Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Polignano a Mare - a Peek at Perfection, Part II

Part II

Polignano a Mare - a Peek at Perfection

This is a continuation of last month’s story about our visit to Polignano a Mare that you will recall ended as follows ...
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 prominently 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.  Continuing now … 

Later, following long overdue afternoon naps, we skipped the famous (and expensive) cliffside Grotta Palazzese restaurant and instead opted for the L’Archibugio.  Of course, this was only after  
stopping-off for drinks once again at our newly discovered watering hole, Café La Cueva.  We enjoyed a wonderful time at L’Archibugio, named for a type of medieval weapon similar to a sawed-off shotgun in length but with a matchlock firing mechanism that gave it celebrity as the first trigger operated firearm.   I suspect its presence, however, may have discouraged the appearance of any pacifists; our earlier luncheon acquaintances from Luxemburg being nowhere to be found.  It was advertised as an “Antipasteria Braceria Wine Bar” and was similar to many other eateries in the old town, being small with something on the order of 10-15 tables on two levels in a domed, grotto-shaped room.  Having stumbled upon it in our wonderings earlier that day, we found it somewhat different verses many of the other eateries.  It presented itself as informal, with a cozy atmosphere, just the type place we enjoy. From its description, Braceria refers to a wood-fired grill (this one supervised by Eduardo) on which to 

roast rolls of meat like local “bombette”, steaks, and sausage, right there among the tables.  But there was also a simple elegance to the place.  Little things stuck out.  One was the background music streaming 30s and 40s jazz from a laptop computer.  It was the closest we’d yet come to a piano bar anywhere in Italy, as the smooth rhythms of Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “Summertime” drifted through the room.  It approached perfection to sip wine to the gravelly voice of Louis (and Ella Fitzgerald) alive in the room.  Amazing, and to think we were in Italy.  Could it get any better?
The menu featured offerings many of which were unfamiliar to us.  Imaginative items like Tortino di Riso Basmati con Battuta di Piselli (Basmati Rice Pie with Green Peas) and Ceci al Guanciale di Martina Franca  
(chickpeas with jowl bacon from the nearby town of Martina Franca) caught our eye.  I’d also never seen, Diaframma di Vitello (Veal Diaphragm), more familiar to us as Hanger Steak, offered on a menu.  I couldn’t resist ordering this interesting veal entree complimented with a bottle of inky dark
Primativo, this one Colavecchio.  For my primo, I indulged myself with the green Foglie di Ulivo, named for its unique shape that resembled what other than an olive leaf.  For Maria Elena, chef Nina prepared pillows of ravioli fluffed full of squash while Eduardo stoked the coals and grilled sausages to their occasional explosive flare-ups and hisses in objection.
The owner, Fulvio, on the young side of forty, seemed to take to us as did his cousin, Valeria.  Fulvio appeared intrigued by my military background.  I’d mentioned it when I’d noted a nearby wall brandishing plaques of police and military units.  Discreetly tucked in among them was a portrait of the now rather infrequently seen, jaw-jutting, Benito Mussolini, a remnant of history that went back to his grandfather.  Fulvio would go so far as to use a military “alpha”, “bravo”, “charlie” phonetic alphabet when he’d spell something out for me such as his email address.  A few “say agains” and a “roger that” later and I had it.  We loved the place and stayed long, especially due to Fulvio and his staff.  There is no likelihood to ever imagine a need to be rescued from this home to deliciousness, no need for a call to be extracted and phonetically spell out Sierra, Oscar, Sierra (SOS)!
Like puffy clouds drifting overhead, the hours floated by.  We ate, talked, and sipped our wine, two bottles in fact if memory serves me.  Though
we’d never been there before, we still feel that the final dolce phase of our meals was above and beyond the norm.  First off, Fulvio brought us sniffers of Mirtillo (very much on the order of our aborted bottle of Mirto at the airport in Sardinia), followed a little later with another digestivo, Crema di Mandorle, an almond cream liqueur.  In the flow of things, a basket of biscotti and another of walnuts with requisite nut crackers appeared.  Clearly, not enough, he then followed this up with chocolate.  Of course, it couldn’t simply come from a box or on a plate.  Much too simple.  Instead, Fulvio arrived with a long-bladed device that gave the impression of a guillotine.  Lifting the handle at the end of the blade, as you positioned the chocolate, being sure your fingers were well clear, allowed you to cleave hunks of the sweet stuff, every girl’s dream, from a block of rich, dark chocolate.  The final pièce de resistance, as though we hadn’t had enough already, were potato-chip thin slices of candied ginger to cleanse the pallet of by then, our overworked mouths.  In a finishing streak of self-indulgence, we enjoyed it all.  If need be, my excuse is that I did not want to offend our gracious host and hostess, while Maria Elena will have to contrive her own cover story.
They closed after midnight with our departure.  As we exited the door, we were surprised to be presented with a bottle of wine, a personal gift from Fulvio.  When I asked him why he’d done this, he replied that it was for us to remember them.  Without question and regardless of the wine, we never would forget our evening there.  Our last words together were a promise to someday return.  Given the hospitality shown us, as well as the offerings of such unique regional food, we’d make it soon.  Walking back to our B&B under a starry sky insistent to be watched, we reviewed our day which had culminated with this wonderful dinner experience while serenading ourselves, as best we could beyond the first stanza, crooning Volare.

The next day we learned there were boat excursions available that toured the coastline.  We were interested.  Marilla gave us directions to the ticket office that turned out so close to our adopted

watering hole, Café La Cueva, that I was surprised we hadn’t noticed it earlier.  Tickets in hand, we hopped aboard a sort of motorized, two-seat rickshaw that drove us to the port from which our cruise would depart.  We were dropped off at the top of some stairs and given directions to follow them straight ahead to Cala Paura (Fear Cove).  Why fearful, we had no idea but hoped it had nothing to do with our boat.  We were not overly reassured though when we arrived to see the cover off our tour boat's outboard motor. God, engine out, might we drift all the way to Albania?  More importantly, where were the life preservers?  While our “captain” worked on the boat, we surveyed the cove.   Here was a treasure of a place.  Two small beaches, a few brightly colored boats, and concrete piers edging the surrounding, sea-scraped cliffs (none as high as those downtown), completed the estuary.  A narrow passage provided an outlet to the sea. 
       Most striking, however, was the crystal-clear water, very much like what we’d recently experienced in Sardinia.  Here was possibly the cleanest, clearest water in all of mainland Italy.  On the beaches, again
with stones some the size of potatoes, families formed beach communities of umbrellas, folding chairs, and coolers as they bathed in the sun and their children splish-splashed by the edge of the water.

      Our boat excursion ready, we got aboard, however gingerly.  Along with us was a Belgian family of five.  We never gave sharing the excursion with others a thought and didn’t mind it at all.  The more the merrier, so long as the gunnels remained above the waterline.  Family dad, however, was heard to say, “So much for

a private tour.”  Although it was with a smile, we’d have to watch out, there might be mutiny afoot in its larger meaning.  I’d have to repress that thought, although thankfully, our craft was too small to support a plank.
All safely aboard, the engine caught its voice.  We were soon underway and through the opening from sheltered cove to open sea.  Our driver hesitated for photos at the Cala Porto beach cove and then headed off, following the limestone cliffs south toward Monopoli.  All the passengers spoke English, so he accommodated us by speaking English as he pointed out various points of interest.  He paused
for photos before the exclusive Grotta Palazzese restaurant built midway up the side of the cliff face and nudged us inside several other caverns to point out colors and other cave features.  Further down the coastline, we pasted additional beaches and picturesque coves, some with flotillas of colorful wooden boats.  But he’d saved the best for last.  It was another cave, this one much larger than any of the others.   He drove well inside, stopping the boat so that those of us who
wanted to take a dip might jump over the side into the clear water.  We stayed dry since we were unaware this would be possible and were without bathing suits.  Just as well when the thought occurred ... how to get back aboard?
  When we left the cave, our driver pulled alongside a fisherman, apparently someone he knew.  No Hemmingway “The Old Man and the Sea” here, struggling to survive and days without a catch.  Our fisherman was in colorful trousers, standing upright in equilibrium with his bobbing boat, as he’d raise and lower a drop-line from the bottom.  His catch of octopuses writhed and squirmed in a bucket at his feet.  From the number he proudly held aloft, he’d already caught plenty.  There were enough to have me wonder what he’d do with all those drooping invertebrates … perhaps a few to take home, the rest possibly for family and friends or to sell to restaurants.  They were clearly abundant and likely a popular dish thereabouts.  In our harsh world outside the

embracing confines of the sea, where the trickery of gravity replaces buoyancy, these limp creatures were helpless, their gray domed hemispheres collapsed in a tangle of legs.  To us, they were exotic creatures, but there, in Puglia, likely as common as a brook trout at home.  In our neck of the woods, along the northeast coast of New England, washed as it is by the Gulf Stream, it is too cold for such creatures to survive.  In fact, the ocean waters are so cold that it is just about void of people as well, well at least me.  
There was one other happening worth a mention.  This one bordering on comedic.  I think, by now, most of us are familiar with the Seinfeld soup-Nazi TV character (if you are not, right click, open hyperlink).  Well, one afternoon we happened upon a sandwich Nazi.  Oh, nothing nearly as severe, but close.  His sandwich shop was on a side street of the church in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, the church notably closed all the time we were there.  We’d gone in to ask if he made paninis to go, which he said he did and would before he closed for the afternoon.  It wasn’t that he was rude, just insistent on what you could or could not have in your sandwich.  A “no soup for you” was
replaced by his refusal to add oil, cheese, or even a slice of eggplant for this or that reason.  And he had a slew of reasons, … the salt affecting the flavor of the prosciutto, cheese upset something else, the eggplant, God forbid, would get his magical bread soggy.  Somehow, the realization that “the customer is always right” had never occurred to him.  He was a character all right, straight out of everyday life in Puglia and straight into our memories.
This slice of Puglia is a chalky-white arid land of layered limestone and white-washed buildings, generally void of trees.  Oh, there are olive trees galore, doubtlessly millions of the gnarly creations, but nothing like the tall, pencil cypresses of Tuscany or the lofty chestnuts forests of Campania.  It’s a place where a paint store like Sherman Williams could not survive.  Nevertheless, there is simple beauty in its primitive nature, from the uniformity of flat horizontal roofs; vistas that march off to where east begins; steep cliffs
worn by sun and time, tumbling to the sea; and the wine-dark sea itself, its ruffled surface appearing deceptively tame.  These qualities, in addition to the cherished traditions of a generous community and a local cuisine capable of bringing us together at table until after midnight, add-up to make it one of the most livable places in the region.
Though very popular, try to forget about trendy Positano and Amalfi on the opposite coast.  Their popularity, evidenced by daily doses of tourists that frequently fill their streets, at times elbow to elbow or tighter still, has also served to tarnish their longstanding reputations.  Their run has worn thin.  Their intimacy has evaporated along with the serenity of their fishing village pasts, having succumbed to the character of a Disney resort mall.  Juxtapose this with Puglia, epitomized by charming Polignano a Mare, which just might be the poster child for a new, raw Italy, still undiscovered, untamed, and underdeveloped.  As yet, it is a place filled with souls like welcoming and kind Fulvio, who greets you with a smile, and then in memory of your visit, favors you with some wine.  We’ll be sure to mime a toast to him, many in fact when we uncork his generous gift and give in to the stirring of memories and warmth of feelings it inspires.  Although we’ve certainly not
seen all that the region has to offer, its lovely squares and cobblestone streets rank it one of the prettiest and most charming old towns in Puglia.  Here, people busy themselves with life and unpretentious food, exemplary of a laid-back lifestyle.  But I should be cautious and let these matters slide for fear that word gets out, the idea catches on, and I hasten the demise of its innate charms yet unscathed by mass tourism.
From That Rogue Tourist