Friday March 30
Arrived by plane in Rome and took a train from the airport to Roma Termini and stayed at a nearby guesthouse. It was a good location for leaving by train for Lecce at 8am the next day. On the positive side the bed was very comfortable but the downside was overheating, non operational air con and fridge, boiling hot water in shower and very poor WiFi. Didn’t do much - just walked up to Republica for dinner. It’s good to be back in Rome. A little rain.
Saturday March 31
Very pleasant fast train to Lecce about 5 1/2 hours through some dramatic landscapes and farming. Olives, grapes, fruit, vegetables.
Egos Hotel about 20 minutes walk from the Centre of town. Quite comfortable with good breakfast. Our tour starts tomorrow in this Baroque masterpiece of southern Italy located in the heart of Puglia. Sometimes described as the 'Florence of the South', the city is a real architectural gem boasting sumptuous palazzi and churches. A sunny cold windy day. Walked to the Centre of this old town, saw the Roman Amphitheater, lovely cobblestone streets, cafes, shops, churches, piazzas.
Sunday April 1 Easter Sunday
Another sunny day with a very cold wind. Lots of families in town attending mass and having lunch. Lots of aimless wandering looking at the sights, both people and buildings. Easy to get lost in the narrow stireets which are poorly signposted. Stumbled across a private museum called Museo Faggiano. Luciano Faggiano owned a building which he rented out and the tenants complained about mustiness. He planned to open a restaurant there after fixing the plumbing. Just metres beneath his unassuming property in the centre of Lecce, he discovered a layered archaeological treasure trove with remains from the Knights Templar, the ancient Romans, the region’s original Greek settlers and even a hole in which medieval nuns used to mummify bodies before they buried them..Local laws forbid digging deeper than 50cm in a region that is archaeologically rich even by Italian standards. City officials suspected the Faggianos were performing an illegal excavation. They were told to stop digging and wait. Then nothing happened for an entire year.
Finally, the council declared that the Faggianos could resume their work on the pipe provided they were closely observed by an expert from the culture ministry. With an archaeologist sent by the cultural heritage department to oversee what the Faggianos maintained was simply a messy plumbing job, the laborious work continued.
But within weeks it became clear they had discovered something extraordinary. The false floor led to a level paved with medieval stone, which itself led to a tomb of the Messapians, Greeks who arrived in Puglia some 500 years before the birth of Christ.
Soon they found ancient Roman vases, medieval artefacts and hidden frescoes. Mr Faggiano’s sons Andrea and Marco put their college studies on hold to do the digging. “We found more than 5,000 objects,” said Andrea. “My favourite was a ring from a Jesuit bishop that contained 33 diamonds. And 10m below ground we found a hole that was 15m deep. The archaeologist said this was used by Franciscan nuns for drying out dead bodies – mummifying them for burial.”
His younger brother, Davide, who was only 12 years old in 2001, had a rope tied around him and was used to go into the gaps that were too small for his elder brothers to squeeze into.
Almost all of the artefacts have been taken by the authorities. Some have been placed in a city museum, but most are being studied by experts from the national cultural ministry. Mr Faggiano said he was hoping to get back more of the treasures.
Visitors can descend through the underground chambers via spiral metal stairwells. Glass flooring allows them to see the building’s historical layers, with a Roman grain store, Knights Templar artwork and even the Faggianos’ own subterranean river. A fascinating place and very interesting speaking with the youngest son Davide.
Met the rest of the group at 6. Guiseppe from Bari the tour leader and his trainee Agatha who is from Catania in Sicily. There are only 7 of us, Kim and Michael from San Francisco, Tailis from Vancouver, Katie and Sonos from UK and Jennifer from London via NZ. Went to the town for a good meal.
Monday April 2 a public holiday called Pasquetta. Most of Italy seem to go on a day out.
Drove to Otranto, the easternmost town in Italy. We walked the dramatic coastline for about 7 km. We also visited the delightful Romanesque cathedral, dating back to 1088 and boasting extensive 12th century floor mosaics of The Tree of Life approx. 3hrs walking, 8 km). The town was heaving with visitors.
Tuesday April 3
In the morning we enjoy a guided visit of Lecce, arguably one of the best and most distinctive Baroque cities in Europe. Most of the buildings here are built in the soft local stone, with pretty decorations and cherubs covering facades and doorways. During our walking tour we will have time to admire several architectonic gems, including the top Baroque monument in town: the extravagant Basilica di Santa Croce, ornamented with strange beasts and allegories. Lecce is also famous for a centenary tradition of papier-mâché (chewed paper) and we will have the opportunity to visit a local laboratory during our tour. Early afternoon we transfer by private minibus to the charming hilltop town of Ostuni, famous for the dazzling effect of its whitewashed houses. Before reaching the town we stopped in a traditional masseria or olive farm and visit the ancient underground oil mill. Some of the trees were 2000 years old. Wizened old things. They are able to throw off new growth when the tree looks dead. This farm is organic. The interesting tour ended with an olive oil tasting!
Ostuni is a whitewashed hilltop town whose history goes back to palaeolithic period (50.000-40.000 years ago) by Neanderthals, and whose occupants included the Romans, Messapians, Byzantine,Normans, Angevins. These historic events brought about the construction of the huge defensive walls to protect against the invading Turks.
Wednesday April 4
Had a 6.5km walk through the countryside to a farmhouse where we had a simple ( but large) lunch. At night a cooking demonstration making Orecchiette followed by dinner.. On the way visited a cave where
traces of people leaving in the area are also proved by thie discovery of the body of a 20 year old pregnat woman who had been buried in a hole in a grotto 25,000 years ago. The skeleton on the young woman, now named “Delia”, is displayed in the Church of San Vito Martire inside Ostuni historic centre
There is a maze of picturesque staircases, alleys, arches, a lovely piazza. Had a couple of good meals. The first night an amazing selection of antipasti including buffalo mozzarella, Burrata a hollow ball of fresh mozzarella filled with cream and pieces of mozzarella, Stracciatella a sort of stretched mozzarella.
Today we went to Alberobello another hilltop town famous for its trulli or domed houses built from stone and topped with a conical shapes roof often decorated with symbols. They were built originally to avoid paying taxes as they were easily demolished if there was to be a Royal inspection . We stayed in these trulli. Some more great meals.
Friday April 6
A free day and a few of us went by train to the small towns of Locorotondo and Martina Franca.
Saturday April 7
Today to Matera possibly my favourite town so far. A hilltop again so legs get a good workout. Originally the people lived in caves with. There animals but recently they have been renovated for accommodation.. I had a very large and lovely room. More good eating and wandering around. Our last meal together
Sunday April 8
I went with the group to Bari airport and took a bus to the city which is the fourth largest in Italy and a major port. It was heavy bombed during the Second World War and there was a scandal involving mustard gas which was stored on an American ship which was bombed. Lots of deaths and injuries and a coverup by the US and Britain who denied there was mustard gas involved. Finally came to light decades later. It is a vibrant city with an old town which was heaving with people when I went out at 9 for dinner. Italians sure love their passigiata.
Monday April 9
Off to Rome by train