Living the Dream
Feeling bright and fresh we were up super early today enoying our toast and jam outside in the already warm sunshine.
We had a full day out planned so we left as soon as possible. With the coordinates for Castellana Grotte entered into Tommy O'TomTom we headed North through Alberobello. On the way, to Julie's delight, we passed two quite large supermarkets called Dok and Conad.
"So that's where they're hiding!" said an excited Julie. "Remember where they are so we can try them later."
After twenty minutes driving along the SS182 we turned at Pultignano. Then some ten minutes later we had "arrived at our destination".
As the name suggested Castellana Grotte is famous for its caves. Julie had read the tourist information before coming and had already decided that it was not for her. Whilst I'm quite the caveman she's never been a big fan, she finds them damp, slippery and claustrophobic. (I'm sure the underground tour of Naples scarred her for life!)
But also in the promotional leaflet she saw everyone wearing hard hats and boiler-suits and thought it was not a good look for her!
We followed the signs for the car park and did what everyone else appeared to have done, park in the shade of a tree. Only I somehow picked quite possibly the smallest tree in the place! Oh how we laughed!
At the ticket office I enquired about the next English language tour. They offered two types, a one or two hour tour. As I was going on my own I asked about the shorter one but that wasn't scheduled to start until 2pm. A wait of over two hours.
There was an Italian language tour starting in 10 minutes or in 15 minutes the full two hour tour in English was about to begin. "Take your pick" said the ticket officer.
I didn't want to leave Julie for too long especially as there was this busker screeching at the top of his awful voice sat at the entrance. He smelt badly and came across very much in the "special needs" category.
I couldn't stand ten minutes waiting outside listening to this attrocious sound let alone two hours but Julie being the kind hearted soul that she is told me to go for it and that she would be fine waiting for me sat on a picnic table in the shade of the trees nearby.
So that was the pick we took, the two hour tour with an option to bail out after an hour.
After buying Julie a bottle of coca cola light from a small kiosk and settling her down at the picnic table I joined the queue outside gate 2.
Gate 1 went in first, a large group of very loud locals. Five minutes later we slowly entered the facilities.
We were met by our guide Mina who was dressed in a hard hat and many layers of clothing. For a brief moment I was concerned which tour had I signed up for. She was dressed for pot-holing
Our non-Italian group wasn't large and consited mostly of other nationalities from around the globe with English at least being a common language.
We all followed Mina down a tunnel to the first chamber, a vast cave 60m deep with a break at its highest point allowing in the sun light. She began to speak about its history but couldn't make herself be heard above the chattering of the Italian group so we moved further into the cavern to a quiet corner.
"The caves were discovered in 1938" she started "by Franco Anelli" she continued, pointing to a bust honoring the cave specialist (speleologist) from Lombardy. "He and a local man from Castellna called Vito Matterese explored the cave system for two years."
The cave in which we stood was called La Grave, the first to be found. It was a massive subterranean space. Of course it's existence had been known locally.
It had even been named Hell's Gate but it had never really been explored until Anelli was invited to do so. What he discovered was corridor leading from the Grave mostly obscured by stalagmites and stalactites, a seam in the bedrock where water had seeped through creating the network of caves.
As we left the vastness of the first chamber following in the footsteps of Anelli (only we had a smooth concrete path and mood lighting) Mina reminded us that photographs were only allowed in the Grave, once we entered the cave complex no photos were permitted.
I took that opportunity to take a photograph of the incredible and beautfiul display of stalagmites into which we were walking and then put my camera away.
I thought I would be able to sneak a picture every now and again but we were well marshalled. Mina was super vigilant and she had an able assistant bringing up the rear.
The first passage we shuffled through had been given the name She-Wolf cave, not because the remains of wolf-like creature was found lying here but simply because the formation of the cascading stalagmites and "curtains" resembled a wolf, similar to that which fed Reus and Romulus.
After short distance and another reminder not to take any photographs we emerged into Cavernone dei Monumenti, another enormous cavern. It was smaller and being totally enclosed much darker than La Grave but it was a few metres deeper and noticeably cooler. Apparently from here on in the temperature only ever fluctuates two degress between 16C-18C all year round.
Continuing deeper into the cave system we walked through another narrow crack in the rock marvelling close up the wonderful formations. At the end of this passage Mima paused and gave the option for those who wished to return the chance to leave. I stayed, in fact everybody stayed. We all knew the best was yet to come.
Ahead of us was over 1.5km of caves, with names like the owl cave, the Leaning Tower of Pisa cave, the Duomo cave, all based on someone's interpretation of the various stalagmites/stalactites formations (Is there a collective term for the 'mites 'n 'tites ?). I don't where the similarities were for most of them. It reminded me of my grandmother reading tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. "I can see an elephant" she would say but I never could.
The only one of the names given to the deposits of calcium carbonate that I thought they got right was one called the Little Virgin Mary. It looked like it had been carved out of marble.
These caves were all joined together by corridors with names like corridoio del serpente or the corridoio del deserto. The latter had the look and feel of a fissure in the Grand Canyon with its red rock.
Up until now we had been travelling underground pretty much in a straight line following a natural fault. Mima then stopped to tell us what happened next. The cave explorers had come to this point, the end of the line, their progress halted by a solid wall of calcium phosphate. Their only was through would be to use dynamite which they thought would be catastrophic and bring the whole place down.
As they were about to finish their exploration Matarrese noticed the flicker of his candle's flame pulling in one direction. He intuitively knew that there was a movement of air into a subsequent cave somewhere beyond the wall to the left. They began digging and discovered what is known as the Grotta Bianca.
We shuffled in, one by one into a wonderland of brilliant white. We waited our turn to stand in front of a truly breathtaking sight, a spectacular phenomenon of nature. It was both beautiful and grotesque as the alabaster dripped like melted candlewax in a process that had taken thousands of years to acheive. The ground sparkled with crystals. There was a stunned silence amongst our group.
I only wished that Julie could have seen it. A simple photograph could never do it justice.
She would also have been fine down here. There had been no narrow spaces, low ceilings or uneven floors and nobody was made to wear a hard hat nor a boiler suit.
We left the grotta bianca and retraced our steps, this time without any narration from Mima. The only slight deviation was we returned to La Grave through a different corridor.
We arrived at the perfect moment as a shaft of sunlight beamed down through the hole in the roof lighting up a large lump of a stalactite below. This dramatic almost godly sight was as wonderful as the grotta bianca.
Mima left us here to spend as long as we wanted in this cave before leaving via an elevator to the surface.
There was a maximum 16 persons allowed for the lift and they made sure there was sixteen people crammed into it. It was quite a snug fit. I thought we would have popped out into a gift shop where they would sell you postcards of all the caves you weren't allowed to photograph but we didn't. We all emerged into the blinding daylight somewhere at the back of the administrative building, directly beneath the tower.
I found Julie waiting outside the main entrance with all the other grandmothers. She seemed quite content sat there. The screaming banshee of a busker had left but only just.
"That was amazing" I said but I didn't want to over sell it and make her regret not coming down there with me.
On the way back to the car park we stopped at a small cafe called Bar Grotta Bianca. It had gone 1pm and so it was justifiably time for lunch.
Julie didn't seem that hungry but I was starving. So we ordered two things that we could "share".
The first was a disappointing "salad" sandwich with a filling that seemed to have been already chewed.
Of course it hadn't, it just had that slimey regurticated look and feel to it.
Next came a pastry called a Rustica which was rather delicious. It was like a giant vou-le-vent with a tomato and mozzarella filling. I was assured that it was meat-free although I could only hope that she included lard in her meat-free definition.
Julie only nibbled at the rustica so I finished it off without hesitation.
Back in the car which had been out in the direct sunlight all morning we set off for the coast with our air-con blasting out a much needed cooling breeze. Driving with the windows down just didn't do the trick.
Half an hour later we reach the seaside town of Polignano a Mare. I was well prepared and had already researched where to park. The Sat Nav directed us over a bridge where we caught a glimpse of a stunning bay with a small busy beach.
Images of this bay with its dramatic cliffs on either side and houses built right on the edge had caught my imagination and put this place on my "got to see it" list.
We parked down a side street just off Lungomare Domenico Modugno, a street named after the town's most celebrated son. Walking back towards the centre of town we also came across the statue of him, arms outstretched in full song.
Apparently he was like the Italian version of Cliff Richard or Johnny Halliday of France. He did a bit of singing, a bit of acting and his glory years were certainly the late fifties. Unlike the other two, I had never heared of him before. However we probably have all heared his most famous song - Volare.
I'm sure we've all sung it after one too many camparis. All together now - “Volare, oh, oh… Cantare, oh, oh, oh, oh… Nel blu dipinto di blu…felice di stare lassù…"
As we walked along the front looking out towards the sea we saw the strange sight of several newly married couples standing very near to the cliff's edge.
I wondered if it was some kind of peculiar wedding ceremony where they literally took the plunge, not only a metaphorical leap of faith into their future together but actually jumped off the cliff to the water below. (well, stranger things have happened)
But I think they were just having their photographs taken with the scenic old town on the cliffs as the backdrop.
We carried on towards the bay where we saw plenty of kids diving off the rocks. No one was brave or mad enough to do the full acapulco and dive off the top of the 20 metre high cliffs.
Following the road we cross the bridge which spanned over the bay. Originally we had thought about getting some sand between our toes and had even packed beach towels and swimming costumes but in the end we didn't bother.
I think the fact it was more of a pebbly beach sealed our decision to admire it from a distance rather than go to all the effort.
Instead we continued over the bridge and into the centro historico. As with most of these historicl centres we entered through an old archway from where narrow streets lead to a piazza in the centre of the quaint old town.
We were possibly showing early signs of classic "centro storico fatigue" where our excitement at seeing another beautiful medieval town had begun to wane.
To be fair Polignano a Mare had a slightly different feel to it. There wasn't much in the way of white paint as most of the buildings were kept in its natural honey coloured stone.
Piazza Dell'Orologio, the square at its heart was very charming. In one corner there was a pretty clocktower that gave it its name. There were also a couple of restaurants spilling out adding to the idyllic scene.
The square then becomes known as Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II and where one stopped and the other started I couldn't tell you. I guess it's one and the same, just alternative names.
However in the corner of the piazza was the 17th century Matrix Church of Santa Maria assunta. It had a very plain façade with the exception of an ornate doorway.
Once again married couples loitered having their photographs taken in the square. There is always an aura of joy around newly married couples.
We left the square and entered the narrow streets behind, following this couple who were carrying their little dog in a rucksack. I have never understood people who do that.
It was a West Highland Terrier and looked ridiculous but not as ridiculous as what we imagined carrying Sylvester, our own dog. He's at least four times larger.
The shaded back streets were very tidy. The was floor as smooth as marble. The moment Julie realised this she was struck by the inability to walk properly. She was shuffling along as if she was on ice.
We popped out the other side onto a viewing balcony right on the edge of the cliff with a stunning view down the rugged coastline with all the houses teetering on the precipe.
Around another corner and we came to another wonderful view. This time is was of the bay but from a totally different angle.
We returned to the piazza and sat outside a cafe called Bar Beija Flor directly beneath the clocktower.
In between people watching and sipping our coke zero we had a look at Tripadvisor to see where would be worth having some lunch.
Beija Flor wasn't even on the list of restarants.
Julie read about a place described as "the closest thing to a Fish & Chip shop in Italy" and it was in the top 10 so that's where we headed. No hesitation.
Italy may have on of the most delicious cuisines in the world but sometimes you can't beat a bag of chips
It was a short walk out of the old historical centre down Via Roma. Pescaria as the name suggests specialised in fish. In fact that's all it did. Despite looking like a chip shop it only had fish, crustaceans and molluscs.
They had a large menu in both Italian and English on the wall outside. Julie was overwhelmed by the choices. After some careful consideration she decided on the "freshly caught fried fish" which raised an eyebrow. She decided to shun the tuna, swordfish and salmon for some undisclosed "fish".
I went inside to order. It was very popular. It was a take-out only place but they did provide a few tables outside. All of those were taken and there were plenty of people inside waiting for their orders.
I ordered and paid for the fritto di paranzo also a "glass of bubbles" as they described it. They gave me the number 44 and I waited patiently.
It wasn't exactly fast food but it was coming out at a steady rate. They shouted out the numbers, in Italian of course, 37, 38 ...
Eventually I heard "quarantaquattro" and collected the fried fish in an small open cardboard box. I had a look inside and saw a dozen little critters, gutted and battered, heads and all, as fresh as they come.
I knew immediately that Julie would struggle.
When she first saw them she tried her best not to look disappointed but when she held one between her fingers and said "What the hell are they ... goldfish?" we both burst out laughing
I think they may have been small red mullet but they did look alarmingly reddish orange and goldfish sized.
We moved away from the fish shop and found some privacy on a bench in the shade for Julie to dissect what she could from their tiny carcasses.
She did a valiant effort stripping small white flakes away from the bones until one needle thin bone found its way into her mouth and that was the end of that.
"I really can't see the point in eating that" she said whilst throwing whatever was left into the bin.
The whole way back to the car was spent chuckling at what had just happened and we reminisced about something very similar that happened in Ischia some years ago.
We left Poilignano a Mare returning to Alberobello via a different route. I guess it was the shortest distance without the need to go through Castellano di Grotte.
The journey took us up a steep climb high above Fasiano. The views were wonderful.
When we arrived back in Alberobello we stopped at one of the supermarkets we had seen earlier this morning.
The first we came across was DOK. It was by far the largest store we had shopped in so far on our trip and we were suitably excited.
The pasta aisle alone was half its length with every conceivable shape, size, colour and quality along both sides.
It was a staggering selection.
Tonight I planned on using the outdoor oven to bake some foccacia bread and make one of my favourite dishes, a Parmigiana Melanzane aubergine bake.
I set about gathering all the ingredients plus a few extras such as this great looking bottle of Peroni Rossa, a dark beer that I just couldn't wait to rush home and slap in the freezer for a quick chill before sitting down to savour every amber drop.
When we returned to our little trullo it was still a lovely sunny day so we pulled out the loungers and lazed about for the rest of the afternoon.
The beer went down a treat and we also enjoyed some prosecco which we mixed with delicious blackcurrant juice to make a cocktail which I'm sure already has a name but we called it Trulli Scrumptious.
After a little bit of a nap we made a start on supper.
I began with slicing the aubergines and salting them to extract any bitterness. I think it also makes them a little less porous and sponge like.
I then started on the focaccia, mixing together flour, salt, warm water and some fresh yeast. Whilst the dough was rising I rinsed the aubergines and fried each one until golden brown. I then made a rich tomato sauce with basil, garlic and balsamic vinegar.
Once all the preparation was done, and only then did I think about putting the oven on. Doh
It was a big mistake to have left it to the end of the prep. With it being a solid fuel oven it was going to take quite some time to reach any sort of temperature.
So I hastilly shoved a whole bag of charcoal into the furnace.
In the asbence of a shovel I had to do it with my bare hands which left me filthy and with a comical black mark on the end of my nose after scratching an itch with my sooty hands.
I fired up the coals and waited for the oven to warm up.
We had nothing better to do but lounge about or frolick in the pool. Another few glasses of Trulli Scrumptious slipped down far too easily.
An hour later and it had barely reached a 100C.
Whilst we waited and before I got too tipsy I layered up the Parmigiana Melanzane with the aubergines, mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce and topped it with the white hard cheese cacciaricotta. I didn't have a grater so I ended up chopping the cheese into cubes.
I was surprised to have enough ingredients to make two dishes full.
I also pressed the risen dough into a square baking tin and covered it with olive oil, salt, garlic and plenty of chopped rosemary freshly picked from the garden.
Watching the temperature gauge slowly rise at an average of half a degree celsius per minute was so frustrating.
I gave up in the end and put the focaccia and aubergine bake in the oven when the dial was showing 150C. It was now gone 9pm and dark.
Meanwhile I barbecued a chicken for Julie which attracted the attention of another cat. Not the well-fed ginger tom that visited us the day we arrived but a scrawny hungry looking cat.
By about 10pm we were starving.
The oven had reached 200C but the bake nor the bread had browned enough. This made me worry that perhaps the gauge was showing the temperatre in Faranheit?
We were so hungry we decided to eat it whether it was properly cooked or not.
The focaccia looked like bread but it was very doughy and definitely underdone but at least it tasted delicious. The same was true of the parmigiana melanzane. It tasted superb despite being only lukewarm.
There was plenty left over so once it cooled, which didn't take long, we put portions of the aubergine bake into plastic tubs ready to freeze in the morning.
We were surprisingly not tired and were still wide awake when the clocks struck midnight. Even so it was time for bed. We had a long day of travelling ahead of us tomorrow.
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