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We Vote for Taranto

Looking out at Taranto's Castello in Taranto Vecchia.

Looking out at Taranto’s Castello in Taranto Vecchia.

Today is election day in Italy and there is no joy whatsoever in the land. You can read all about it (and weep) in this excellent International Herald Tribune editorial by Tim Parks, so I won’t belabor the whole sordid mess here. Instead, we decided to distract ourselves with an outing to nearby Taranto on the Ionian Sea.

The Ponte Girevole connects Taranto with Taranto Vecchia.

The Ponte Girevole connects Taranto with Taranto Vecchia.

We’ve wanted to visit the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Taranto for ages, but that’s about how long it’s been under restoration. Brian happened to discover that part of the museum is now open, with the rest slated for completion, well, sometime soon. We seized the day and found ourselves wandering the streets of Taranto on this blustery day, with bright sun and frothy white clouds dotting the sky.

This statue in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico reminded us of Italy's political condition . . . headless.

This statue in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico reminded us of Italy’s political condition . . . headless.

What little we saw of the museum’s complete collection was stunning. Taranto’s finest moments occurred long, long ago as evidenced by the collection of funerary art and household ornaments at the museum. The collection spans both Greek and Roman periods in Taranto, which is a fascinating look at the evolution of a strategically important seaport.

Modestly named Trattoria Gesu' Cristo provided a holy fish-eating experience.

Modestly named Trattoria Gesu’ Cristo provided a holy fish-eating experience.

When we finished, it was time to find a trattoria for lunch, so we followed our natural tendencies and headed away from the well-heeled part of town to an area decidedly more popolare. We stumbled upon the humbly named Trattoria Gesu Cristo and tucked into a Tarantino seafood experience we won’t soon forget.

Cataldo LaGioa, our man in Taranto.

Cataldo LaGioa, our man in Taranto.

We were seated next to an elderly man dining by himself. In no time at all, he engaged us in conversation about the quality of the fish (good), the authenticity of the family-run restaurant (genuine), preparation tips for fish (don’t mess it up) and the best coffee in Taranto (don’t spend more that 50 cents). Before long, our new best friend reached over and fileted Brian’s orata (gilt-head bream; not a Pacific Ocean fish) for him, then provided a visual demonstration of the art of eating shrimp’s heads (you suck them).

Brian's fish is fileted by a master.

Brian’s fish is fileted by a master.

Cataldo, who is named for the patron saint of Taranto, told us about his early years in the rabbit warren of dark, narrow streets in Taranto Vecchia (historic center of Taranto), followed by his move north to Torino with his family to find work. He stills keeps a home in Taranto and visits it from time to time, but so many of his friends are gone now and it’s not quite the same. We joined Cataldo for a post-lunch espresso while he selected the best pastries and presented them to us in a paper-wrapped parcel to take home. Then he led us on a spirited walking tour down memory lane as the sun set over the Castello and the Ponte Girevole (revolving bridge).

The sun sets over Martina Franca as we return from Taranto.

The sun sets over Martina Franca as we return from Taranto.

We left Cataldo at the off-track betting store and headed back to Martina Franca, marveling, as always, at the way each day unfolds here. When we woke up, we didn’t have a clear plan for the day. And as we get ready to go to sleep after answering a call from Cataldo making sure we made it safely back to our home, we marvel at the spontaneity of it all. The political pundits and pretty much everyone you talk to about the future of Italy are deeply pessimistic about the country’s ability to hold its own in a new Europe. But life goes on here despite it all, full of moments that underscore the resilience of a people determined to find pleasure in the most ordinary activities. We’ll take that kind of human connection anytime.

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