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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. 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

THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

 

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Alberta

“Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?”

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Fly Fishing Alberta

I remember the first time I played golf. It was a beautiful summer evening. That first shot flew out over the blue Edmonton sky and settled in the middle of the fairway. I was 12 years old and, from that moment on, addicted to golf. My appetite for fly fishing began many years later, but was also sparked by a single, memorable event – when, in a classic example of beginner’s luck, I landed a big brown trout on the Bow River.

Over the last decade I’ve wasted a glorious allotment of life’s brief flicker engaged in this new, perplexing pastime. Fly-fishing, like golf, is a pursuit that involves a litany of painful moments on the steep road toward competency. Unlike golf however, fishing does not entail the agony of a triple-bogey or the humiliation of a whiff. But, like the errant swing of a driver, casting a fly can result in plenty of frustration and some unintended consequences. There are missed fish, tangled lines – even an occasional need for the apologetic retrieval of a barbed hook from the derrière of a fellow fisherman.

There are a few different ways to wet a line. If you have a boat, you can drift a river or float a lake. If not, you can stand on a dock or cast from shore. But best of all is to walk and wade a shallow river. Nothing beats the solitary experience of crisscrossing a remote meandering creek, searching for elusive, rising fish. Plus I get to spend long peaceful hours alone with my favourite person. Haha.

Fly fishermen are notoriously secretive about their favourite fishing spots. One fall evening, at a secluded spot on the Oldman River in southern Alberta, I arrived late and, in the near-dark, set up camp. I wandered over to chat with a couple of well-fed fellows who were sitting contentedly by a campfire, cooking smokies and enjoying a few brews. A pair of hip-waders drying in the setting sun identified them as fly-fishermen.

‘Hi there,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?’ ‘

Yup,’ said the more portly of the two, taking a pull from his beer and looking downstream. ‘Just that way a bit. It’s called Zippermouth Creek.’

‘Where?’ I asked excitedly.

He looked at his buddy knowingly, then turning my way, pulled a thumb and index finger across his lips. Then he laughed, took another sip and returned his attention to the roaring fire. I slunk away – rebuffed but undeterred. And in the morning I did indeed hunt down a nice fishing hole. And since then I’ve discovered a few Zippermouth Creeks of my own.

That’s Tony’s fly stuck in the brown’s tail. Honest!

Like every other endeavour, people who are skilled at fly-fishing make it look easy. A lot of time can be saved – and aggravation averted – by watching and imitating the pros. Turns out there are just three parts to the program. First, one must learn to operate a fly rod. Then, you need to figure out where the fish are hiding. Last is to determine what our pesce little friends are eating that day. My buddy Tony has patiently – and somewhat effectively – educated me in these three basic principles. But on occasion, even the master gets fish-schooled. We were drifting the Red Deer River on May 15th, opening day.

Tony was at the oars, scanning the surface, vigilant for signs of rising trout. Suddenly he pointed quietly toward a sunken log: ‘There, a big brown!’ He eased the boat toward shore and silently dropped anchor. Soon the telltale signs of a slurping snout re-emerged. Tony ambled onto the bank, tied on a green drake and, with precision, dropped the fly a few feet upstream of the log. The drift was textbook, directly over where the trout had been feeding. Nothing. Puzzled, he tied on a stonefly pattern and made another perfect cast. Nada. Finally he tried a caddis. Sure enough, the fish struck. But it was foul hooked and easily busted off. Tony, frustrated, gave up and, muttering about ‘dumb fish’, wandered up toward another hole.

I looked in my fly box, pulled out something that looked like a beetle, and tied it on. First cast the monster attacked. I set the hook and, to my utter amazement, the fly was firmly attached to the maw of an enormous brown. I reeled in the line but when the fish saw me – and I it – we both panicked. It set course for the middle of the river and the safety of strong current while I stumbled and fell on the slippery rocks.  I regained my footing and after five minutes fighting the brute I called for help: ‘Tony, bring the net!’ But the cascading river drowned out my wails. I’d have to land the beast solo. Which, amazingly, I did, although the fish’s mouth and tail were spilling out the edges of my cheap net. Tony arrived in time to snap a picture, verifying what otherwise would have gone down in history as just another of Gerry’s fictional fish stories.

Do I tie my own flies? Certainly not. I get everything from my dealer, Tony. It starts with a phone call:

G: ‘Hey, Tony, I’m outa green drakes and I need some, real bad.’

T: ‘I ain’t got no green drakes, I can get ya some browns. Maybe.’

G: ‘No, Tony, please I really need the greens.’

T: ‘Ok, ok, calm down. I’ll leave a packet in the rear mailbox. Leave cash. Use the back gate and don’t let nobody see ya.’

G: ‘Thanks Tony, you’re a life saver.’

Then the conversation changes:

G: ‘Oh, Tony, did I mention the big cutthroat I landed at Prairie Creek last week.’

T: ‘No, Gerry. Tell me more. Was it male, female? Any colour?’

G: ‘Golden red. A fat male. 18 inches. Maybe more. With a huge kype.’

T: ‘Oh, Gerry, that is so-o-o exciting! Tell me more.’

I call this 1 (900) FISH TALK. It’s kinda weird. But then, fly fishermen really are fanatical.

These days I spend about as much time casting about as I do strolling fairways – and if I have the choice between fishing and golfing, more and more I’m leaning toward avoiding those nasty three-putts and instead trying to land that big one.

By the way, did I mention that, after hitting that first big drive all those years ago, I duffed three shots in a row?

contact Gerry at [email protected]

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

 

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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Editor’s note:  We will travel again.  And when we do, it will be with renewed anticipation and appreciation. In the meantime, please enjoy Ireland – A Buddy Trip, by Gerry Feehan.

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Despite my bona fide Irish heritage, I never had any burning desire to visit the Emerald Isle. But some years ago when I asked my mom if there were any place she’d like to go, she leapt at the chance to see Ireland, “Your father and I were there in 1970 and I’ve always wanted to go back.” So my brother and I, together with our better halves, took mother Teresa on a grand tour. We stayed at the venerable Gresham Hotel in Dublin, drove the Ring of Kerry, peered over the Cliffs of Moher and visited the multi-purposed Feehan Pub and Funeral Parlour in Tipperary. We even kissed the Blarney Stone.

Feehan’s bar and funeral parlour

My mom was astonished by the change the Celtic Tiger had wrought since the ‘70s. It was 2003 and Ireland was roaring with economic prosperity. What had been drab villages lined with grey terrace houses had evolved into affluent towns filled with bright new homes painted all colours of the rainbow. It was an emotional trip. On what would have been my dad’s 80th birthday, the five of us stood on a hill overlooking Galway Bay at sunset and sang his favourite song:

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland — Then maybe at the closing of the day — You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh — And see the sun go down on Galway Bay

I get a tear in my eye e’en now as I recall that brilliant Irish evening. It sounds corny but I truly felt at home in Ireland. I felt a bond with the peaty earth and a genetic connection to the people, their demeanour, wit – and love for a pint.

I’d been itching for an excuse to return and, as Irish luck would have it, last year the opportunity arose. But just like the first time around, this latest sojourn to Ireland wasn’t my idea. It was my school buddy’s notion that a bunch of us – eight old friends – should celebrate our 60th year on the planet by gifting ourselves a trip to the golf links of Ireland. I’ve known this group for a while; five of us attended kindergarten together. Collectively my association with these fellas has spanned 352 years. I did the math.

So in late May we packed our clubs and boarded a jetliner bound for Eire. After a couple of nights wandering the streets of Dublin’s fair city, in a state of jet-lag-induced somnambulism, we boarded a private coach bound for the lovely port city of Kinsale. Distances on an Irish map can be deceiving. The 250 km traverse took us almost five hours. Fortunately we had a couple of guitars, some harmonies, plenty of bonhomie and the affable chatter of our driver, Mr. PaeBottle, to shorten the journey. And there’s no better way to pass an evening than marvelling at the serenity and bucolic beauty of an Irish country lane.

Ireland’s roads are ancient and narrow

In the morning we arose to a brilliant sunny day, a rarity in soggy Ireland, and chowed down a modest Irish breakfast of rashers, black pudding, white sausage, runny eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, soda bread, butter and preserves – all washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and black coffee (I waved away the creamer to avoid the fat).

“Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”

Sated, we departed for Old Head, our first test of links golf. I have stricken many a golf ball in my day but never have I enjoyed  (or endured) a more beautiful (yet painful) experience than my introduction to Irish golf.

The devilish 12th at Old Head

It is bittersweet to see a brand-new Titleist sail up over a gorse-laden glen, observe its apex framed by a heather-topped mountain, then watch its descent over a 200-foot cliff en route to a watery Atlantic grave. “Gimme a double,” was the oft-used phrase of our Irish experience – both on and off the course.

On the trip with my mom in 2003, the Irish cuisine was noticeably un-notable. Supper invariably consisted of boiled fish, boiled chicken… or some other bland boiled protein substance. And always there was the ubiquitous potato, served in two or three varieties at every sitting: mashed, fried, boiled, etc., stacked grimly on one’s plate. One evening, tired of the usual fare, my mother politely asked if she could have a vegetable side with her dinner. The waitress promptly delivered a baked potato. “I asked for a vegetable,” said my puzzled madre. “The potato is a vegetable ma’am,” deadpanned the waitress, then turned and delivered two plates of over-boiled haddock to an unimpressed American couple at the adjoining table.

This time round the food was amazing. The Irish have upped their cuisinal game dramatically, fusing traditional Gaelic fare with actual flavour. Even the potatoes were tasty (although they are now mainly imported from Cyprus; apparently the Irish countryside is too good for the lowly spud). And the Celtic Tiger is alive and well. The streets are full of fancy imported cars and well-heeled women. The shops are stock-full and pubs overflow with tourists. But Ireland is expensive. Menu prices are similar to Canada but the currency is Euros, so the tab is 60% higher when converted to lowly Canadian dollars.

Which is not to say the Irish look down upon us. Au contraire, they love Canadians. We get it. The Irish are a loquacious bunch, always quick with a quip but also appreciative of a little conversational give-and-take. We Canadians laugh – then give it back.

Tralee Golf Links

Our driver Morris PaeBottle was a patient and diplomatic man, his Tralee accent oddly tinged with a Norwegian-like lilt. On the drive from Killarney to Waterville Golf Club we nearly rear-ended a number of cars. After the third incident I asked Morris, “Why do the drivers wait until the last possible moment before signalling a turn?” Unperturbed he explained at length how the Irish had suffered through centuries of poverty, then said, “They’re afraid to wear out the bulb.”

Mr. PaeBottle overflowed with Gaelic pride but was not full of himself. I asked if he’d ever been married. “Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”

When we arrived at Waterville the friendly starter hurried out to help Morris unload clubs from the coach’s boot. My bunkmate Martin began gushing to them about how pretty were the Irish lasses.

“That barmaid in the pub last night took my breath away,” Uncle Marty said. “Surely, that would be a blessing,” Morris said, under his breath.

This wasn’t just a golf trip. A few of the lads are musical, so it was fitting that we’d join in a late-night ceilidh (traditional music, singing and dance) at the Cornerstone Pub in Lahinch.  The boys acquitted themselves nicely and received a thunderous ovation – before being politely asked by the barman to exit the stage and let the truly talented locals reel off a jig or two.

It was a rare treat to join a group of long-time friends on a journey to the old country. It may happen again one day but unfortunately some of the vintage 1957 parts are wearing out. One pal, I’ll call him “TD”, struggles with his hearing.

Memento from Ballybunion

At Ballybunion golf links, which is as famous for its fiendish layout as for its long history, he had a particularly bad finishing hole. As we left the 18th green I noticed him exiting in the wrong direction.

“TD,” I shouted, “the clubhouse is this way.” He looked at me, held up some fingers, and said, “Seven.” As always, Morris was standing by at the finish. He looked at me, winked and said, “Those hearing aids are a real eye-opener.”

I proceeded briskly toward the 19th hole and, killing two birds with the proverbial one stone, said to my scorekeeping friend Sid, whom I’ve known for almost six decades and whose turn it was to buy, “Gimme a double.”

The 19th hole

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

 

Angling and adventure greet our intrepid traveller on Padre Island

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