There I was, brochures spread out on the floor before me, propped up on elbows, poring over trips to Puglia, Italy. “When should we go?” I asked my favorite traveling companion, my husband, Steve. Then came his reply: “I’m not sure I can get away this year.”
Here’s the thing. For years I was the one who couldn’t travel – big corporate job, lots of stress, daunting workload – so as soon as I was eligible, I took early retirement. Then Steve, in a move that was completely counter-intuitive, went from a great nine-month contract as a professor to a twelve-month contract as an academic dean. Now I was the one longing to heed the call of ports unknown.
“But Steve, at my back, I hear Time’s winged-chariot. In other words, it’s time to suck the marrow, gather ye rosebuds.” Then, sheepishly, I added, “Maybe it’s time for me to go it alone.”
And that’s how it all began. In September, I was on my way to Otranto, Italy, to study at Porta d’Oriente, an Italian language school recognized by the universities for foreigners in Siena and Perugia, institutes of repute further north.
Ask any baby boomer what’s on her retirement checklist and she will tell you, travel and language acquisition. I was no different. I had been in love with la bella lingua for years and had taken adult education courses for just as long, but I needed total immersion.
After surfing the web for about thirty minutes I was sold on Otranto – as soon as I saw pictures of the charming lungomare along the Adriatic, the water that amazing cerulean blue, the sight of which suggesting ancient gods must have resided along this coast. A few emails later, I was enrolled in the school, assured an apartment would be waiting for me when I arrived, and that someone named Angelo would pick me up at the airport, drive me to Otranto, and hand over the keys to an apartment I would call home for two weeks. Dream or soon-to-be-reality?
Sure enough, after a not terrible flight to Rome (aisle seat, center section – could be worse), I connect to Brindisi and am passing through customs where I see the Porta d’Oriente sign.
It’s working; I’m speaking Italian.
As we head out for Otranto, I try striking up a conversation with Angelo. No dice. It seems our ability to communicate hit its peak when we said hello. His English is matched by my Italian. I look outside my window and see the famed olive trees of Puglia and ancient abandoned trulli, the oddly-shaped, conical structures, once humble homes to farming families and their animals. I admire the view in silence.
When we arrive an hour later, I am relieved to see the town, as lovely as the pictures on the internet, the Castle of Otranto, standing like a barrel-chested sentry in the golden light of this September afternoon.
Angelo parks the car near the footbridge by the castle (no cars are allowed in the old town), and, hauling my bags, leads me through the meandering streets to my apartment on the Piazza del Popolo. He opens the shutters, and as I look out on the town below, I can see how well situated I will be here. The “apartment” is only a bedroom with a small kitchenette and a bathroom, but the real attraction is the roof-top terrace, with its panoramic sea view.
After Angelo leaves, I take a leisurely stroll around town. The height of the tourist season is over, but the busiest thoroughfare, Corso Garibaldi, is still bustling with people eating what appears to be sinfully creamy gelati and wandering in and out of the many shops and restaurants.
By Sunday night, I am like a kid before the first day of school. I even carefully arrange the clothes I will wear on a chair before I go to bed.
On Monday morning classes begin. Even in a total immersion environment, I know I can’t expect miracles, but the teachers appear professional and energetic, so I’m eager to start. The students this week come from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Poland. There is only one American, a flight attendant who speaks Southern Californian, but her Italian is pretty good.
I am in the basic class, which is small. There are Elizabeth from Switzerland, Manuella from Germany (both near my age), and Valery from Holland, a recent college graduate who will begin her advanced degree in the fall. My teacher this first week is Stephania, who speaks slowly and clearly, a blessing for me. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Near the end of the week, I decide that language acquisition travel is the way to go. Not only am I learning to speak Italian more confidently, I am learning the history of a culture little known to Americans. I have Barbara Dimitri, the young founder of the school, to thank for this. Wearing many hats, she also leads the tours, sharing her knowledge of the region, which, it turns out, is encyclopedic.
The tours, offered two or three times a week, take place in the afternoons after class. Some are free and last a few hours, others are five or six hours and cost 35 Euros, transportation and guide included. During my stay, the longer tours include an olive mill and winery; Greek Salento; Lecce, the “Florence of the South”; and the South Coast. In addition, there are tours of Otranto’s historical center and Barbara’s seminar on Tarantismo, about the “pinch” (pizzica) or bite of the tarantula, related to the traditional dance of the South, the Tarantella. I go to everything.
One of my favorite tours is to Greek Salento. On the way, I learn the old Greek dialect is still spoken in these nine towns where the heritage goes back to the 8th century, BC. Barbara explains (in Italian – I have to ask for clarification at times) that Salento has long been the door to the East in this most southeastern of Italy’s regions. Another tour not to be missed is to the South Coast, where, leaving Otranto, the shoreline turns to high cliffs. The Adriatic here is a deep dark blue, often erupting into frothy white caps, sending waves slamming onto the craggy rocks above.
At the end of the first week, I am tan and wearing a constant smile. In the evenings I spend hours on roof tops with classmates, eating, drinking, and laughing. On clear mornings, eating breakfast on the terrace, I can see the mountains of Albania in the distance.
All too soon, my last day of class arrives. I say a tearful good-bye to Stephania and to Barbara, who tells me she expects me to be in the advanced class one day. I give her another hug.
Saturday morning I spend shopping for gifts, finding AnimaMundi on a side street, where, seeing a book on yoga, I ask Giuseppe Conoci, the owner, if he knows where I can find a studio. I miss my regular yoga class, and as luck would have it, he is going tomorrow evening and will take me.
He picks me up with Francesca, the teacher. On the way, I learn that we are going to her family villa, where she teaches and holds retreats. The yoga studio looks like it might once have been a chapel, with its large interior and high-domed ceiling. One other student joins us for an intense practice of Ashtanga yoga. Francesca, an accomplished teacher, leads the class in Italian – I follow as best I can. She easily switches to English when she sees I need help.
After class, I am starving, so I invite Francesca and Giussepe to dinner at La Botte, a popular pizzeria. Finishing our wine, we are not quite ready for the evening to end. Francesca asks us to her place for amaro, the bittersweet after dinner drink. It turns out her “place” is the new five-star hotel, the Palazzo Papaleo, she and her husband, Mark, run. The palazzo has been in Francesca’s family for centuries. Several amari later, I realize it is getting late and that I must say good-night.
Walking home, I stop to look at the late night sky, stars still bright, but a distinct light beginning to emerge in the east. I take it all in one last time.
In the morning Angelo picks me up where he left me off two weeks earlier. On the way we have a lively conversation – in Italian. At the airport we say arrivederci. I only know the past and present tenses, so I cannot tell him in Italian that I will come back, but he knows. And so do I.
GETTING THERE: Best bet, connect through Rome. Flights generally start at $1,000. There are one hour flights on Alitalia to Bari or Brindisi ranging from $250 to $350. Trains to Otranto depart from both airports regularly. Check www.tranitalia.com for schedule and fares.
WHERE TO STUDY ITALIAN: Several Italian language schools in Otranto are recognized by the universities for foreigners in Siena and Perugia, such as Scuola Porta d’Oriente (www.porta-doriente.com/) and Italian Language School, ILS (www.ilsonline.it/).
Cattedrale dell’Annunziata for the mosaic tree of life covering the cathedral’s floor, open June-September, from 7 a.m.-12 p.m. and from 3 p.m.-8 p.m., Via Duomo, admission free.
Basicila di S. Pietro, a tiny 9th century Greek style church with colorful frescoes of
various biblical scenes. Open July 15th-September 15th, 10 a.m.-12p.m. and from 3:30 p.m.-8 p.m., Via S. Pietro, admission free.
The Alimini Lakes National Park, north of Otranto on the SS611, is perfect for a day trip. A venue for fishing, bathing in hot springs, and picnicking, there is the added plus of beautiful forests. Buses run daily during the summer.
WHERE TO STAY: The language schools provide apartments that are less expensive than most hotels or B&Bs.
Palazzo de Mori: A moderately priced B&B, in town and on the sea, with understated but elegant accommodations and a lovely breakfast. Daily rates from $117, higher in July and August. Tel: 39 0836 801088; www.palazzodemori.it.
Palazzo Papaleo: The new and only 5-star hotel in the center of Otranto, a gracious family-owned palace retaining its old world charm amid tasteful modern renovations. From $375. Tel: 39 0836 802108; www.hotelpalazzopapaleo.com.
Hotel Miramare: A 3-star hotel, well located across the street from one of the in town beaches, with comfortable accommodations. From $117. Tel: 39 0836 801023; www.miramareotranto.com.
WHERE TO EAT
La Botte, Via Guglielmotto d’Otranto, 39 0836 804293. A busy pizzeria/trattoria near the port where the locals eat. Great for pizza and pasta dishes. Dinner with house wine about $20 a person.
La Pignata, Corso Garibaldi, 39 0836 801284. Best for local seafood, prepared simply but well. Dinner with house wine about $50 per person.
Zia Fernanda, Via XXV Aprile, 39 0836 801884. Family-owned, casual restaurant, specializing in typical pasta and seafood dishes, frequented by locals and tourists alike. Dinner with house wine about $45 per person.
WHEN TO GO: April-mid June or September-mid October for good weather and lower prices. Months to avoid are July and August when temperatures soar and the city swells with tourists.
SPECIAL EVENTS OF INTEREST:
Festival of lamps, June 21-22, Calimera, in Greek Salento, marking the beginning of summer with fanciful and colorful paper lamps hung on overhead wires and lighting the night sky.
Festival of Saints, Peter and Paul, June 28-30, Galatina, in Greek Salento, a great opportunity to see the frantic dancing of the Tarantella to the beat of tambourines.
Festival of the Holy Martyrs, Otranto, commemorating the massacre of the venerated 800 who gave their lives during the Turkish invasion of 1480.
For additional information, go to www.comune.otranto.le.it/ to find the latest tourist information. Tip: Google Comune di Otranto and hit “translate this page” for English.
About the author:
Jean is a freelance writer with articles appearing in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, including The Hartford Journal, Skirt!, Long Island Woman, upstreet, and The Distillery. A recent short story appears in the Spring,’09 issue of Slow Trains, on online literary journal. She lives with her husband, Steve, and black Lab, Sylvester in Greenwich CT. They spend their summers in Tyringham, MA, where Jean teaches yoga in her studio, the YogaBarn.
Photo by Paolo Màrgari on Flickr