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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.
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8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands
Skellig Islands, Ireland (part 3 of a 3 part series)
Click to read Part 1, Gerry’s buddy trip to Ireland
Click to read Part 2, Hiking in Ireland
The remains of Skellig Michael’s 6th century monastery
Although the fine details of our trip to the Emerald Isle had been neatly settled months before leaving Canada, the folks at www.irelandwalkhikebike.com contacted me shortly before our departure to suggest a change in the itinerary. We could skip a day of hiking Ireland’s west coast and instead visit the Skellig Islands, a craggy set of rocks poking forlornly out of the Celtic Sea, eight rough miles off the Kerry coast. Initially I was reluctant to dedicate an entire day to seasickness. But there was something in the tone of the email that suggested this was an opportunity not to be missed. And so, foregoing my own health and thinking first of others—as I am wont to do—the boat trip for our group of six was booked.
We arrived in the sleepy seaside town of Cahersiveen on the fourth day of our weeklong Irish trekking adventure. Elaine, our hiking guide, drove us to the boat and cheerily waved goodbye. She doesn’t fare well at sea either and was happy to keep her feet dry for the day. When we arrived at the pier the sky was grey and the sea looked rough. There were a lot of anxious-looking people milling about the wharf. I wandered over to a fellow who was tying knots or scaling barnacles or some such other salty-dog task that identified him as a mariner. He was in fact the first mate. I inquired as to how the boat ride might be.
He turned to me, squinted, looked up at the sky and said, “It’s going to be terrible.”
“How terrible?” I asked.
“Miserable terrible” he said, with conviction.
“Can things get worse than miserable terrible,” I asked.
“Aye,” said he, “there’s awful terrible. That’s when, as you leave the pub, you hold your hand over your face so the wind don’t blow your teeth out.”
Reassured, I stepped around the back of the boat, practiced my vomiting stance, then returned to the gangplank, stepped aboard and prepared myself for a truly awful experience.
The 90-minute motor out was windy, choppy and exposed. The small boat rolled and rocked in the constant swell. But I’ve learned from vast seafaring experience that the best method to prevent seasickness is to stand up, hang on and concentrate unfailingly on the horizon. This I did for an hour and a half and landed with a full stomach—which is more than I can say for the pretty young Irish lass who, by the time the Skelligs came into sight, was tossing her breakfast of rashers and black pudding over the stern.
We weren’t sure what to expect of the Skelligs—other than the rough boat ride, a lot of nesting seabirds and a steep set of steps up a cliff to some ancient Gaelic ruins. As we neared the tight landing at Skellig Michael, birds were soaring and diving in a feeding frenzy. “What are they?” I asked the first mate.
“The big ones, those are gannets,” he answered, “And the little colourful fellars, them are puffins.”
My wife Florence looked up from her knitting. (Yes, she can knit onboard a dinghy in a gale.) “Puffins? Did you say puffins?” “Aye, Atlantic puffins ma’am, in breeding plumage.”
Florence was so excited she nearly dropped a stitch. She has yearned to see puffins for years. I thought we’d need to visit Greenland or Labrador or some other remote, inaccessible place to view these remarkable birds. And lo, here, on a last-minute Irish hiking side-trip, the cute little cliff dwellers appeared in unexpected, colourful brilliance—magnificent mating feathers on full display.
The small boat rocked into the landing. The first mate quickly tied off as the captain helped us hop-step onto the pier. Within seconds the boat was gone, back into the rough offshore sea, where she would wait, bobbing like a cork, for the two hours of our Skellig visit. We stumbled off the landing, regained our land legs and looked up. A narrow, exposed staircase, carved into the uneven rock face rose steeply upward, beyond the ken of craned necks.
Access to the islands is forbidden without a local guide. Our escort, Sinead explained that Skellig Michael was inhabited by Gaelic monks starting in the sixth century and then abandoned a few centuries later. It was these early voyagers who had carved the sheer staircase directly into the rock. At the precarious summit 180 meters up, they had built a few lonely stone structures. Here they lived a life of cold, isolated austerity, living off fish and bird’s eggs—scraping a meagre sustenance from the infertile rock.
The guide told us the steps were steep and uneven, with no handrails – and that those with even an ounce of acrophobia in their veins should not attempt the climb. Properly forewarned and with eyes cast downward to avert the consequences of a misstep, we began our ascent up the 880 steps to the monastery on the stony peak.
It’s 880 precarious stone steps to the summit
As we climbed nesting puffins, mere feet away, went about their business, oblivious to our presence. These birds evolved in an environment lacking predators. With its magnificent ruins and endemic unworried birds, Skellig Michael is a perfect mix between Machu Pichu and the Galapagos Islands.
Atlantic puffins in full breeding plumage
When we reached the top, the summit flattened into a small walled compound of beehive structures made entirely of stacked stone. And despite the absence of masonry, these lonely dwellings have withstood a thousand battering years of Irish rain and wind.
The Skellig Islands poke forlornly out of the Celtic Sea
The opening scene in the newest Star Wars movie was filmed at Skellig Michael. An unfortunate bi-product of this Hollywood notoriety will be a “Star Wars” chaser industry, where tourists converge on the island, not to observe the stark beauty of a 6th century monastery or the glorious plumage of horny puffins, but to see where Luke Skywalker eerily pronounced, “It is time for the Jedi to end.” Even without the boat ride, it makes one want to puke.
When we returned to the wharf, the weather had softened. The return boat trip was reasonably benign. Elaine awaited us when we docked, looking refreshed after a quiet stroll in the green fens above Cahersiveen. “Well, how was it?” she asked. The others gushed on about the stone stairs, the view, the ruins and the Darwinian fauna experience. I looked at her, holding my hand over my mouth in feigned illness, and said, “Wow”.
If you go: www.irelandwalkhikebike.com
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in 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.
Hiking in Ireland (part 2 of a 3 part series)
Hiking Ireland (second in a three-part series)
‘A good walk spoiled’ is how Mark Twain described the game of golf. But clearly Huck Finn’s author never had the pleasure of strolling the links of Ireland. Having said that, after eight days chunking shots and misreading putts at Ballybunion, Lahinch, and a number of other venerable golf courses with seven buddies, I was more than ready to hang up the clubs and go walkabout.
Five of the lads made their way to Dublin Airport for the long flight back to Canada, but I and two lucky buddies remained behind at the Brooks Hotel, awaiting the arrival of our better halves – and the second portion of our Emerald Isle adventure. We were bound for a week of relaxed hiking in the west of Ireland. I was looking forward to a calmer, tamer chapter than the golf marathon. A road trip with the boys can leave one’s body – and brain – badly bruised.
We were slumped in easy chairs in the lobby of the Brooks perusing the Irish Times when a cab pulled up and the gals came swinging through the doors. We kissed hello while Connor, the affable doorman, unloaded bags. After a quick freshen up we hit Dublin’s late afternoon streets, introducing the ladies to the Stag’s Head, our favourite Temple Bar pub, where we slurped a Guinness, stared up at the stuffed stags staring down upon us and chowed down on some fine Irish stew.In the morning, before boarding the train for Killarney – the starting point of our hike – we enjoyed a city walking tour, visiting the statues of sweet Molly Malone and Oscar Wilde who, amongst other great witticisms, coined the phrase about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. As an unrepentant pilferer of other people’s ideas, I tip my hat to Oscar.
Making small talk in the taxi en route to the train station, I looked up at the sky and asked the driver, “Are you expecting rain?” He looked at me as if I were daft and said, “This is Ireland lad, we are always expecting rain.”
The train-view from Dublin to Killarney was uneventful – lots of tunnels and high hedges. On arrival, a dark-haired woman with a friendly face and a broad smile greeted us on the platform. Elaine Farrell introduced herself as we threw our packs in the back of an eight-seater van. Elaine, from Ireland Walk, Hike, Bike, would be our driver, private guide and constant companion for the week.
The forecast for hiking was not as favourable as it had been for our golf week but, as the locals joyfully proclaim: “You don’t come to Ireland for the weather.”
The first day began with a soggy boat trip to the headwaters of the Three Lakes, in Killarney National Park. As we motored the narrow waters, the third-generation boatman entertained us with local history – some of which may have been true – and an infectious laugh. We docked at Lord Brandon’s Cottage from whence we tromped the ancient Butter Road from Mol’s Gap back to Killarney town.
After two nights in Killarney, we packed for Cahersiveen and a beach hike on the north shore of the Ring of Kerry. From there we moved on to Dingle and a glorious trek skirting Annascaul Lake.
We climbed up and through a mountain pass connecting the south of Dingle peninsula to the north. As we reached the summit, we encountered a solitary shepherd clad in leather breeches, a soiled woolen sweater and gumboots. He also sported a grizzled visage.
I asked for his picture but he shook his head resolutely, “I’m not that attractive. Better to get a shot of the dog.” But the border collie was having none of it and hurried off in search of a wayward lamb.
Elaine turned and, as always, sloshed ahead, warning us around wet spots and cautioning against the few poisonous plants. “Beware the kidney vetch,” she said, “it can lead to Dingle chin.” She laughed, then strode into a field of bog cotton.
Every hike was different and unique. One afternoon we marched along a lonely beach, skirting sea-scoured boulders, tidal pools and the rising sea. Another day it was a narrow path, with ancient stone walls flanking our journey. There were high traverses and stunning outlooks to the ocean.
And every night was unique. A fine pub with great dinner. Fish and chips with mushy peas, spring lamb, stew. And good company.
Elaine always ate with us. In my experience it is unusual for a guide to eat supper with the guests; usually they’re exhausted after a long day attending to the whims of indulged tourists, so the tour boss lets them have a peaceful, solitary evening. But Elaine’s energy never abated. She was there ‘til the bitter end each night. And in the morning there she was, knapsack packed and water bottle full, ready to pilot us on a new adventure. These names won’t mean much to you, but if you’re thinking of traversing Ireland’s paths you should consider the Kerry Way, Derrynane, the Dingle Peninsula, Slea Head and the pilgrimage up Mount Brandon.
On our Mt. Brandon day, the final chapter in our weeklong experience, the summit was socked in – so Elaine spontaneously changed the itinerary. Scanning the horizon, she spotted the remains of a 15th century lookout on Brandon Head overlooking the sea and said, “Shall we give that a go?”
We jumped in the van, veering past ripening hay fields and a soggy peat bog toward what appeared to be a trailhead. Elaine asked the local landowner for permission to enter and directions to the summit – which were happily proffered – and off we trod up the steep pitch. The hike was a highlight – and the reward spectacular. As we climbed toward the ruins the path narrowed to a ridge; to the south all of verdant Dingle laid out below us, to the north certain death loomed over a sheer cliff.
We ate lunch in the lee of the old fort, protected from the buffeting wind by a crumbling wall. “Brilliant,” Elaine said. We all looked around and silently agreed.
If you go: www.irelandwalkhikebike.com
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in Kimberley, BC! Thanks to Ing and McKee insurance and Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this great travel series.
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