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Travel Image: Castro, Italy
 Photo: Melissa Anderson
Travel Image: Castro, Italy
 Photo: Roberta Casaligg

Castro, Italy: The Spell of the Anemone (cont.)

Inevitably, we are drawn to return. After a whirlwind tour of Rome and Capri, the eight strangers-turned-confidantes take a train to the ancient city of Lecce, dazed by the travel, and awed by the baroque architecture. Carlo and Georgio arrive an hour later, and profuse ciaos! and bellissimas!

It is well after midnight when we arrive in Castro, but the town square is packed with beautiful tanned teenaged girls in bikinis and boys in Speedos on Vespas. It is 90 degrees, and the air is close but not stifling. The peach gelato is soothingly chilly, and each lick is a memory of last summer, of lounging on our rock “beach” and diving into the ocean. However, our bar boys have plans for us this time.

“I have a special treat,” Georgio announces between drags from a perpetually lit cigarette, and he hands us a printed invitation.

“Athena McAlpine is happy to announce the opening of Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, a very special bed & breakfast in the southernmost tip of Italy.”

We study the invitation, printed on impressively hefty cardstock, and eye Carlo and Georgio with suspicion. Who are these work-averse, night-loving boys who have such hip connections?

We had been warned about Il Convento, or the Abbey, as the locals call it. That month’s Travel and Leisure feature story hollered that Puglia was the new Tuscany, and we cringe at the thought of European jetsetters and New York fashion models raining from the sky in their private jets, destroying our fantasy that this remote slice of the world was only ours for the loving.

We knock on the heavy medieval door to the Abbey, and we are ushered into a candlelit courtyard echoing with piped-in opera. “I was bohrne in the Dorchester Hotel,” announces our crusty host, Lord McAlpine, his excruciating diction adding to the surreal ambience. Lady McAlpine, or just Athena, is a sensual Greek thirty-something in a posh caftan.

Athena pours wine brought up from their private cellar and ushers us into a gilded pillow-filled lounge for dessert. Later, giddy with drink and conversation, I sneak upstairs with Jen to see how the decadently rich Europeans live. We creep through rooms teeming with dusty volumes and native treasures from Africa. The ghost of a young nun, or possibly the wind, sends us scurrying back to our hosts.

Their friends think the Lord and Lady are crazy to leave England for southern Puglia, but I suspect the aristocrats have sampled the ricci too. It is gratifying to see that the spell cast on a struggling writer can just as easily captivate one of Great Britain’s wealthiest collectors.

Back at the villa, we are singing our best opera and dancing along the edge of the Adriatic, claiming it as our own. Carlo and Georgio shrug off the notion of more ricci. “To the bar!” they announce, dragging our last bottles of Pinot Grigio out of the refrigerator. It is a speedier, more efficient aphrodisiac, one that does not require diving to the bottom of the sea.

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