Sunday, December 31, 2017

Part I: Polignano a Mare ... a Peek at Perfection

Polignano a Mare ... a Peek at Perfection

It was that time once more, time for another excursion to Italian parts still unfamiliar to us.  By then, weeks had passed since our return from Sardinia.  On the day of our departure, we were greeted by a bright sunny day as we made our way out to the piazza from our home in the Calitri Borgo to our awaiting car, little Bianca.  If all went well, in a little over two hours, her mighty-mite 1.2-liter engine would try her hardest to whisk us away into an eastly sun along the autostrada to the Adriatic coast to that secret, untouched boot of Italy called Puglia.  There was no hurry, after all we were retired, in pensione as they say.

After all these years, there remained so much more of Italy yet to see and we’d continue to be slow about it.  It wasn’t as though we were on some sort of tour with a hurry-up, “have your bags in the hall by 6am”, “keep up with the flag”, and a “don’t be late” approach.  Unlike most bus tours where you might visit eight-ten places in a week, we had the luxury to take our time to get to know a place in greater depth.  An overnight stay was especially conducive to that end and that’s just what we were doing thanks to
First off, we’d head for Polignano a Mare about 30 miles south of Bari.  Its origins date back to the 4th century BC about the time Greek settlers founded the city of Neapolis (Naples) on the opposite coast of Italy as part of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).  And if we made time, we’d venture a little farther south to another delicious coastal town, this one Monopoli, from the Greek for “single town” located at the end of ancient Rome’s Via Traiana, and not to be confused as the origin of the board game of the same name with its cluttered border of real estate. 
We got going by mid-morning.  Maria Elena likes to take her time whenever we prepare to leave.  It’s more a matter of our return that concerns her, more so than a concern with what to pack along.  She insists that everything be in order for the moment we open our door on our return - dishes all washed, everything ship-shape and orderly.  She sees it as a sort of pre-arranged therapy for when she returns.  Knowing she’ll be tired after a trip, it’s her way of banishing any thought of housework as she relaxes, or better said, recovers.
GPS Margaret cooperated, making our trip all the way to the curb by the front door of our B&B, Dimora delle Rondini, uneventful.  Thankfully, there were no parking problems that time of the season.  Our B&B was conveniently located
in a residential area a few blocks outside the old centro storico.  Its location on the third floor, without an elevator of course, was not as convenient.  As I’m sure I mentioned before, these days, at my age, I’m an anti-gravity kind of guy.  Thankfully, we knew this in advance and had taken precautions by packing light - only a tote bag each in anticipation.  Marilla, our hostess for our three-night stay greeted us at the door and showed us to our room, one of three available.  It was very nicely appointed by Italian standards and had a slider to a balcony that stingily permitted a slight view of the sea at the end of the street.  The queen size bed featured a plush upholstered headboard the likes of something on loan from Versailles.  It was a lamp on a nearby sofa table that caught my eye.  It was of stone.  A large base stone was topped by additional stones, though smaller, that rose to form
the post of the lamp.  I’d seen similar stone arrangements, assembled by crafty individuals, beginning with stacks of stones artfully positioned in rivers.  What was different here was the semi-circular shade that capped this creation.  Shards of polished glass (or they may have been crystal) protruded to stud the surface of the shade.  Later in our wonderings about town, we happened upon the “laboratory” where these lamps, some much larger, along with other fabulous handiworks were made and sold for an asking way beyond what I’d be willing to pay, at least for a lamp.  It was like window shopping at Tiffaney’s.  Only days later, while at breakfast, did Marilla divulge that the artist was a friend and the resulting discount so attractive, she’d purchased three!
By then it was early afternoon and we were eager to both get a glimpse of the old town and have lunch.  Maps in hand like any full-fledged tourist (and I still sometimes ask Maria Elena how they can tell we’re tourists!), we quickly headed off in the direction Marilla pointed us.  We generally kept to the course and eventually knew the
route there and back very well, even at night.  On this initial sortie, however, the sea beckoned, and we obliged her by deviating somewhat.  We emerged onto a large panoramic terrace, the virtual seaside piazza Largo Grotta Ardito, high atop stone walls overlooking the sea.  The shimmer of the sun off the water was like the flashing glint from a diadem on this, a tiara kind of day.  Some people sat in their cars enjoying the view, others like us walked along the limestone rampart to the sight of foam curling below on the rocks to the rumble of the waves, as fishermen tended their long poles and baited their hooks.  The full-length panorama of Polignano stretched before us atop spectacular limestone cliffs riddled with sea washed caves and home to darting sea birds clinging to the slightest outcropping.  No wonder it was called a mare.  The cliffs attract more than birds and tourists, however.  In the past, these crags were put to good use when the Red Bull Diving Competition was hosted in Polignano.  With every vista affording a feast for the eyes, it made it difficult to get beyond the scenery on into town.
Now and then we had to detour away from the water when a deck or patio would jut from the cliff in a cantilevered arrangement, preventing further progress.  Continuing along the walkway that
edged this timeless coastline, we missed the main entry to town reached through the Arco Marchesale gate, where the relatively tiny old town merged with far more modern Polignano.  We wondered the historic old town, a tangle of narrow streets and alleys twisting and turning in a maze of houses, shops, bars, and restaurants.  This was our idea of exploring where new places appeared at every turn.
It was on a corner, where no less than five cobblestone streets intersected, that we came upon Café La Cueva.  It became our favorite place to plop in a cozy corner in the shelter of surrounding shrubs to people-watch while enjoying drinks, a stuzzichini appetizer or two, and bowls of wonderful olives.  With so many streets converging, there was no shortage of entertainment.  Tour groups would pass, its members trying their best to
“keep up with the flag”; evening diners headed for the celebrated Grotta Palazzese restaurant a street or two away might stroll by; parents with children in tow; travel book tourists trying to decide whether to stop themselves, if only they could find some favorable kudo in their tomes; the occasional “ape” delivery lorry making daily rounds; nuns arm-in-arm; and once a grinning old man maneuvering a walking staff mumbling to himself as he headed who knows where.  All these sights and more converged in such an enchanting peaceful corner it proved hard to leave, but on that first sortie we sought something more substantial than a refreshing drink.  Moving on, we chanced getting lost in a winding thread of streets clotted with life.  There was an obvious sense of pride in the place, enough that you might imagine yourself transported to Germany from the orderliness of the place, an absence of graffiti, or of any rubbish littering the streets.  It being the main draw of the town and a valuable contributor to its economy, no doubt the town fathers gave it special attention.  We passed boutique restaurants, like the Cactus, closed this hour of the day; attractive shops we’d be sure to check-out later; hotels; beautifully maintained old stone homes; small squares busy with bikes and skateboards; and gated churches, to eventually emerge in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele (every Italian town seems to have one).
Along with a few shops, cafes, and a clocktower, this rectangular shaped piazza featured two outdoor restaurants, their cantilevered umbrellas crowding opposite sides of the square.  After a quick scan of their menus, we settled on Trattoria Neuro, the larger of the two, thankfully still with a few empty tables.  Its story began in 1990 when then L'Antico Caffè della Piazza opened its doors in the revived historic center.  As a church celebrates in the spirit, we’d found one of those temples that celebrate food and the pleasures of the table.  The Italian table need not simply be a setting for starches.  Here by the sea, we anticipated that seafood of every variation would reign supreme.  Oh,
there would of course also be pasta, for there is an inventiveness to pasta that with each twist can take on a variation in shape entirely new to toy with and cup a multitude of marvelous sauces.  It may in fact be the sauces that I enjoy best.  A plateful of Linguine ai Frutti di Mare did it for me, combining fruits of the sea with a favorite pasta noodle of mine.  While Maria Elena enjoyed an antipasto surf and turf combination - a serving of calamari and another, a spread of salamis and cheeses - we chatted with neighboring patrons.  They were not only from the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, but also from the world of academia.  He was a communications professor.  His wife also taught.  We learned that the population of their nation was all of five hundred thousand.  This was surprising when compared to the fact that New York City alone has a populace approaching nine million.  We’d once met an anarchist in Paris, communists up north in Montichari, and here in Polignano we found ourselves conversing with, as they explained, a pacifist couple.  They were of the belief that milaritism, indeed conflict of any form, is unjustifiable.  At that point, minding my linguine, I kept to myself the fact that I’d been a bomber pilot!  Maybe pacifism works and is popular in a country like theirs, the size of the State of Rhode Island or the English county of Northamptonshire.  With the world’s highest GDP per capita, maybe everyone gets along nicely.  He being a communications expert, or at least expert on the theory of communications, he possibly had the skills to talk his way out of any difficulty and thus avoid conflict – all matters resolved peacefully.  With all due respect, I wondered if they’ed reached a state of nirvana where they never experienced anger, or if the need arose, would be willing to engage in self defense, or instead, choose to rely on a “turn the other cheek” philosophy?  Luckily none of their politics was catchy.
Following lunch, we continued roving until we literally ran out of old town.  It is, after all, a relatively small area.  Finding the Arco Marchesale gate, we exited the centro storico into Piazza Garibaldi and turned right onto Via San Vito.  We followed it north across the Ponte Lama
Monachile causeway crossing a riverbed that afforded an unexpected panoramic view of the sea through a breach in the limestone cliffs.  Undoubtedly, here was a vista that could serve as the town’s signature image.  The cliffs had been cut from the timeless erosion of the rocky stream, which then looked incapable of such a feat.  Stony Cala Porto beach flanked by cliff-walls filled the gap to the water’s edge while hotels, restaurants, and a portion of the old town skirted the edge of the bluffs.  Bathers and snorkelers enjoyed the gentle surf, while those on shore maneuvered in a crab-walk style to negotiate the beach’s rocky surface.  The

ability to make sandcastles impossible, rock piling was the vogue.  
We turned back toward the sea when we reached Via Conversano and soon arrived at Hotel Covo dei Saracen.  This four-star hotel was situated in a prime position opposite the centro storico, on top of the cliff bordering the sea and the Cala Porto beach cove.  Inside, a wall plaque with the words “Volare, oh,oh… Cantare, oh,oh,oh,oh… Nel blu dipinto di blu… felice di stare lassù…” greeted us.  It took a moment, but this helped explain the larger than life-sized statue of Domenico Modugno displayed in the square outside.  Inspired by these words, he’d immortalized them in the international musical hit, Volare.  As a result, Domenico is possibly the most famous export of Polignano a Mare, rightly their favorite son.  Learning this, it was difficult from then on to keep these “Nel blu dipinto di blu” words (the original title of the hit) out of our heads. 
To Be Continued

From That Rogue Tourist