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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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Alberta

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

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Feature Image India part 1

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

“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”

So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.

Man carrying basket on head

Smog in India

The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.

“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.

“Diwali,“ he smiled.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.

“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”

Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.

Women selling wares

Street Vendors during Diwali

Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.

India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.

India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.

Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.

school kids some wearing masks

Air quality is an issue

But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.

The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.

 

full bus carrying men

Traffic is insane

Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.

At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.

Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”

The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)

kids with balloons

Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.

White palace on water

The Lake Palace of Udaipur

After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.

In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.

India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.

On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.

Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

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.

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.

 

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Travel

I’m going back to Boulder Hut

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BOULDER HUT by Gerry Feehan

I asked the pilot where we were bound.

“Boulder Hut” he said. “Where’s that?” I queried. “Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.

There are no baths or showers at Boulder Hut. Clean-up after a day of strenuous backcountry skiing involves soaping up in a wood-fired sauna, then dumping a bucket of water over one’s head. To my surprise a fellow guest, fit naked – and female – offered to do the pouring. I reluctantly acquiesced. Thereafter, the absence of a proper shower seemed trivial and I decided to forego my complaint to management.

Rosie (indifferently) guards Boulder Hut.

Management at this remote backcountry lodge consists of owners Mark and Sarah Yancey, whose infectious love of Boulder Hut – and the remote lifestyle it entails – is evident from the moment they greet you on the snow-packed heli-pad.

Over the years I’ve acquired all the accoutrements for ski-touring – and on occasion I’ve skinned up from our condo on the Kimberley, BC ski hill – but I had never before toured in the backcountry.

unloading the helicopter

So I was curious when a helicopter touched down at the base of the ski hill on a sunny morning in January. A group of people, ski paraphernalia in tow, was preparing to board. I put down my coffee, stepped off the deck and wandered over. I asked the pilot where they were bound.

“Boulder Hut” he said.

“Where’s that?” I queried.

“Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.

a bluebird day

As I ain’t gettin’ no younger, I determined to be on that chopper before the season ended. And so in mid-March I was soaring over our place, watching my wife Florence waving goodbye from our deck. I hoped it was not a permanent farewell.

Moments later we were up and over the Black Forest on the ski hill’s back side.

Then we were into the rugged roadless world of the Purcell Range. We hugged a ridge of wintry peaks, summited Boulder Pass and descended into a broad forested valley. A tiny dot far below soon resolved into Boulder Hut.

lunch

After a welcoming lunch and safety briefing we strapped on skins and started our first ascent through the thick forest of old-growth spruce that provides Boulder’s gorgeous back-drop. The conditions were fabulous; a storm had just blown through. Fresh powder and sunny, bluebird conditions greeted us.

Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round.

Every winter the media warns of avalanche danger in the backcountry. At Boulder Hut safety is paramount. With Mark and alpine guide Brent Peters constantly checking conditions – and leading the way through dicey areas – we felt safe and comfortable. When there was any hint of risk they dug a snow profile to check for stability and to ensure some rogue slab wouldn’t ruin our day.

Boulder Hut is remote, quaint and rustic – guests share an open sleeping cabin. If you forget earplugs (and sleeping pills), your repose may be ruined; exhausted snoring skiers make a hell of a racket.

okay, so Sarah does most of the dishes

In the evening guests are responsible for stoking the wood-burning stove. Failure to maintain the fire means for a long cold shivering night. As the only rookie, I was utterly exhausted at the end of each day and slept like a baby – with an assist from earplugs (and a little blue friend).

Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round. The same stream supplies power via a small hydroelectric plant.

Boulder has no laundry facilities. By the fourth night my ski socks, hanging over the bunk to dry, had taken on a crisp flavourful bouquet – or so my fellow guests noted (I was obliviously comatose).

Boulder’s bathrooms are al fresco

Boulder’s bathrooms are located al fresco; open A-frame jobbies where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Purcell Mountains whilst engaging in one’s morning constitutional. A sign planted in the snow announces whether the privy is occupied or available.

At Boulder Hut there is no cellphone coverage or internet. And guests are (gasp) expected to help with the dishes after dinner.

a great crew

I’ve been to five-star ski lodges where a cat whisks you to the top of the mountain for each run. At Boulder Hut every turn is earned. Mark calculated that we climbed 14,000 feet (4300 meters) during our stay.

girls just wanna have fun

Sound like a miserable experience?

I had the time of my life. Mark, Sarah, their kids Grace and Alden, mascot Rosie the Great Pyrenees and my seven fascinating fellow guests made for a fabulous, unique experience.

a sliver of winter sun lights Boulder Pass

I’m going back to Boulder this winter – and taking along a few buddies – all rookies.

goodbye Boulder Hut

Now if only I can arrange for a reprise of that fit lady with the water bucket.

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.

 

Read more of Gerry’s travel stories here.

 

 

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november, 2019

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