We overheard Joe Tourist ask for the bill, “La cuenta por favor.” (He must have mistaken Mumbai for the Mayan Riviera.) The waiter, barely able to comprehend English, stared blankly, mystified by Joe T.’s garbled Spanish.

Minutes later, as if on cue, a tsunami arose from Mr. Tourist’s table over the fishy tab. Ignoring the commotion, we dug into our delightful entree of tandoori chicken and bhindi masala, served with a side of steaming garlic naan. But serendipity had a cruel fate in store for us. This was not to be the last time we would cross paths with Joe Tourist during our adventure in India. (Part IV next month).

Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the fourth largest city in the world. India’s business capital is undergoing the greatest construction boom in the country’s history. Everywhere huge apartment buildings are being erected, scraping the sky. Yet just meters from these multi-million-dollar luxury condominiums lie Mumbai’s vast slums. Eighty percent of Mumbai’s twenty million residents live in these jumbled shantytowns.

In the movie Slumdog Millionaire the protagonist, an 18-year-old orphan from the Dharavi slum, relies on his street smarts to answer a series of obscure questions – and collects the grand prize of 20,000,000 rupees. In true Bollywood fashion there is also an elaborate dance scene – and of course in the end he gets the girl. 22 year-old Nic is also from Dharavi. He picked us up at the hotel for a tour through the slum he calls home. But first he showed us the sights of colonial Mumbai: Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Railway Station), the iconic Gateway of India in Mumbai Harbour and, across the street, the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. 

On November 26, 2008 Pakistani militants stormed the hotel, setting off explosives and killing 31 guests. Nic was in the plaza across from the Taj when the terrorists began strafing the crowd with automatic rifle fire. “When the firing started, I broke away on my own,” he told us matter-of-factly. “Shooters are more likely to fire at a group than one person.” Duly noted.

We weren’t permitted to take pictures in the Dharavi slum. But what I saw is forever seared into my memory: a group of women crouched on haunches in a dimly-lit room, separating an endless mountain of used plastic utensils; two young lads – without the benefit of eye, ear or lung protection – shoving broken toys into a gas-powered chipper. I stuck my head in that forsaken room for a few seconds before the deafening noise and smell of churning plastic drove me out. 

From the ‘plastic’ district, Nic led us past open sewers, under precariously dangling electrical wires and through narrow twisting passages to a quarter where the planet’s discarded leather coats are re-tanned. The gutter ran ochre with chemical sludge. Then, holding our breath, we entered a smoky neighbourhood where bricks are re-kilned. Finally we toured an area where dirty paint cans from around the globe are emptied, cleaned and banged back into shape. The gutter here ran all colours of the rainbow.

And every Dharavi rooftop billowed to overflowing with stuff the world has long-since discarded.

Amidst all this commotion folks lived, cooked, cleaned, ate. Children played, old men smoked, teenagers flirted, mothers nursed, babies slept. In this single square kilometre of squalid, stifling slum, a million people go about the daily business of survival. But to street-smart Nic, Dharavi is just home, the place where he rests his head each night. 

If you visit India, you may wish to bring an attractive blonde along. Your group will be popular. We couldn’t walk down the street without someone requesting a selfie with our cute friend from Saskatoon. In Mumbai’s main square locals surrounded her like paparazzi hounding a celebrity. Thus began our symbiotic photo relationship with India. Locals took shots of our ‘BB Ji’ while we, demanding a reciprocal favour, photographed them photographing her.

Last evening in Mumbai. Returning to the Intercontinental from a late-night stroll along the Malecon, I was pooped, ready for bed. A motorcycle pulled up to the curb. “Jump on.” It was Nic. Fueled by a couple of Kingfisher beers and disregarding all common sense rules mother may have laid down, I climbed aboard for a death-defying, adrenaline-stoked roar down Marine Drive. Nic laughed and joked as we weaved at break-neck speed through cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedestrians – and other insane motorcyclists. I hung on for dear life. Eventually he returned me, unscathed, to the hotel door. “That was fun,” I said, shaking. He waved, shouted “Alvida,” and sped off into the bedlam. 

I didn’t sleep a wink that night. Despite utter exhaustion, I lay awake listening to the incessant, unrelenting, honking traffic – and thinking of the millions of souls eking out an existence in the slums of Mumbai.

In the morning we left chaotic Mumbai for the relative calm of Kerala, on India’s extreme southwestern tip. The ‘land of coconuts’ is a tropical paradise dense with rain forest, wild elephants, monkeys, tea plantations – and spices. Kerala is home to a wonder of zesty flavours: pepper, cinnamon, licorice, chili, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, turmeric. For centuries the colonial powers fought, won and lost wars over the exotic spice trade. 

And from these amazing seeds and roots comes India’s great contribution to world cuisine: curry. 

Next time: the spices of Kerala.

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C. (www.exploreindia.ca) capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

 

 

India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

 

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Todayville Travel: I survived the Road to Hana

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I survived the Road to Hana! by Gerry Feehan

“…I’ve done enough beach holidays to fill a leaky bucket. Watching overweight tourists in undersized beach wear (throngs in thongs) has long since lost its lustre…”

The village of Hana is located on the quiet ‘windward’ side of Maui. Windward is a euphemism for rainy. Precipitation here averages three hundred inches a year. No person of sound judgment would live in a place where an inch of rain in an afternoon is considered a light drizzle.

Hana is definitely on the wet side of Mau

Most tourists endure the gruelling drive to Hana as a day trip, rising early to negotiate the eighty-five kilometer journey with its six-hundred-plus curves, 54 narrow bridges and frustratingly slow traffic. They choke down a fish taco and lemon bar at a roadside food stand then snake back at a snail’s pace in darkness to the dry leeward side of the island, collapsing into bed at a fancy seaside resort in Kaanapali or Wailea, a checkmark on their Hawaiian holiday agenda firmly ticked off.

“… But as is often the case when one ventures off the beaten track, our choice was serendipitous…”

Some time ago a clever marketer began selling T-shirts with the caption: “I survived the road to Hana!” It really is a challenging drive, so that intrepid shirt salesman is probably now quite wealthy.

I’ve done enough beach holidays to fill a leaky bucket. Watching overweight tourists in undersized beach wear (throngs in thongs) has long since lost its lustre. We were looking for a change, an out-of-the-way Hawaiian adventure. There’s hardly a soul living out Hana way. So we decided to spend a week with the free spirits and addled Vietnam vets.

My search for accommodation in Hana was careful and meticulous. Not. I booked the first place I found on the net: Entabeni Cottage. Click here for their website.  But as is often the case when one ventures off the beaten track, our choice was serendipitous.

Outdoor shower anyone?

We had absolute privacy, from the gorgeous ocean view to the solar-heated outdoor shower. The north wall of the cottage consists entirely of glass doors. Each morning we awoke to a 180-degree view of the ocean and the barely discernible sound of waves crashing on the rocky shore hundreds of meters below.

“Entabeni means the place on the hill in Zulu,” explained owner Terry Kristiansen as she toured us in morning sunshine through the horticultural wonder of her amazing garden. We meandered amongst gigantic Cook pine, African tulip and mango trees. She and her husband Michael maintain a tropical nursery. I tried not to blush when she mentioned that some of the flowering plants were viviparous.

Green eggs and …

Two dogs, a cat, a goat, a multitude of chickens and a raucous gaggle of guinea fowl followed our progress. Terry’s hens lay green eggs – organically of course. Each morning our doorstep was laden with a fresh coop-full of Entabeni’s emerald bounty.

Our Hana booking was for seven days. Perhaps a mistake? There’s purportedly nothing to do there. (A renowned friend of mine, Dr. D, who is intimately familiar with Maui, asked bluntly, ”You’re going to Hana? For a week?”) So, soon after arrival, we decided to scout out some adventure. We meandered into town and chatted up some locals:

“What do you do out here in Hana?” I asked Tyler, a mixed-blood Hawaiian of Portuguese pedigree.

Tail of a whale – or whale of a tale?

“Not much” he replied, “sometimes we fish… when it’s not rough.” He looked ruefully out to sea, as whitecaps roiled in a sub-tropical winter storm. A lone humpback whale breached in the distance. I concluded that there’d be no fishing on this trip.

“Sometimes we drive into town and pick up mail,” offered his cousin, who was high on friendliness but low on wisdom teeth. “And of course there’s the big meetin’ tonight at the church to vote on the offal plebiscite.”

I’m not sure what offal is but it sounds terrible. I was about to excuse myself, vacate the cottage and head for dry, civilized parts of Maui when Tyler added: “What we really like is hunting wild boar. We’re going out tomorrow morning. You’re welcome to come along if you don’t mind getting a little muddy.”

My expertise as a hunter is renowned. I once shot a gopher – grazing it only slightly but deeply wounding its pride; and I’ve caught two fish – three if you include the goldfish I netted in my backyard pond. Still I figured ‘when in Rome’ and agreed to meet them in the morning at mile marker 26, near an abandoned, burnt-out pickup truck.

Mile 26 marks the meeting spot.

“It’s blue,” offered my newfound toothless friend, perhaps to ensure I didn’t wait by a red, abandoned burnt-out pickup truck at mile marker 26.

Terry drove me down at 7am sharp. We hadn’t waited more than a minute when up rolled a pineapple-yellow Ford crew-cab, loaded to exploding with Hawaiians, hunting dogs and guns. The truck, high on its suspension, teetered on two wheels before finally rocking to a stop. The occupants piled out and cracked a Budweiser. The humans that is. The dogs were content to slurp at the slough that had formed around the old blue pickup during the previous evening’s downpour.

Like most flora and fauna in the Hawaiian Islands, the wild pigs are alien. These invasive, destructive critters are a cross between the small Polynesian variety brought to the islands by the first human inhabitants a thousand years ago and larger European pigs imported in the 1800’s; the result is the large, black, elusive, ornery beasts that Hawaiians love to hunt.

By 7:30 a.m. we were a kilometre deep in the rainforest, up to our knees in muck. The dogs had sniffed out a promising dig. Fresh tracks confirmed that a large sow was nearby. Three hours later we were still zigzagging back and forth over, around and through jungle streams laced with invasive strangler figs and giant eucalyptus trees. The pigs were clever. On a couple of occasions the dogs bolted excitedly into the impenetrable jungle on a promising scent but near noon, with the tropical sun beating down and steam rising in the heated rainforest, we admitted defeat and called it a day.

‘Hurt’ is not an option in here.

“What happens if you get injured in here?” I asked Tyler as we began the slow hour-long crawl back to the pickup.

“Hurt is not a’ option,” he answered, tugging at a rubber boot sunk deep in a wallow of mud.

Back at the truck, with the last of the morning Budweiser, we conceded the feral pig’s victory over man.

Hike to the seven sacred pools.

Rainbow Eucalyptus

“Why don’t you and your bride come down to our place tomorrow for Super Bowl,” offered Tyler, “there’ll be plenty of grind and bevvies.”

I assumed he meant food and drink.

We arrived fashionably late with a plate full of devilled (green) eggs and a cooler full of cold ones. After the game (quite exciting – not a Superbore) I asked if it would be okay were I to bring out my ever-present ukulele from its coincidental resting place in the trunk of the rental car.

“That’d be great bra’,” said Tyler, using the term of endearment that forms every second word of Hawaiian pidgin vocabulary.

When I returned, a slack guitar and four ukuleles were jamming on the lanai. Uncle Bobby (whose relationship with our hosts I never did quite grasp) was pouring himself a stiff concoction, lighting a smoke and settling into an over-worn armchair for what turned out to be a long night of music and laughter.

Warm grind, cold bevvies – and a hot uke!

Later in the week, as we strolled Hana’s streets locals were honking, waving “hey bra’’” and inviting us for grind. Apparently we ‘haole’ (white people from another place) were a hit.

In closing I offer seven recommendations on how to pass a week in Hana:

  1. Walk awestruck as Terry Kristiansen guides you through the horticultural wonder that is Entabeni Cottage (whilst chickens peck at your progress);
  2. Shower outdoor at night in the Entabeni rain;
  3. Crawl on all fours for hours through steep, muddy rainforest with a pack of men, dogs and Budweiser on the hunt for wild boar;
  4. Enjoy a candle-lit repast of raw sashimi-grade ahi tuna, followed by lightly seared opaka-paka, served with a glass of white wine by your favorite fellow hominid;
  5. Get lit up with Hawaiian locals at a ukulele jam;
  6. Waste a day by shooting close-up photographs of the incredible rainbow eucalyptus trees;
  7. Snorkel at a ‘clothing optional’ black sand beach, oblivious to the nudity of those around you;
  8. Hike the seven sacred pools to Waimoku Falls or traverse the jagged lava cliffs of Waianapanapa State Park.

Can’t see the forest for the bamboo.

Did I say seven things? I guess there’s more to do in Hana than first meets the eye. So get off the beaten track, out of the th(r)ong and seek some adventure.

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

Click to read more excellent stories by Gerry Feehan.

 

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