DIARY OF A RETIRED RUGBY LEAGUE WRITER
WEEK 23, 2017
MONDAY, JUNE 5
Tour of Alberobello as part of our Albatross trip around southern Italy. Francesca, our smooth local guide, even takes us into a private house, where I bump my head, despite being warned to duck. There is a winery trip in the afternoon. The owner is proud of his estate. Good on him.
One of our group, Keith Hobbs, does business on his laptop as the coach cruises through the countryside. He builds retirement villages, and his age suggests he is not far off going into one, but he has too much energy and get-up-and-go to do that just yet. Keith is a St George Illawarra rugby league supporter, while his wife, Kerrie goes for Newcastle Knights. Steve Chidgey, a former police inspector from Cronulla (he is a Sharks’ fan) says Sydney rugby league clubs must merge, for the game to prosper. I suspect Cronulla would be swallowed up by rivals, St George-Illawarra. Steve was in a bad motor bike accident as a young man, but has come through it, and is extremely fit.
TUESDAY, JUNE 6
Drive down the Salentine Peninsula – the heel of Italy – to Lecce, for a walking tour. Lecce dates back to the early Greek empire and features an amphi-theatre in the middle of town. I have sword fish for lunch, while Marie has a prawn and squid salad, at Apollo restaurant, next to the theatre. One drink at rough Cafe Calmieri.
Next stop is the hilltop town of Ostuni, also known as ‘the white city’, for the color of its buildings, not the inhabitants. Back In Alberobello, we eat at pizzeria. The proprietor hands out free limoncellos and grappa to our group.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 7
Everyone says farewell to Bob Cooper, who is in remarkably good spirits, considering his holiday has come to sudden stop, following his wife, Margaret’s fall on the first day of our trip. She snapped her fibula, and now all Bob’s efforts are aimed at getting her safely back to Australia, after surgery.
At Monopoli, the group walks the harbor and old town. At Polignano a Mare, we are tempted to have a swim, but instead dine at trendy cafe, on a tiny, cliff top balcony overlooking the sea. The manager has relatives in Melbourne, who he will visit in July. At one motor services stop, the staff ask me to show them Australian money.
Photo 1: Polignano a Mare
Tonight, we book into our amazing Le Grotte della Civita Hotel in Matera, the oldest inhabited settlement in Italy. The hotel is a series of caves, or sassi.
Photo 1: Our cave at Matera. Also in the pic, Jane Thompson (left) and Gabriella Bortuzzo
After we settle in, we walk through Matera’s bustling streets to Trattoria Lacana, which received a Michelin Star in 2010. The restaurant doesn’t hold noise well, and some other patrons leave, largely because our mob are so rowdy – in a nice way. We sit with sisters, Maureen Brooks and Catherine Connelly, who are great fun. Another sister reneged on the trip, the fear of terrorism proving too much. The buffet dinner includes lambs fry. We give the chef an ovation, but that doesn’t extend to some of the staff, who are a bit testy.
Photo 3: Sisters, Maureen Brooks and Catherine Connolly
THURSDAY, JUNE 8
Our town guide at Matera is good, but too much detail. Am I guilty of that?
Kathrine Smith closely follows the fortunes of the New Zealand, in the Americas Cup against Sweden. I think she enjoys rubbing in the fact, Australia is not competing. Do we care any more? We were the first to take the Cup off the Yanks. Once we did that, well, the race became ho hum.
Karmichael Hunt has been named in Australia’s rugby union side. I interviewed him when he made his NRL debut for the Broncos, aged 17.
Also back in Australia, former Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman is guest speaker at Beer and Beef Club lunch at the Story Bridge Hotel, a lunch where I would normally be MC.
FRIDAY, JUNE 9
Ferry across the Straits of Messina to Sicily. The coastline is unimpressive, until we get to our destination, Taormina, where we stay at the grand old Hotel Excelsior Palace. Our group dinner at Malvasia Restaurant is good, not great. Egg plant pasta, sword fish, tiramisu. Wine basic. Marie and I sit with Italian born Gus (a builder) and Adelia Cecchin (no relation to NRL referee, Matt Cecchin) from Melbourne. They do not return to Australia until August 31. Walk this amazing town, and the streets are buzzing. The Irish pub, where there is live music, is packed. We drink at Cyclops, where there is a male singer. I try Messina beer.
SATURDAY, JUNE 10
Great view of Mt Etna from our hotel room. It is ‘smokin’. Marie and I swim in the hotel’s 30 metre pool, which is in a magnificent setting, overlooking the Ionian Sea. Lovely lunch at family trattoria, as the church bells ring out ‘Ave Maria’. Marie’s rabbit dish is the best rabbit dish she has ever had. My sardine pasta is also lovely. Walk the terraced gardens, where there is a monument to a local, Sgt Salvatore Leone, who attacked British shipping in Gibraltar, on a manned torpedo, during World War II. He was killed by depth charges and his body never found. Pay 10E to see the ancient Greek Theatre, which has hosted many film festivals, with the stage being graced by the likes of Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffiths, Richard Burton, Meg Ryan, Warren Beatty and Judy Dench. Concerts are also held there.
SUNDAY, JUNE 11
Tour amazing temples and amphitheatre at Syracuse, as well as the overgrown quarries, where one particular cavern has stunning acoustics. Seafood lunch on Ortiga Island. 60E for lunch, beers (icy cold) and wine. Three singers stop to entertain the diners, and then pass the hat. No dramas with that.
Our tour guide, Richard Ellis and I swap stories about our travels, given I took four rugby league supporters tours from Australia (1990, ’94, ’98 and 2002, the last two through Albatross travel). Richard once took an under-18, boys’ hockey tour to Scotland. Sounds like hard work. Lucas Scott, a member of our tour group (from Sydney), comments on the fact I have so many rugby league polo shirts, as he buys a Fiat t-shirt. To each his own.
Marie and I have drinks at an amazing terrace bar in the middle of Taormina, as rap dancers do their stuff in the piazza. They don’t have much luck, as they pass the hat around. More drinks at a trendy bar near the city walls, where we chat to the Kennedys from Louth in Ireland. He (initials JAK) is a motor bike mechanic. He could come in handy for members of the World Motor Bike Tour Company, staying at our hotel.
In Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, a speedway meeting is named after the late Grenville Anderson, a former Australian sedan racing champion, who I remember as a young bloke, driving his car fast around the streets of Muirwillumbah!!
Photo 4: Dining at Polignano a Mare 4