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Richard Watkins adds more from Italy France

Well, we made it, 46 years of marriage; two children and four grandchildren, two dogs! I know there are plenty of golf jokes on this subject but I thought I would dedicate this review to my wife, Diana, thanking her for coping with our rather adventurous life together. We decided to spend a weekend away in the Gargano region of Puglia for our anniversary weekend. It is reputed to be an area of outstanding beauty and comprises forests, low mountains, sandy bays, cliff-side roads, castles and villages of various shapes and sizes both on the coast and in land. The region also has a National Park, some enormous lakes adjacent to the coast in the North and amazing, large salt flats at the Southern end. It is known as the spur of the Italian ‘boot’.

We knew that the whole area gets very busy during the summer and so we thought that making an early visit would reduce stress, although the journey would be weather dependent.

Diana, as usual did some great research and found various places to visit and places to eat! Her first success was in booking the hotel for the Saturday night. It’s name Hotel Residence Il Porto, in Mattinata. We made a leisurely start mid-morning on the Satur-day (no check-in till after 3pm) and had planned to stop at Trani for lunch. Trani is a port which dates back to the 9th century and which has had its fair share of ‘rape and pillage’, has have many coastal areas of Puglia. It became the most important port on the Adriatic in the eleventh century ‘Trani has lost its old city walls and bastions, but the 13th-century fort has been extensively restored as a museum and perfor-mance venue and is open to the public. Some of the streets in and around the Ghetto area remain much as they were in the medie-val period, and many of the houses display more or less of Norman decoration. The main church is the Trani Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim, a Greek who died in Trani in 1094 while on his way on pilgrimage to Rome, and some years later canonized by Urban II. It lies on a raised open site near the sea, and was consecrat-ed, before its completion, in 1143.

It is a basilica with three apses, built in the characteristic white local limestone. It has also a large crypt and a lofty tower, the latter erected in 1230-1239 by the architect whose name appears on the ambo in the cathedral of Bitonto, Nicolaus Sacerdos. It has an arch under it, being supported partly on the side wall of the church, and partly on a massive pillar. The arches of the Romanesque portal are beautifully ornamented, in a manner suggestive of Arab influence; the bronze doors, executed by Barisanus of Trani in 1175, rank among the best of their period in Southern Italy. The capitals of the pillars in the crypt are fine examples of the Romanesque. The interior of the cathedral has been widely modernized, but the crypt remains similar to the origins and was renowned repository of relics, among which indicates the body of the martyr St. Febronia of Nisibis that you can still Today enjoy a precious reliquary of the eighteenth century and an oval painting depicting the Saint at the Dioce-san Museum.’ (Thank you Wikipedia). The cathedral and castle are both on the coast where there is plenty of space to walk, stretch one’s eyes and ‘do the Italian coffee thing’. It was a magical way to start our weekend and just 90 minutes’ drive from home.

We decided to continue along the slower, coast road into the Gargano are and I was so pleased that we did. The weather was OK (for Brits), some sun and some cloud, but it seemed to keep the locals off the roads and so a ‘no stress’ journey was enjoyed by both. After 30 minutes we arrived in Margherita di Savoia and the impressive saltpan area. The saltpan stretches on a strip of land approximately 20 km long, and goes deep inland for nearly 5 km. The total surface is about 45.000 hectares (one hectare = 2.471 acres). The available surface covered by water is about 4.000 hectares. Literally fields of shallow water and saline fields, stretch-ing for miles. The most productive time for salt production is the summer when the evaporation process is helped by the sun. Apparently there is an average of 30 million cubic meters of sea water in these fields which produce annually about 6 million quin-tals (a quintal = 220.46 pounds) of salt. One area was occupied by a large flock of flamingos, yes, apparently, their home ! We arrived at our hotel at about 3pm. It was a massive construction, utilising most of a hilly area which overlooked a wonderful bay.

It took a while to find the reception as it was hidden in a network of small streets, serving around fifty self-contained apart-ment blocks, with little signage ! Eventually we found the reception which was on the first floor of the hotel section. Our ‘host’ Stefano, Swiss born of Italian parentage, advised that as it was not very warm, it would be better to stay in one of the hotel rooms. We took his advice and were directed to a room, overlooking the pool and the bay, (a kilometer away). Diana went through her normal checks and balances procedure and found that the bathroom heating system wasn’t working. A call to Stefano who arrived in milliseconds! Hmm, not functioning, so we will upgrade you to an even larger room, with two exits, one to the car park and one to a covered terrace area. Once settled in, another call to Stefano for his advice on where to go for the rest of the afternoon! He suggested Monte San Angelo, but warned that there was still snow on the ground. It was just 17 kms from our hotel but we had to navigate round many, many hair pin ends, so it took almost one hour to reach the 800 meter summit. Yes, there was plenty of snow, but most roads were reasonably clear. And we have one of the only cars in Puglia with winter tyres (the car being bought in Milan)- and in this area it is compulsory to have winter tyres till mid April (but I don’t know of anybody that has had their car checked !). Another very impressive town with plenty of history and an enormous castle with fantastic views in every direction. There were more coaches than cars, (apparently much religious interest) and the four car park attendants (unofficial) who promised to look after the car for just a small payment! And who retired to their cars immediately upon receiving said gratuity!!

All this adventure helped build-up a hunger which, we hoped, would be satisfied at the hotel restaurant. We weren’t disappointed. The menu had three choices for each course and all food was absolutely delicious and well presented. (Unfortunately there were only three couples staying at the complex , which can accommodate 400 guests. The benefit being a 70 euros price tag , as com-pared to 255 euros in the height of the summer. Our stay was definitely four star treatment and really made our anniversary dinner and overnight stay a real treat. Sunday was Palm Sunday and, again, the weather was so very kind to us. The day’s itinerary was simply to drive as far round the coast as we felt was comfortable, have a light lunch and then make our way back home on the motorway. Our journey around the twisting, up and down coastal road was just fantastic. We seemed to stop every ten minutes to take photographs of the coastal scenes. So many beautiful views, especially ones where large blocks of weather worn rock had been separated for the coast to make monuments of beauty for all to see. (I have sent some photographs which I know our editors will find a way of reproducing for you – See the Clubs website – Ed.). So many beautiful sights, very little traffic and a clear, warm day. What more could we ask for ? I was not at all tired with the driving and so we decide to drive all the remaining coastal areas. We passed Vieste, another impressive coastal town and on to the beautiful town of Peschici which is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea and guarding one of Italy's most enchanting bays in the Gargano National Park.Forming the heart of Peschici is the majestic Norman Castle and Torre del Ponte (Bridge Tower). This tower is the gateway to a magical stone maze of alleyways and stairways carved into the hillside, an area of pebble paved streets and houses that slope down to the sea with their distinctive white façades.This charming fishing town has a rich history. Just outside the town, near Manacore, you'll find a prehistoric cave(now an archaeological park), the Abba-zia di Santa Maria di Càlena (one of Italy's most ancient abbeys), and the Madonna di Loreto's Sanctuary, which, according to leg-end, was built by a group of fishermen who had survived shipwreck. From the panoramic viewpoints in the historic centre, you can gaze out to the Aleppo pine trees that hug the coastline, and the watchtowers that overlook your exploration of this stretch of coast, one of the region's most beautiful.

On the road to Vieste, you'll be able to see trabucchi, wooden structures suspended over the sea that were once used by fisherman, but now house delightful small restaurants. (Thanks ‘Discover Puglia’ ) We arrived at Peschici just as the locals were leaving the church after celebrating Palm Sunday mass. Plenty of local colour and traditions and we were soon handed a ‘palm’ leaf (actually from an Olive tree which are in abundance throughout Puglia.) Some traffic ‘opportunities’ upon leaving but we soon cleared the town are and continued on our journey. We past the train station, about three kilometres out of town. We decided that our last Gargano cullinary treat (this time round), would be at Lesina. It’s located on the shores of a lake with the same name and is well known for the production of (female) eels! We had to drive round the perimeter of two enormous coastal lakes to get to our lunch. We must have travelled over 40 kms to get from one end to our destination. It was now lunch time and the weather was beginning to ‘turn’. The lake was looking unfriendly with winds making the water choppy. However, a warm wel-come soon brought us back to smiles again. I decide to got for it ! Yes, pasta, rich in tomato sauce and chunks of female eel. (Wasn’t like my East end of London memories but I managed to enjoy the delicacy ) .The main course was described a lake fish. Chewy and tasty! I avoided wine and made sure I drank a strong expresso coffee to help me concentrate on the return journey. Our journey home was mainly along the A14 motorway. Very light traffic but worsening weather conditions as we drove South. The rain started when we reached our half way point at Bari and didn’t stop until after we arrived home. No matter, our weekend was full of warm memories, amazing scenery and a really great way to celebrate 46 years of being married. The overall distance travelled was about 900 kms but it really was no problem as regards driving . I would recommend a visit to this Gargano region. Hopefully the photos (You can view these photos on the Clubs website unfortunately we cannot successfully include colour photos in the Newsletter) will give some better insights but some internet investigations/browsing will definitely be a productive use of your time.

Thanks for listening . Richard Watkins, Puglia.

Hazel Crawford continues her stories from France France

So - onwards into a hopeful February and March that Spring would arrive and relieve us of the grey and wet days and nights and the frosts. Wrong! We have since had 2 more lots of snow, and apparently there were areas around here that had another dose last week. January should have seen the operation on my husbands other leg to strip the veins out, but 24 hours before, we got a call to say that the surgeon was ill and the operation was going to be cancelled. That resulted in a long wait for a new appointment, which is now scheduled for 29th March. We live in hope that this time all well be well, with no dash to the Urgences with infection and swelling.

Meanwhile a new singing group has been started in this area, and we are both going and enjoying the fun of it all. It’s only once a month, and is at the home of one of the International Women’s Club members, she plays piano, we bring nibbles, cheese etc., and she’s and her French husband provide the wine. We’ve sung all sorts, and one have someone able to conduct us all in a version of ABBA’s Super Trouper, in various harmonies. Trouble is we’ve been doing that at the end of our other singing, when most of us are not in best voice! We are now planning to sing it after a short warm up, then move on to the fun stuff. The reason that Super Trouper isn’t quite so much fun, is that the plan apparently is to have us all sing it, for the last Pink Drinks of the season in early summer - HELP! Other than that we all have a great time, singing everything from show tunes, to Christmas carols, Andy Williams to Bon Jovi. I’m planning on making them do a Barry Manilow night. That’ll have them worried.

We’ve just returned yet again from a ‘snap’ trip into London for my husband’s 75th birthday. Flew in last Monday, arriving into our hotel around 3.30, and my husband had to go straight out to buy an overcoat, having realised at Nice airport, that he’d left his at home! Hence I had to unpack, get changed and hope he made it to our dinner reservation at 5pm in Victoria, as we had to be at the New Victoria Palace theatre by 6.30 for Hamilton. The security is such for this show, that we had to produce both passports for prof of ID, the em sent by them 48 hours before the show and have the C/C used inserted into a machine to produce the tickets. The show is very clever, and all of the cast are brilliant. However, it really wasn’t our cup of tea. I sort of enjoyed it, in a strange way, but my husband didn’t.

Day 2 was his birthday, and we had tickets for the Wildlife Photographer of the year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which was stunning. I am in awe of some the 15 year olds whose ability was amazing. If you get a chance to see it -do. Then on to a birthday lunch at the OXO Tower, overlooking the Thames. Special offer of 3 courses for £39 each, but of course the wine was around £60, plus bottled fizzy water. Excellent meal though. Then on to see 42nd Street. What talent there is the theatre in the UK. Lulu had just joined the cast. I like her but she doesn’t do a lot in the show, whereas everyone else works their socks off. Day 3 was a bit of morning shopping (my back permitting), then a late lunch in the Strand with some old friends, before seeing the first night of Tina the Musical. Brilliant. Cannot speak more highly of this show. IF you are a fan of Tina Turner’s music, then please see it’s. You will love it. The lady playing Tina could frankly be her, she is that good. However, what we do notice now, particularly in Musical theatre, is the (what I think) influence of social media, in that there is far more shouting out, clapping along with the music and whooping and cheering during the shows, rather than at the end of a song. Towards the end of a show, of course people are far more enthused, and it seems more appropriate to be clapping along and singing, but not at the start when a story it building. This also happened during Hamilton and we found the same on our last visit in December. During 42nd Street it didn’t happen, and I think it was because of an older audience, with maybe more respect for the artists JMHO - don’t shoot me OK?!

Last day was more shopping for goodies to bring back, but because there was so much hand luggage trying to be stuffed into the overhead lockers, that we missed our slot, and that escalated on arrival back into Nice, resulting in us getting home at 1.45am on Saturday. We then had to locate all the sirloin steaks, gammon steaks, sausages etc., to put into the freezer, and move out all the chocolate, just in case the sun was out early in the morning!!!

Ramblers on long enough. Hope Spring, springs for you all very soon. 20c today here - sorry.