Do we not each have a place of longing? In times of travel warnings and closed borders, they come to mind more than ever. A long time ago, I saw a picture of the bright, white Castel del Monte in Apulia. Since then, I have been drawn to the heel of Italy’s boot. My expectations, which had been piling up over 30 years, were high. They were exceeded many times over.
The time has come: a short window in the summer months between lockdown one and lockdown two; bags packed, and off I go from Vienna to Bari. It is a long-waited trip to a country in which almost 800 years ago an emperor ruled who fascinates me no less than his buildings: Emperor Frederick II, also called “Stupor Mundi,” the builder of Castel del Monte.
While on the one hand a journey into the past awaits, the delight of today’s Apulia is no less great: friends there are waiting for me in order to reveal the cigarophile side of southern Italy. First and foremost, Evangelista Pice, co-author of this travel story – who gave me all the best cigar-friendly tips – and Claudio Crema, organizer of one of the most enjoyable and spectacular cigar festivals in Europe.
THE ISOLE TREMITI
A word of advice in advance: Apulia is large (only the northern part of the region will be presented here; the southern part will follow in an upcoming issue); there is a lot to discover in terms of cuisine, culture, and landscape. Therefore, you should plan a lot of time and be mobile. The best time to travel to the heel of the boot is late-August/early September. The beaches are already starting to empty, and the La Vida Buena cigar festival takes place on the Isole Tremiti.
This is exactly where our journey begins. The Isole Tremiti are mostly completely unknown to non-Italians; they are located off the northern most part of Apulia, the Gargano Peninsula, a beautiful national park. Here, always at the end of August, La Vida Buena takes places, a small and fun event organized by Claudio Crema, president of La Escepción Cigar Club of Termoli. The annual program includes tastings of aged Cuban cigars, paired with champagne or rum, excellent dinners and a boat trip, naturally also with cigars, Peroni beer, rum, and a dip into the crystal-clear waters. The islets are car-free and a paradise for snorkelers and divers. If you are expecting luxury accommodation, this is the wrong place – you are more likely to find the charm and corresponding comfort of the 1960s. But it actually doesn’t matter, because you will not be spending much time in the hotel room: With your new-found cigar friends, you will linger on the small piazza, in one of the bars, at the events, or just on the rocks and be watching the spectacular sunsets, or before that, the underwater world of the Adriatic.
THE FOGGIA GRANARY
Back on the mainland, we head south and follow the first cigarophile tip. Our destination is the Tabaccheria Giovannozzi in Foggia. The city is surrounded by wheat fields; it is considered the granary of Italy.
The provincial capital was once the residence of Frederick II, but there is nothing left of it. An earthquake at the end of the 18th century destroyed almost all the historic buildings. But for cigar, pipe, rum and Irish whiskey lovers, it is definitely worth a stop. The Tabaccheria has been family-run for 30 years; Fabio Giovannozzi specializes in pipes, offers 1,200 of them on site, and is well versed in rums and whiskeys. Patrizia, his wife, is an avid cigar smoker. A tour of the walk-in humidor with her is a real pleasure. Similar to at the festival, we receive a an exuberant and very hospitable welcome – a realization that is consolidated and confirmed during our entire Apulia trip: the people are open, of a quiet friendliness and tremendous hospitality. Continuing south, still close to Foggia, is the Tenuta Fujanera, an estate where cigar and spirits tastings are sometimes held. A stop here is worth it, alone for the pasta and pizza.
THE NORMAN PEARLS BY THE SEA
Leaving the plain behind, endless olive groves dominate the landscape further south. To the left is the sea, to the right, gnarled old trees. Between all the beauty, industrially sprawled suburbs disturb the idyll again and again. My tip is to close your eyes and go through it; almost every town, every village has its own magic. On the coast, the small towns of Barletta, Trani, Bisceglie, and Molfetta line up like white pearls. The historic town centers have been renovated in recent years, and each town has its own imposing cathedral, built at the time of the Crusades. You can still breathe the air of the Oriental trade, pilgrimages, Normans, and Byzantines here. Bisceglie as well as Molfetta have tobacco shops that specialize in cigars. Sitting at the harbor of Molfetta after a long excursion, drinking a sundowner in one of the bars, the cathedral behind you and the cigar in your hand – that is (vacation) happiness.
Before exploring Bari, the capital of the region, we take a detour inland and discover several highlights at once. On the way to one of Apulia’s best wineries, Tenuta Bocca di Lupo, whose loggia houses a cozy cigar lounge, we stop at my place of longing, the octagonal Castel del Monte, the hunting lodge of the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II. Quietly and loftily, not defiantly or mightily, it sits elegantly on a plateau above the treeless Murgia. The form, the purpose, indeed the entire architecture of the white limestone building remain a mystery. Anyone who has ever been there cannot escape its magic.
To take the taste of Apulia home with us, we stop at the Bocca di Lupo winery. Here, in addition to the wine tasting, we recommend a tour of the cellar and then purchasing a few bottles of Bocca di Lupo Castel del Monte. This wine made from the Aglianico grape that is typical of southern Italy goes excellently with cigars.
Once inland, we make another spectacular detour – and move briefly beyond the state border of Apulia and thus into the Basilicata region. The cave city of Matera is so close and so spectacular that you simply have to “take it with you.” The ancient city, a single labyrinth, is actually a massive rock into which cave dwellings were dug. These were still inhabited until the 1950s; they are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. One of these caves houses the Matera Radino Wine Bar, restaurant and wine bar in one. But in the heart of this locality hides the real treasure: the Cigar Room, housed in a glass cube with perfect ventilation. Smoking a cigar there, deep underground, is a real experience.
Back on the coast, we need to replenish our cigar supplies. The provincial capital of Bari offers two great stores specializing in cigars. Both are located in the sophisticated bourgeois Gründerzeit district of the city, an elegant shopping area. Alessandro Lorusso has been running his tobacco shop for nine years and is not only a Habanos Specialist but also a Davidoff Ambassador. “For the past two years, business has been really good, my customers are mainly tourists, but the Baresi have also discovered ‘fumo lento’ [slow smoking],” says Lorusso. He is well stocked; a Partagás Serie D No.6 is available here for EUR 8.70; the Ramón Allones Specially Selected costs EUR 12.50.
Not far away is Bari’s second cigar specialist, Tabaccheria Lucatorto. The store is one of the oldest tobacco specialty stores in the city. “My father was one of the first to sell cigars back in 1981,” says Giuseppe Lucatorto. In the meantime, he is not only a Habanos specialist, but also a connoisseur of Tuscan and New World cigars. He plans to expand his establishment with a large tasting room and add coffee to the program. At Giuseppe’s, an Alec Bradley Black Market Robusto costs EUR 7.20, and a Romeo y Julieta Churchills EUR 22.00. Leaving the fashionable business district of Bari and heading towards the sea, you enter the old historic town. The maze of alleys has been lovingly restored in recent years. Above our heads in the alleyways, freshly washed laundry is blowing everywhere; below, the orecchiette typical of Bari are made by hand. This pasta is best tasted in a totally crazy place: at La Risto-Pazzeria Dregher. Pazzeria is a play on words with pizzeria and means crazy. You have to have been there to believe the wonderful madness. While waiting for the food (you can choose between pizza or typical Baresian dishes, and both are recommended), Italian songs ring out across the terrace of the trattoria. We look in vain for loudspeakers or a live band inside the restaurant. Giancarlo himself – owner, pizza maker and passionate cigar smoker – sings the popular songs from his trattoria, without amplification, while making pizzas. The mood is correspondingly elevated, the evening becomes long, but we have enough cigars – and, together with Giancarlo, we celebrate his hospitality and the good life – La Vida Buena.