Thursday, April 18, 2013

Vieste and the Gargano

Lungomare of Vieste, tourist mecca of the Gargano
We have read about Gargano in books, heard stories from friends and seen pictures. We needed to experience it and see if the place warranted a longer stay in the future. If you look at Italy’s “heel”, just north you see a little spur of land. That is the Gargano. It is the most rugged part of Puglia and truly the most scenic. It contains the Forestra Umbra which is now also within Parco Nazionale di Gargano. 

This area is heavily dependent on tourism, especially in summer--just like the west coast where we live. It seems they have a 4-month season, May-August, compared to the 2-month season in Calabria. We think it is because more international visitors seek Gargano. The majority of places are closed now, but a few campgrounds had guests.

First, though, we had to get there. To do that from here, we had to drive the width of Italy (which, thanks to the ankle of the boot, isn't that bad--about 5 hours). First the drive takes you to the rolling farmland of Basilicata and the high bridges Guido loves so much.

Dropping down into Puglia, north of Melfi, the landscape begins to flatten and become more agri-businesslike...complete with wind generators. Note: the landscape architect in the car thought these "windmills" were placed in an appropriate place for a change!

As we once again caught a glimpse of sea, we knew we were getting close to Vieste. Seaside towns in Italy have a way of presenting themselves dramatically and promisingly:

Our 5-hour trip that turned into 7 hours given lunch stops, photo stops and driving around looking for the B&B when we arrived in Vieste. After two laps around town and some “coaching” from the navigator, I realised you cannot drive to the hotel – it is a 400 meter walk from parking just like here at home. Duhh.

The tourists in this area seem to be mostly German. We heard that language and something Scandinavian. No English anywhere, which was an interesting change. Restaurant staff switched to English if a German struggled with Italian. We were proud that none of the waiters broke into English for us! We did discover the Pugliese dialect. It is softer than what we hear here, but no more understandable. When I told a bar owner buona giornata, his response sounded like “lampa”. Listening to another conversation, a guy ended with “va bini” instead of va bene. Our local dialect would be “va bo”.  All of them mean ok, all is well.

The Osteria degli Archi may be one of the best restaurants in Vieste. Great food and kind people. Here, I learned more about Pugliese wines. I liked the Bolonero rosso from Castel del Monte, a winery near Bari. There are good red wines from this region!!

Di's favorite morning walk--with caffe in hand
All of these towns are very tidy and clean. I opened the bath window Sunday morning at 0630 and a guy was sweeping the street below. I guess when you have a bigger town and tax base, you can have a cleaning crew fulltime. We usually have to do it ourselves here – something to keep us fit!
Our B&B was in the historic district, as we like. One of the owners we found during our stay also has a large sailboat for charter trips to Greece and Croatia if you are in the mood! Two other places had better views, but they were closed. If you are interested in staying in historic Vieste, we recommend also looking at Hotel Punta San Francesco or Hotel Seggio -- both are perched above the sea. Our place was nicely done with 5 rooms and good modern facilities. I understand the vaulted ceilings are a typical feature in this area.

We always play “what-if” when we travel and ask ourselves if we could live in this particular town, not that we are looking to move. In Vieste, if we could find a nice house with a view and terrace like the place next to the Hotel Seggio, it could work. The other advantages to the seaside towns of the Gargano are their proximity to the hills and forest. We live in the largest park in Italy, but there is little recreational development. The Gargano (Forestra Umbra) has had recreation facilities for generations including marked trails, campgrounds, visitor centers, etc. I also found the town of Rodi Gaganico to be appealing because it looked like the people were proud of their town! The seaside part of the equation may be a little less pristine than we are used to and perhaps too crowded.

All of the coastal Gargano towns have large hotels on their flanks for the summer. We realised that summer, especially August, would not be a time we would come with the traffic and crowds. Areas between the towns are the most developed seaside areas we have seen in Italy… mostly campgrounds, all tastefully built and maintained.  We found a couple resorts with private beaches and bungalow style housing that we will look into more for May or June visits. More our style than the high-rise hotels.
At the outlet of Lake Varano, which is connected to the sea, we found two fishing boats unloading hundreds of kilos of cozze (mussels). We hear the area is famous for those shellfish. We also watched kite boarders near Vieste. Sail boarding and kiting have become popular attractions also.

One our biggest problems, when traveling, is finding places to eat. It happened Sunday when about every place we found was closed. We discovered Hotel Piccolo Paradiso near the port of Peschici. A helpful, friendly couple runs it. We were the only customers at the time, though. We’d recommend the place for location, quality customer service, etc. 

Extensive olive groves merge with the stands of pine above.

On the return trip, we wasted 50 minutes driving around Melfi looking for a restaurant. Almost like Keystone cops at times. A little further down the road in the smaller town of Rionero in Vulture we found a hotel with restaurant by using the iPad internet map to locate restaurants. Saved by technology and a smaller town to search.

The drive back through the forest was very relaxing. Very few vehicles on the road this time of year and plenty of spring vistas including those that reminded us of our former home in the USA.

We liked Gargano and will return. We recommend it to all traveling that way.

E’ stato un buon viaggio.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why Calabria? Why Santa Domenica Talao?

The Sea caught us in its net (Dino Island, Praia a Mare)
We were recently asked the following questions about our decision to retire in Calabria. I thought it would be a good time to combine the answers to these questions with some perspective from three years of experience:
  • How did you discover Calabria?
  • How did you first notice Santa Domenica Talao and what grabbed you about it? 
  • How did the two of you decide upon Calabria, and more specifically, Santa Domenica Talao? 
  • What was your process of settling in SDT? Did you start out somewhere else first?
How did you discover Calabria?
Our first trip to Italy started in the North and only got as far south as Rome.
When you come to Italy for the first time, it's hard not to focus on Rome, Venice, Florence, and Tuscany. We threw in Cinque Terre in Liguria thanks to recommendations from friends. Nevertheless, that trip in 2005 led us to Calabria in large part due to the contribution of Cinque Terre. We just loved it--the combination of picturesque small hill towns in the mountains overlooking the sea. Our whole trip gave us a very good impression of Italians and the culture.

I realized that if I didn't have to work, I wasn't going to live anywhere away from the sea. Doug was never a big fan of rolling hills--he's a mountain guy, and and I grew to hate, hate days of fog from living in Oregon. Thus, our search started out fairly rationally--find places to live by the sea without fog and with mountains for Doug. We were brought up in the US midwest suburbs and spent our working lives in the western mountains. We grew used to simple days and simple ways with work to add the stimulation of purpose surrounded by talented dedicated people. We thought about wanting to live where it was relatively quiet--we didn't factor in work or talented people--we were pretty innocent about retirement in those days.

Our town is at the foot of these mountains (Mt. Caccia)
We relied on the Internet to research places which met our criteria. In our minds, Calabria came out on top.
It was the quiet outback of Italy, not overly bothered by foreign tourists, it is basically all mountains surrounded by gorgeous beaches. We were next influenced by the available online real estate sites in Calabria. They were few. 

We stumbled on a site that not only had real estate listings, but a forum that let us get a view of what other people thought. We made an appointment for a viewing trip with an agent and combined that with a trip to Tropea for Italian language classes in 2007. 

We discussed living in Tropea, but the landscape did not take our breath away as it did in Cinque Terre, and Tropea is the one place in Calabria that is overpriced due to tourism. We have since found that Tropea closes up tighter than a drum in winter, with very little around to do.

We have been studying the history of this area in Italian class.  It is complicated to say the least.
How did you first notice Santa Domenica Talao and what grabbed you?  
During our weekends off from the Tropea language school, we took our house viewing trips with the estate agent, Tony, from Scalea. We told him we wanted a place either by the sea or in a centro storico--we had an historic building in mind. This meant we didn't see ANY modern apartments. Our trip was limited to seeing ruins and restorations other people (Tony's friends and/or previous clients) created from previously decadent properties. It was actually very comforting. We felt we would be helping to restore the area, and prices included an estimate of what restoration could cost. (I say could because we upped that quite a bit due to wanting a permanent residence--not a holiday house).

We like how casual the ruins are around here--collect time all alone
It was slow going at first.
I'm sure Tony thought we were never going to buy.
Then he took us to Santa Domenica Talao. What grabbed us? It was to us perfect in every way. It was not a "fake" tourist trap, it had a stupendous view overlooking the sea and mountains, it had the most friendly people we'd encountered in our lives, it had many small stores (you really would never NEED to go down the hill although we would end up doing it--sometimes 3 times a day).

The final grabber was a little ruin of a house with perfect views and spaces that seemed right--for example, no need for making a terrace on the roof, it is right off the kitchen. Icing on the cake was  next door neighbors who told us to hurry back.
With the perspective of three years, I can tell you that we still think what grabbed us was true and not mistaken.

What is behind the wall in our study?
We always know when our neighbor Pepina
is baking bread. We hear the unmistakeable sounds of her getting the bread oven ready.

There were things we didn't really know about or completely comprehend. There are problems like any other place one lives. We wanted to be part of a town after living in the outback, but the language barrier has slowed that down. Italian was harder to learn than we thought and we will probably never fully learn the dialect spoken here. Overall, all that brought us here still shines, we just have a whole lot more work to do than we thought. Life-building is not a snap anywhere you go. These grabbers will be different depending on who you are. Tuscany didn't move us at all--really, it looked boring to folks used to the mountains yet it attracts more retirees than any other place.

We are getting to know the neighbors as our Italian improves--pranzo at our house
(we are busy cooking or taking a picture)

You have to know who you are and what you like. We have friends who love the idea of Sardinia. We never considered it--island fever and all that.

How did the two of you decide upon Calabria, and more specifically, Santa Domenica Talao? 
I am sure we could have extended the hunt, found other charming towns, etc. However, it's like when you meet the right person, do you keep looking around? I guess we've never been big shoppers. We see what we like and go for it.

We never thought Doug would be on a wine tasting jury.
What was your process of settling in SDT? Did you start out somewhere else first?
The process was two viewing trips in September 2007 from Tropea, decide on house and contractor, go back to the states, come back in October to sign papers, pay and pick out things for the restoration, go back home to the states, give power of attorney to the estate agent so he can finish up payments to the contractor, come back for a summer trip in July 2008 to inspect progress. The apartment below us come up for sale and these trips involved buying that too. We moved into a Hood River apartment after selling the farm (just before the market crashed), sent the furniture on a boat to Italy where Doug met it in November 2008. We came back and unpacked for Christmas and then the house was left empty for a year until we moved in February 2010 after our retirement party in January. We never lived anywhere but our cute little casa in Santa Domenica Talao.

So we are learning how to taste the good life in Calabria--one day at a time


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