2 aussies, 1 wedding, 1 van, 3 months... what have we done?

2 aussies, 1 wedding, 45 aussie guests, 3 months, 1 wicked campervan. Oh dear...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My other love

I love Puglia. Yes I know it sounds like a t-shirt slogan, and it is, but I genuinely love it.

My father is from the region so my ties to this part of Italy run very deep but my honeymoon was the first time that I was to explore this less known part of Italy. I had been to Puglia many times before when I was young with the folks but my parents were old school travellers then and it was about returning to see family and friends and not venturing off to unknown territories.  I had returned to San Severo many times to see Aunties, Uncles and a plethora of very loud cousins, I had even ventured to San Marco in Lamis to see the tiny two room house that my father was born in and shared with his 6 siblings (seriously that's two rooms not two bedrooms!!). I had climbed the narrow rickety stairs where my father had been pushed down as a baby by his loving older brother (glad my brothers weren't this loving!).  But this time I needed to see more.

A little OTT?
Facades of Lecce

Lecce was the first stop on our tour of the heel of Italy. I had read that Lecce was the 'Florence of the South', I wasn't sure what that meant but I was hoping it was going to be special. I wasn't disappointed. This Baroque old town is stunning. Every building is made out of what is known as 'Lecce stone' a type of limestone which is soft and easily carved thus explaining the over the top facades on some of the churches, museums & basilicas. The town centre has a sandy glow about it and the best way to explore it is by bike. Which is exactly what we did after checking in to our hotel.

There seemed to be a lack of tourists when we visited (although we did see a hideous mini train ride for the tourists?) and it seems that this part of Southern Italy still make good use of the traditional siesta. As we rode around exploring the old town we saw maybe a handful of other people. I was beginning to get concerned. Was this area 'out of bounds'? Was it a public holiday? Had the whole town contracted some type of disease and all died? A little dramatic? Sure, it's the Leo in me! But as soon as the clock ticked towards 7pm the streets started to fill up and within an hour we had to get off our bikes and walk as it was impossible to ride through them due to the pedestrian speed humps. Ahh an old fashioned local passigata (the walk to be seen not actually for the exercise), I had forgotten that when you visit the smaller cities and those not just for the tourists you can actually watch the town come to life right before your eyes.

All this riding and worrying about cities wiped out by alien diseases had made us a little peckish. We stumbled across Mamma Elvira an enoteca just off the main street, a fabulous wine bar stocking local wines, beers and snacks. We enjoyed a gorgeous array of local meats and of course the much heralded burrata, a typical cheese from Puglia which has an outer layer of mozzarella then is filled with oozy cream and mozzarella. All with a side of taralli, local savoury cracker seasoned with fennel seeds. Heaven.

Otranto with jade colour water
Two towns we explored from Lecce were the gorgeous Ostuni, known as the white town and Otranto, a beautiful beach resort town which was a welcome visit in the middle of a hot day. Otranto was a great spot for swimming whilst Ostuni was a great spot for exploring. Ostuni looks like a mirage in the middle of the dry Pugliese landscape. Peeking up over the gigantic pillars of olive trees was a whole town so white that one needed sun glasses from the glare.  It's very 'Greek Islands' but at the same time brings you back to the hilltop villages that are dotted throughout the countryside in Northern Italy. When you walk through the town to the outer walls you realise the view stretches all the way over the olive groves to the shimmering aqua coast and no doubt was built to keep an eye out for unwanted visitors. This little town has an abundance of shoes selling locally made sandals. Very well priced, I unfortunately was having one of those 'I can't decide, I'll get them in the next town' days. A day that I now would rather not think about (as she sadly looks at her sandal bare cupboard).

So we've established that I love Puglia, taralli, burrata and now for the other thing I love about this region... trullis. I have been dying to see one ever since my last extensive trip to Italy (6 years earlier), these cylinder shaped houses are made out of white limestone and the grey roof is cone shaped with a stone peak. No one really knows why these houses were made like this, though it is thought that the inhabitants would pack them down when the tax man visited, then put them back up when he left to avoid paying taxes (I love this story as I could imagine my dad's ancestors being this tight, so I'm sticking with it). These trullis are dotted throughout the countryside in Puglia but are mainly condensed to the town of Alberobello. The best way to get here is to travel along the Strada dei Trulli where you can see the trulli sprinkled throughout the countryside in their natural environment. Even the church in Alberobello is a trulli!

Next stop was the area known as the 'Gargano Promontory' where we stayed a night in Trani, a beautiful port town which boasts itself as a 'Slow city' (a town where you're encouraged to take the time to smell the roses, so to speak). A picturesque stop-over with some great restaurants and bars along the waterfront, I was keen to try the Slow food restaurant Le Lampare al Fortino but it was closed. Further along the coast we stopped in to Vieste and enjoyed a gorgeous carb loaded lunch at Il Capriccio (Turk picked the restaurant after consulting Trip advisor and what a magnificent find it was). Situated on the water front at the marina our seafood laden pastas were delicious. Mine was an orrechetti (of course!) with pumpkin flowers, mussels and anchovy crumb whilst Turk enjoyed a fresh calamari, pine nuts and basil spaghetti.

Just like mum makes!
We decided to stay just near Vieste at one of the resorts. Given the amount of carbs and wine I'd just consumed, my Italian and reading skills were not at their sharpest. I made the rookie mistake of assuming that the price I was given by the lovely lady at reception were for the room and not per person. Every where else in Italy had always given us the room rate not the per person rate. I had forgotten that this place was offering half and full board so naturally it was per person. Of course it wasn't until after making use of their private beach with the gorgeous views along the jagged cliff of the prom and enjoying a three course dinner that included  delicious stuffed mussels that my mother makes, I realised my mistake. It was too late. I admitted my error of blowing out our budget to Turk who naturally wanted to discuss punishment. Apparently sleeping outside of the soon to be picked up wicked van with only three items of clothing, and socks counted as two pieces, was the one that most suited this crime (I'm happy to report he didn't enforce it!).  

Our time in Puglia made us realise that we love the small towns with more local experiences, we love the towns that are off the tourist track and we love the towns that are considered 'Slow towns' because we like stopping and smelling the taralli, burrata and Trulli.

Puglia, I will always love you.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Our sunny moon

My sister-in-law sent me a message on facebook to wish me a happy honeymoon and to remind me that most women only go with one man on their honeymoon. I had opted to take my husband, three mates and my new sister in law with me on our road trip honeymoon. After being with so many friends and family for the past few weeks I have to admit I wasn't ready to be on our own yet (besides we have 40 days of wicked camper fun ahead of us!) and so we all met in the town of Amalfi to start our convoy of love slowly down the coast to finish in Sicily for a few days.

The first leg of the journey saw the three boys in one car and myself, Turk and sis-in-law in the other. Turk having driven in Italy now for about a month led the boys around all the sharp turns and narrow streets that snake around the Amalfi coast. Squizzy, the driver of the second car, said to us later that there were a few close calls for him and that he was ready to call it quits! Nothing can really prepare you for the craziness that is the Amalfi coast! Turk, my hero, does it with nerves of steel but I'm sure some times even he's a little concerned, how could you not be with just centimeters in front of you for you to navigate your hire car round a bend with a bus staring straight at you and a sheer drop into the water on the other side!

The spectacular Tropea
Our first stop was in a place called Tropea in the region of Calabria. This was our little overnight rest stop on our way to Sicily. Tropea is a spectacular town especially from the beach looking up. The town is built right on the cliffs and rises way up above you. These types of architectural feats always leave me wondering how they did it back in the day not to mention how many people died in the construction of these towns.


 Not only is the water in Tropea crystal clear and gorgeous shades of blue and emerald but the beach has beautiful white sand which is a very welcome change from the pebble beaches that have you almost falling over as you try to quickly exit the water without stubbing your toe on a giant rock! Not the most elegant of exits I'll admit but the Italians seem to have mastered it whilst us Aussies look like were walking on hot coals.

We prefer to not book accommodation when we travel but rather see what fun places we find along the way. I was starting to regret this idea after driving around for about 20 mins with no hotel in sight and realising that 6 of us actually had to agree on the hotel and more importantly the price.
A sailor went to sea, sea, sea...

So as we turned the corner and headed towards il mare (the ocean) I held my breath hoping wed find something some what acceptable. I neednt have worried though at the bottom of the giant cliffs and right on the beach was a hotel that even included 3 course dinner and breakfast all for 50 euro each! I had forgotten that when you holiday in a beach side town in Italy they still offer full and half boards. The hotel had a bar right on the beach where we enjoyed beers whilst watching the sunset over the volcanic island of Stromboli which is the most active volcano in Italy (the second being Etna in Sicily) and a constant  stream of white smoke visible from the volcano added to the magic of the setting!

 The next breath holding moment is of course the quality of this meal but again I neednt have worried we enjoyed a delicious local pasta made from eggplants, chilli and tomatoes followed by a fish (i think the boys had some other meat dish) with a smorgasboard of vegetable side dishes and some fruit and ice-cream. All washed down with a gorgeous bottle of local rose.



Next saw us arrive in Cefalu on the north coast of Sicily. Another fabulous find off the beaten track. We had to catch the ferry from Reggio Calabria to Messina then drive about 180km west to the coast of the Tyrrhenain Sea in the region of Palermo to find this beautiful seaside town.

Beautiful Cefalu
 We again found a fabulous hotel right on the beach, although this time we said no the included dinner, which meant that we were able to enjoy a wander through the old town at night and sit down in the piazza opposite the Cathedral of Cefalu which is almost 900 years old and enjoy a dinner of local seafood including fritto misto (fried seafood) and swordfish although one of us may have consumed a beef lasagne (although it was claimed to be for research purposes!).
Dinner with the gang in Cefalu

Gelati was the perfect way to end the meal on the stroll back to our hotel.



Isola Bella
View from our hotel
Next stop on our Sicilia road trip was Taormina, this time we did book some accomodation (as we were staying a few nights) and our hotel was directly opposite the beautiful little Island called isola Bella (quite literally beautiful Island). Two of our travellers had the smallest rooms known to man, pretty much the size of my luggage, but the view they had of Isola Bella made up for it! The hotel was directly on the beach however the city of Taormina is up on the hill that overlooks the beach so it meant that every night we headed up in a cable cart to the old town which on more than one occasion I thought we were going to get stuck on the way up but as with most things in Italy it just worked!
Enjoying a stroll in Taormina

Does this make my mouth look big?

One of the most memorable dinners was at Don Ciccios, just to the side of the Piazza Duomo. It was the delicious smell that came wafting out of the restaurant that seduced us into pulling up a table outside. Ill admit that when we were given adult size bibs I was a little concerned that wed stumbled into a themed sizzler type of restaurant. Thankfully our meals could not have been further from this.

 I had a recommended rich pasta with squid ink and pieces of calamari that melted in your mouth whilst Turk enjoyed what hes claimed as the best Spaghetti Lo Scoglio (which means that rock but otherwise known as pasta Marinara) hes ever eaten with more seafood than delicious al dente pasta, another member of the honeymoon gang enjoyed little pillows of gnocchi (which was actually made by hand) with a fresh and aromatic basil and tomato sauce. All washed down with a gorgeous bottle of white wine. As we left the restaurant we told the waitress wed be back tomorrow night for our final meal but of course, the restaurant was closed on, wait for it Wednesdays. Just as with most things in Italy its these odd little idiosyncrasies that make it so unique and so fabulous and Sicily is no exception to the rule.
After a month of travelling with friends or family it was time for Turk and I to try our hand at travelling on our own again and it was getting terribly closer to us picking up the dreaded wicked van. Let the real honeymoon begin!


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

And the bride wore....

Ordinary, standard, conventional. These three words are probably the least applicable to Turk and I, and we certainly didn't want our guests using them to describe our wedding.
We had invited 50 of our nearest and dearest and to our delight (and shock) most of them were coming to join us for our wedding in Italy. We knew that we wanted to do something different. Very, very different. In our relationship, as in our business life, I throw Turk creative curb balls and he makes them work, both logistically and in budget. It's probably why we work so well together. So you can imagine his face when I suggested a progressive wedding reception! It made sense to show our guests the different faces of the Amalfi coast and what better time to do this than at our wedding!

Here is the creative curb ball that Turk relished in bringing to life. (Turk will interject here that he came up with the idea but dear reader, I think we both know who wears the creative mc hammer pants here!).


Let's start at the beginning, for its a very good place to start. In march 2010 Turk asked me to marry him, we agreed that night if we were going to do this then lets do it in Italy. We weren't sure where but it was definitely going to be in the country that we had fallen in love in 5 years earlier. So we sent out save the date cards for June of 2012. We didn't know when or where but we wanted as many of our friends as possible to join us so we gave them plenty of time to start planning and saving.

In January 2011 we left for Italy with the huge task ahead of selecting a town for the wedding. With so many picturesque places it was not as easy as you'd think and as many of our guests were first time visitors to Italy we wanted something spectacular. The rolling hills of Tuscany with castles that we could all stay in together? The untouched coast of Puglia, in my Father's region? The baroque beauty of Sicily? Or the jaw dropping Amalfi coast in Campania, in my Mother's region? With the internet to help, we had narrowed it down to Toscana and Amalfi and so set off in the freezing cold of winter to look at the north first. We really liked the idea of having everyone stay at the one venue and a castle was the perfect place to hold a three day wedding spectacular. We looked at about three castles which were stunning. They were fabulously crumbling and we knew it would feel like a fairytale. With the rolling green hills and acres and acres of vineyards as a back drop  they were all so perfect. How would we ever make this decision!
We headed down south no closer to a decision than when we started until, that is, we arrived in Sorrento. Even in winter the first town to greet you along the coast is breath taking. Driving further along we had forgotten the sheer beauty along the coast. With beautiful old houses clinging to the sides of cliffs for dear life nothing can prepare you for the beauty of Positano. We stopped the car, got out and took a deep breath of crisp sea air. As the hairs on the backs of our necks stood on ends, we looked at each other and smiled, we knew we had found our destination. This was the second time we had been to the Amalfi coast but we loved it even more now and knew that it would be perfect.


Now that we had a town we just had to work out the details of a progressive all day wedding lunch, first though, we needed to visit the town hall. By law, we had to be married in the town hall by the mayor. Shame that the town hall in Positano has an outdoor terrazzo that overlooks the cliffs and the sparkling aqua ocean. The place itself was stunning but to add to the drama of it we booked a tenor to sing accompanied by a string trio. Of course I selected the love theme to the godfather to walk down the aisle to. What else?


I can't describe the mixed bag of emotions that I felt on my wedding day before I got to the town hall, mostly relief that the dress fit (a little tighter than I remember but it still fit!) but when I saw all the faces of our friends and family I was just so happy that all the nerves melted away! We hadn't caught up with any of our friends before this moment so to see that they all arrived safely, in a country that I adore made my heart sing! Most importantly seeing Turk waiting for me was one of the most special moments I will treasure forever.  Other than the dress not fitting my second biggest worry was crying but needless to say I blubbered like a baby! As I mentioned in my speech later that night I haven't cried that much since Molly from 'A Country Practice' died!

When all the crying, vowing, kissing and cheering was done with we led our guests out of the town hall where we had organized for a Neapolitan duo to walk us down to the first venue. I didn't expect this to be as amazing as what it was and probably the highlight of the day.  We ended up blocking the streets of Positano and stopped to sing 'Volare' in them. Words can not describe leading our team of Aussies through the streets, to the music, shouts of 'auguri' (congratulations) and claps of the locals. Then to stop whilst we all sang 'Volare' from the top of our lungs. We hadn't planned for this but it was probably the most amazing experience. Some times the small and spontaneous things are often the best!


Our first venue had to be spectacular. We wanted to really knock some socks off with this one. So after walking around Positano in the height of winter wondering where the most amazing views would come from, we stumbled across a hotel called Villa Franca. I'll admit I didn't have high hopes for this one so we looked at their brochure and noticed they had a roof top pool. We asked to take a look. Oh my.... It was stunning. Even in winter the view was to die for. This boutique hotel is right at the top of the aptly nicknamed  'wedding cake' or the tiers of cliff top houses and hotels that make up picturesque Positano so it has 180 degree views of the beaches, mountains, cathedral and marina. It was here that our guest enjoyed bellinis, prosecco and a smorgasbord of canapés whilst soaking up the beauty that is Positano. (in the pic below the venue is the one in turks hand, right at the top!)


In order to reach our second venue we had to take mini vans to get us to a large 50 seater bus (the streets in Positano are so narrow and windy that only certain size vans can travel on them and the local mini bus of course!) even this ride through the streets of Positano added to the excitement of the day. The chorus of "oohs" and "ahhs" as some of our guests saw Positano up close for the first time was a true delight. The noises continued on the big bus as we left Positano and headed out of town and as half the bus saw first hand the sheer drop of the cliffs into the sapphire ocean below.  The bus driver confidently negotiated round what is commonly known as the 'white knuckle drive' for its hair pin turns and rock on one side, ocean on the other.  This is the great ocean road on some serious steroids! These gasps were heard again at various times throughout the day as the bus driver took on corners and roads that perhaps were a touch too small for a bus and a car at the same time but in true Italian style we made it, some what unscathed.

The second stop on our 'taste of the Amalfi' reception was at an agriturismo farm called Le tore in Massa Lubrense that we actually stumbled across whilst looking for another farm. This little gem really made you feel like you were in Italy! The vines, the lemon trees, the fresh vegetables and of course the beautiful decaying farm house. Stunning.  It was a perfect second venue. We were greeted with a 5 piece napoletana band and a glass of refreshing fresh lemon water. I'll admit we were rather dubious about serving Aussies a non alcoholic drink on arrival especially after such a bus ride but in the heat of the day and to refresh the palate it was perfect. The owner told us later that we consumed 20 litres of it, we weren't surprised at this number given the amount of people commenting on it!

All of the food served here was grown on the farm or from local producers. Here we ate antipasto and pasta but it seemed like there was a never ending table of food filled with local specialities like eggplant parmigiana (so good that one guest asked for some to take away!), lemon ricotta served on lemon leaves, melt in the mouth zucchini frittata, flavoursome fava bean soup and my fathers favourite pasta e piselle (pasta with peas). Here we ate like kings and danced like zingare (gypsies) in the grape vines. It was the perfect spot to have an impromptu bridal waltz. At one stage of the day I looked over to the my parents table with my four Italian cousins and I watched them all singing along to an old Italian song. All swaying, grinning and loving it. My father got so into it that at one stage he stole a mandolin and joined in!


At this point I had to pinch myself. Were my family and friends all here celebrating our marriage in a country so full of culture, history and beauty? Indeed they were and they were basking it! This is the reason that you get married in a place that means so much to you, your nearest and dearest get to experience not just your wedding day but be a part of a cultural experience, your culture, that they will remember for ever.
On the walk back to our bus I found my uncle and father raiding the cherry tree, so typical and so very Italian.


The next venue was an easy choice. It had to be down on the water. As with the other two venues it had to be something off the beaten track. We stumbled across Lo Scoglio at Marina del Cantone when we were here a year ago but unfortunately it was closed. So this one we selected only three weeks before our wedding day!
By the time we arrived it was late afternoon and the ideal time to enjoy the sea breeze. Spending time on the pier, sipping prosecco, chatting and taking photos was the perfect start to another beautiful setting. Lo Scoglio translates to the rock which is literally what this restaurant is built on, a large rock that juts out of the sea and peaks up to form a kitsch fountain in the middle of the restaurant. When we arrived there were three of the chefs shucking our seafood for our little seafood feast, Where better to spend the main course eating freshly shucked clams, mussels and sea urchins followed by sauté and fried seafood?
For our final stop we had hired a wonderful villa in a small town called Marciano with views to die for, all the way to Capri! The bridal party and the immediate family were cooped up here so it seemed fitting to end it all here. With Italian cakes and lollies (including torrone made from my mothers home town), a wedding cake made from Italian cheeses we had picked up along our travels all over italy (including a 5kg hunk of parmiggiano reggiano that we had collected from a farm in parma!) and a bar with a ridiculous amount of Italian spirits it was the perfect place to end a perfect day. In line with Italian tradition the best man served liqueurs to toast the bride and groom (possibly only one of the few traditional aspects that crept in for the day), however we opted for a locally made limoncello in a lemon chocolate shot glass! As with everything else on the day we had to be different.

With our guests enjoying the views and reflecting on the day we both gave heartfelt speeches (with more tears) and the final cheers of the evening came just as the sun was setting over the most beautiful place in the world on, what was for us, the most beautiful day of our lives.

My new husband and I snuck away for a little moment of reflection. Two years of planning and our crazy little idea had worked and our guests had loved it. We had kept the whole day a surprise from everyone so no one knew what to expect next which added to the excitement.  It was so surreal that so many of our friends and family had made the journey  and created a lifetime of italian memories, or lack there of, depending on the amount of limoncello shots!

We still had two more days with our guests, after all you couldn't have your friends and family come this far and not really turn it on for them. Day 2 was a lazy day poolside with more shots, swimming and some delicious Italian treats put together by my girlfriends and fellow food lovers Mouta, Russo & of course my mum. Delicious.

The final afternoon we organized a sunset cruise along the Amalfi coast. Our guests had seen the coast from the very tight roads but now was time to see it from the water. And what a way to see it! Absolutely stunning. I was thinking it would be the perfect time to mingle more with my guests but I was so in awe of the cliff hugging houses and hotels and moments of 'how the hell did they build that there?' that I just sat at the front of the boat with my mouth agape. Which I think was fine given everybody else seemed to be busy taking pics and pointing out amazing feats of housing. 

We cruised along the coast starting in Positano and moving along to Amalfi, Ravello, Minori and Maiori. We then turned back and stopped in Amalfi for an hour so that our guests could do some exploring. Just as we arrived in the main square the church were celebrating the festival for their patron saint. As my brother so eloquently put it ' yeah these Italians love taking their statues out for a bit of a look around.' Indeed the church was in the middle of a  procession with the statue of their saint being carried through the streets. Another picture perfect moment that we told our guests we had organized especially for them!

After an impromptu song from my father in a grotto that we stopped to look at, clearly the acoustics were too good for my dad to pass up belting out an old Italian folk song much to the delight of everyone on the boat, including the crew who handed him a microphone, we then turned back around and sailed into Positano as the sun set and the lights were twinkling. It was a fitting way to end the most amazing three days of my life and we hope also of the 50 guests who ventured over with us. It was poetic to say our teary farewells to our guests (many of them were leaving the next day to embark on the rest of their holiday) in the town where it all began in Positano, la citta romantica (the romantic city). 

Our choice to select Positano was probably the best decision we've ever made. Not just because our wedding was so amazing with so many special moments but also because now we will have to return there for anniversaries!

Pictures of the wedding by Hayden Pheonix