It was 11pm and I was standing alone outside the Lecce train station with two suitcases, two bags, no ride, no money, and Lecce’s Wikitravel entry loaded on my iPhone warning me about Lecce’s rip-off taxis. Well, thank heavens for one thing: I had phone service.
I had just endured three days and two nights of continuous travel to get to Lecce, Italy (in the region of Puglia) from San Diego, CA, for the wedding of two of my best friends: an Italian bride from Lecce, and an American groom from Buffalo, New York. They met on Valentine’s Day at a party at my apartment in Bologna some years ago. I couldn’t wait for the nuptials, and the celebration, but mostly to be reunited with a very close group of friends I had made while living in Bologna.
Despite my obvious fatigue and the ambiguity about the next few hours of my life, and the lack of fairytale charm that was driving my current travel story, being back in Italy after five long months away and the promise of what was to come was enough to keep my spirits up.
I was the first out-of-town guest to arrive in Lecce. I made it to the B&B in an overpriced cab – yet another reminder that Wikitravel is always right – and I slept alone in a damp cave-like hallway of a room in a bottom bunk. Still unfazed, I woke up the next morning and tried my best to play host to the string of foreigners arriving by bus and train, depending on whether they flew in on a budget flight to nearby Brindisi, or endured a long train ride from a major Italian airport. We were stuck like sardines, eleven of us, in the small B&B with two bathrooms that had no central access. But we were happy nonetheless to be reunited once again. Many of us had studied arts management together, while others were students or teachers in other capacities. But we all had at least three things in common: the bride, the groom, and we weren’t from Lecce.
That evening, the night before the wedding, in the absence of the tradition of a bachelor/bachelorette party, the bride had organized a pre-party to celebrate with friends. I’d been tasked with preparing a “Bologna style gag” for the occasion. Because Bologna is a university town, it is infamous for graduation traditions involving a significant level of public humiliation, such as printing out bad quality, embarrassing pictures of the graduate, writing funny captions on them, and posting them on the streets for the public to enjoy. When the groom did this for my Bologna graduation, my landlord sent me personal congratulations. “How did you know I graduated?” I asked him. “Well, I saw your pictures on the street of course,” he responded. Eeeek.
I decided I would expand this traditional graduation gag and use it for the “quasi bachelor/ette” party in Lecce. Three of us from the “foreigner” cohort spent nearly an hour plastering Lecce with embarrassing black and white photocopies of the couple by taping the printouts on corners and light poles for all to enjoy on this busy Friday night in town.
We died of laughter as the pedestrians accepted our “art” with gusto, tourists and locals stopping to enjoy the photos as they headed out for the evening. The public humiliation continued as I managed to get the bride and groom to cross-dress during a “soon to be newlywed” game (photos unfortunately not included for the sake of the long-term reputation of the couple).
We made it to bed at a fairly decent hour in anticipation of the big event. Venturing out the next morning – the Saturday of the wedding – in the heart of wedding season in gorgeous, baroque Lecce, we seemed to run into a wedding around every corner.
Due to this competitive wedding season, our bride had “settled” on her third choice for the wedding ceremony: Lecce’s duomo.
Let’s just say Lecce’s duomo is not your average duomo, and not your average place to get married, especially by American standards. It is, for lack of a more sophisticated word, immense, and usually packed with tourists. I was dumbfounded that it was even an option to get married in a place of such beauty and history.
We arrived early for the ceremony, dwarfed by the scale of the duomo, and feeling as though we had finally stepped into the pages of the fairytale. But, do grooms ever get nervous in fairytales? Ours did. We tried our best to console him.
But all the worry turned out to be for naught, as other than the late organist, our friends managed to get hitched without a hitch. The American “assistant priest” even offered comic relief for all as he embraced his big moment on the duomo altar by taking pictures during the ceremony.
After the ceremony, the bride and groom greeted their adoring family and friends on the steps of the duomo, tossing the bouquet into our crowd on the edge of the immense piazza, which ended in a surprising steal by one of the guys, who was teased endlessly after by the bride’s brothers.
More priest photo-taking, and a long string of well-wishing and congratulations, during which the bride’s nana (grandma) took a breather in the coveted limousine (not such a common car in Italy).
We got our pic with the beautiful couple, and then we finally set out for the reception.
The party took place in a castle called Castello Monaci on a piece of country land outside of Lecce. As we pulled up at dusk, it felt like we were arriving at Cinderella’s castle set on the backdrop of the beautiful Pugliese landscape.
First wine tasting in the museum foyer (another building on the estate), followed by an antipasto buffet in the castle,
complete with all of the bride and groom’s favorite things, and a few of our own too. We foolishly thought the antipasto buffet was dinner, but our plates were soon pulled away and a several course wine-paired dinner began. We were all feeling well taken care of.
As we savored the last tasty morsels of dinner, we were beckoned outside for the cake cutting happening in tandem with traditional Pugliese Pizzica and Tarantella music and dance, complete with a traditional band.
Tambourines were ringing as women threw off their heels and ran for the improvised dance floor in the damp grass, everyone trading partners and teaching the little guests and foreigners how to join in.
And just as we all imagined that life couldn’t get much better, we were ushered into another wing in the castle, and greeted by a dessert buffet that could only be matched in my wildest imagination by a scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
And then, just as the clock chiming midnight snuck up on Cinderella, before we knew it 4am had rudely arrived and ended our magical night. The bride and groom retreated to their castle chambers, and we headed off in the Volkswagen of one of the waitresses, as the last taxi in the region had already called it a night. Not exactly a magical carriage ride, and returning to our damp and dark B&B wasn’t so magical either. Reality had arrived, but that was ok. We can’t be too greedy about our special experiences…we got enough of them tonight to even stow some away in reserves for awhile.
And that, my friends, is the end of this fairytale, at least for now…