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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.

     

    Enjoy an excellent adventure in Texas.  Click below.


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    National

    ‘No answers:’ Canadians react to Sri Lanka bombings that killed hundreds

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  • TORONTO — A spokesman for an organization representing Sri Lankan-Canadians says he has “no answers” in the wake of co-ordinated bomb attacks in his homeland that killed at least 207 people and injured 450 more.

    Riyaz Rauf, vice-president of the Canada Sri Lankan Association of Toronto, says he found out about the bombings via text messages from friends just after midnight.

    When he turned on the TV to watch the news, he says he was appalled by the “horrendous” images he saw. In a phone interview with The Canadian Press on Sunday morning, Rauf described the attacks as a “loss of humanity.”

    The federal government warned Canadians in Sri Lanka to limit their movements and obey local authorities, saying the situation in the country remains “volatile” and more attacks are possible. It added that the High Commission of Canada to Sri Lanka in the capital Colombo would be closed on Monday due to the security situation.

    Global Affairs Canada said in an email Sunday afternoon that there are no reports of any Canadian citizens being affected by the blasts, whose targets included hotels and a church frequented by tourists.

    Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners were recovered, and the dead included people from Britain, the U.S., India, Portugal and Turkey. China’s Communist Party newspaper said two Chinese were killed.

    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined other world leaders in expressing sorrow and shock at the attacks, while condemning the targeting of worshippers on Easter Sunday.

    “Canada strongly condemns these heinous attacks on hotels and Christians at prayer in churches. Places of worship are sacred, where all should feel safe and secure. No one should be targeted because of their faith,” the prime minister said in a statement.

    “For millions of people around the world, Easter is a time to reflect on Jesus’ message of compassion and kindness — a time to come together with friends and family. We cannot let attacks like these weaken the hope we share.”

    Sri Lanka’s defence minister described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists and police said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

    Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people, and he vowed the government will “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to take action against those responsible. The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

    The eight explosions represent the deadliest violence in the South Asian island country since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

    Rauf, who moved to Canada nine years ago, said he’s at a loss to explain the reasons behind the violence — but he’s confident his homeland will persevere.

    “There’s absolutely no reason — no cause, nothing — for something like this to be happening in this beautiful country,” he said.

    However, Rauf added: “Sri Lanka as a nation has come through the worst period that it could ever come out of. We had a civil war for 25 years. We are a bunch of resilient people who can overcome adversity.”

    Amarnath Amarasingam, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who has authored several books and papers on Sri Lanka, said even in a country “brimming” with ethnic and religious conflict, no one expected an attack of this scale.

    “It’s just multiple kind of layers of complexity in terms of ethnic and religious relations, which this attack kind of really throws up in the air,” Amarasingam said in an interview Sunday. “Things could get ugly pretty fast from here, I think, if we’re not careful.”

    Sri Lanka was dominated for decades by the sharp divide between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and the minority Tamil, who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The mistreatment of Tamils helped nurture the growth of armed separatists and led to nearly 30 years of civil war, with Tamil Tiger fighters eventually creating a de facto independent homeland in the country’s north until the group was crushed in a 2009 government offensive.

    More recently, Muslims, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the country’s population, have been targeted by violence fuelled by rumours spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists. In 2018, mobs of Buddhists swept through small towns, attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops, prompting the government to briefly declare a state of emergency.

    Amarasingam said those tensions have lingered to some extent in Canada, which is home to roughly 150,000 people of Sri Lankan or mixed Sri Lankan descent, according to 2016 figures from Statistics Canada.

    A significant portion of that population are Muslims, he said, and he imagines many are concerned the attacks could lead to a flare up in anti-Muslim sentiment or even violence.

    Despite that, Rauf — who is Muslim — said he believes the community will also come together to support each other in this time of tragedy.

    “One thing good about the Sri Lankan community that has migrated to Canada is that when they migrated from Sri Lanka, few people brought their baggages, their way of thinking from back home,” said Rauf.

    “The new generations — the second generation and the third generation that have got used to living here — adopted the Canadian culture, understood the ethnic harmony here. They’re all united,” he said.

    “For us, religion comes second — it’s humanity first, the person who is first.”

    — with files from The Associated Press

    Adam Burns and Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press


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    National

    Burkina Faso minister says missing Quebec woman is alive, removed from territory

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  • MONTREAL — A Canadian woman and her Italian companion who have been missing in West Africa since last December are alive but no longer in the country, a senior minister with Burkina Faso’s government says.

    Communications Minister Remis Fulgance Dandjinou told Italian public broadcaster Rai that Edith Blais of Sherbrooke, Que., and her travel companion, Luca Tacchetto of Italy, are not in danger.

    In an interview broadcast on Friday, Dandjinou said he was hopeful the pair can be located and brought home safe and sound.

    Blais, 34, and Tacchetto, 30, were travelling by car in southwestern Burkina Faso and heading to Togo to do volunteer work with an aid group when they vanished around Dec. 15, 2018.

    Dandjinou’s comments this week backed up a recent report by Human Rights Watch that indicated the pair had been abducted and taken to Mali.

    That report, published March 22 on the advocacy group’s website, did not mention the fate of the two travellers.

    “While no armed Islamist group has taken responsibility for their abduction, they are believed to have been kidnapped and later taken to Mali,” said the report, titled “Abuses by Armed Islamist Groups in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region,” citing an interview with Malian security sources on Jan. 13.

    In a January statement, Burkina Faso’s security minister referred to the pair’s disappearance as a kidnapping, but the Canadian government has not confirmed that, only saying officials haven’t ruled out any possibilities.

    Senior Liberal cabinet ministers met with Blais’ family in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region in January and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time he believed Blais was still alive.

    Earlier this year, another Canadian, Kirk Woodman, was found dead in northern Burkina Faso, close to the border with Mali and Niger. An executive with a Vancouver-based mining company, Woodman had been kidnapped a day earlier by gunmen as he worked on a gold mining project.

    Blais and Tacchetto set off in his car on Nov. 20 from the northern Italian town of Vigonza, outside Padua. They travelled through France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before arriving in Burkina Faso. They were last seen in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso in the country’s southwest.

    Global Affairs Canada wouldn’t comment directly Saturday on Dandjinou’s comments.

    A spokeswoman issued a short statement saying the department was aware of a Canadian missing in Burkina Faso and that officials were in contact with family and providing assistance.

    Brittany Fletcher said in an email that Canadian officials in Burkina Faso are also in contact with local authorities.

    “The Government of Canada’s first priority is always the safety and security of its citizens. For this reason, we will not comment on or release any information which may compromise ongoing efforts or endanger the safety of Canadians,” she wrote. 

    Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press




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