HOW THE MAGIC OF ITALY QUICKLY UNFOLDED
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This past October I traveled mostly through the south of Italy in what turned out to be an emotional journey filled with countless unexpected magical moments. My hope in writing this piece is that you will get a sense of the magic of Italy, and travel in general, so that perhaps you will be inspired to reach out and ask me to assist in planning your next trip to wherever your imagination will take you.
First stop on my journey through the south of Italy. The quaint town of Nardò, self-proclaimed as the "town of peace," nestled in the province of Lecce, on the southwest part of Puglia and along the stunning coast of the Ionian Sea.
EMBRACING THE UNCERTAINTY
I admit to feeling a bit uncertain about what awaited me in terms of both this newly converted monastery, The Relais Monastero Santa Teresa, where I would stay, and the small town of Nardò itself, both of which I never knew existed until discovering it through the Waterstone Group, one of our outstanding travel suppliers. Nevertheless, it was too late to alter my itinerary. The drive in my slick little Italian-made Lancia from Brindisi Airport was less than an hour, and I entered the town at dusk.
The natural light, casting a dramatic blue hue in the sky, had an immediate and soothing effect. A sense of almost magical tranquility enveloped me as I parked my car on the cobblestone, tree-lined street in front of the monastery—the place I would call home for the next four days. The young woman at the front desk welcomed me with a great smile as if I were returning from an odyssey abroad, when in fact, my odyssey was just beginning. I felt at home.
After dropping off my luggage in my elegant room with its stunning frescoed ceiling and overlooking the nearby cathedral, I immediately embarked on a solitary walk through the town, intending only to explore for a bit and perhaps find a place to eat as darkness fell. The town was charming, but I couldn't shake the longing for my wife, with whom I had just spent four days in Paris. Thoughts of why I was wandering aimlessly in some small Italian town crossed my mind until I encountered an elderly woman wearing a black dress and sitting alone on a simple wooden chair outside her modest white-stone home. A mutual exchange of smiles and "buonasera" ensued. As I walked away, emotions swelled in my throat and a smile broke across my face. It was that simple moment of connection which reminded me as to why I travel, and why I keep returning to this incredible country. The magic is accessible to anyone willing to stroll through a small town in Italy, or even a big city like Rome, or frankly anywhere in the world, getting lost by choice, saying hello to a stranger, and allowing magical moments to unfold.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
As the evening progressed into night, I continued exploring the town, designed in a style reminiscent of Lecce’s Baroque architecture. I found myself sitting in front of a café in the main piazza, sipping Campari with club soda and contemplating ordering a simple plate of orecchiette pasta, Puglia’s most popular, with fresh tomatoes and basil, while watching the world go by. But first, I checked my email, and thank goodness I did: I received an unexpected invitation from the front desk receptionist to attend dinner in the main house of the former monastery.
The dinner featured two large bowls of homemade pasta crafted only a few hours earlier by a young German couple during their cooking class in the main kitchen of the monastery. The class was led by an elegant older woman with an infectious smile, who also happened to be the mother of Antonello, the owner of this unique hotel property, perfectly described on their website as an Art Boutique Hotel. I was treated as a member of the family at dinner, which included Antonello, his wife, two beautiful young children, his mother who had guided the German couple thru the cooking class, and of course the German tourists. Needless to say, the meal, along with the homemade limoncello that was made by Antonello’s mother, was an unforgettable experience.
The evening ended with my new German friends and I having a drink at an outdoor café located just outside the monastery late into the evening as we discussed everything from our mutual love for all-things-Italian to German politics.
PLAYING IN THE PIAZZA
The next morning, I encountered Antonello in the hotel's beautiful courtyard during breakfast, which for me consisted solely of locally grown fruits, such as perfectly ripe green figs and gorgeous honeydew melon, a cornetto (basically a croissant, but do not call it that in Italy), along with a very popular style of regional coffee called Caffè Leccese or Caffè alla Salentina (Salento is the southern-most part of Puglia). Antonello reminded me that during dinner he had invited both the German couple and me to tour Nardò with him, followed by lunch on the water at his friend’s restaurant. Before the tour, I returned to the main piazza, Piazza Salandra, for another espresso, just because I wanted to sit and watch this quaint little world go by.
While sitting at Caffè Parisi, I engaged in a conversation with young Norwegian parents sitting nearby who had an infant daughter comfortably sleeping in her stroller and their energetic blonde son, around age 2, kicking a soccer ball by himself. I asked the parents for permission to kick the ball around with him; and then the little piazza, which is closed off to car traffic, became the setting for unexpected playtime as my new found buddy and I kicked around his soccer ball together.
Following the few minutes of playing, I ran into another new friend from breakfast, a woman of Irish descent who lives in London with her husband, so this meant sitting at the café a little longer as I enjoyed my fourth espresso of the morning but, hey, whose counting.
ENJOYING SEAFOOD WHILE LEARNING LOCAL HISTORY
Then, only a few hours later, Antonello was guiding us through Nardò, turning what I anticipated to be a pleasant experience into something truly special. Lunch overlooking
the breathtaking beach of Santa Maria al Bagno, where locals and tourists alike continued to revel in summer's spirit, swimming and sunbathing, proved to be extraordinary. Our 2-hour feast at the Art Nouveau Restaurant consisted mainly of raw seafood caught that morning along with a perfectly chilled Pugliesi white wine was outstanding.
But as if that wasn’t enough, I learned from Antonello that this popular restaurant had once served as a hospital for Jewish refugees toward the end of WWII. The town was not only beautiful, it boasted a rich history about which locals take great pride in sharing.
I had been in Nardò less than 24 hours, and yet felt like a lifetime of magic had unfolded and my odyssey of exploring new places, making new friends, and enjoying countless unforgettable meals had only just begun.
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