12 Offbeat Travel Ideas For 2013

valetta maltaMy annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to reflect on all the places I visited during the year and plot out where I want to go in the New Year. 2012 was a banner travel year for my family because we put all of our things in storage for five months and traveled extensively in Europe and North America. We gorged ourselves on donuts and thought we got scammed in Western New York’s Amish Country, learned how to flatfoot on Virginia’s Crooked Road, were heckled and intimidated at a soccer game in Italy, and drank homemade wine with the only two residents of the village of San Michalis, on the Greek island of Syros.

%Gallery-174393%

For those of you who have made resolutions to hit the road in 2013, here are 12 travel experiences and destinations, most of them a little or very offbeat, that I highly recommend.


amish donuts12. Donut Crawl in Western New York’s Amish Country

Unlike Lancaster County and other more well known Amish areas around the country, Cattaraugus County’s Amish Trail is a place where you can experience Amish culture, and let’s be honest here – candy and donuts – without all the tourists and kitsch. I love the Amish donuts so much that I went in January and again in July. Because there aren’t many tourists in this region, you’ll find that many of the Amish who live here are just as curious about you as you are about them.

11. Soak Up Colonial Era History in Marblehead, Massachusetts

I’ve been visiting family members in Marblehead for nearly 20 years and I never get tired of this beautifully preserved, quintessential New England town. Marblehead gets a steady trickle of day-trippers from Boston – but don’t make that mistake – book a B & B in this town and dive into one of America’s most historic towns for a full weekend.

10. Save The Turtles, Eat the Fish Tacos and Ride The Waves in Safe, Scenic San Pancho, Mexico

If you want a low-key beach vacation in Mexico but aren’t into big resorts or large cities, look no further than San Pancho, which is only an hour from the Puerto Vallarta airport. It’s about as safe as Mayberry, and you can volunteer to help preserve marine turtles, eat the best fish tacos you’ve ever had and surf and frolic on a huge, spectacular beach.



sicilian man in gangi nicola seminara9. Visit Gangi, Italy’s Most Charming Hill Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Italy is filled with enchanting hill towns, but many of them are besieged with tourists. If you want to check out a lovely hill town in Sicily’s interior that hasn’t changed much in centuries, check out Gangi, where you’ll find everything you could want in an Italian hill town: a perfect central piazza, a medieval street plan you will get lost in, and perhaps the world’s best gelato at the Seminara Bar (no relation to me).

freiburg germany8. Eat the Real Black Forest Ham in Historic Freiburg, Germany

Freiburg is a gorgeous, highly underrated city in Germany’s Black Forest region that is a pedestrian and gourmand dream. Here in the U.S., companies can get away with calling any old ham “Black Forest ham” but in Freiburg, you can sample the real deal and you will taste the difference.




7. Discover Old Time Music on Virginia’s Crooked Road

Southwest Virginia has a 253-mile music heritage trail that’s a glorious little slice of Americana where you’ll find terrific homespun music played by passionate locals who have Old Time Music in their blood. Don’t miss venues like the Fries Theater and the Floyd Country Store and bring your dancing shoes.




enzo ferrari museum modena italy6. Check Out Evita Peron’s Ride at Italy’s New Ferrari Museum

I’m not even a car buff, but I loved visiting the new Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, a picture-postcard small city in Emilia-Romagna, near Parma, that doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it deserves. The museum pays tribute to the founder of Ferrari, who was born in the house next to the museum, and the automotive heritage of the Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati and other companies that make vehicles suitable for rap stars, professional athletes and others who like to be noticed.




5. Eat at the World’s Best Greek Restaurant in San Michalis, Syros, Population:2

Syros is just a short ferry ride away from Mykonos but it gets only a tiny fraction of the tourists and I’m not sure why. It’s a gorgeous little island, with a thriving port, great beaches and To Plakostroto the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever been to, located in a striking, end-of-the-world village where you can see six neighboring islands.




4. Experience Bluegrass Nirvana at the Rosine Barn Jamboree in Kentucky

Every Friday night from March through early December, local musicians gather to jam at an old barn and general store in Rosine, Kentucky, the tiny little town where Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music was born. This might be the best free music jam in the whole country and best of all, the regulars are the sweetest people you will ever meet.




samos3. Patmos & Samos Not Santorini and Mykonos

I’m obsessed with the Greek Isles. If I could spend my holidays in just one place anywhere in the world, it might be here. But I get a little frustrated by the fact that most Americans visit only Santorini & Mykonos. Both places are undeniably beautiful, but there are dozens of less expensive, less crowded islands that are just as nice. Patmos and Samos, in the eastern Aegean, are absolutely gorgeous and aren’t as crowded or expensive. Samos is known for its wine & honey, while Patmos is home to one of the most interesting monasteries in Greece.




obama pasticciotto2. Eat an Obama Pasticciotto in Italy’s Heel

The fact that Salento, a peninsula in Italy’s heel, has a chocolaty, gooey desert named after President Obama is just one reason to visit this very special but relatively off-the-radar part of Italy. Lecce is a baroque dream, a lively place with a great passegiata, unforgettable food and wine, very friendly people and fine beaches in the vicinity.




1. Make Friends in Valletta, Malta

I had but one day in Valletta and I spent a big chunk of it trying to track down a retired Maltese civil servant who chided me for misrepresenting the country at a school model U.N. in 1986, but I saw enough of this city to want more. Valletta is a heartbreakingly picturesque port, with gently decaying sandstone buildings, warm people, dramatic Mediterranean vistas and artery-clogging pastizzis, which were my favorite treat of 2012.

Drunk Italians Dancing In The Streets And Other Very Good Reasons To Visit Lecce And Salento

ostuniAs I sit in the cool open-air courtyard of our rented apartment, on a hard-to-find street behind Lecce’s Duomo, the sound of carefully spaced church bells punctuates the silence of the mid-day pausa – Italy’s siesta. Our American instinct is to get out and “do something” on this warm, sunny day. But our newfound Italian inclination is to laze about, digest lunch, and think about what we’ll have for dinner.

When the mood strikes us, we venture back into the web of streets in this sultry city between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, smack near the butt end of Italy’s heel. The streets of Lecce’s baroque centro storico were made for walking and the town’s well dressed residents are out in force, eating gelato, enjoying glasses of wine in sidewalk enotecas and stopping to greet one another, with an exchange of cheek kisses and a flurry of smiles. Overhead, crazy flocks of blackbirds, called rondini, in these parts, swirl and swoop in wild packs, making a racket and creating an eerie, tropical din I’ve never before encountered.

On our first passegiata in the city, we notice music and a crowd forming on Via Templari Street and follow our ears to see what’s going on. A street-side piano player is leading a group of middle aged Italians in a rousing version of what I later learned is a famous WWI era, Neapolitan love song, “‘O Surdato ‘Nnamurato” (The Soldier In Love). I’m not accustomed to seeing people set up pianos on the street, and I hadn’t seen people have so much fun in a very long time. I assumed it was some sort of special festa we were unaware of, but onlookers quickly disabused me of that notion.

“Nesuna festa,” the youngest member of the group told me. There was no festival.
“It’s drunk Naples people.”

But you don’t have to be drunk to want to break out in song on the streets of Lecce. Every evening, there’s a free show waiting to be experienced in the city’s atmospheric baroque piazzas and narrow cobbled streets. Life is lived on the streets here – the weather is warm, the wine is tasty and the Pugliese people are incredibly warm and welcoming.

%Gallery-155506%

Lecce and the Salento peninsula, which makes up the south end of the heel, has long been a trendy place for Romans and Neapolitans to vacation, but it’s quickly finding its way onto the radar of stranieri (foreigners) as well, thanks to a stream of good press of late. In 2010, Lonely Planet named Lecce one of the top ten places to visit in the world, and just recently, Fodor’s named the greater Puglia region as one of four “undiscovered” Italian destinations to visit in 2012.

Fabio Leo, an engaging tour guide who works in Lecce’s tourism office, assured me that Lecce was poised to conquer the world.

“The last two summers we’ve had more tourists visit Salento than any other place in Italy,” he said.

“More than Rome, Florence or Venice?” I asked, not quite believing it.

Assolutamente!” he said.

Mr. Leo’s numbers may be off by a few hundred thousand, but the point is clear – Lecce and Salento aren’t the far-flung backwaters they once were. Salento is prosperous enough that there’s a movement to secede from Puglia and become its own official province. Below you’ll find several reasons why Lecce and the Salento peninsula make up one of the most underrated regions in Italy.

Lecce. I was based in Lecce for 10 days and every time I thought I’d seen everything, I’d discover a new street or piazza that warranted exploration, an inexpensive restaurant so good that I wished I had time to become a regular or another baroque church I’d want to visit. The city has a relaxed vibe and a huge percentage of the town’s residents turn out for the evening passegiata.

Food and Wine. Every region in Italy has its specialties and Salento is no different. Try the orchiette, the minestrone di fave con cicoria, pasticiottos, and the Salice Salentino wine.

Great Beaches and a Terrific Climate. This is one of the warmest, sunniest corners of Italy and the beaches, on both the Ionian and Adriatic coasts are quite nice. One word of caution on this front – if you don’t have a car, it is very difficult to reach the best beaches in places like Porto Cesareo and the Ionian Coast between Gallipoli and Santa Maria de Leuca via public transportation, especially off-season or in the shoulder seasons.

Endless Day Trip Possibilities. If you have a car, make a circuit of the entire peninsula. If you don’t, your options will be more limited, but you can still get to historic towns like Gallipoli and Otranto on the FSE Regional train line from Lecce’s main train station, and you can also get within 5 miles of Santa Maria de Leuca, where the two seas meet. (Take a connecting bus to complete the trip.)

Incredibly Welcoming Locals. Italians are a friendly, gregarious lot in general but I found the people of Salento to be remarkably warm and welcoming. We had complete strangers offer to drive us to get pasticiottos, I was welcomed into a local soccer supporters club, and my two little boys, ages 2 and 4, were accorded cheek pinches and kisses everywhere they went.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

Experiencing The Beautiful Game In Italy

lecce salentini soccer fans ultrasI’d just been hit with a plastic bottle of water square on the back, but I was pretty sure it was nothing personal. But moments later, when I was pelted again, I started to wonder. Another minute passed and two thugs with tattoos on their thick necks ended the suspense with a blunt, intimidating message.

Thug number one barked at me in Italian and when I protested that I didn’t understand, his colleague menacingly chimed in.

“No photos!” barked thug #2.

“Get out,” cried thug #1, grabbing my wrist forcefully, and directing me out of Lecce’s Ultra fan zone.

It was my first time watching a live soccer match in Italy’s Serie A, the country’s most exalted soccer league, and I’d been unceremoniously ousted from the curva nord, the wildest nook of Lecce’s Stadio Via Del Mare for taking photos of “Ultras” the team’s most fervent, some would say thuggish, supporters. I found the informal expulsion bizarre considering I took just a few wide-angle shots with dozens of fans in each frame and no close ups.

For reasons I now can’t fathom, I found myself reaching into my wallet looking for a business card. I handed it to the hooligan on my left, because he looked like he might have just been released from prison for something like armed robbery, whereas the man on my right looked like he’d probably taken a life or two at some point. Thug #2 held my card in his large, bear-like paw for a few moments, studying it as though it were an important ancient text.

“We don’t care about this,” he said. “You go now.”lecce supporters calcioHe didn’t have to ask twice. I made a beeline back to the safety of a small group of equally passionate but far friendlier Lecce supporters who had taken me under their wing earlier in the game. When I told Eugenio and Mimmo, my new friends who had their own informal supporters club called UDB, that the Ultras weren’t fond of me taking their photos, they weren’t surprised.

We were standing in the curva nord, the equivalent of end zone seats, terraces in U.K. vernacular, and while the rest of the cavernous, half-full stadium was relatively quiet, with Lecce down 1-0 to Fiorentina, our section was alive in song, derisive chants and, well, anarchy. Some of the Ultras rolled and smoked joints, drank from airplane-size bottles of Smirnoff smuggled into the stadium in ingenious hiding places, and protected their turf from fans like me who clearly didn’t belong.

You might not like soccer, but if you’ve never been to a big-time match in Italy or other parts of the continent, where the sport is a religion, you’ve missed out on a truly vital part of the culture.

Outside the stadium, security was tight. In order to buy a ticket, fans have to show their photo I.D. and known troublemakers are barred. A phalanx of security guards checked the photo I.D.’s again upon entry and fans are frisked on the way in. But once fans step onto the terraces, they’re left to police themselves for the most part.

Fans can only enter the stadium for the specific section they’re ticketed for, and high spikey fencing separates the sections. The section for visiting fans resembles a giant cage. I was originally ticketed for a normal seat, but decided to exit the stadium and buy another ticket when I saw how much fun the Ultras were having in the curva.

In Italy’s Serie A, the bottom three teams are relegated at the end of the season to Serie B, which is a bit like a Major League Baseball team being sent down to compete in the minor leagues. Lecce entered Saturday night’s contest with Fiorentina third from the bottom and needing a win in order to have a realistic hope of staying in Serie A next season. The stakes were even higher than usual for Lecce, because the team is up for sale, and its owner, Giovanni Semeraro, stands to make millions more on the sale if the team remains in Serie A.

Lecce was miserable in the first half of the season but made up some ground of late with a string of solid performances. Nonetheless, team management lowered the price of the terrace seats from 12 euros to 5 in recent weeks in order to stoke interest in the team’s fledgling campaign. On this night, the team looked completely lost in the first half, as Fiorentina jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the thirty-fifth minute when Alessio Cerci barreled in alone and buried a low shot in the corner of the net. After scoring, Fiorentina seemed content to play defense and hang on.

But it hardly seemed to matter in the curva, as the Ultras sang and partied throughout the match. Eugenio translated a few of the songs for me and here’s a rough translation of one of my favorites.

Danger if you come into Salento
Be ware of the Ultras from Lecce
Every day here in St. Martin’s Day (The Patron Saint of Wine)
We come from the south of Italy
And we love our red wine
I will always be from Salento

As the second half wore on, the fans grew more and more frustrated as Lecce blew one chance after another. Fans denounced the players from both teams using a derogatory slang term to describe sex workers, and the referees were accused of being incorrigibly corrupt criminals. But their most spiteful chant was reserved for Semeraro, the team owner. Over and over again, they urged him to go forth and multiply without the benefit of a sex partner.

The team was still down just 1-0, but the Salentini were so disorganized that the one goal margin felt insurmountable. In the seventy-second minute, the fans finally found something to cheer about, as a Fiorentina player toppled a photographer, knocking him out cold, and prompting howls of gleeful laughter from the fans.

I asked Giovanni, another fan I met, what the highlight of the year had been so far, and he said the best moment had come a few weeks before when Andrea Masiello, a defender from Lecce’s rival, Bari, was arrested after admitting that he purposely scored on his own goalie during a game last year against Lecce, after being paid €50,000 by a Macedonian gangster, who was plotting to keep Lecce, which was on the verge of relegation to Serie B, up in Serie A.

But Eugenio didn’t agree with this sentiment.

“We hate Bari, but I took no pleasure in this,” he said. “I was at the game and I thought it was an honest mistake – not a criminal act. It’s a shame, an embarrassment for Italy.”

The relegation system creates high stakes at the bottom of the table each year. Lecce has been neck and neck with Genoa, which is fourth from the bottom of the table and Genoa’s fanatical fans actually managed to halt a game last week, as fans threatened the players, who were down 4-0, and forced all but one of them to relinquish their jerseys, as they deemed them unfit to wear them. As a punishment for this farce, the team has to play its final two games at home in an empty stadium with no fans.

Craziness is not unusual in Italian football. Fiorentina’s coach had recently been dismissed for slapping one of his players.

lecce fiorentina Lecce failed to equalize against Fiorentina and the 1-0 loss means that Lecce will go down to Serie B next season unless they win their final match next week and Genoa loses. I asked Memo and Eugenio if it might not be better to be a successful Serie B team rather than a very bad Serie A one but they both rejected this logic.

“Being in Serie A is about pride for us,” Eugenio said. “We get recognition, and it’s good for tourism too. We want to be in the top league, but now, well, we’re going down for sure.”

As the final whistle blew, the red and yellow clad Lecce squad collapsed in exhaustion on the field. After all the expletives, I half expected the Ultras to storm the field and lynch the players, but instead, they gave the fans a rousing ovation for their effort.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “They lost.”

“This is the most beautiful thing,” Eugenio said. “The team has tried so hard, we need to salute them.”

Before I knew it, the fans were singing again. Their team hadn’t scored a goal and were surely about to be relegated to the minor leagues, but there were still good times to be had. That is, until the fans decided to remind Semeraro to asexually reproduce on his way home from the game.

lecce calcio On the way out of the stadium, I had a hard time finding the bus stop to get back to my rented apartment and a family whom I approached for directions told me to hop in for a ride. Ms. Orme insisted that I sit up front with her husband, Alessandro, as she piled into the back seat with their two young daughters. I was amazed at how trusting they were; I could have been an axe murderer, a Fiorentina fan, or even an Ultra.

Alessandro explained the fans’ hatred for Giovanni Semeraro, the team’s owner.

“They are, how do you say it, not caro (expensive), but..”

“Cheap,” I interjected, thinking that the Salentini fans had a lot in common with many of the American sports franchises I follow.

“Exactly, cheap,” he said.

But that display of hospitality turned out to be just a precursor for what came next. The day after the game, I was invited to join the Facebook group of UDB, Universita Della Balaustra, (roughly translates as the University of the Terraces) the informal supporters club my new friends were part of.

Before I knew it, I was being welcomed as the group’s first stranieri (foreigner) and it dawned on me that groups like UDB are what I love about soccer. In Italy, and in many other parts of the world, the sport inspires strong passions but it also fosters a sense of community and shared experience.

Lecce might never finish at the top of the Serie A but it doesn’t matter, because the joy is in going to the games, demonstrating pride not just in the team but in the region and in being one of the gang. For one night, I was part of Italy’s beautiful game in Lecce, and thanks to Facebook, I’m now an honorary Salentini supporter. And the next time I make it to a match, I’ll know to leave my camera at home.