Roo had woken numerous times throughout the night itching, and The Husband and I had come to his rescue with various concoctions of oils and creams to soothe him. Upon waking, we notice that his body is covered in red spots and, although he’s in good spirits and without fever, we’re slightly concerned that he has some sort of virus. We also remind each other that Giuliana had mentioned it being mosquito season in Salento, and Roo has spent the mornings and early evenings running around naked on the grass. He is sweet and juicy, and if I were a mosquito I’d want to gobble him up. His sister has scattered dotty coverage, so our instincts tell us not to worry. And when we bump into Giuliana getting her children into the car for the school run, she reassures us that they are just mosquito bites. Phew.
Today we’ll take the car and tour the south of Puglia – to the ‘heel of the boot’, as it’s said. We pack up our day bag and one for the beach, and head into Lecce to buy provisions for a picnic and grab an early breakfast.
As we close up, we discover a gift wrapped in oily cooking parchment placed lovingly on a corner of the large wooden table outside our room; Giuliana has prepared us a delicious focaccia using potatoes, stuffed full of sweet juicy roasted tomatoes. We intend to save it for lunch, but it looks too good and we eat it there and then, coming back for more because it is so delicious.
In town, we grab coffees and pastries from Doppiozero, a fantastically stylish cafe on Via G. Paladini, where we people- and dog- watch, licking sugary custard off our lips. It appears to be favoured by locals and visitors alike, who now and then put down their newspapers and babies to chat to each other across the sunny tables.
Zippy and Roo have recently taken to experimenting with emulsification during coffee breaks in sophisticated cafes, which means pouring orange juice into their milk, giving it a stir, and seeing what happens. And true to form, Roo drinks this revolting-looking cocktail whilst Zippy spills her research over herself. This morning, the science ends with a crescendo of glass-smashing when Roo manages to drop a magnificent two glasses on the floor, leaving tiny shards wedged into the ancient cobbles. My respectable-in-public English self is cross and embarrassed but the Italians don’t bat an eyelid: these are children being children. And Roo even helps to sweep up.
Next we stop in at Mercatino Porta Rudiae, a small indoor market where we gather things for the picnic. The market hall is packed full of local produce, including the enormous obligatory bunches of basil, plump grapes, golden quince, and a huge variety of salad leaves and herbs. We buy bread from Panetteria da Luca, some nuts, vegetables and fruit from a kind gentleman greengrocer, and cheese and crostini from a big loud man at the back of the hall. We stop to gawp at a huge box of lumache, or (sleeping) snails, that the greengrocer tells us are a local delicacy. I still can’t bring myself to eat them – they belong in the mud with the worms and the slugs.
Loaded with tasty things to eat, we jump back into the car and attempt to find the right road to Otranto and the south. Yet again we don’t have a map – well a motorist’s one that specifically covers all the roads beyond Lecce – so we navigate using a minuscule greying black and white photocopy that I’d made at the library in England, and one of Puglia that is so big that you need to hold your arms out the windows to look at it. We’re good at winging it, I think, and this is meant to be an adventure.
That is until The Husband and I find ourselves pulled up on the road-side shouting at each other, with the children looking wide-eyed and worried at us from the back seat. At one point, he gets out and starts walking off down the road (this has NEVER happened) and I am left feeling very bad and very, very guilty with two perturbed youngsters behind me. It was one of those rare occasions when I was to blame (I tell you no lie) – having mumbled a selection of irritating comments at him whilst he was attempting to get us out of the city, I had told him that I didn’t feel safe with him in the driving seat when he almost clips a car and mounts the curb – and my miserable grovelling feels futile. But The Husband returns and we eventually start the engine, although you could slice through the tension in the car with the knife in the picnic bag.
Given the lousy atmosphere, it’s lucky that we find ourselves driving through divertingly charming countryside, where we are the only car for miles upon miles of road flanked either side by fields of enormous ancient olive trees, poised like twisting centurions. Eventually we reach the coast and the small rocky cove of Sant’Andrea. (We had meant to stop in Roca Vecchia, as recommended by countless guide books, but this is what happens when you don’t have a map and almost get a divorce.)
We unload and make the precarious but picturesque hike across muddy flats, up grassy banks flanked with wild flowers, and then down to the rocks, which have been sculpted and tunnelled by the elements. There are carved-out picture windows and caves, lively rock pools and reefs, and the waves push gently against the edge of the crag. There are a few other people sunning themselves, schools of round, elderly Italian ladies coming in and out of the water, and an army of wasps that attack when we take out our food. This is unfortunate for The Husband, who appears to have developed a phobia of most insects this trip and starts his flamenco mosquito dance once again, but this time with more feeling. He can bear it no longer, and as it’s getting quite hot we decide to pack up slowly and head back. We stop halfway on a hillock to admire the view and play catch, before jumping back in the car. All the sun, activity and entertainment (arguing) have worn the children out, and they both fall asleep as soon as the engine starts.
It’s my turn to drive and we press on with our journey down to Santa Maria di Leuca, the absolute tip of Italy. I fell in love with the idea of visiting this place, where sailors who thought the world ended here succumbed to the beauty of the legendary white mermaid, ‘Leucasia’. We decide to go straight through Otranto – another recommended spot in the guidebook – as the children have just fallen asleep. (As parents, you have to weigh up your options: pretty town with grumpy children, or happy children and a return to Italy in your retirement.) And as they sleep peacefully in the back, we drive through villages and towns each with their own charm, past masserias (farmhouses) offering lodging and locally-made produce, and glide along the coastal road cut into a landscape that is wild and windy, and unknowing of its beauty that seems to go on forever.
The children wake as we reach Santa Maria di Leuca, and we pull into a roadside viewpoint where the Ionian and Adriatic seas embrace on one side and an ancient dry stone wall to the other. Beyond the wall are sloping terraces of olive trees screwing themselves out of the dry earth, and cacti full of fruit. Since we arrived in Puglia, Zippy has been fascinated by the prickly pear, longing to taste one (as have I). We had yet to find a healthy-looking, reachable cactus with ripe fruit to pick until now. However, had we been intelligent parents, we would have conjured up the wisdom of Balu:
“Now when you pick a pawpaw
Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw
Well, next time beware…”
But we didn’t. And both our children sit screaming by the roadside with tiny little prickles carpeting the palms of their hands. (Here is a perfect example of what not to do with children when traveling.)
Once Zippy and Roo’s fair sweet paws are dethorned by their idiotic parents, and we have all tasted the sweet cardinal flesh of the terrifying fruit, we run around the olive trees, stretch our legs, and explore the terrain and its wildlife for a little while. We find an abandoned, perfectly preserved and petrified carcass of a queen bee, ghostly and crystalline in the sun. Roo has a good time prodding it with a stick.
Continuing along the coastal road, and over bridges that traverse the sea crashing into deeply-cut grottos, we look out for another spot to stop where there is sand and safe swimming. At a deserted bend along the west coast, we pull up to pick the brains of the teenage proprietors of a bar in the shape of a giant plastic pineapple. Naturally the whole family finds this establishment hilarious and we reimburse the entrepreneurs by buying two pineapple juices, which we sip sitting on plastic seats with our feet up on the sea wall, relishing the surreality of sitting next to an elephant-sized piece of fruit looking out across the Ionian sea.
Ten minutes later and we’re sitting on a small sandy beach, building sandcastles using the plastic cups from our comedy pineapple break. It is now late afternoon, and the fading sun throws its many arms out of the sky, washing our children’s faces with Kodachrome colours. We swim in the warm blue-green water of the creased sea, as the sun falls into the horizon, and get dressed when the winds pick up.
Even though the children are tired, we head to Gallipoli on the way home; this will be our only chance to go to the magical ancient city built on an island and connected to the mainland by a 16th century bridge. Forty minutes away in the car, we drive straight into the old town and manage to find a spot to park up. Our attempt to transfer a sleeping Roo into the pushchair fails horribly, and he wakes grizzly and pleading to go home. Zippy, on the other hand, is hungry (and also probably tired) and wants to eat, and so The Husband and I find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place, on a big rock. The next half hour is spent attempting to placate two small children down dark and narrow labyrinthian passageways, which thankfully slowly come alive as the night draws on. (Hey, isn’t this what traveling with a young family is all about?!)
The street lamps flicker on, illuminating the shadowy figures creeping out of their homes to enjoy the evening’s festivities. Making use of the late night passing trade, shops open up, including a beguiling pharmacy housed in what appears to be a medieval medical museum complete with dark wood paneling, painted friezes on the ceiling, and row upon row of porcelain antique apothecary jars spelling out the latin names of the compounds within.
A group of local men in their sixties and seventies come together with their instruments at the social club. They throw the doors wide open as they play their beloved shanties, all the while smiling at each other and nodding cheerily to passersby to come and enjoy their music. There is the faint sound of singing drifting from the beautiful basillica in the old town’s main square, and Roo and I quietly climb the stairs into the church to listen to the choir of local families. Every now and then, the father of a baby curled up in a pram breaks from his hymn book to rock his child back to sleep.
We make a stop for the local fast food, fritto misto, and sit at a plastic table covered in paper to enjoy a perfect plate of freshly-caught, deep-fried seafood. Served up with a simple salad of lettuce dressed with lemon juice, a plate of chips, and a basket of bread, the children are very happy munching away on crispy tentacles and whitebait. And The Husband and I score with a very delicious glass (it might have been a plastic cup, actually) of rosé each included in the price. Now THIS is street food.
After dinner we pay a quick visit to the Museo del Mare, a tiny but magnificent collection of objects and creatures of the sea. There are cabinets filled with shells, crustaceans, starfish, sponges, and stuffed sea birds. And there are some wonderful specimens of large fish, including the skeleton of a shark (I think), and a marine dinosaur of some sort (now maybe the wine is talking). The 1 euro ticket is brilliant value and it’s a treat to be able to go to a museum with young children late at night.
Having definitely made the most of a day in Puglia, and most certainly drawn out as much enthusiasm from the children as they can muster in a day, it is time to head home. We journey back through the darkness, the children once again wrapped in sleep.