The International Writers Magazine: Puglia, The Adriatic
to the Adriatic
was chopping vegetables in my kitchen when a friend asked if I'd
like to go to Italy with her and stay in a villa rumored to be
Mikhail Gorbechev's summer home. A week later I was on a plane
with my friend and six other strangers to a place I'd never heard
of before. Just having lost my job and my fiance, I was learning
that "expect the unexpected" would become a mantra.
The ricci is still
alive when Carlo slices it open. The spiny black anemone, now in halves,
pulses in his hand, a slimy, briny heartbeat. With a quick motion he
scoops out its insides and spreads them over slabs of baguette.
Its an aphrodisiac, Georgio insists, pushing the overflowing
tray toward us. Va bene! It will make you fall in love.
We reluctantly accept the bread like sinners taking communion. I am
not in love it tastes like very fishy sushi. Im just thankful
it does not make want to vomit on our rescuers.
We are in Castro, at the southernmost heel of the boot that is Puglia,
Italy, on accident. A group of tonied, gourmet foodies had booked the
villa for a week in culinary instruction, but an illness derailed the
trip a week before it was to occur. With the hefty, non-refundable deposit
already paid, eight virtual strangers, bound by coincidence, Los Angeles
and opportunity, arrive to take their place. The whitewashed villa is
huge, and we run through its seven bedrooms like reality show contestants
who have just been introduced to their stylish digs. We sound like a
Fox special: there is the actress, the high school teacher, two publicists,
a music manager, a casting director, a Brit (and the only guy) and me,
a struggling writer with the double whammy of a lost job and a freshly
ex-ed fiancé. And now we are tossed together in Castro
inside the cheapest luxury villa imaginable. We heard Armani
stayed there just before us, and we ravenously dig into a bag of potato
chips the designer presumably left behind. The Armani chips only whetting
our appetite, we venture into the bustling town square of crumbling
stone buildings for pizza. Its well after midnight, and the Italians
nestled at various patios are just digging into their first course.
Italians with their Mediterranean skin and shop hours dont
know what to make of the fashionably pale California girls who visit
the gelato stand every 2 hours, asking repeatedly for an ATM. The
only other foreign tourists are Italians from the north. Word travels
that were staying in the Silvestrini villa at the end of the
road, and by nightfall, a group of teenaged Castro boys have slipped
onto the grounds, eager for a peek at reclining American beauties.
What they get is
terrified, shrieking girls who run barefoot to the local bar where the
rest of us are learning the finer points of limoncello shots from the
bartender, Georgio. We run, along with half of the tiny bar, to rescue
them, and one hour later, were family. The teens have been chased
off, empty bottles of white and rose litter the patio table, and Carlo
has dipped into the black Adriatic to retrieve ricci from the ocean
floor. It may be a cliché, the Italian mans ardor for the
easy charms of American women, but this effort to score is undeniably
A year later its apparent the ricci may have had some latent effect.
One of the girls has dedicated herself to Italian lessons and writes
to one of our bar rescuers who is serving in Iraq. The actress and the
Brit are in love. A faint scar on my ankle forever seals the memory
of riding on the back of the motorcycle to the top of the city, where
Castro intersects with the sky and the ruins of a church. None can banish
the memory of the aquamarine blue of the Adriatic, the whitewashed stone
buildings, the fresh peach gelato, even the omnipresent ricci that seems
to replenish itself despite frantic harvesting for the annual festival.
Maybe we are in love, because we have found our way back.
After a whirlwind tour of Rome and Capri, the eight strangers-now-confidantes
take the train to the ancient city of Lecce, not too dazed by the travel
to admire the baroque architecture. Carlo and Georgio arrive an hour
late, and profuse ciaos! And bellissimas! later, were back in
Castro, and on Italian Time again. Its well after midnight, and
the town square is packed with beautiful tanned teenaged girls in bikinis
and boys in speedos and vespas. Its 90 degrees, the air close
but not stifling. The peach gelato is soothingly chilly, and each lick
is a memory of last summer, of lounging on our rock beach
and diving into the bracing blue ocean. But our bar boys have plans
for us this time.
I have a special treat, Georgio announces between drags
from a perpetually lit cigarette, and he hands us the invitation.
Athena McAlpine is happy to announce the opening of Il Convento
di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, a very special bed & breakfast
in the southernmost tip of Italy. We study the invitation, printed
on impressively hefty cardstock, and eye Carlo and Georgio with suspicion.
Who are these work-averse, night loving boys who have such, well, hip
connections? Castro might as well be Italian for sleepy, our hosts its
We had been warned about Il Convento, or the Abbey, as the locals called
it. That months Travel and Leisure feature story hollered
that Puglia was the new Tuscany, and we were paranoid at the thought
of European jetsetters and New York fashion models raining from the
sky in their private jets, destroying our cliched fantasy that this
remote slice of the world was only ours for the loving.
We knock on the 15th century door to the Abbey, and were ushered
into a candlelit courtyard echoing with piped-in opera. I was
bohrne in the Dorchester Hotel, announces our pleasant host Lord
MacAlpine formally, only adding to the extremely surreal ambience. Lady
MacAlpine, or Athena, a sensual Greek thirty-something in a posh caftan,
pours wine from their private cellar and ushers us into a gilded pillow-filled
lounge for dessert. Later, giddy with drink and conversation, I sneak
upstairs with Jen to see how the decadently rich Europeans live, and
we comb rooms teeming with dusty volumes and native treasures from Africa.
The ghost of a young nun, or possibly the wind, ruffles the lace curtains
and sends us scurrying back to our hosts. Athena confesses their friends
thought the Lord and Lady crazy to leave England for remote Puglia,
but I suspect our aristocrats have sampled the ricci as well. Its
gratifying to see the spell cast on a struggling writer can just as
easily captivate one of Great Britains wealthiest collectors.
Back at the villa, were singing our best opera and dancing along
the edge of the Adriatic. Carlo and Georgio shrug off the notion of
more ricci. To the bar! they announce, dragging our last
bottles of pinot grigio out of the refrigerator. Its a speedier,
more efficient aphrodisiac, one that does not require a wet suit or
diving to the bottom of the sea.
© Melissa Anderson May 2005
CONTACT Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli,
Marittima di Diso, Puglia, Italy (07736 362328). Doubles ¤250, including
breakfast, lunch, drinks and laundry
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