Family is Family is Family

What is your name?” the stranger at the door asked eagerly in Italian.

To say I was momentarily taken aback is an understatement. I answered the door thinking it was my mother returning from paying the morning street parking fee, and instead was greeted by a dapper grey-haired stranger asking personal information.

Them the lightbulb came on.

Vittorio? No…Vincenzo? Vincenzo!”

Si, si, Vincenzo, ciao!” My mother’s cousin arrived a few minutes early to pick us up for the morning. I started to talk with him in the street before remembering my manners and inviting him inside. Let me interject here that the stereotype that Italians run late isn’t an accurate one – in my experience they are usually on time or even early, at least the older ones.

We were all chatting with him like we’d known him forever until my mom came back and a happy reunion ensued. My mother and her partner had visited Vincenzo and his family a few years ago and they were excited to see each other again.

With my mother and aunt in Vincenzo’s car and Nicole, David, and I in our car, we caravanned to the university where Vincenzo showed us the Monastery of the Olivetani, which is attached to the Church of Saints Nicolò and Cataldo. The Benedictine monastery was built in the 12th century, and in the 16th century additions were added. Because Lecce stone is sandstone, there has been a lot of erosion that the historical association is attempting to preserve or restore.

After the church and partial monastery tour,we walked through the adjacent centuries -old cemetery.

As far as Nicole was concerned, this was the most important thing we saw – evidence that people DO care about the feral cats in Italy.

There is a legend that legend King Tancredi d’Altavilla, Count of Lecce, chased a doe into a cave, where he saw a vision of the Madonna. And so an Abbey was built on that very spot.

Reality is more mundane, but nonetheless the Abbey of Sta. Maria di Cerrate is an impressive preservation of a 10th century abbey which became an agricultural production center in later centuries (as monasteries often are).

So hot the cicadas were singing the It’s Hot Even For Us Insects song when we arrived at the Abbey.

Vincenzo dropped us off at our Airbnb to rest for a few hours, then picked us up for another grand tour.

Cooling off back at our place with my cuginetta and homemade iced oatmilk lattes.

Lecce is in the high-heeled part of the Italian designer boot. It sits on a peninsula that juts out in between the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Vincenzo took us to Santa Caterina and Santa Maria al Bagno. Both have rocky beaches that are less popular than the sandy beaches of nearby (and very expensive) Gallipoli. At Santa Caterina he showed us an ancient tower lookout on the hill, where a torch would be lit to warn of invading Turks. And in front of us on the cliff was a more modern WWI lookout. Surrounded by water, this was prime territory for marauders.

We finally reached Vincenzo’s home in Carmiano and were greeted by his lovely wife Oriana and her brother Antonio. We looked at family photos (he has the same photo of my great grandmother and her sister, his grandmother, as we do!), and ate spumoni – get this – with a pour of amaro on top! With peanuts to sprinkle and fresh cherries to enjoy alongside! Brilliant, and it is officially my new favorite treat!

I forgot to get a photo of the magical spumoni, so you’ll just have to trust me, and in the meantime enjoy this photo of capers grown by Vincenzo in the process of being cured. (Oriana will send the photo of the grandmother’s, as I was so dessert-intoxicated I forgot that one, too!)

Before dinner we visited Vincenzo and Maria’s church, where the women’s group was selling craft items they made and collaborating on a beautiful wall hanging made from crocheted roses for an upcoming observance.

After visiting the main church in town (the choirwas practicing and sounded amazing), and visiting Vincenzo and Oriana’s friend (a retired police officer who now pursues his passion as a painter – a very talented one, too), we were off to the pizzeria for dinner. Vincenzo and Oriana’s daughter, Maria Elena, was finishing her finals in Turin, but we were joined by her fiance Lorenzo, his brother Francesco and Francesco’s fiancée Giulia, and Giulia’s sister Luisa and her boyfriend Davide. The best group, who claimed not to speak English very well but in fact spoke admirably. But we did have fun asking and answering more interesting questions using Google translate – questions about our relative health care systems, pension systems, real estate (both Giulia and our David are in real estate), climate change, cats vs dogs, and more. I would love to see all of this group in California sometime, we had such a fun night with them!

Come to California, guys!!

Thanks for a memorable time in Lecce and Carmiano!

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