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.

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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.

Q & A with Grantourismo round-the-world slow travel bloggers

Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWith all the holiday travel madness just beginning, sometimes it’s nice to take a breath and think about taking travel more slowly. I recently had a chance to meet up with blogger Lara Dunston and her photographer-writer husband, Terence Carter, of the round-the-world travel project and blog, Grantourismo while they were traveling through Istanbul. Lara and Terence hosted me at their fabulous terraced apartment with glasses of Turkish wine, travel chat, and views of nearby Taksim Square and the nostalgic tram.

Grantourismo is a yearlong grand tour of the globe to explore more enriching and ‘authentic’ (and they get how those words have been debated and abused by travel bloggers!) ways of traveling, which began in Dubai this February and will wrap up in Scotland in January. In order to slow down and immerse themselves in each place, they are staying in vacation rentals (rather than hotels) in one place for two weeks at a time.

Read on for more about their slow travel philosophy, tips about renting a holiday apartment, and how they found Austin’s best tacos.

What’s the essence of Grantourismo?
We’re attempting to get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting and to inspire other travelers to do the same. We’re doing very little sightseeing and if we’re taking tours, we’re doing small group tours with expert local guides ran by sustainable companies, such as Context. Mostly we’re experiencing places through their food, markets, music, culture, fashion, street art, sport, etc, and doing things that locals do in their own towns rather than things tourists travel to their towns to do. We’re trying and buying local produce and products, and seeking out artisanal practices we can promote. We’re also highlighting ways in which travellers can give something back to the places they’re visiting, from planting trees in Costa Rica to kicking a football with kids in a favela in Rio. And we’re blogging about this every day at Grantourismo!

How did you make it a reality?
Our initial idea was 12 places around the world in 12 months, learning things like the original grand tourists did. Terence, who is a great musician and a terrific cook, wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen and learn a musical instrument while I was going to enroll in language classes and learn something different in each place. But we couldn’t figure out how to fund such a project. We were lucky in that I saw an ad from HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (the UK arm of HomeAway) looking for a travel journalist-photographer team to stay in their vacation rentals and blog about their experiences for a year. I presented Grantourismo to them, they loved it, and here we are! We’re in the 10th month of our yearlong trip, we’ve stayed in 27 properties in 18 countries, and we have a ski town and five cities to go! We’ve written 369 stories on our website – and only 27 of those have been about the properties, the rest have been about everything from winetasting to walking – and we’ve done loads of interviews with locals we’ve met, from musicians and chefs to fashion designers and bookbinders.

Terence Carter Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWhat’s the biggest difference about staying in an apartment vs. a hotel?
The biggest difference and best thing is that when you’re staying in a vacation rental you’re generally living in an everyday neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, which means you can meet people other than hotel cleaners and waiters. You can pop downstairs or down the road to a local café or pub that’s full of locals rather than other tourists. You can shop in local markets or supermarkets that are significantly cheaper. Sure if you’re staying in a hotel you can go and look at the markets, but your hotel mini-bar probably won’t hold much, whereas we go with a shopping list or we simply watch what the locals are buying, and we go home and cook.

You can generally get off the beaten track far easier than you can when you stay in a hotel. If you’re relying on the concierge for tips, you’re going to see other hotel guests eating at the restaurant he recommended. Then there’s the beauty of having lots of space, your own kitchen so you don’t have to eat out every meal, and a refrigerator you can fill that doesn’t have sensors going off when you open it. There might be shelves filled with books or a DVD library – in Cape Town we even had a piano, which Terence played every day! The privacy – we got tired of housekeeping ignoring DND signs, people coming to check the outrageously-priced mini-bar, and the phone always ringing with staff asking, when were we checking out, did we want a wake-up call, could they send a porter up. It became so tedious, especially as we were spending around 300 days a year in hotels on average. There are downsides to holiday rentals too of course. If something goes wrong the property owner/manager isn’t always around to fix it, whereas in a hotel, you phone the front desk to let them know the Internet isn’t working and they’ll send someone up.

What should travelers consider when renting a holiday apartment?
Location first. What kind of neighbourhood do you want to live in, how off the beaten track do you want to get, do you want to walk into the centre or are you happy to catch public transport or drive, what kind of facilities are in the area if you’re not hiring a car, and is there a supermarket, shops, restaurants, café, bars in walking distance? After that, the quality of accommodation – in the same way that people decide whether to opt for a budget hotel if they just want somewhere to lay their head, or a five-star if they want creature comforts, they need to think about how much time they intend spending at the property and the level of comfort they want. We stayed in a budget apartment in Manhattan, which was fine as we were out a lot. In Ceret, France and Sardinia, Italy we had big charming houses with terrific kitchens, which was perfect as we stayed in and cooked a lot. If it’s a family reunion or group of friends going away together and they want to enjoy meals in, then it’s important to ask detailed questions about the kitchen and facilities, as we’ve had some places that only had the bare basics, while others like our properties in Austin and Cape Town had dream kitchens.

Favorite destination/apartment?
We’ve been to some amazing places but my favourites have been Tokyo and Austin. We’d only visited Tokyo once before on a stopover, stayed in a cramped hotel and just did the tourist sights. This time we really saw how people lived by staying in an apartment, we discovered different corners of the city we didn’t know existed, and we made new friends. In Austin, it was all about the people, who must be the USA’s friendliest and coolest. We spent a lot of time seeing live music and met lots of musicians, and we also got into the food scene – locals take their food very seriously in Austin! We even hosted a dinner party there with Terence cooking up a multi-course tasting menu for our new friends. In terms of properties, I’m torn between the rustic traditional white trullo set amongst olive groves that we stayed at in Puglia where we had our own pizza oven and bikes to ride in the countryside, the penthouse in the historic centre of Mexico City, and the two houses in Costa Rica, one set in the jungle and the other on the beach, literally within splashing distance of the sea!

Funny story about one of your stays?
The funniest moments weren’t funny at the time but we look back at them and laugh now. At our the Puglia trullo we had terrible internet access. It barely worked in the house because the walls were so thick, yet internet is crucial to what we’re doing so we had to work outside, which wasn’t much fun in the rain. Terence discovered that he could get the best access in the middle of the olive grove next door; you can see him working here! The monkeys that visited us everyday in our houses in Costa Rica were also hilarious. One morning I was enjoying a rare moment reading in the sun when I saw a rare red-backed squirrel monkey run across the fence, and then another leapfrog that one, and then another join them! I quickly got up and raced into the kitchen to make sure there was no food left on the bench, turned around and there was a family of 30-40 monkeys trooping through the house. These guys are endangered, but it didn’t look like it from where I was standing in the kitchen in my bikinis and towel, trying to protect our food as the property manager had warned us that they know how to open the cupboards! The manager also told us to leave the lights on at night, because otherwise the bats will think the house is a cave. She wasn’t kidding.

How is social media playing a role in your travels?
We decided not to use guidebooks this Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersyear and rely on advice from locals, many of which we come in contact with through social media. We’ve met many locals via their blogs or Twitter. We use Twitter every day, as a research and networking tool, to make contacts ahead of our visit and get tips from people when we’re there. We’ve had some amazing advice from our followers, from restaurant recommendations to suggestions on things we should do. When we were in Cape Town, loads of tweeps said we had to do the Township Tour offered by Cape Capers and we did and they were right, it was life-changing.

Terence learns how to make the quintessential dish of each place we visit and often asks tweeps what he should make. We’ve had great tips from food bloggers who use Twitter such as Eating Asia and Eat Mexico. We’ve ended up meeting loads of tweeps, including a bunch of New Yorkers – bloggers, writers and travelers – we met for drinks one night, including Gadling’s own Mike Barish and David Farley, while in Austin we had lunch with ‘the Taco Mafia‘ from the Taco Journalism blog and got the lowdown on Austin’s best tacos. We also use Twitter to share our own travel experiences and let people know when we have new stories on the site and we run a monthly travel blogging competition which we promote on Twitter (with very generous prizes donated by HomeAway Holiday Rentals, AFAR, Viator, Context, Trourist, and Our Explorer); the aim of that is to get other travelers to help spread our messages about the kind of traveling we’re doing.

What’s next?
As far as Grantourismo goes, we just left Istanbul (where we were delighted to meet another fascinating Gadling contributor!) and are in Budapest. After this it’s Austria for some fun in the snow, then Krakov for Christmas, Berlin for New Year’s Eve, and our last stop is Edinburgh end of January. After that? We’ve been invited to speak at an international wine tourism conference in Porto, Portugal, about Grantourismo and wine, as we’ve explored places through their wine as much as their food, doing wine courses, wine tastings, wine walks, and wine tours, and really trying to inspire people to drink local rather than imported wine. Then we’re going to write a book about Grantourismo and our year on the road, and later in the year – after we’re rested and energised – we’re going to take Grantourismo into a slightly different direction.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.