At around 7am we wake in a haze on board our traveling bedroom. The night was rough, full of noisy juddering stops, wriggling children, badly gauged air conditioning, and too narrow beds. But when we ping up the blind on the enormous picture frame of a window and look out across the Puglian countryside illuminated in the morning light, all is forgotten. Olive groves rush past lined with ancient trees meandering in waves across the landscape as if each field were made of tightly woven plaits. And the look of absolute wonder that grows across the children’s faces as they sit together on the top bunk in the bright sun, sipping and spilling orange juice all over the stiff starched bed sheets whilst they survey these changed surroundings, makes the backache and the bad night wholly worthwhile.
We stop and start at unknown towns, and then at Bari and Brindisi where the sea and her boats ride up, and which are familiar to me from my interrailing youth. The train finally pulls in to Lecce, where we are the last to get off – a position we now pride ourselves on attaining as it is far easier to have expectations to be the last, than the first, off the train with two children who have shoes to get on, a pushchair that needs reassembling, stuff that needs gathering, and bags that need hoisting.
The air is hot, dry and salty, and absolute in its southernness. There is a noticeable shift in the way it feels against my skin and in my lungs, compared to the cool dampness of the Italian north where we were only yesterday. It is still only 9 o’clock in the morning and yet we could have travelled to another country, from another continent even; these are the feelings that make travel so exciting.
When we planned our trip we asked a very good friend’s Milanese boyfriend for his recommendations, and Lecce and the surrounding Salento countryside and coast was the place he couldn’t say enough good stuff about. Growing up, he used to holiday along the rugged Ioanian coast each year with his family and, he said, it is the place where hoards of Italians from the north rush to for their summer holidays. During July and August, the guidebook remarks that it gets uncomfortably hot (unless you are an Italian) and unfathomably squished on the beach. So it was with precision timing that we have come out of season, when it is still hot (for we fair English folk) but quiet on the coast and considerably more affordable.
Although rumoured to be some of the most exquisitely beautiful and probably the most wild of Italian landscapes, Salento and Puglia are strangely not particularly well-trodden tourist destinations, which pleases me greatly after Florence. It is also said to be quite different in many ways from the chic, cool, precision of the north. The food is rugged (cucina povera), the politics interesting (Puglia has a leftwing gay president who overthrew the previous Catholic right-winger), the architecture is of another world (from the magical trulli houses to the Ottoman-influenced domed cupolas), and I can already hear that the accents are more earthy and the fashion is less, well, important just from standing on the platform. 80% of Italy’s olive oil and pasta is produced here (that’s probably A LOT), and Puglia, like Bologna, is celebrated for its food: although this time it is the alimentation of the soil-tilling peasant and not of the bank-rolling merchant. There’ll be no buttery sauces or rich ragus of red meat, but buckets of golden olive oil and emerald-green turnip tops. I am excited.
Lecce station is devoid of lifts or escalators, much to Roo’s disappointment. And so The Husband and I (mostly The Husband, in all honesty) schlep the bags and the pushchair down and then up ten flights of stairs until we reach the exit. The children are fantastic and continue to amaze me with their inquisitiveness and excitement – they want to meet the people we are staying with next, want to know more about the place we will be living in, and, more importantly, want to find out if there will be other children (and animals) to play with. (Are they getting bored of us? Never!)
Our new host, Guiliana, offered to collect us from the station and asked The Husband to send her a picture of our family, so that she knows who to look out for. We wait outside the station for an unknown woman to collect us; and we are there, on the pavement, for no more than five minutes when a large, dusty silver people-carrier veers up and parks, at a most peculiar angle, across two bays in the car park. A tall, elegant dark-haired lady leaps out wearing a fabulously eccentric clashing outfit and sunglasses, and rushes over to greet us warmly and with great enthusiasm. This is Guiliana.
She lifts the children with aplomb and plonks them, as an experienced mother would, into the car, before helping The Husband and I throw our stuff into her boot. The Husband scrambles into the back with the kids and I sit up front with her. She starts the engine and proceeds to drive from the station – which is on the outskirts of the ring road encircling the old city – into the Salento countryside where our new home, Due Leoni (Two Lions), awaits.
It is a confusing drive because Guiliana takes us through shortcuts across electronic superstore car parks and round the back of Lidl (yes, Lidl), which leaves me wondering if we really have come to the ‘Florence of the South’ or to another place accidentally called Lecce and which also happens to be one of those eery British shopping outlets masquerading as a ‘village’ miles away from normal life. She does this with a genuine kindness as a way to show us the best way to ‘get home’ if we decide to hire a car, but it just confuses me even more, and I have neither remembered the directions nor am I confident I ever will. I become even more befuddled when we go home via some small town supermarket at my request, as I worry that we won’t have enough food for the children – damn my Jewish mothering genes – although fortunately, the enormous marine pine tree that Guiliana points out as a landmark is so beautiful and imposing that I think I’ve finally found a marker.
Just after the curve on a narrow country lane, overhanging with fig and olive trees, and prickly pears erect with perilous ruby red fruit, we reach the iron gates that open up to our new home for the week. It is then that we see the ‘Due Leoni’, perched and crumbling majestically either side of the front steps. An imposing but ramshackle manor, the house is somewhat humbled by its peeling facade, wild gardens, yelping animals, beaten up cars, and the one dead palm letting down the others in the driveway. From the outside, it looks very, very much like The Mother-in-Law’s House. And, it seems, it’s very much like The Mother-in-Law’s House on the inside too.
Guiliana and her husband, The Sailor Man (that’s her nickname, not mine), moved into Due Leoni ten years ago to look after his ailing parents, who have since passed on. They have renovated part of the house – the bit that we are staying in – and are slowly working through the rest of it as and when they can afford it. Giuliana shows me around the kitchen in the main house and it so reminds me of The Mother-in-Law’s Kitchen: around forty years old, with a wood-burning oven reminiscent of the AGA, and a nostalgic, warm and homely presence as if to say that many a delicious and wonderful meal has been cooked and argued over here for years.
The Sailor Man is, in fact, a sailor man, and he has been seafaring since he was a small boy growing up around the Adriatic coast. He has only ever lived in Due Leoni, where he has spent his life tinkering with boats, cars (including an exquisite vintage Fiat 500), and various machines of whose steel and aluminium corpses we can see sprawling out of various outbuildings. And now he is a great skipper, dark and toughened from the glassy ocean, and with a sailboat that takes people to see the Adriatic and Ionian seas kissing, or the idyllic islands of Greece.
Giuliana and The Sailor Man have two children, Tomas and Agnese, who are older than our children but still young enough to have swings and bicycles and balls in the garden. They also have two cats, Rosso and Arse (as in Arsenio, snigger), and two dogs. We get the name of one pooch, a gorgeous and gargantuan bear of a thing called Ucho, but the other is lost on us and has been kept away because she is on heat and so can’t be trusted around our small children.
Our new adoptive family leave us in our part of the house – a very pretty and homey apartment with views across the ripening orchard – and we make and eat lunch, swiftly followed by the taking of a much-needed afternoon nap for all four of us.
We wake up some time later as the afternoon heat fuzzes all around, turning the air hazy through the shutters (although this could be the mosquito netting). We push open the doors and leave to explore the grounds…
To the south there are leafy fruit trees huddled together bearing green baubles of unripe tangerines, oranges and limes. There’s a rusty old olive press, an long-ago used grape press, and a covered brick well under a burgeoning pergola of snow-white, sugar-scented jasmine. The shaded well cover appears to be the preferred resting place for the two cats who exchange positions between stretches and walks. Having been smitten with and loved by the sweet-natured Chuli in Hungary, the children are so excited by the idea of these two new cats that we quite forget the nature of some cats if they’re not used to very small people stroking and playing with them. Zippy is attacked first, swiftly followed by Roo, and both children are naturally slightly put-out by the clawing. (Rosso, the fiery red-head, is the culprit, although the notion that Arse might be an arse-hole tickles my fancy.) However, I am quite surprised that they are neither devastated by the scratching nor shocked by the feline reaction, and I wonder if perhaps a small child might relate to a cat’s instinctive and primal lashing-out over personal space/object. We make nothing of it and carry on exploring our new garden, with the slow, huffing, cuddly Ucho in tow.
Beyond the orchard and just before the wide expanse of farmland, there is a small plantation of vines. Roo attempts to eat what’s left of the grapes – which amount to some pretty crusty-looking, sub-standard raisins – moving from vine-to-vine, until I strongly suggest he stops before making himself sick.
To the right of the orchard, there are a number of olive trees – maybe thirty – each laden with thousands of green, almond-shaped olives. It will be at least another month or so until the harvest will begin.
We walk back towards the house and find a collection of bicycles by the vintage Fiat, including a brilliant little blue tandem and a minute skateboard perfect for under fives. Roo is taken with the board until he finds a broom that keeps him sweeping for the next half hour, and The Husband and I take it in turns to ride Zippy around the land on the two-seater, whizzing in and out of the olive and pine trees, over the bumpy grass, and past the wood store and the flapping chickens.
As the afternoon sun starts to settle, we follow the land round towards the front of the house and find an old hand-built set of wooden swings, a small metal roundabout from days gone by, and a lethal seesaw hiding behind some bushes and on which the children manage to bump foreheads. (Ah, that’s why it was hiding behind the bushes.) The mosquitoes are now out in gangs bullying The Husband who claps his hands at random intervals and at random points in the air like a very slow and troubled flamenco musician. But really they’re biting the children and so we rush indoors to get the homemade citronella repellent, which I already know probably won’t work.
The sky is darkening and just before we go inside for dinner, we discover one of the most beautiful things we have even seen: a fig tree whose fruits are open to the world like a chorus of venus fly traps gasping from the heat. Figs offer their fermenting tongues to the flies of the late afternoon, who happily dart from fruit-to-fruit, feasting on the fragrant rotting flesh.
Fed, bathed and read to, the children go off to sleep in the big bed whilst The Husband and I get the springy, arthritic sofa bed in the living room. It wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for the horrific explosions that start to shake the apartment at around midnight, whilst I am still up reading. I lie wide-eyed for half an hour, gripping hold of the duvet cover so that it covers most of my terrified face, until I can take no more. I wake The Husband to tell him I think we’re being attacked. (How he and the children have remained asleep through the Blitz is beyond me, but I can no longer face it alone.) Now he too has to lie under the covers with me imagining the end of the world.
Eventually the explosions stop for the night, and at some point we go to sleep to the noiseless din of the Puglian countryside.
The next day, after taking her children to school, we corner Giuliana to ask her what had happened in the night. “Ah” she replies, “That was the fireworks testing factory”.