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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

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“The most-beautiful place in the world?” Gerry Feehan finds out at Lake O’Hara Lodge, Yoho National Park

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Lake O’Hara, by Gerry Feehan

A Red Deer friend described Lake O’Hara Lodge in Yoho National Park, B.C. as the most beautiful place she’d ever been. I have done a fair share of travel to earth’s exotic and amazing places, so my expectations for our three-day visit to O’Hara were tempered with a grain of salt.

“…At every turn a mind-blowing vista opened before us. But always – far below – lay Lake O’Hara, an artist’s palette in aquamarine, the Lodge a tiny wooden appendage at its shore…”

The Lodge, accessible only by bus up a dusty gravel road, is tucked in the mountains west of Lake Louise. We were fortunate to secure a stay. Demand during the short summer season necessitates booking a year in advance – and priority is given to repeat clients, many of whom travel from around the globe to enjoy the natural beauty of this unique Rocky Mountain destination.

Our trip had an inauspicious beginning.

The O’Hara bus departs daily for the Lodge at 9 a.m. sharp from a parking lot near the TransCanada Highway. Rather than arise at 5 a.m. and drive from Red Deer to the O’Hara pick-up spot, we elected to spend a night at a BnB in Field, B.C. It was record-breaking hot that evening. Dinner was excellent – rainbow trout on a bed of wild rice – but the moment we turned in for the evening the hotel power quit. No lights, no TV, no a.c.; just darkness and heat.

A young woman came ‘round with a flashlight in the pitch-black offering solace: “Wow, this happened last week too. No power for 47 hours. We had to throw out most of our food.” I tossed and turned through the night’s sultry darkness, wondering whether my supper had endured the earlier blackout and was contemplating a fishy re-appearance.

Miraculously the power returned moments before our 8 a.m. checkout, in time for the hotel’s Visa machine to accept payment.

The drive into O’Hara was unimpressive: a bumpy ride on a school bus with six friends, plus a bunch of solemn strangers, all of us overburdened for the short stay with luggage, backpacks, hiking poles and superfluous personal items (in my case ineffective fishing gear). Eleven kilometers later we turned the last dusty corner. The Lodge and lake appeared in timeless beauty. Smiles erupted at the sight of rough-hewn timbers meeting cerulean waters.

The boys fording a creek.

While the staff discreetly unloaded our bags we were briefed in the rustic lobby and offered a pack lunch for our first day-hike. Camelbacks filled, our best lederhosen donned, off we went a wandering.

One of our companions, a Red Deer Judge, is not renowned for his hiking prowess – he’s usually meting out justice in a courtroom. But as a veteran of Lake O’Hara – and the one who was able to finagle rooms for four couples during peak season – he was the natural choice to lead our troop up the steep paths and along the precipitous ledges of O’Hara’s vast trail network.

The Judge leads the troops along a precipitous ledge.

We skirted the lake’s north shore and began the climb up Oesa Lake Trail. After an hour we reached an alpine meadow painted with delicate yellow columbine, fiery-red Indian paintbrush and shaggy green anemones – hippies on a stick.

“…The most-beautiful place she’d ever been…”

As we gained elevation the summer air became cooler. Lake Oesa was still dotted with orphaned chunks of ice sailing randomly in the wind. Spruce pollen weaved intricate patterns along the lake’s frigid shores.

Spruce pollen and ice intermix in Lake Oesa.

At every turn a mind-blowing vista opened before us.

But always – far below – lay Lake O’Hara, an artist’s palette in aquamarine, the Lodge a tiny wooden appendage at its shore.

Although he performed admirably as pack leader, the Judge was noticeably absent when our damsels fell behind and needed a chivalrous hand fording the hazardous creeks. After tackling 16 kilometers of the toughest O’Hara could throw at us, in late afternoon we descended steeply to her cobalt shores and the luxury of a hot shower, a cold beverage and one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of sticking a knife and fork into.

Plate of amazing food.

You don’t get appetizers like this when back-country camping.

After dinner the sated guests retired to the common room. Giant logs crackled in the open fireplace. Comradery ensued. I uncased my trusty ukulele. My Calgary buddy grabbed his guitar. He isn’t usually shy about sharing his musical talents but on this occasion I had to cajole him into playing. His reticence vanished after our first tune, when the whole Lodge clapped approval and started shouting requests.

Eventually the accolades turned to yawns. It had been a long day.

The Feehans were bunked in the rustic main lodge – with (how quaint) shared bath. Two of our snootier friends were booked into a private cabin on the lake’s edge. The rest of us selflessly included them in the group by appropriating their lakefront deck for cordials each evening.

O’Hara provides plenty of recreational options: one can tackle an oxygen-depriving climb along an alpine ridge, saunter slowly around the lake’s pristine perimeter, or just sit in the lodge and knit – admiring a view that evokes a Group of Seven painting.

The view from the Lodge is like a Group of Seven painting.

But sitting and knitting is not my forté – having dropped a stitch or two in time I’ve now cast off that pursuit. I was here for the great outdoors, to experience the handiwork of Lawrence Grassi, park warden at Lake O’Hara during the 1950’s. He designed, built and for many years singlehandedly maintained the Alpine Circuit Trail. Generations of hikers have enjoyed his skillfully arranged rockwork. An elaborate staircase of stone skirting Victoria Falls is one of his masterful works. A simple plaque on the rock face beneath the falls honours his remarkable achievements.

“…I grabbed my pack and scrambled to safety – behind my wife Florence…”

On our second day we tackled another longish ramble but one involving less altitude. As we descended into a lush valley and neared a narrow bridge a rumble of distant thunder surrounded us. I looked up, puzzled by the sky’s uniform blue. Near the summit above us a torrent of meltwater and ice was erupting into the watershed. The Odaray Glacier was calving. A fresh blue gash scarred its frozen grey mass. We hustled across the flimsy log bridge and safely upward into the forest before the flood arrived.

We stopped for lunch on a rocky ledge overlooking Lake McArthur. The others sat and rested their tired feet. I stood, vigilant, acutely attuned to the surroundings. I was intent on photographing the rare hoary marmot. This elusive mammal lives a solitary life tucked amongst craggy alpine rocks.

Marmot for lunch?

As I scanned the distant horizon the Judge shouted, “Gerry, look out for your trail mix.” I turned my binoculars and was confronted with a nostril-hair close-up of a large blond rodent. The critter was within arm’s reach and marching my way. His long marmot claws suggested this was a business meeting. I grabbed my pack and scrambled to safety – behind my wife Florence.

For the balance of the day I remained at the back of the group – to ensure we weren’t attacked from the flank by a malicious herbivore.

A few years ago Florence and I bought all the gear required for serious backcountry camping: lightweight sleeping bags, thinsulate mattresses, gas cooker: the whole outdoor shebang. Then we discovered places like Lake O’Hara Lodge, where mountain air and comfort co-mingle; filet mignon, a glass of quality red goof and a soft bed are the reward for a gruelling day in the alpine.

As for our Red Deer friend’s assessment that Lake O’Hara is the most beautiful place she’s ever been? Let’s just say I still respect her opinion. I had better. She’s organizing our trip to Bhutan this fall. She says it’s the happiest place on earth. I’ll let you know.

www.lakeohara.com.

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

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Dorian becomes a Category 4 monster powering toward Florida

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MIAMI — Hurricane Dorian powered toward Florida with increasing fury Friday, becoming an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm but leaving forecasters uncertain whether it would make a direct hit on the state’s east coast or inflict a glancing blow.

The storm’s winds rose to 130 mph (215 kph) and then, hours later, to a howling 140 mph (225 kph) as Dorian gained strength while crossing warm Atlantic waters. The hurricane could wallop the state with even higher winds and torrential rains late Monday or early Tuesday, with millions of people in the crosshairs, along with Walt Disney World and President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Though Dorian is growing in intensity, some of the more reliable computer models predicted a late turn northward that would have Dorian hug the coast, the National Hurricane Center said.

“There is hope,” Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said.

The faint hope came on a day in which Dorian seemed to get scarier with each forecast update, growing from a dangerous Category 3 hurricane to an even more menacing Category 4 storm. And there were fears it could prove to be the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida’s east coast in nearly 30 years.

Late Friday, the National Hurricane Center’s projected new track showed Dorian hitting near Fort Pierce, some 70 miles (115 kilometres) north of Mar-a-Lago, then running along the coastline as it moved north. But forecasters cautioned that the storm’s track was still highly uncertain and even a small deviation could put Dorian offshore or well inland.

Trump declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate disaster-relief efforts. He told reporters that “Mar-a-Lago can handle itself” and is more worried about Florida.

“This is big and is growing, and it still has some time to get worse,” Julio Vasquez said at a Miami fast-food joint next to a gas station that had run out of fuel. “No one knows what can really happen. This is serious.”

As Dorian closed in, it upended people’s Labor Day weekend plans. Major airlines began allowing travellers to change their reservations without a fee. The big cruise lines began rerouting their ships. Disney World and the other resorts in Orlando found themselves in the storm’s projected path.

Jessica Armesto and her 1-year-old daughter, Mila, had planned to have breakfast with Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy at Disney World. Instead, Armesto decided to take shelter at her mother’s hurricane-resistant house in Miami with its kitchen full of nonperishable foods.

“It felt like it was better to be safe than sorry, so we cancelled our plans,” she said.

Still, with Dorian days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.

“Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with fuel shortages reported in places. The governor said the Florida Highway Patrol would begin escorting fuel trucks to help them get past the lines of waiting motorists and replenish gas stations.

At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski of the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.

“It’s hairy,” he said.

As of 11 p.m. EDT, Dorian was centred about 375 miles (605 kilometres) east of the northwestern Bahamas. That was also about 545 miles (880 kilometres) east of West Palm Beach with the storm packing sustained winds of 140 mph (225 kph). It was moving west-northwest at 10 mph (17 kph). Forecasters warned that its slow movement could subject Florida to a prolonged and destructive pummeling from wind, storm surge and heavy rain.

Coastal areas could get 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimetres) of rain, with 18 inches (46 centimetres) in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane centre said. FEMA official Jeff Byard said Dorian is likely to “create a lot of havoc” for roads, power and other infrastructure.

Also imperiled were the Bahamas , where canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly and the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes. Dorian was expected to hit by Sunday with the potential for life-threatening storm surge that could raise water levels 15 feet above normal.

“Do not be foolish and try to brave out this hurricane,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said. “The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life.”

In Florida, the governor urged nursing homes to take precautions to prevent tragedies like the one during Hurricane Irma two years ago, when the storm knocked out the air conditioning at a facility in Hollywood and 12 patients died in the sweltering heat. Four employees of the home were charged with manslaughter earlier this week.

DeSantis said the timely message from those arrests is: “It’s your responsibility to make sure you have a plan in place to protect those folks.”

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA moved a 380-foot-high mobile launch platform to the safety of the colossal Vehicle Assembly Building, built to withstand 125 mph (200 kph) wind. The launcher is for the mega rocket that NASA is developing to take astronauts to the moon.

The hurricane season typically peaks between mid-August and late October. One of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. was on Labor Day 1935. The unnamed Category 5 hurricane crashed ashore along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sept. 2. It was blamed for over 400 deaths.

___

Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Michael Balsamo in Washington; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Freida Frisaro and Marcus Lim in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.

___

For AP’s complete coverage of the hurricane: https://apnews.com/Hurricanes

Adriana Gomez Licon And Ellis Rua, The Associated Press










































































































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