Just back after another vacation down in Puglia. The region around and below Lecce is known as Salento, named after ‘sale’ or salt (thanks Silvestro) but known as the land of sun, sea and wind. The whole journey was done from Campsea Ashe in Suffolk down and back to Brindisi by train. None of this would be possible without the man in seat 61, the guide to when and how to book the various stages of the journey. All the trains ran smoothly and the contrast between the halt at Camspea Ashe [sorry as far as the trains are concerned it’s Wickham Market, but it’s not] and the massive station at Bologna is amazing.
This year the upgrade to Leisure Select on Eurostar was well worth the effort as the at seat meal trays were tasty lunches and the journey times were perfect. The food on the night sleeper from Paris Bercy to Bologna was a huge improvement on last year and the company was first class; a spectacular French/Italian lady who layered conversations in both languages at fast speed. I’m sure we discussed everything from religion to cleaning plates with bread (making a little shoe in Italian – faccio la scarpetta) but whole chunks of it slid by with me nodding madly and hoping the nods were in the right places. It was a pity we didn’t have a bit more transfer time in France to meet up with family.
Safely at Villa Rosa this was destined to be an unwind holiday, with minimum travelling about, plenty of socialising with cooking from the abundant market and gorgeous meals out.
Of course there was the pilgrimage to Lecce, home of the purple bike, locks on posts and espressino freddo.
Top places to eat this trip were:
- Bahianegra, Casa l’abate sea views, fish and pizzas the specialities
- Il Botteghino, Lendinusso; mussels, in fact so much antipasti no more food was required!
- Masseria Li Manchi, Squinanno great antipasti and fabulous courtyard setting
- Cin Cin Bar, Lecce – central spot to drink Espressino freddo and eat pastries whilst people watching, go after 12.00 for the espression freddo, each one different depending on who makes it.
- Also managed to find somewhere slightly better than the restaurants next to the station at Bologna. Ristoranti Victoria, snappy service and pretty good nosh.
The high spot in terms of outings was a trip to three cantinas. Debbie and Bob (owners of Villa Rosa) have linked with the wonderful Donna and Paola, Italian speaking Americans, to create a tour which ranges from a co-operative, to a high-tech winery, to a small family set up. The wines are all excellent award winners. The glory is having the tour, the on hand translation, the story of the individual cantina and the chance to taste extensively from their ranges from light fizzy whites, to summery rosatto and robust reds with some stronger and sweeter wines to go with Christmas pud.
The reading list this trip:
- Risk – the science and politics of fear by Dan Gardner. Worth a read, I felt it laboured the point a bit and at times I wanted to scream. However, there are elements in this that everyone should read, about why we are frightened of the wrong things and not the things that are far more likely to happen.
- Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes – well when in Italy…..
- Map Addict by Mike Parker – I started this ages ago and then didn’t finish it. I love it, my kind of book but then I share his addiction.
- The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg – sort of a Scandinavian Psychoville
- Mostly though it was Take off in Italian, I keep trying but still not sure if it my complete absence of learning or the fact that the Salento dialect is so different; most of my shopping is pointing strung together with a few key phrases.
Puglia is the recipient of long dry summers and although intensely hot, the heat is often kept under control by the sirocco and mistral winds. The nature of the beach changes. The Italian’s themselves don’t tend to play in the waves as Brits do at the seaside. Once the waves are of above a gentle roll the local holiday makers seem to loose interest in swimming, standing or sitting in the waves. However, a few hardy souls, the windsurfers start to appear and the sky is filled with what appear at first to be coloured crows, but are actually the kites of the boarders turning pirouettes as they turn.
On the water-sports front though the thing I enjoyed most works best once the winds have dropped. This holiday I learnt to snorkel. I have never done it before; seeing shoals tiny silvery fish that were like meteor showers, larger fish with dark eyes that followed me around and the thrill of watching a cuttle fish making its way around a artificial reef. Now that I am confident swimming out of my depth and feel strong enough not to panic when I wander off away from the crowd, snorkelling is a real pleasure. In addition to as snorkelling at Contrada Cipolla we also took a trip to the Torre Guaceto nature reserve. Here you can snorkel in protected water and the range of fish and the number of sea urchins, sponges and other creatures is greater than ever.
Next time I could do with a waterproof camera – any recommendations?
It is Bank Holiday Monday, the air is chill in Suffolk and the holiday to Puglia by train seems light years away. A good time to create a few short posts about the trip – so how about:
- Puglia by train and farming the environment
- Water sports
- Old towns; Lecce and Matera
- The Onion Cats and Casa Mare
This is the third train trip to Puglia; Wickham Market station was sunny when we left and 1,500 miles of train travel lay ahead. All trains were on time to Paris and a lovely upgrade on the Eurostar meant a civilised lunch with wine to help the journey along. A great new tip that helped this part of the journey was using the RER from Paris Nord to Paris Gare de Lyon and then walking to Paris Bercy. It has become a ritual to stop at Cafe Chambertin and watch the heads emerging from the metro; but now with extra complacency from not fighting with all the steps.
All was looking good, until the lights on the boards at Bercy announced the expected arrival time for the night sleeper to Bologna.
So, a delay of one and a half hours predicted. Still we had access to the lounge and met a couple who were on a Rotary golf tour in France, making their way to Italy and then returning to Australia in time for the elections. Plenty to chat about. When the train arrived not only was it late but none of the usual attendant services. We had picked up that there may be a bit of politics going on in Southern Europe and Italy in particular about night trains. I’m not sure if that is what happened, but things were certainly not as slick as they have been before. Never mind, an hour and a half would still allow good time in the morning to catch the connection and of course there was a chance the train would make up time overnight. So fully expecting to wake up with dawn somewhere near Bologna, there was no wake-up call or breakfast and it was a little surprising to wake to a light blood-orange dawn, spilling over the Northern lakes.
In the end the train was four hours late into Bologna, a whole two minutes after the Lecce connection, along with the booked seats, had departed.
Top tip here. If you miss your train go to customer services and have your ticket stamped, at least the tickets were transferable to the next train, two hours later, but without booked seats. ‘Stand and grow good’ I was taught as a child; six hours of standing I must be very good indeed. The train was rammed, but the best of spirits as virtually everyone is in holiday mode. Mostly Italians off to the south for their long break; a feisty old lady shouting about being 84 and needing a seat, which of course she was given.
Nothing can suppress for me the joy of watching the countryside change as smart northern towns give way to the polenta belt, then to grapes and unfettered blue skies. The temperature steadily climbs, the countryside becomes browner where fields have been cleared. Fields of sunflowers heads bowed and from Rimini on down the side of the boot there are open sea views, bodies browning, people standing and sitting in the sea – standing on a train or not, it is a great sight. As the countryside converts to olive groves and fields of tomatoes and melons the other farming now is wind and sun.
Puglia has gone for wind and solar farming in a big way. Not surprising as it has plenty of both and has an apparently interesting approach to planning. The biggest problem for them is security; people keep stealing the photovoltaic panels.
We arrived late but not undaunted. All credit to the people at e-bookers who dealt with my calls from the train to change the pick-up time for the car. One more tip for anyone doing this journey; on the way back we found that the bus ‘A’ from Brindisi station does a loop to the airport and at 1.50 Euro is a lot better than 20 Euro for the taxi.
Greeted with wine and smiles by Debbie and Bob, all was right with the world for a relaxing two weeks at Casa Mare.
Sorry that heading should have read Scotland by night train, but when I re-read my draft I realised just how many cafes we hit in three days.
The decision had been made to have a four day trip with a group of friends to Inverness. This involved an afternoon being ‘touristic’ in London before catching the overnight sleeper. In the course of the afternoon we strolled around St James’ Park, saw the guards changing at Horseguards, walked along the Thames to The Millennium Bridge and into the Tate Modern for a coffee and a whiff of culture, before strolling past the globe and finding out way back to Euston for the train to Inverness. A witty trip, with dinner in the dining car; haggis, neeps and tatties to get in the mood. This is not Haute Cuisine but the food and wine was perfectly good and the dry sense of humour of the staff was second to none.
The great thing about sleepers is the ‘as if by magic’ effect of waking up the other end of the country without the stress of a long car journey. The greeting by our host, in the dining car at breakfast, of “It’s amazing the things you see when you haven’t got a gun” cannot surely have been a reference to our behaviour the night before.
After picking up the car we were fit and ready for a trip to Culloden and a lunch in Nairn at the Basil Cafe, overlooking the harbour where a Bronze Fisherwoman looks on stoically at the boats. I had an amazing Cullen Skink which made me warm and happy on a changeable day.
After checking into the Columba there was time for a trip to Roggie falls, to watch from the suspension bridge, for salmon leaping. We were fortunate, there were many fish. It never ceases to amaze me how these fish find their way back upstream to spawn, struggling against the steep falls to return to their birthplace. We ate at the hotel, having watched the pipers come down the town and past the hotel on their ways to the tattoo in the park nearby.
The next day we went on a trip to Loch Ness and Urquart Castle. I had hoped to swim in the Loch, but the weather was choppy and rainy, which would have been no fun for the others. We did the tour of Urquart, despite its popularity and the huge numbers of people there; it still had the feel of a proper castle and even in bad weather is fantastically photogenic. Later we visited Glen Affric. This is a jewel in the crown of the Highlands, a long quiet glen, with spectacular walks. I made up for my lack of swimming earlier by a swim at Dog Falls, cold and peaty, with strong flowing water; an absolute delight. Following the swim and lunch we walked up to a view point, complete with fallen tree to stretch out on, overlooking a beautiful tarn. On the way to the top there was no shortage of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries growing wild to make tasty little snacklets.
The third day was a touring day, out to Gairloch via Benn Eighe. If there is one foodies tip from the whole trip it would be – go to Whistle Stop Cafe Old Village Hall Kinlochewe. The old corrugated metal village hall is now a cafe, open in the evenings as well. We had the most amazing cakes, sponge cake with fresh cream and passion fruit. As the owner picked up that it was birthday time for two of the party the cakes came with candles in; the coffee was stunning too. Gairloch also has a great cafe, the Mountain coffee Company and Hillbillies bookshop. This is a place for those needing hearty, heavy scones and rock buns after a hard climb. Clumpy sofas and frothy coffee, plenty of reading matter, a great place to chill out. Then off to Inverewe gardens, famous for their special climate. Later, a swim for me at little Guniard Bay and then supper at the Seaforth, Ullapool. Delicious crab claws with ginger; but rather disappointed that the mammoth plate of langoustines we have had there in the past were not on the menu.
The last night we had a fabulous meal out at, the Kitchen, Inverness. Its sister restaurant the Mustard seed had been recommended but there were no places. At the Kitchen we were offered drinks on the balcony while we waited for our table, this overlooks the castle and the River Ness. This is a thoroughly modern building, squeezed in between the other older buildings along the river. Three dining areas are stacked one on top of the other, giving smaller dining space. On the white wall there is a live video stream of the activity in the kitchens below. The food and wine were excellent. Then, just the ride home on the train; plenty of good reading undertaken. My choice for this break was Hell of a journey: on foot through the Scottish Highlands in winter by Mike Cawthorn.
For more details about travelling by train I recommend as usual The Man in Seat 61, for all journeys whether it’s London Scotland or down to Puglia, this site is the invaluable.
One additional note; Visitor Centres in Scotland have really come up a notch in the last few years. The centres at Culloden, Beinn Eighe, Inverewe and Urquart were all excellent. But extra special thanks to the lady at Benn Eigh who recommended the Whistlestop Cafe, we would never have found it without her and it was a delight.