Friday, February 28, 2014

On The Streets of Lecce

On the Streets of Lecce

I may have said this before, but I’ll chance saying it again, I've never been lost!  It’s part of pilot bravado from my former career.  There is an aura about pilots, which soars higher than their epaulets.  They’re perceived as cool, brave and always calm in the face of adversity.  It has to do with their superhuman ‘Top Gun’ abilities, qualities that give them an extra kick in their stride, putting them one step ahead of the average Joe.  They live in closeness to the heavens, the realm of the gods.  It goes along with the sentiment expressed by a former WWII pilot, John Gillespie Magee, when in his poem “High Flight” he penned: 
“… And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
             The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
                   Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
How inconceivable then that a pilot could ever be lost.  As is often the case, reserved for the smallest of print, to be found only after one follows an asterisk to the hidden words themselves, there is always a caveat.  In this case it reads that although pilots are never really lost, it’s fair to say they can be disoriented for hours at a time!  Case in point, the recent rash of pilots landing or approaching the wrong airports!  In my flying days all I had to do was turn left or right, maintain heading and oftentimes, go up or down when crewmates like Denny, my navigator, told me to.  He was the real puppet master.  There was more to it than that but I basically just drove the bus from point A to B.  Now I'm on my own, grounded in retirement, with reduced duties ... only the need to maintain heading or turn left and right while avoiding objects.  When traveling today, I rely on that guidance from Maria Elena.  Nevertheless, I (we) still manage to get disoriented now and then.  Mare though being senior navigator with thousands of hours, I really can't totally blame, for she has for the most part outsourced her duties of late to Margaret, our GPS.  She does, however, watch over Margaret closely, all the while with a map in hand.  Margaret just isn't cleared to solo yet and we both agree, she never will be.  Who can guess where Lindbergh might have turned up if Margaret had accompanied him?  Driving with Margaret, I'm reminded of that movie, “Tron”, from back in '82 and its cyberspace Kafkaesque world.  To a similar degree, I suspect Margaret is also corrupted.  She often gives more deference to her digital one and zero companions than to the task at hand, which can lead to a madcap adventure whenever she is engaged.  Thus was our plight on a recent visit to Lecce.

It was a smooth ‘flight’, mostly along highways, all the way from Calitri, on past a gigantic Fiat factory turning out Jeeps, then across Kansas-like fields abounding in young tomatoes and ageless olive trees to the outskirts of Lecce in the heart of Puglia.  We were on our way there to once again catch up with friends, Dan and Roberta, who had been exploring Puglia for a few days on their own.  We would rendezvous at the “B&B Il Monastero” (the Monastery B&B) located somewhere in the interior of this classical Baroque city of soapy white stone.  We had visited Lecce before, and as we got closer, things began to take on a familiar look.  We approached the old center of the city, in heavy traffic, along the broad tree-lined avenue of Viale XXV Luglio.  When Margaret in her impeccable English mother tongue finally decided to speak, she directed that I turn right onto Via Giacomo Matteotti.  Obediently I did so, cautiously waiting for a large enough crease in the mob of pedestrians moving every which way to allow me through.  When I had and moved just a little way along this street, but not far at all, we were confronted by a barrier.  How familiar are you with those hydraulic cylinders that come up about three feet from the road’s surface to prevent you from moving forward?  We had seen them before.  There was no way around them.  Since we didn’t have one of the remote controls, available to properly vetted locals, who with the press of a button could make them disappear back into the pavement, our only option was to retreat by slowly backing out onto the busy avenue once again.  I only learned how they operated later after we had parked farther along Via Luglio in a familiar lot, one we had used in the past, beside the 16th century fortress walls of Castello di Carlo V.  On foot now, having deserted Marg and our luggage, we headed off into the labyrinth of alleys, narrow streets and cozy corners that make Lecce one apart.

We knew that off to our left, a street or two away, was Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the very old, very Roman amphitheater.   Margaret had wanted us to enter the city here so I assumed the B&B would be nearby.  Passing a wide street to our right, I noted various shops, some with what I presumed were their owners outside.  We needed help finding the former monastery, now B&B, and they of all people should have the answers.  I’m not the type who has a hang-up about asking for directions.  Continuing along, I’ll go so far as to ask a few people to see if there is consensus.  God forbid if one points one way, and a little later, another points back toward the way we came.  Explaining our need, the first man I inquired of handed us off to his neighbor who after a little thought, believed the place was somewhere up ahead.  We continued on.  So there we were, not really lost for we knew we were smack in the center of Lecce. Exactly where in relation to where we wanted to go - double asterisk - I must admit to being disoriented.  It was up ahead that we next came upon an elderly man who happened to be walking by.  Who better to ask then him?  Via Malennio?  Il Monastero?  He was sure he knew the place, just a few streets away in fact and would take us there.  Encouraged, we followed him deeper into the interior of the city, a puzzle of houses and alleyways running like canons between tall buildings.  It wasn’t long before we materialized in a small square, complete with a small church.  Passing a young woman, he began to talk with her.  She appeared to be saying there was no such place, though all the while he was equally insistent that there was.  Convent yes, but no monastery newly turned B&B!  Now with our encouragement on the wane, draining from us fast like water from a leaking bucket, we knew we needed to resolve this standoff.  We didn’t have to.  A group of nearby women joined in, only to our dismay to side with the young woman.  He was wrong they bantered.  Outnumbered five against one, their sharp words and flailing arms, flying as fast as their tongues, were like stinging whips and pricks, regulating him to harlequin status, just shy of victim.  Luckily, with no stones about, there was no stoning!  Yes, yes, a convent but surely no former monastery or present day B&B.  Not around here.  He seemed nonplussed and in his defense chose silence.  For us it was a bittersweet revelation - bitter for the disappointment and continued sense of being basically who knew where with a city all around us; sweet at the thought we hadn’t brought along our suitcase!  

After thanking our well-intentioned guide for his efforts, we turned back as circumstances recommended to another street, leading somewhere else.  At least I was somewhat oriented.  I knew we were now headed west across the width of the old town.  We soon came upon a rather wide street that went straight as far as we could see and struck out toward its distant horizon.  Not too far along, one side of the street joined with a small square.  Parked in its center was an ape (pronounced ‘ah-pay’), sort of a cross between a motorcycle and a flatbed truck.  What I refer to as a ‘trucklet’, if there is such a thing.  Fortune shined on us for inside its small cab, of all people, there sat an ufficio postale (post office) delivery woman, as auspicious a sign as the first rays of sunshine following a storm.  Classify it under the rubric of luck, for postal workers know all the addresses, or theoretically they are supposed to.  This one, however, was not sure where Via Malennio was.  Clouds were closing in again.  Then like a typical Italian, always willing to help, she tapped a broader network by called her office for directions.  Seems we were doing OK without the slightest clue.  Following along Via Principe di Savoia, as we were, we were apparently headed in the right direction.  We only needed to keep going until we reached the other side of the old city center.  Our destination was near Porta Napoli.  No, not as I’d thought at first some port by the water where none existed this far inland, but a city gate of sorts.

About this time I began to realize that I was the cause of our predicament.  I’d done some poor ‘mission planning’ on this one.  I should have checked where this B&B was located before leaving Calitri.  I’d broken my own rule by putting too much reliance on Margaret and had not done my homework.  Here in the streets knowing the truth, I was beyond being able to even claim “the dog ate it”!  My decision to park and head in on foot, based on the false notion that we were close, had been off the mark.  As is often the case, there had to be other streets that would have led us to Il Monastero.  Once I’d reversed out of that impassible street, Margaret would have eventually circumnavigated the city to Porta Napoli on her own, though surely after who knows how many more non-viable attempts. Eventually she’d have gotten us there.  Lessons learned, starting with patience, began to emerge, but by then, too far committed, we pressed on to Porta Napoli on foot.
Porta Napoli, also known as the Arc de Triomphe (now that sounds vaguely familiar) is the triumphal arch of Lecce, marking the entrance to the historic city.  It was built in 1548 in celebration of the accomplishments of Emperor Charles V of Habsburg to commemorate his rebuilding of the Castle along with the protective walls surrounding Lecce.  Passing through this arch outbound, the road eventually led you to Naples and thus the derivation of its name “Doorway to Naples”.
Fortunately, the old center of Lecce is not very large. About ten minutes later we emerged before a towering archway that had to be Porta Napoli.  Knowing we were close, I called the B&B.  Its owner, Mino, answered and said he would meet us there shortly.  We were to just wait in the square before the arch.  We were doing just that, along with discussing how Mino would recognize us to which Mare replied “we’re foreign tourist Paul, he call tell!”, when surprisingly my cellphone rang.  Mino had to have been a movie buff, maybe a “James Bond” or spy novel fan, to have known this trick.  Having entered the Porta area himself, he had simply dialed my number, now captured in his cellphone, and listened for a ring somewhere close by in the crowd.  I was impressed as he swooped in to collect us!

          Our accommodating host led us along quiet side streets to a nearby residential neighborhood only a few minutes walk from busier thoroughfares lined with inviting restaurants and art shops all folded into the cocoon of beautiful architecture this city is famous for.  Tucked away as it was, I doubt we would have been able to find it on our own.  Utility trucks parked in the street before a telephone switching center of sorts camouflaged its non-descript façade.  Only a small sign on the door - “B&B Il Monastero, Arte e Relax” - hinted at its existence.  About then we needed to relax.  The “B” for bed also pulled at us.
Finally arrived, we were greeted by our friends.  Like a mirage, Roberta appeared angelic-like, an apparition from above.  Extending a hand over the railing of a balcony, she tempted us with a glass of cooled white wine. Dan by her side held the bottle, as a final inducement to come inside Il Monastero and enjoy.  We had finally arrived, drugged with exhaustion.  There was no hesitation on our part.
Il Monastero was as advertised.  I wouldn’t say the Monastero B&B is located in the heart of Lecce's historic center.  More to the west side as we learned on foot, it could more easily be described as lying in the city’s right ventricle.  Stepping into its heart through a small wooden door within a much larger door, we entered a broad, stone-lined foyer leading to wide stairs which deposited us al piano di sopra (upstairs) in a bright, marble-floored living room.  We found its décor an eclectic mix of new and old, stylish modern and historic, where contemporary blended with an ancient world.  Throughout, photos of around-the-world adventures of our host brought a personal touch to this boutique B&B.  In a former incarnation it had been a seventeenth century palace, which once accommodated French nuns of Chedry … and here I’d always thought a monastery was a place of male religious, while a convent accommodated their female counterparts.
A few hours later, now relaxed and thanks to our friends, certainly refreshed, we were out wondering the streets, this time together.  We strolled toward one of Lecce’s major attractions, the Duomo, only a few minutes away.  Inside, I sat for a time taking in its splendor.  Tacked to the crucifix above the main altar, here as in all Catholic Churches, was the familiar inscription “INRI” (Iesus Nazerreno Rex Iudeorum – Jesus King of the Jews).  Looking up at it I smiled as I always do when I recall how Maria Elena, as a young girl growing up in Rhode Island and kneeling in church, had for years thought these four letters atop the cross meant IN Rhode Island!  I wish I had known her then, pigtails and all.  Later, after that brief visit inside the cool interior of the Duomo, we sat in the soft light of a nearby outdoor café and people-watched while sipping Aperol Spritzers. 
When we eventually rose from the table, the metallic-orange color of our spritzers well drained, we had a new objective in mind.  For a few years, I’d been following the evolution of The Awaiting Table Cookery School through its monthly e-newsletter.  The Awaiting Table is a regional Italian cooking and wine school located in Lecce.  I had been looking forward to returning to Lecce to locate this culinary school and meet its owner and principal teacher, Silvestro Silvestori.  The school, as best I knew, was located on Via Idomeneo.  Somewhat prepared this time, a street map in hand provided by Mino, we set off once again on the streets of Lecce.  These cobbles knew our footfalls.  We had been through some of these same streets before.  Walking these ageless streets, in the lengthening shadows of a retreating afternoon sun, time slowed and drew me back to a less complicated time, to a sense of time as it had once been here.  I realized that its present day occupants were only temporary caretakers of this place and we, visitors du jour, only temporary shadows moving across these hallowed streets consecrated by time itself.
After only a few false turns, reminiscent of the day’s earlier events, we arrived at the address and rang the bell.  It certainly didn’t present itself as a school.  The schools I knew had a flagpole or at least a sign saying “slow to 20 mph when in session”.  No, not here on these Italian streets.  But then this was not your typical school and from what I’d been realizing over the years, there was nothing equivalent to it in the States.  When no one answered, we disappointedly started to walk away.  We were surprised then when suddenly the door opened and a woman appeared.  I’d estimate she was somewhere in her thirties, tall and hale, with short curly hair as if she’d had a permanent.  Although we were on the correct street, street number included, this was not a cooking school.  In the warm hospitality so typical of the makeup of southern Italians, she asks us inside.  She was curious herself and wanted to help solve our problem.  She was not aware of such a school anywhere nearby.  Now inside her courtyard, she led all four of us upstairs into her home.  She wanted to check the Internet for it.  I am not sure if all the ‘Leccenese’ are as helpful but here again was another example of a stranger going out of their way to help total strangers, something foreign these days when most people avoid direct eye contact with anyone they don’t know.  Just image taking four strangers from the street into your home.  Clearly, good Samaritans abound in Lecce.  Our hostess (I never got her name) suggested we explore farther down the street.  I couldn’t fathom why since wasn’t an address an address?
Back on Lecce’s warren of streets, we took her advice.  Everything looked the same -   ancient, stone, multi-story buildings lined either side of the street giving you the feel of a mouse in a confusing maze.  Another helpful pedestrian suggested we bear left ahead at which point, poof, we discovered another palazzo of the same address.  Incredibile (Unbelievable)!  Continuing its stealthy concealment, however, we were unable to find evidence that The Awaiting Table Cooking School made its home here.  It was about then that neighbors just across the street appeared.  They too, though wanting to be helpful, couldn’t confirm this was The Awaiting Table.  Apparently in a city of wonderful aromas wafting from just about every window, even a cooking school could hide.  In that final moment of frustration I noticed the name ‘Silvestro Silvestori’ scrawled on the sliver of paper below the doorbell button.  For a few moments, conversation centered on whether one of us should press it.  After our lengthy search I didn’t hesitate.  At first nothing happened.  Then like that scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge threw open the window to hale a street urchin to fetch the big Christmas goose, we were startled as an upstairs shutter flew open, the window sash was drawn up and Silvestro’s head appeared.  We had arrived.  Finally, saved from the bewilderment of the streets, and though lacking an appointment, the creaking doors opened and we entered this casa of cuisine faster than the ghost of Jacob Marley.
As had been our experience first on entering Il Monastero, then later when the ‘Good Samaritan’ woman took us into her home, once inside, beyond the street-side somber of giant wooden doors, a new world presented itself.  The ‘book from its cover’ analogy held true.  More than just a school, it turned out to be the school master’s home, “La Casa di Silvestro”.  For this reason, he explained to us, its existence, beyond its walls, was unannounced and low key.  Small classes were conducted here, while on special occasions throughout the year, the venue shifted to a castle, south of Lecce.  I’m not sure if he ever made candles but his credentials, among others, include butcher, baker and most recently, sommelier.  What table could be considered complete without wine?  The Awaiting Table then also explored and explained that other food, wine.  Our arrival had interrupted our host.  He’d been working on his ‘wine curriculum’ when we’d abruptly arrived, unannounced.  Working from a growing list of respected wines from southern Italy, including Sicily, he was matching them to regional dishes.  The table in one large room, clearly ‘the wine room’, was covered with wine bottle after bottle, each sporting interesting labels.  Along with the familiar Negroamaro, Primitivo and black Aglianico grape, a grape as old as the Phoenicians, they spoke of exotic sounding varietals like Calabria’s hardy Gaglioppo and Sicily’s earthy Nerello Mascalese. 
Although interrupted, Silvestro quickly turned guide and was gracious enough to lead us on a brief tour through his palatial home-school.  Rooms were large, high ceilinged and filled with every sort of adornment.  Shelves were stuffed with books, canned goods and ever ilk of paraphernalia.  Walls were clothed in posters and pictures.  Practically hidden by a shelf, one poster especially caught my eye.  It was so apropos for it depicted, I’m sure, a common creation in Silvestro’s kitchen, homemade pasta.  Portrayed was a scene from the movie, Un Americano a Roma, with Italian comic, Alberto Sordi, as American wannabe Nando Mericoni, slurping up forkfuls of the stringy stuff.  Visually overwhelming was the least of it - it was a culinary museum all at once cozy, mystifying and appealing.  One room in particular showcased a striking, arched, blue wall completely clad with plates, some featuring roosters in their centers (see photo album).  Another room, another wall.  This one adorned with crosses and religious icons – Madonnas of the Kitchen? – while at its base a coffee table struggled to support a hodge-podge of pitchers and beakers of every variety, size and shape.  Like the rest of the rooms, the kitchen walls were brightly colored.  Ever sort of kitchen utensil covered shelves and walls.  Wires stretched across the room, just over our heads, created a faux ceiling of dangling drying herbs, braids of garlic, small lanterns and fiery red clusters of pepperoncino peppers.  Wide stone table tops dominated the centerline of the room, which along with multiples of everything - colanders, pitches, pots, olive oil bottles, baking pans, drying planks and caldron sized vats for making what for me is that caviar of sauces, spaghetti sauce or salsa - made it apparent that serious hands-on cooking, learned only by doing, not watching, went on here.  The kitchen expanded through an opening to the outside into a stone clad courtyard where thick leafed potted plants of all sizes only added to the spell of its Mediterranean motif.  My emotions struggled - I wanted to stay.  I wanted to cook something, and when we departed, I wanted to return.  I promised myself that one day soon Maria Elena and I would do just that by coming in from the streets of Lecce, expected this time, and participate in a course on Salento cuisine complimented by a goblet or two (or three) of that southern Italian sunshine in a bottle.

             You want to return to the places that especially click with you while traveling.  The first visit is one of discovery, and a return, a time to explore and experience more.  Beyond that, further visits are to enjoy and bathe in the culture.  We know we’ll return to Lecce, yet undiscovered by large scale tourism, again and again to walk its streets farther, probe deeper into its marrow and meet its people again and again.  As Silvestro says “… to eat and drink and laugh, but never after this experience to see Italy exactly the same way ever again”.  In the unlimited world of a rich imagination, walking the streets of Lecce, in itself, can prove a fruitful adventure.  There is no telling what you’ll discover beyond the next door that opens to you.  It is the closest you can come to being embraced in the arms of an Italian family.  Whether totally lost or simply disoriented (as I’ll only admit to), in need or not, it doesn’t matter.  Like Silvestro’s food creations and wines, which immerse you in the rich history and culture of Puglia through cooking, a walk on the streets of Lecce, where a little search can reveal so much charm, also allows you to connect to the culture through the hospitality of its people where they live and work.  Where can you go for a walk like that?  I need to loose myself once again, and soon, on the back streets of Lecce.

From that Rogue Tourist,

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "The Streets of Lecce".