Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know that the nest has been mostly empty since last summer. Oh, people come and go on breaks, and this summer I certainly won’t be sitting around here alone, jazz on the Spotify, worshipping the sun.

And I do wish we all lived closer together. But everyone is off doing what they should be doing right now, and that’s the way it should be.

Anyway, I’ve done three major solo trips this year: I drove to New Mexico back in August, spent the last week of October in Guanajuato, Mexico, and then was in Italy – Naples and Puglia – for a good chunk of February. Although I touched on traveling solo here, I thought I’d write a little more about it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a female acquaintance after Mass here, telling her about the Italy trip, and she stopped me – “You went…by yourself? Not on a tour?” Yes. No. “You went alone?” Yes.

Now this woman is married and of course enjoys being with and traveling with her husband, so it’s understandable that traveling alone isn’t part of her mental landscape. I get it. If I were married, I’m sure I’d feel the same way. I did, in fact.

But even married women like to go off by themselves. I met one on the plane back from Italy. There was a group of middle-aged to almost-elderly women who had just finished two weeks in Morocco. One of them sat next to me, and we had great conversations off and on over the many hours in the air. The group, she said, was of solo female travelers, most of whom were, indeed married, but whose spouses didn’t have the same bug. So a couple – or more- times a year, they went off in a group. The trip before this had been South America.

But my seatmate said, too, that even though she enjoyed the group – she also liked to take trips on her own (I guess her husband really doesn’t like to travel – or perhaps can’t – she was probably in her mid-70’s), and was currently planning her next. A group can be fun, she said but sometimes you just want to experience things on your own, and you don’t want the burden of wondering and worrying about other people’s needs and wants.

“I have no trouble,” she said, “going into a restaurant or bar by myself. It’s…wonderful.”

The rest of this post is going to meander and probably spiritualize in a predictably tedious way, so I’ll pause and be very practical for a moment. Let’s talk about safety and security.

Driving a thousand miles by myself…going to Mexico…going to Naples…driving alone in Italy…did I feel safe?


Just hearing the words “Mexico” and “Naples” makes some nervous, but I’ll tell you – I was in and about downtown Denver in November, and I felt more ill-at-ease and a creepier vibe there than I did in either of those other places – and I wasn’t alone there. Walking around Naples at night felt safer to me than walking around downtown Denver during the day.

But specifically: I’m not stupid. I don’t wander around staring at my phone (which is not an Iphone, so extra layer of theft protection there) oblivious to my surroundings, a ready target. I don’t wear jewelry. I give off a vibe of awareness and attention. I go where there are people.

And I have five people at home who know, every day, my general whereabouts. I don’t know if my phone can do any locater thing, but what I do is text them most mornings and let them know my plan – I’m going to Herculaneum today. Because in case something happens – and things do happen – believe me, you don’t have to lecture me about the unexpected – they’ll at least know where I was supposed to be that day.

Now, back to meandering.

Of course, personality affects your interest in or comfort with traveling alone. I’m an only child, and normally completely content alone. I’m an introvert, which means that my energy and recharging comes from being alone, too. The best way to understand that, I think, is to think, “What do I need to do to feel like myself? To feel really present in the world?” For some, it’s interacting with others – they don’t feel alive unless they’re engaged with other people. I had one kid who was very much an extrovert of that type, and believe me, until I figured out the personality type differences at the heart of our differences, it was..challenging.

For me and other introverts, it’s alone time. If I’ve been with people all day, I need about two to three hours to myself in the evening to settle in and reconnect with myself, and not feel as if I am somewhere out there that needs to be gathered in. That’s why, when the kids were here, I was such a night owl, usually up until at least midnight, usually later. Now? I’m quickly, weirdly, tumbling into Old People Hours – I don’t go to be super early, but I’m not unsettled until after midnight anymore, either. I’ve been mostly alone all day, so…I don’t need that late night alone time. Makes sense.

So where was I?

Oh yes. So that only child-introvert-Harriet-the-Spy personality means that traveling solo through life is my natural state. I’m always alone in my head. Not – I hasten to say, especially for my family’s sake – that I don’t like it when they’re here. Not at all! In fact, even though the solo state is natural – it nonetheless feels somewhat incomplete. When a car pulls up or even a phone rings and it’s one of them, it feels as if a missing pieces has fallen into place. It feels right when the door closes and I’m alone, it feels right when they’re back.

The adjustment for this new traveling solo stage has come, not with any sense of awkwardness or discomfort, but with purpose.

Why? If I’m not taking kids on an adventure in search of Teachable Moments ™, why bother?

And that was hard. It was hard because for fourteen years, I’d done so much travel with the two youngest (now both in college), and the choices of destinations were rooted in three factors: any particular interest of theirs (Mexico and Central America, for example), cost and my sense of what might be a good…yeah…educational/formation experience.

It wasn’t just about culture, history and nature, either. When we set out on our traveling life, I had another purpose: I wanted them to see and live in the reality that there was much more to life than, say, the 5th grade at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Not that that was a bad place, at all. But after raising three much older kids and witnessing their navigating through adolescence and young adulthood and getting a sense of how the American social landscape was shifting: getting, ironically, more insular, enabling narcissism, self-involvement and self-concern, not to speak of tribalism – I thought that one of the best gifts I could give these guys was to remove them from that for periods of time and help them see that the world was a very, very big place, with lots of people with lots of different viewpoints and lifestyles and that yes, as Rick says,

So that was my motivation, my framework for traveling for almost fifteen years.

And yes, the first two solo trips were just a little difficult because that period had come to an end.

I was a little at sea as to what to do and why I should do it. I missed my fellow-travelers and while I didn’t miss much of the logistics and the interest-balancing and for sure didn’t regret spending 2/3 less (at least – I’m very low maintenance) on travel – I actually did miss being a part of my kids’ experiences as they discovered a new part of the world.

I enjoyed and got a great deal out of seeing new things with them and partly through their eyes.

So now…what?

During those first two trips, especially, I battled conflicting emotions: glad to be somewhere, interested in what I was seeing, grateful for the freedom, guilt about privilege, guilt about self-indulgence, wondering if I could live in this new place, missing all of my kids, not just the two frequent travel companions, thinking about what they would and wouldn’t enjoy about this new place, plotting on a return with one or more of them, wondering if this was at all justifiable, so aware, again, of the privilege that screams from even having these questions at all.

There were, indeed, times, when I was a little sad – sad that those days were over, because you know what? They were fun. I really enjoyed taking those guys all over, and I’ll probably be sitting here when I’m 80, looking at those pictures over and over again, no doubt.

The nostalgia, though, is quickly overtaken by the goodness of the present moment. Everyone is doing well. Oh, there are struggles, and serious ones, but there always have been and always will be. I’m glad everyone is where they are, doing what they’re doing.

Do you see where this is going?

Because it’s not just about one woman’s attempt to put her empty-nest solo traveling in perspective.

It’s not even just about the empty nest – although any newly-minted empty nester probably understands.

It’s about any change, any transition, I think.

For me, the answer to my questions are evolving. For right now, anyway, I am really not alone. The two youngest adults are in and out and we’ll be hanging around together, with some comings and goings, most of the summer, really starting now with all the spring breaks and Easter breaks and graduations. The fall is up in the air, as well, depending on other people’s decisions about their lives.

Some people preach a gospel that we’re all better off following our dreams and organizing our lives – and the lives of others – around our individual dreams and goals, even as parents, making sure the family system is one that facilitates our success. Okay, fine for you, but I try – try – to make my framework for living, especially as a parent, and even as a parent to adults – as something I call “radical availability.” On the phone, to shoot over and help with the kids or help you move – I’m there. Being available to my kids? That’s something I’m never going to regret.

So, my days as tour guide might be mostly over, but I can and want to host and facilitate and hang out at night while during the day everyone’s gone off and done their own thing during the day. But then there’s that next generation, rising fast, too, and just about old enough to take a trip and start the journey…

Someone said to me a few months ago, as I was mulling over all of this, Stop! You deserve this time! You’ve worked hard for your kids and given them a lot! Relax!

Well, I don’t know if “work hard” describes me in any way, even as a parent. But even if it did, I’m not sure I could agree. My time on earth wasn’t given to me for self-indulgence – even the introvert, content to be wandering the streets of Naples alone, knows this. There has to be fruit that serves others in some way – even if it’s something as simples as: this refreshes you and gives you more energy to serve or you’ve learned something that you can teach someone else or share or you were in this place at that time, and you encountered that person, and you both were enriched or one more lesson in: you’re not the center of the world or you learned how to navigate a difficulty and a challenge which will help you help someone else someday.

Oh, and then there’s you people: You can write about this and maybe someone reading it will be helped, entertained, educated or inspired.

Not that I’m settled into this as the complete answer, no more challenges needed or desired. I’m not nestling into some identity as “middle-aged traveling woman.” I am keenly aware that the space that I am privileged to inhabit now, first, could be gone tomorrow. Life changes, as we know, on a dime.

But I also know that this space is not just for me. Because the spaces we live in – as they change, evolve and shift – are never just for us, because of course, that space is always shared.

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I don’t eat much when I’m home. This confounds the two kids who are around the most (which is not often), but what they forget is that they are young adult males and I am a post-menopausal woman. Appetites change, but, even if they don’t, the impact of food on the body certainly does.

Plus, gluttony is still a sin, last I checked. Not that I’ve conquered it. Ask anyone who’s gone out drinking with me. But yes, despite ubiquitous Chestertonian-LARPing in Catholic World, it’s still a sin. So if I’m not hungry – I try not to eat. Don’t get me wrong. To sit down with a bag of cheddar-cheese flavored Ruffles? Maybe my last meal, if I had to choose. But…gluttony. Stop.

The story’s different when I’m traveling. Then: I eat. After all, why do I travel? Mostly to learn about different places and cultures. How could I learn about any of that if I didn’t eat? Or drink? Or browse the grocery store?

You will find some restaurant dining below, but nothing high end. That’s not because I was traveling alone, but because high-end dining is generally not my thing. I can think of exceptions – when I go to New York City, I tend to eat slightly more elevated fare, since I have an offspring who lives there and can dependably lead the way. But otherwise, I’m all about the street food and the small joints the locals frequent.

I will say that I didn’t eat enough pizza. I was a little disappointed in myself on that score. But you know, I sometimes had a hard time synchronizing: what I was doing and seeing that day + my appetite + Italian schedules. It could be a challenge, dinner especially, since Italian dinner gets going at seven at the very earliest, and by that time, I was usually not in the mental space, after walking and seeing things all day, to go out one more time for a meal.

The weather had an impact, as well. It was fairly chilly the first few days I was in Naples, it was never really that warm anywhere, so not that conducive to whiling away a meal outdoors, which is my favorite thing.

Dining and drinking alone: The prospect prompts deep anxiety in some, but not in me. Of course, part of that is my only-child-solitary nature, but it’s also, just….it doesn’t faze me, and I see it as part of the job, even. That job being Me Watching You and Figuring Out the World. I dine and drink with others often, of course, and what pleasure there is in that! But there’s nothing awkward about dining or drinking alone if you decide there’s not.

A few years ago, we went to a local, popular mid-range pseudo-Tex-Mex place for dinner. There at the bar was a woman, a little older than I, with a beer, reading a book. I noted this, and thought, not, as some might: How sad! but instead – Best life, right there.

When I was in New Mexico last year, I was seated to eat at a popular eatery outside of Santa Fe. A few tables away, a middle-aged couple sat in silence, and you could tell from their faces it was not a companionable silence, expressing tension, either momentary for the evening or long-simmering who knows. The point was, in our minds when we eat alone, we sometimes imagine others looking at us, assuming the solo diner is envious of those with company. At that moment it dawned on me that there might be a cohort of fellow paired diners who looked at the solo diner, envious of them.

In Italy, I saw a few solo diners – older men, mostly, but also a couple of very well-put together young women, enjoying their meal completely by themselves. Not even a dog for company, unlike some of the more fortunate:


Pizza: I (only) had pizza four times, five if you count the dinner my Naples landlady made for me one night. One was a simple focaccia from a baker in Putignano (which of course was great). Me = loser. The others were from:

50 Kalò in Naples Starita in Naples (they have branches in NYC) and Panificio Santa Rita in Bari. The last is famous for its Focaccia Barese, the typical focaccia of Bari, which is topped simply with cheese, fresh tomatoes and olives. All, of course, were hot, fresh, right out of the oven and delicious. And inexpensive. Neapolitan Pizza Margherita is going for $18 in Birmingham, Alabama right now. 6-7 Euros is typical in Naples, and the Bari focaccia – basically half a small pizza, folded – was 3. It was marvelous – crispy, airy, perfect.

Dinners: I had five sit-down meals, unless you count sitting on benches and church steps as “sit-down meals,” in which case there were many more:

Osteria Carmela in Naples – Restaurant Al 53 in NaplesTandem in Naples – Pescheria Azzurra in Naples and Zi Ntonio in Sorrento.

The first was my favorite, and I now wish I’d gone there again. I had lunch there one day, getting to the small restaurant early, near the beginning of lunch service, to insure a seat, since I didn’t have a reservation. The server was helpful and charming, the room was just what you think at Italian osteria should be about, including the Madonna an the wall, and the old gentleman who came in for his lunch, as I imagine he did several times a week, if not every day. I had a vegetable and spaghetti vongole.

The other meals were good as well, most notably the famous ragu at Tandem. Pasta, meat, cheese. That’s what I ate. All good, pleasant experiences. I never had a reservation, but I went early enough each time, I hoped, to get a seat.

Clockwise from upper left: Zi Ntonio (Sorrento); Osteria Carmela; Tandem, Pescheria Azzurra

Pastries, Gelato, Street Food: A lot of all of them, although with the cool weather initially discouraged me from the gelato. I got over that though. I pretty much stuck to the sfogliatelle because of the ricotta filling. On my afternoon in Lecce, I did grab a savory rustico, which was delicious, filled with cheese, some ham and (a little too much) béchamel. I had a lot of things like that during the days: pastries filled with savory things. Including, in Naples, arancini and frittatine – the Naples specialty of deep fried pasta bound with bechamel, with various fillings, including, of course, meat and cheese.

Which is another reason I wasn’t super hungry for meals. I didn’t take photos of everything, first, because that’s lame, secondly because, well, it’s a little challenging to take photos with one hand. But be assured: many filled things, all over southern Italy.

Not that I liked the coffee, but I thought I had to try.

And of course, the wonderful Caciocavallo (being made below right) – which is a cheese that’s hung over heat and scraped off as it melts. Same idea as a raclette. That was in Putignano: toasted bread topped with the cheese, a piece of prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled peppers. Heaven.

Street food, but sit-down was orecchiette pasta in Bari – a woman made her own, cooked it up, simply, and served it. I would not call it a “makeshift” kitchen – it was outdoors, but clearly permanent. And she had a good business, based on tourism, since the other customers there had been brought by tour guides – one a bike tour, the other walking. I should have gotten the version with broccolini, but I was a little confused when she asked me what I would like, so I ended up with the tomato. As I wrote before, that was fine, since my main goal was to understand what hand-made, properly cooked orecchiette pasta felt and tasted like.

Clockwise from upper left: Rustico in Lecce, Grilled meat in Putignano, orechiette in Bari, Caciocavallo in Putignano.

The only thing I ate that I didn’t like was on the plate of grilled meat on the upper right. This was a the Carnevale in Putignano, and all of the meat was great except this one little bundle – I looked it up at the time, but don’t remember what it was – the one on the far right edge. One bite told me it was organ meat/offal, and gross. Not my thing. But everything else was fantastic.

Lots of wonderful olives (my favorite), Aperol spritz many days (again, if it had been warmer, it would have happened more often. The gelato was always great, with my favorite being in Bari here. I wish I could remember the flavors – I should have taken a photo of the menu – but one was something to do with St. Nicholas, and the other was with black pepper, and it was perfect. They have branches in NYC.

Apertif: Every day that the weather permitted. It wasn’t so much the drink (although that was part of it, won’t lie) or the apertif snacks offered, but just the peace of what we call the third place – the space that is not work, not home, but a gathering place – or even if you’re not gathering – a place to stop, refresh and just be without having to be anyone in particular.

A couple of notes about eating and drinking culture.

It is easy, upon even just superficial observation of two groups, to determine which is American and which is Italian. Not that Americans are the only overweight people on the globe – far from it. But yes, Italians, unless they are genetically predisposed, tend to maintain a balanced weight until middle age, when nature starts winning. Much ink has been spilled on this – not only with the Italians, but the French and the Spanish and the Japanese, most notably – so I won’t repeat that. But it’s just true that the Italian way of eating and living really is a more balanced approach that protects against, well, gluttony and unnecessary eating. Meals as a thing – as an event of sorts, to be approached purposefully and with care, even if you’re alone – rather than on the fly.

(In general, for yes, I know, McDonald’s is very popular in Europe…..)

There’s a culture of purposeful between-meal sustenance, mostly in the form of coffee, but also any small accompanying snacks.

One thing I saw quite a bit in Italy was the sight – usually late morning or very late afternoon – of cafe/bar employees hustling down the street with round trays covered by clear plastic lids, on which they were carrying small coffees, heading into neighborhood shops and businesses, bringing those employees the boost they needed to make it to the end of the morning or day.

Snacking, in the American style – that is, sitting down with your big bag of chips or your box of crackers – in front of the television, is not a thing. When we began our 2012 trip, we started off in France, and early on, I set out to find snacks for our American crew. I went to the grocery store, searched and searched but could not figure out where they were. Couldn’t see any. After all, in America, there’s no question, is there? An aisle filled end to end with bright bags full of crunchy, salty things. Finally, I found it – a few shelves, with small boxes of crackers and small bags of chips – right next to the alcohol. Ah, I realized. Here, these kinds of snacks aren’t standalone experiences. They’re nibbles that go along with drinks.

Now, Italians like chips very much. They’re served with apertifs, and there are shelves of large bags in the grocery store. But by far the most popular Italian crunchy snack is the taralli. This is just a bit of what was stocked in one Putignano grocery store. I think there were two more shelves I didn’t get photos of.

Not that Europeans don’t have their indulgences. The candy and chocolate shelves go on. And when it comes to cereal – after your muesli and granola section, all you will find is chocolate-flavored cereal, and lots of it. Which is not surprising in a country in which breakfast = pastry.

Random leftover photos – braised vegetables at Osteria Carmelo in Naples; Delizia al limone, the typical dessert of Sorrento; panzarotti sign in Alberobello; citrus in Matera, sfogliatelle – you can see the ricotta filling, which I much prefer to a cream. What I did not eat in Bari.

Above: some pastry in Putignano. I was actually trying to ask what was in it, and she thought I was just buying. Answer: cream filling. Last meat before Ash Wednesday: a delicious doner kebab in Putignano. Orecchiette maker/seller in Bari. Panificio Santa Rita in Bari. Wine vending machine in Putigano. (Inside the alcove was a bunch of spigots with different kinds of wine. Bring your own vessel, or there were empty plastic bottles for sale.) Meat, cheese, vegetables at Al 53 in Naples. Booth distributing “blessed bread” after Mass in Sorrento. They waited, and waited. I never saw it arrive.

Below: another typical sight in Italy – dogs in restaurants This fellow got a little dish of food brought to him from the kitchen – I would guess that’s normal…

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I will say this: I certainly missed my usual traveling companions, but it’s also no lie to point out that accommodations for one are a lot cheaper than they are for accommodations for three – especially now, three adults. Everyone in the usual crew is low-maintenance, be assured, but I am especially low maintenance when it comes to places to lay my head at night. Price is the first consideration, then location, then just general vibe – gathered from reviews.

Every place I stayed during this trip was great, not one complaint.

So here we go:


I looked at a lot of places here. Since I would be here for nine days, a hotel was out of the question. In the end, though, I made a choice that was a little different for me. I usually like to stay in apartments, even small studios because of the whole introvert thing, but this time I went with a spare room in another person’s apartment. The reason? I just had a sense that Naples, being big, busy and a total unknown to me, might be a place where I’d benefit from some advice and tips now and then from a source other than The Internet.

So this is where I ended up – and it was the right choice. Wonderful, friendly, knowledgeable host, the right balance of openness and respect for privacy, a good location near two Metro stations, and so on.


In the middle of the Naples stay, I did an overnight in Sorrento – explained here. I went for a hotel in Sorrento, and again, lucked out. It was a small, immaculate hotel right on the main corso – which meant not only that everything was nearby, but that the St. Antoninus procession passed right under the room’s little balcony. Perfect.


I didn’t book this until a couple of days before I arrived. As I explained in this post, the historic sassi area of Matera is old, intricate and maze-like. There are many rentals and hotels in the sassi and it’s a popular thing, to stay in one of the former caves. The thing is, though, I didn’t want to stay in one of the caves for a couple of reasons. First, they’re, you know, caves – and most of them didn’t seem to have much natural light. Secondly, parking. I was driving, and I wanted to park near where I was staying, not in a lot half a mile away.

So I decide on this place – it has two bedrooms, so is of course more than I needed, but the price was right, and indeed, there was parking attached to the building. An absolutely beautiful apartment and honestly, even though the Naples stay was great, it certainly was nice to be able to stretch out in my own space. Very hospitable hosts who left some homemade baked goods for me, as well as a variety of teas and juices, etc.

And no, it was not in the center, but only about 200 meters away – I just had to walk down the street a bit to get that view.


This was a nice little place just a few steps from one of the main streets in Putignano. Parking was private and gated three blocks away, which was fine with me, since I would only be taking the car out once. The only negative about the location was probably tied to Carnevale. There is a bar around the corner, and both nights of the Carnevale parades, they had a DJ stationed outside, and it was…loud. Interestingly enough, though, each night, the din stopped promptly at midnight, so it was nothing like the time we stayed in a party area of Madrid where they didn’t get started until midnight.

Oh, I almost forgot. The last night, I stayed at this hotel, which had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, but which I found absolutely fine. It was a little complicated to get into because it was completely gated all around, but one you found the bell, you were in. It was spotless. It was right next to the car rental center and the whole Naples airport area is so small, really, you can walk to the terminal from the hotel if you want (I had luggage, so I grabbed the rental center shuttle the next morning).

Two of the places, the hosts/management spoke excellent English, and in the other two, virtually no English. The Translate app is invaluable on this score. With the Matera and Putignano places, I messaged the hosts via WhatsApp when I was getting close, and they were both standing nearby to guide me to the parking. Nero Fiat…I told them, and we always found each other.

Just a couple of hints when renting properties: Always read all the reviews, and make your judgment from there. Some criticisms are valid, others – Americans complaining about the small size of a European hotel room – are not. If you’re renting an apartment, make sure the owner or manager shows you how to work every contraption in the place. I also have them stay while I unlock and lock the doors myself, just to make sure I’m doing it right and don’t get stuck outside or something.

Back in the old days – well, not the really old days, but in the days I started doing this kind of traveling, VRBO existed, and I used that a lot, but many, many property owners also maintained websites for their properties. So my usual practice then was to find what I wanted on VRBO, then see if I could find the property’s independent website, and then continue from there, giving the property owner more money and the aggregator none. That’s very rare these days. Same with hotels and inns, especially small ones, that might list on a site like booking.com – dealing with them away from the website pays them more and the big website less, as in nothing.

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I had other thoughts about this day (Thursday) – I’d thought I might return by way of Paestum, see those temples and sample some super fresh bufala mozzarella. Or, if I’d left early enough, I could have gone up to the Padre Pio Shrine, San Giovanni Rotondo. (I didn’t have to return the car until 5)

But in the end, after messaging my hotel near the airport and discovering that I could check in early, I decided to just head straight to Naples.

(In case you are wondering – yes, I could have dropped the car off and flown out of Bari and saved myself the 3-hour drive over. But the flights from Bari just didn’t work and were expensive. And the drive is not unpleasant.)

So, the last afternoon in Naples. First, the airport is not far from the center, but regular public transportation isn’t easy to get to from there, so there’s a special bus that runs back and forth more or less continually. I took that down and up – the first time with a huge group of British students on board as well.

I first hit up a restaurant that had been recommended by the Naples landlady, but I never got to – essentially a small set of tables set next to a fish market. I went simple, for the fritto misto – it was good, but next time, I’ll bring some salt with me for the benefit of this over-salted American palate.

I then set out to explore a new (to me) part of the city – south of the centro and just west of the train station, which is where I wanted to end up to get the bus back. A few closed up churches, a couple of massive open ones. So, photo dump, and then I’ve got get ready to finally drink a Diet Coke get home.

Above is Santi Severino e Sossio. It’s a little confusing to me, because apparently the complex is the site of the State Archives of Naples, but the church is kept opened, maintained and supported by the Italian Touring Club. (There were volunteers there when I visited.) It’s huge….huge.

This church was closed, but it seems as if it still used. Too bad I couldn’t see the interior – it’s Gothic, and probably a welcome break from Italian Baroque. Love the clock. A little more about the church here. The sign (reading around the graffiti) indicates it was heavily bombed in 1943.

Finally, Santa Maria del Carmine.

The church was founded in the 13th century by Carmelite friars driven from the Holy Land in the Crusades, presumably arriving in the Bay of Naples aboard Amalfitan ships. Some sources, however, place the original refugees from Mount Carmel as early as the eighth century. The church is still in use and the 75–metre bell tower is visible from a distance even amidst taller modern buildings…

…In 1647 the square was the site of battles between rebels and royal troops during Masaniello’s revolt, and later, in 1799, it was the scene of the mass execution of leaders of the Neapolitan Republic of 1799. The area – including parts of the church premises – was heavily bombed in World War II and still shows the scars of the devastation.

A few final shots: the courtyard of the University Library of Naples, streetscape, the attractive Ferrarelle offices near the airport, the airport, and the last sfogliatelle (ricotta & pear). See you on the other side.

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An afternoon in Lecce

After a morning spent unsuccessfully trying to find Mass in Putignano, I got in the car and headed down to Lecce. Again, I had thoughts beyond Lecce – I won’t say plans, because I know better – which might have involved heading down to the end of the east side of the boot or stopping at a couple of places on the way back (Ostuni, mainly), but again- steam is depleting.

And all that Baroque. That was enough for the day.

Here’s Lecce – its known for its historical center (as are most Italian tourist towns) and particularly the piazzas and the Baroque churches. One must purchase a ticket to access the major tickets when Mass or other liturgical events are not happening, which I don’t mind at all. It was 9 Euros to access six churches and the archdiocesan museum, and I don’t mind at all supporting the upkeep of these structures.

It was an easy drive down, past Brindisi. Parking was a little challenging this time, partly because Lecce is a larger city than those I’ve navigated before, and also because there’s a university that is very close to the historical center – and so there are lots of students, faculty and staff – parking. I eventually found street parking, paid for it, and set out. I won’t be describing these in detail, just sharing photos, mostly. I’ve linked to information on each church so that you can explore that for yourself.

At the head of the post is the Porta Napoli, one of several city gates.

The Roman amphitheater that was discovered in the early 20th century by construction workers.

First church – the massive (I’ll be saying that a lot) San Croce. The exterior was more intricate than the interior.

Then Santa Chiara – in which images of St. Claire are actually not predominant. Well, humility, I guess.

San Matteo was next – if you go to Instagram (Stories at this point – after 24 hours, I’ll make a highlight) you can see, with this one, as well as Santa Chiara, the impact of strolling on narrow, winding streets, turning a corner and BAM. One more enormous Baroque edifice…

Finally (for me) the Cathedral. Which is not as light as the others. It has more of an impact of heaviness. Except for the crypt, ironically.

The archdiocesan museum is next door (as are the archdiocesan offices). Some pieces that caught my interest:

The Duomo square is unique because it only has one entrance.

Baroque might be challenging for modern sensibilities, and it is certainly not my favorite style, but when you understand it in part as an attempt to express God’s glory and the glory that awaits the faithful, it makes more sense. Of course, it’s also an attempt to display wealth and power and we might tut-tut about that, but as I recall someone saying once, people driving from their $500K homes in their $50K SUV’s don’t have a great deal of standing to criticize spending money on beauty that honors God, no matter how mixed the motives are.

All Italy 2023 posts are here

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First, some links:

I’m in Living Faith today.

Ash Wednesday in the desert….and for twelve-year olds

Evelyn Waugh on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans

Days of Joy and Ashes!

All right…so how did Ash Wednesday go over here?

I was irritated with myself because I hadn’t carefully noted any Ash Wednesday Mass times I’d seen. I will say that the churches over here have a very helpful practice of posting Mass times for every church in the town/region/whatever – in every church. No competition, just…get you to Mass when you can.

But I didn’t think this would be like a Sunday, and I also knew that evening Masses would be a more likely happening, not only because they’re a favorite over here anyway, but because of the craziness last night.

Nonetheless, I set out around 9, thinking that maybe there’d be a Mass somewhere. I tried the churches closest to my apartment – nope. Doors were shut and locked, and there was no signage indicating when Mass was. Okay, I’ll try San Domenico, where I went to Mass on Sunday. By now it was 9:15. The doors were open! There were people sitting inside! The priest in his cassock was at the ambo, preparing the readings! I’m in!

I sat down. The church was about a third full already, which I thought was a little strange. The sacristan came in to light the candles. He lit the altar candles and then – he lit the Paschal candle. Wait, what? Is this some new, Spirit-led, synodal thing happening? Is it Italian? Does the guy just not know what he’s doing?

The minutes ticked on. The Paschal candle burned. More people came in. I glanced outside when the door swung open, and saw a couple of men in black suits with white gloves on. Oh, wait. I think –

-and then, on the shoulders of six men…came the casket. People were following it. They were crying.

RIP, but I don’t think this is going to be an Ash Wednesday Mass.

After this, I drove to Lecce (more on that later), and filled up my already full experience of the Italian Baroque with still more Italian Baroque, in some stunning churches that were certainly well-maintained, but not having Mass until the evening either.

All right. Return to Putignano, do some final souvenir shopping, and on the way, check in San Pietro, the church closest to me. Ah ha – 6:30. I’m there.

As well as a lot of other people. The church was full, including groups of people in garb that was not clerical, but something else. I want to say they were the canons of the parish, but can canons be non-clerics? Because there was at least one woman in the group. Anyway, I finally made it to Mass, and just a reminder: In Italy (and perhaps other European countries), they don’t have the annual self-scourging comparing Jesus’ words in the Gospel for Mass with the big black smudge on the forehead. Because in Italy, the ashes are sprinkled on top of your head….your Father knows…

Oh, and I got interviewed for..something after Mass. I walked out into the piazza, and a woman with a microphone followed by a man with a camera approached me. I offered my usual reflexive no Italiano – when she started, in very broken English, asking me about Carnevale. Where was I from? I told her. Did you follow Carnevale? What did she mean? Did I come here especially for Carnevale, following it? Well, sort of. She asked again, Do you follow Carnevale? Is she asking me if I followed the parades along the route? Well, yes, I followed. The parades. I guess. She finally got the right words – Do you like – did you like Carnevale? Ah, yes. Oh, very much!

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Oh, I’ve had octopus before. I just don’t have any interest in munching on tentacles in a sandwich, no matter how “local” it might be.

(Click on photos for larger images. Go to Instagram for more photos and videos – especially in “highlights.”)

First, some clean up – literally. You might (or might not) be wondering about the mess left from Carnevale celebrations on Sunday night. The answer: About two this morning (Monday), I was awakened by…noise and I thought…why are there motorcycles racing around at two in the morning? This isn’t Naples, after all. It took a minute, but I eventually realized that what I was hearing was street cleaning happening, and yes, they did it. Of course not every speck of confetti was gone – that would be impossible – but in general, there was no hint this morning of what had been going on twelve hours before.

And tonight? So quiet. The first quiet night since I arrived here. It’s actually a little strange.

Anyway, since today was not a parade day, I could leave the city without any hassle. (Non-residents can only enter the perimeter on parade days with a ticket, which I don’t have, since my apartment is, indeed, within the perimeter. And I’m not a resident. So I’m stuck. Which I knew from the beginning, and is fine – and is of course one of the reasons I’m here.)

So, Bari, it was. And although I have a car, I decided not to use it for this. It would have made the trip shorter, but Bari is a large city, and I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. Besides, with the total round trip cost (bus one way, train the other) of about 7 dollars, I think, between gas and parking and stress, I came out better this way.

Also: Google Maps is not trustworthy on public transportation, at least in Italy. It told me there was a 9am bus from Putignano to Bari. There was no such bus. There, was, however, a 9:25 bus. So that became my bus.

I only spent a few hours in Bari. I had a few goals: see the Basilica of St. Nicholas and the Cathedral, see the sea and eat one or two local foods. I thought about getting on the train and also going to either (or both) Polignano de Mare or Monopoli – seaside towns just a very short way from Bari, but by the time it was time….I didn’t want to extend my day that much more. So back to Putignano it was, with time to go to my fourth favorite place while traveling, after wandering town streets, churches, and museums: the grocery store. And I found a good one, finally.

Both the Cathedral and the Basilica are medieval Romanesque structures which were festooned with baroque elements during…the Baroque era, and were subsequently stripped of (most of) those elements in the 20th century. I have no problem in getting rid of the Baroque elements – Lord knows there’s enough of that in Italy, and yes, I think it’s appropriate to restore these buildings to their original silhouettes. But my problem with both, in their present form, is that while their starkness has a certain dignity to it, that starkness is not faithful to the period in which they were built any more than the Baroque swirls were. They were probably both painted up and filled with statues – neither of which is the case now.

Enough of the nit-picking, let’s go.

The first set of images is from the Cathedral of Saint Sabinus. I don’t know why I don’t have a photo of the exterior – I think I was eating when I walked up to it, finished my focaccia, brushed off my hands and went in without thinking about it. Well, you can see those elsewhere. The first three photos are the interior of the main church. The middle photo is the crypt, and the last three are of a mosaic floor in the archaeological area below crypt level that holds evidence – this floor – of the original church on the site, built in the 6th century.

Next, the Basilica of St. Nicholas.

The Basilica is run by Dominicans (hence the images of Dominic and Thomas Aquinas), but the Russian Orthodox use the crypt for liturgies. There is a Russian Orthodox church in Bari, but of course the relics are in the basilica. The Orthodox celebrate liturgy in the crypt with the relics, once a week. In the gift shop, most of the items by far were icon-ish and had Cyrillic writing on them, not Roman script.

Also, you might note the real candles. I’ve been in a lot of churches over the past two weeks, and I’ve seen real – as opposed to electric – vigil candles in only one church: the Institute of Christ the King parish in Naples. My theory is that the Orthodox aren’t having any of this electric candle nonsense, so it’s not happening here.

This was not the sight H.V. Morton describes in his book, but then he was there on the feast celebrating the translation of the relics, and it was decades ago. Nonetheless, I had the sense, even in the few minutes I was there, that this is still primarily a pilgrimage site. There was a lot of prayer happening. Also note the contrast between the photograph of the condition of the church in the 1930’s and today.

So now let’s talk food. I don’t have good – really any- photos because most of what I eat is street food that I’m holding and I can’t take a picture with one hand.

First up was focaccia barese from Panificio Santa Rita. This focaccia is tomatoes and olives. The Santa Rita version is obviously fame among travelers – the place is tiny, so you really can’t wait outside and there’s big guy at the door to make sure you don’t overstep. I didn’t have to wait too long, but the next time I passed, the line was probably 20 people long.

I wanted to get fish, but the takeout place I’d marked was closed, and I’d just eaten something else when I passed the octopus place, so..stupidly, no fish in Bari for me.

Fish-related: it’s traditional for fishermen to set up tables in a certain spot on the lungomare after they’ve fished for the day, selling their wares for taking or consumption right there (oysters, urchins, etc) – I don’t know if it’s because it was later in the day (after 1) or February isn’t a productive period in the Adriatic, but there were only a couple with a few boxes of creatures when I walked by.

One of the other foods Bari is famed for is orecchiette pasta. There are certain areas where women make orecchiette and sell it outside their homes. I found one informal outdoor restaurant and had a small bowl – I should have gotten it with rabe, which is the proper Bari way, but as per usual, I was confused when the woman asked me what I wanted and gave the wrong answer. Anyway, it was good, and I mostly wanted to experience freshly made, properly cooked orecchiette, and I did.

Finally, some gelato from this place – wow, was it good. My flavors? One called San Nicola (of course), which had (I think) nuts and caramel, and then flavor with pepper in it that was fantastic. I see they have four locations in NYC, too.

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Well, THAT was bonkers….and it’s only Sunday. What will Tuesday be like?

Okay, by “bonkers” I don’t mean literally insane or bizarre. I just mean intense and very, very Italian – that combination of the highest level of artistry (the floats, in this case) with abstruse storytelling, political digs, people walking in parades drinking beers and smoking, off-handedness and bottomless enthusiasm. Just good times, all around.

Oh, except for the three women who suddenly erupted into a physical fight very close to me, knocking me off the perch the short-even-in-Italy me had found on the base of a streetlamp. Two of the women were led away by authorities, and the first remained, upset, her face quite scratched up and the older man with her – I presume her father, occasionally erupting into impassioned emotive speech about what had just happened. So that was not a good time for them, but quite absorbing for the rest of us…

As I said in the previous post, you can find the “fairy tales” that the floats expressed written about here. Those were the main attractions, of course, and they are marvels, even if the stories are silly and (to me) strained. Huge, manually-fabricated paper-mache and elaborate. What’s interesting to me is that they’re not hidden away before and after the parade. They were brought out a few hours before (one was nearby when I came out of Mass at noon) and remained on the street after the parade, while folks are milling around and partying. The parade follows a road that encircles the old city.

Each large float was preceded by a group of..(sort of) dancers who I think were acting out, in an interpretive dance type fashion, the story of the float. I’m not sure, but I think that was what was happening.

In addition, other groups were part of the parade (no live bands, though – Italian marching bands are my favorite, so that’s too bad) – I am not sure who they were or what their associations were, but they ranged from puzzling to entertaining. There were at least two hundred walking dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters. The music didn’t seem to have a relation to Alice, and the dancing was cheerful, but perfunctory, so that was weird.

I think what I enjoyed, after the artistry of the floats, was the just shear amateur-level fun that was being had. There was dancing, and there were moves, but the people doing them ranged from little children, to people pushing strollers, to young women who were very precise, to young men who were absolutely game for whatever was up and not embarrassed at all, even if they were having to wear glittery, light-up wings, to older women who still had their moves, to older men giving it their loopy, cheerful all.

And..they’re still out there. I can hear them! The streets are coated with confetti, the trash cans are piled high, the babies in their Minnie Mouse ears are passed out in their strollers, but the beat goes on here in Putignano…

Photos are below, but for video go to Instagram, especially to Stories. I’ll put the Stories in a Highlight once the 24-hour limit has passed.

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(They say)

…was Putignano’s Carnevale.

(They say)

I don’t know about that, since my quick read puts Venice’s in the 12th century and the claims for this one are the 13th.

Please note, as you try to parse all of this social, cultural and religious tradition, that the origins of neither have anything to do with Lent – both are celebrations of triumph of one sort or another, over enemies. In the case of Putignano, it’s related to the translation of some of St. Stephen’s relics from Monopli on the coast, under threat from Saracens, to Santa Maria la Greca in this city. The peasants celebrated along the way…and so carnevale was born.

The symbolic figure of carnevale is Farinella – the name for a kind of flour ground from chickpeas and barley. Origin? Another tale of intolerance against Saracens. The baker Farinella thought of a clever way to keep the Saracens from attacking: using flour to mimic sores and other manifestations of disease, convincing the would-be attackers that plague was rampant. It worked, the legend says, and so another reason to celebrate.

Well, there you go. I have no idea how this all got connected to pre-Lent, but I’m sure someone has done the research. I’d be very interested to know how that happened.

And as for the history of this trip? I didn’t look at the map and calendar and say, Ah! Yes! Of course! Putignano’s Carnevale!

For of course, I had no idea about the existence of this place before, I don’t know – maybe two months ago?

No, the origin story here is that when it dawned on me that the parameters of this trip included pre-Lent, I got to thinking…where are the good Carnevale celebrations in Italy? Well, Venice, of course, but it also seemed that most of the notable celebrations were in northern Italy. Except for this one. So…I kept figuring, looking at Matera as a place I wanted to go, looking at Puglia as an area I’d never been and certainly wanted to see….and so I got this cute little apartment a block away from the parade route, and here I am.

And…here I am. There are big parades today (Sunday) and Tuesday, and for those days, I’m essentially trapped in the perimeter. If you’re not a resident of the historic center, you have to have a ticket to get into the area (it’s pretty securely blocked off). Which is fine. I need to catch up on work, and this gives me the great opportunity to drift out, see what’s going on for an hour or so, then drift back – I won’t say “away from the din” because it’s all..pretty loud. Music is blasting from speakers on the street and there’s a bar that’s pretty close and last night, despite all these ancient stone walls…that was happening.

But it’s good! Very interesting – I’m always fascinated by community celebrations and how this sorts itself out in terms of modern life, culture and especially religion, if that even plays a part.

I’ll do another post later about some other sights I’ve seen (mostly churches of course), but here are some photos of the Carnevale celebrations so far….the Sunday parade is in about an hour, but the floats are out there already. I’m looking forward to Tuesday when after the big parade the spirit of Carnevale is burned or something.

(Although there’s another parade on Saturday….)

The theme this year is something about fairy tales, but from perusing the stories behind these floats, it’s all newly created “fairy tales” which seem to mostly be about communities finding freedom from oppression. And one about a boy and girl finding connection through unlimited gigabytes? I think? The one with the Phoenix is political – about women rising to power. I don’t quite understand the presence of King Charles, and other than Giorgia Meloni, I don’t know who the other women are, but I’m assuming one is the president of the EU…..

It’s kind of insane but the floats – all paper mache – are impressive. I assume there’s movement involved, so hopefully I’ll get some good video of that.

Oh, and of course 60% of people are in some sort of costume, and 100% of the kids. Besides Spiderman, most popular among boys is Harry Potter, and as predicted, judging from what I saw in Naples, Wednesday Addams wins among the girls. I don’t know if you can tell from the photo below, but it was highly entertaining to watch this group of children getting their photo taken because Wednesday remained resolutely in character, standing with her arms folded while everyone else embraced. Excellent!

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Too tired to pull together a post tonight. Come back tomorrow to see what’s up!

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