A Trip to Canosa di Puglia

A Trip to Canosa di Puglia (Ba)
(how we found Nicola Colucci)

It was a bright and sunny morning. OK, I know that all great stories are supposed to start out on dark and stormy nights, but those were few and far between on our recent trip to Italy. Mimi and I had just spent a week long whirlwind tour of northern Italy with our friends Rino and Vanda and taken the train to Rome where our sons Josiah and Tom had been touring for a week. Luckily, I didn’t have to spend the night at the Bedbug Arms (my nickname for M&J’s Place, a hostel in Rome a couple of blocks from the main train terminal. We had a lovely room at the Viennese Due Hotel, a 4th floor hotel also a couple of blocks from the terminal. This hotel even had a lift. It was just big enough for two people, two small suitcases and a pet cockroach. Fortunately, we left all of our pet cockroaches over at their more comfortable quarters with M&J.

Josiah and Tom met Mimi and I when we got off the train on Thursday the 11th of September and helped us into our hotel and then we got a full afternoon of sightseeing followed by an absolutely mouthwatering Calabrese dinner at Ristorante Capitello which started out with a typical Calabrian appetizer plate and bread with n’duja. Then, of course were the first and second courses and salads. Our waiter was so warm and accommodating, that when we insisted we were too full for dessert, he wanted to buy us an aperitif on the house. Since I am unable to have alcohol, though, I had to forego this tempting treat and I am afraid I may have offended our gracious host of the evening. When he found Mimi had Calabrese family roots, he simply made certain that EVERYTHING was perfect for us, even though he had a very demanding and rowdy table of 19 that came in right behind us. If you visit their website, you will find a most exquisite menu that I am certain will make even the most timid of travelers instantly want to jump on a plane for Rome and points south. Of course, if you happen to be staying in one of the local hostels, they have a special menu for 10 Euros. Heck, I might consider sharing my room with some cockroaches to get that kind of a “full meal deal”.

I tend to digress just a bit, but my friends are used to this….

We got up the next morning and caught an early train for Foggia, a city I am certain has much history in its own right, but our only purpose here was to pick up our rental car and get to Sant’Agata di Puglia before nightfall. We had pizza in a little sidewalk stand where I could get just a slice for once. Great stuff. Here is where I discovered for the first time a different and new tradition in consumption of coffee. I’d been told about it, but this was my first experience. When you order your espresso, the barrista first serves up a jigger of mineral water (carbonated) which you drink first. Then he serves you your coffee. By cleansing the palate a bit, the flavor of the coffee just bursts alive in your mouth. Life will never be the same.

We got our rental car and got out of town bound for other parts of Puglia. After spending a night and a day in Sant’Agata, we left for Canosa. We have only been planning this for a year and this is what I consider “my time” in our vacation planning so I’m a bit anxious to get on with it. Of course, first we had to have lunch at the hotel and then we had to go visit the shrine of the Santa Maria delle Grazie at Incoronata. Josiah, the great navigator, got us over the backroads and right into the place with no problem. I dropped Mimi and the boys off and set off to put the car someplace it would not get towed away. I’m a little sensitive about this. After getting yelled at by a most highly agitated parking lot attendant, I finally figured out he wanted 1.2 Euro for 1.0 hour. OK, buddy, you got it. He wanted more, but I assured him I would be gone long before an hour was up. In my best imitation of Italian, no less. I’m sure he was duly impressed. Mind you, I just wanted to get to Canosa. I’ve got a date with a 90 year old fiddler and I want to be there NOW. All this stuff about relaxing and enjoying the “adventure” of it all wasn’t sitting too well with me by now.

We’ve finally seen the temple and done our appropriate idol worship and get back on the road for Canosa. Now it’s just about an hour away and I’m getting excited. Finally, I’m going to meet Nicola Colucci, a fiddler who I have only known up to now from listening to his CD (Violinisti e Serenate A Canosa – published in 1993). Mimi and Nicola have written back and forth a few times and he has asked us to bring our violins and assured us he would show us his. He also told us not to stay in a hotel because he has plenty of mattresses and room for us. He also told us to bring our recorders so we could record a little if we wanted to learn some new songs. OK, so I’m carrying my tape recorder, my video cassette recorder (and don’t think Mimi will ever stop talking about that!!) two violins and a family of four in our fine Citroen “Picasso” station wagon. It had only about 3,000 KM on it when we got it and not a scratch. Of course, by the time I got done with it, I could not say the same.

We finally find the cutoff into Canosa and started driving around in circles because that is what the signs for the “Municipio” tell us to do. Now, Nicola has told us to drive into the center of town and go to the piazza and ask anybody there how to find him, because he is only a couple of blocks away. So we find a piazza and Mimi (our best linguist) approaches a park bench filled with craggy old men and asks. WHO??? Nicola Colucci. WHO??? You get the picture. So we asked a group of young people. “Sorry, we’re musicians, not from around here” OK, kids, whatever….

Now we had found the right piazza. We’re parked right in front of the municipio. There’s a church next door and there is a funeral going on. There are two things that generate a lot of traffic and excitement around here and that is a good funeral or a good wedding. A phrase I heard in Italy I really liked was “enshrine the dead and disdain the living”. Hmmm. So we’re wandering around asking everyone in the piazza if they know our friend Nicola. Nope. Nobody. Mimi finds a phone book and finds an address. She finds some kids that appear to be locals. Mimi asked the kids if they knew where Via Lecce was. “No,” they replied. “but we ARE friends of the milk.”

After a shady looking character on a motorcycle gives Mimi excellent directions, we drive there. Nobody’s home. We go for a walk and buy some fruit. We come back. Still nobody home. We go for a drive. Now the other piazza we had been to is closed off for a wedding and I can’t get through the maze to get back to the Piazza di Repubblica and have to figure out some alternative routes through some narrow streets, many which seem to be one way.

It is now getting on toward evening and after finding the piazza again, I park and go get a coffee. Mimi tries to call the number she thinks might be Nicola again. No luck. We wander around some more and decide maybe we’ll try one more time at this other house and if that doesn’t work, we’ll just get a hotel for the night. So we drive a circuitous route back to Nicola’s (?) house and this time somebody is home. When we ring the bell, she comes out to the 3rd floor balcony and yells down to us this isn’t his house. He lives up by the piazza. GREAT. At least we found somebody, and a relative, no less. She tells us to ask ANYONE at the Piazza where the Castello is, and they will give us directions because Nicola lives at the Castello. So we leave her a bit reluctantly and return yet again to the piazza. Now the funeral procession has returned from its walk through town and I have to move my car out of their way. Mimi and Josiah hike up the hill to find the house and Tom and I take a mad frantic drive down to a place where I can spin my tires, make a little screeching noise and get some of my frustration vented. It works famously. I return to the piazza relaxed and ready for anything.

Mimi and Jo come back. They’ve found the house, but nobody’s home today. Ok. At least we know where it is. We’ll get a hotel, dinner and rest. We’ll come back tomorrow morning and try again. If nobody is home then, we’ll just go on to Calabria and consider it a lost cause. There are signs all over the place for a few hotels at the other end of town and we make our way to the Hotel Canusium , a marvelous 4-star place that was very comfortable and very reasonably priced (note from Mimi: Aside from Rome, this was the most expensive hotel we stayed in. But if you compared it to where we stayed in Rome, it was luxurious and had such wonderful attention to detail). As with just about everywhere else we went on our trip, the staff was extremely friendly and accommodating and made our stay quite relaxed. Turns out, the proprietor’s real business is making neckties and he has a great display of them in the dining room. Although they don’t fit my style particularly well, they are obviously well crafted and of very high quality.

After a quick breakfast the next morning, we went off yet again in search of the elusive Nicola Colucci. We went to the house and his neighbor told us he was in church. OK, the church was just across the street. I started that way and just as I got to the door, I met a man about my own age who asked me if I was looking for Nicola. I told him yes and he told me he wasn’t home. I was just about to break into tears when he told me that Nicola was down the hill waiting for us. It turns out this was Nicola’s son, Franco. Finally, we have connected and Franco takes us down the hill to meet his father.

When we get there, the first thing Nicola wants us to do is move our car into his garage. Now, I have to tell you, I am a pretty good judge of space and pretty good at parking in tight spots. I don’t say this to brag, but simply to take credit for one of the very few things my family will agree with me on. But when I looked at this garage door, I first said, “No way!”. But we had to give it a try, so I gave Tom the keys and had him go back to the piazza and bring the car down. The door isn’t as tall as me. In fact, Mimi could bump her head trying to walk in. Also, the garage itself is just wide enough to get one car in and open the doors. Oh yeah, and there’s stuff along the side walls. Then, there is the issue of the street widths in Italy. In order to make this work, I am going to pretty much have to have the vehicle perpendicular to the house on a street that is not as wide as my car is long. This might be a problem. I survey the situation when Tom gets back and think I might have just enough room. It looks like the car will clear the height by about 3-1/2″ and there’s just this little 1-1/2″ metal ridge I have to jump over, leaving me a good 2″.

I start jockeying the car back and forth with visions of getting it stuck perpendicular to the street, or finally getting it in and never being able to get out. Of course, once it is finally in and parked, now it isn’t coming out until Nicola tells us it is okay to leave. We don’t know where we’re staying tonight and have all agree that if it is all just too strange, we’ll find some way to graciously excuse ourselves and make the best exit we can. Now, that likelihood is slightly reduced. It looks like we’re here for the duration.

We bring in fiddles and Nicola, Tom and I start to do the fiddler’s introductions. He wants to play ours and we want to play his. This goes on for a few minutes and finally, it is time for him to play. He is loaded down with a collection of the sheet music he has collected over the past 70 years. He has been in a band that played in the streets, in clubs, for weddings and other special events. Less than a year ago, Nicola’s wife died and he still wears the black button of the grieving widower. It is obvious that he misses her, and every bit as obvious that he misses his guitar playing brother and other members of his band who are all now gone. He doesn’t play every day like he used to, but just yesterday he had played at a wedding.


Nicola is a very proud man, as well he should be. He took great delight in showing us the shop where his grandfather and his father before him worked, making knives, axes and scissors. He showed us an axe he had made, and it was beautifully crafted. His tools are modern and the shop now is run by his son, Franco, the fourth generation of consistent craftsmanship. Before we left, Franco gave my wife a pair of scissors he had made. Small, simple, and elegant.

For over three hours, Nicola, Tom and I played music together. Well, together is really a misnomer. First he played for us. I couldn’t begin to keep up, and even Tom (who is usually able to match people note for note after hearing something once) couldn’t keep up with his changes and turns. Every tune is played above first position. The sheet music is calling out for a note on the A-string and Nicola is an octave above it. He plays fast, with a great deal of ornamentation and flair. While the fact that he doesn’t play as often as he probably used to is obvious, he gets better the longer he goes. His intonation becomes stronger and his fingers simply glide over those lilting musical phrases that are so familiar to him.

Then he wants us to play some of our tunes for him. What an honor to be asked by this man of such amazing talent to share our own music with him. We played a few tunes and then he played a few and then we tried to play a couple together. The common ground for Nicola and me was the music that was popular during World War II; the music of the big band era. Most of this is pretty unfamiliar stuff to Tom, but finally, Nicola and I found a way to play together and as we played, our eyes would meet and we had finally connected. He doesn’t speak English and my Italian is pretty limited. But here we were, separated by culture and separated by language, but with this little bit of wood, horsehair and steel, we were able to communicate.

Lunch time finally arrived and Nicola walked us down through the Piazza Repubblica and through the winding streets of Canosa to yet another piazza where we came to the hotel/ristorante where Nicola wanted us to book a room for the night, telling us he didn’t think his rooms would be comfortable for us. We sat down in the dining room to find a trophy, pair of gloves and autographed photo hanging right above our heads. These were from none other than Rocky Marciano a native son of Canosa. I knew of this great fighter and his history, but not of his roots. And here we were, sitting in a place where he returned to honor these deep community ties. Here, we were also introduced to another local musician Giampaolo Sardella who has a CD published called “Moderno Restaurant”. A lively and light-hearted host, Giampaolo welcomed us to his restaurant and the next thing we know, somebody is setting up a TV. on another table. Then they bring in a video player and set it all up and after much hand waving, discussion and proving that things are the same in Italy as they are here (i.e., a young kid came in, pushed 2 buttons and the thing worked fine) we were treated to a 30 minute video of Nicola playing with his brother and friends. This was made shortly before his brother died and while we watched, I occasionally stole a glance at my new friend and could see the sadness with which he watched and listened.

Then, of course, Giampaolo wanted us to know about Nicola’s CD. We told him that we had the CD and this was how we had discovered Canosa and Nicola and it was because of the CD that we came to find this wonderful musical treasure. I’m not sure I ever got this across, but I tried. Like I said, my Italian leaves a lot to be desired. Giampaolo speaks some English, however, and we did okay together. He played the CD for a while and then Nicola told him about “the tape”. Giampaolo assured Nicola the music on the tape is the same as the CD, but before we were through, we had gotten to witness the game of “prove it”, with much flair. Remember the ordeal with the video player? Well, now it is the stereo that was in the other room. It had to be disconnected and brought into the room and set up on the table where the VCR was. Then Giampaolo started to play the tape. “But there are 33 songs on the CD,” says Nicola.

We got to listen, therefore, to first the CD and then the tape to make sure they are all there. Then Giampaolo graced us with a bit of his own music, singing and playing guitar. Other diners were familiar with the tunes he sang and joined in. It was a fabulous way to spend a Saturday afternoon and I was a bit sad to see this festive luncheon come to a close, but I really did want to spend some more time with Nicola playing and looking at his other violins. He purportedly had ten of them. So I cornered our hosts and paid the bill. Lunch had gone on for about 2-1/2 hours. As we were leaving, Nicola voiced great displeasure with me, because he had wanted to take us to lunch. I agreed to let him pay for dinner. I mentioned to him that I didn’t expect him to pay for our way, but it was something he really wanted to do. He is 88 years old and doesn’t see himself being around a lot longer and figures this is a good thing to spend his money on. I’m overwhelmed by not only his generosity, but his views of life, his strength of character and his sense of humor. Every time we leave a building and start walking, he grabs my arm and drags me along. And I do mean drags me along. At 52 years old, I’m having trouble keeping up with a man almost twice my age. As with most towns in Italy, Canosa is a bit hilly. Not as much as some, but he has 2 houses, one on top of the hill where he lives with Franco, and another down the hill in the piazza above the shop. We get back from lunch and Franco is in the “studio” where we were playing all morning with a bunch of his buddies. They’re there to watch the football match between Milan and Bologna (they, of course, are rooting for Milan).

We trudge off up the hill where Nicola shows us the memorial from where the town was bombed during the war, killing many innocent women and children. This is a mere stone’s throw from his home, and once again, I walk up the hill with something to think about. How fortunate am I to live in this great land of mine. What a young and innocent land America is. I am walking on streets that were being walked for 500 years when the first white settlers came to what would become North America. I am looking at buildings that were constructed 250 years before my own family came to this country, and when I was growing up, I considered my family to be pretty ancient here because they crossed the prairie in covered wagons.

At Nicola’s “other” house, we see photos of his children, grandchildren and get to hear a little family history. Then he brings out the Stradivarius violin built in the 1700’s. We know it must be authentic because the label is typed so neatly and plainly reads with all the correct information. We trade this fiddle back and forth for a while, each playing a tune for each other and with laughter and talking in between. Finally, it is time to walk again. We take a walk up to the castle. This is a medieval castle that is nothing but ruins now. I found a 1911 encyclopedia that refers to the town being “rebuilt” in 963 a.d. I’m not sure when this castle was built, but we discovered in one of the walls, what appeared to be either human remains or the bones of an animal within the stonework. Then we walked back down to the studio for some more music before going out for a dinner at the same restaurant. On the way, however, it was time for “passaggiata”, that time in the Italian day where everyone in town goes for a stroll. In Canosa, they all congregate by the cathedral, where mass was going on. So Nicola took us in for a brief tour of the cathedral and then we were off to dinner.

Dinner was a little more low-keyed than was lunch. Of course, we were early. It was only 8:00 pm when we got there. Just about the time we were finishing, the rest of the town was starting to get hungry. All through dinner, Nicola kept patting Tom on the arm telling him how much he would like for him to stay. It was painfully obvious to us that this man is lonely for others who share his passion for music and he latched right on to this young man who had traveled halfway around the world to play for a few hours with him. This is a man who has a history of long-term things in his life and we were simply a passing fantasy, however. It would give me great pleasure to see Tom fly off to Canosa and stay there for a year, studying music and craft with this kind and gentle man.

As we returned to the Piazza Repubblica, we stumbled into a fashion show. Canned music, but they had set up the runway going up the steps and had huge lights and flashing strobes and huge crowds of folks milling about watching. We had seen them setting up equipment earlier, but Nicola and I just figured it was for a concert. He shares my feelings about much of the modern music (i.e., lots of boom, boom, boom, not much tune, tune, tune) and after a few minutes, both of us had had enough of the noise and returned to his place a mere 3 blocks away. I was struck upon leaving the public area at how quiet it became so quickly. In Seattle, if that music was playing a mile away I would hear it. Not so in Canosa where the narrow streets, high buildings and general framework of the architecture tend to centralize the noise and things don’t tend to travel so far. Of course, when a scooter goes by in the street below, this same architectural feature tends to magnify the noise.

After playing for a bit more, it became bedtime and Nicola brought out the mattresses. He has a “matrimonial” size bed that folds up, with two twin-bed mattresses that go on the somewhat loosey goosey spring set. Then for the boys, in another room, he had another single bed frame and mattress and 2 other mattresses to make a nest on the floor. We were all quite cozy and surprisingly, got a pretty good night sleep in this land far away. That night, I dreamed of a giant ball in which the women were dressed in fine gowns and we were all playing these passionate and gripping waltzes. There was Nicola and his brother, and Tom and me, and Mimi was playing bass and Josiah was dancing with a pretty young gal with huge dark eyes that looked up into his with adoration. And all too soon it was over and we had to depart this fine community. The next morning after a quick breakfast Nicola and I played a few last tunes and bid a tearful farewell and moved on to the next adventure. I can only hope that we left behind a memory as fine as the one we took away. And I only hope the people of Canosa realize the treasure they have before they lose it.

Our entry into Canosa was stressful and filled with doubt and uncertainty and I left on Sunday morning saying I probably would never venture there again, but as I sit and reflect, I miss it already and look forward to my return someday. I only hope I can meet Nicola again.

narrated by Donald.