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The International Writers Magazine
: Puglia, The Adriatic

Dacha to the Adriatic
Melissa Anderson

I 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.
“It’s 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. I’m 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. It’s well after midnight, and the Italians nestled at various patios are just digging into their first course.

The Italians with their Mediterranean skin and shop hours don’t 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 we’re 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, we’re 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 man’s ardor for the easy charms of American women, but this effort to score is undeniably impressive.

A year later it’s 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, we’re back in Castro, and on Italian Time again. It’s well after midnight, and the town square is packed with beautiful tanned teenaged girls in bikinis and boys in speedos and vespas. It’s 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 enthusiastic ambassadors.

We had been warned about Il Convento, or the Abbey, as the locals called it. That month’s 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 we’re 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. It’s gratifying to see the spell cast on a struggling writer can just as easily captivate one of Great Britain’s wealthiest collectors.

Back at the villa, we’re 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. It’s 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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