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Sophocles

When the idea for this journey started to take shape, a television show, ended up dictating its parameters.  Given my feelings about he boob tube, either it indicates its overstretching reach or my understretching sense of imagination.  Jerry Seinfeld and company built an episode out of a  fictitious film a notch below soft-core porn called “Rochelle, Rochelle: A young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk”.  It was lucky for me that Mussolini demonstrated a perfect lack of clarity when heathering upon whether or not to get in on the Second World War,  for his squandering the Italian hold on the Istrian Peninsula and losing the city of Fuime to the Slavs in 1945 made the geographical alliteration much easier, as no city in Sicily of any significance begins with the letter “F” (I’m even luckier that he lost the war, for had the Axis won all of Dalmatia down to Zadar would have been under the Italian Flag, and where could I go with that?).  Trieste was to be the starting city and Trapani its end.  As I began researching the trip, mapping out hostels and the cities I wanted to visit, Trapani had seemed so far away and my mind frequently sauntered over the thoughts of how it would be when I enter the city.  On my first trip to Italy in 1998, I visited Trapani and took away the memory of gazing out from the island’s westernmost prominatory, over the impossibly blue Roman Lake.  As my walk unfolded, halcyon Trapani remained in stasis, even as I was disabused of any lingering stereotypes I had of the country (the most painfully sobering was the most practical though: German conquest via the Euro had made memories of cheap Italy and plentiful Lires so far distant that I was able to speak to younger travelers about the good ol days with generous helpings of nostalgia).  It was therefore a range of emotions, most of them canceling each other out, when I first set eyes on the black lettered sign of the city of my final destination.  Despite being in a low intensity race against the darkening skies, I promptly sat down and surveyed what was to be my grand entrance.

Rosie Swale-Pope ran around the world a few years prior.  She recounted her trip in a book  as poorly written as it is impressive.  Her journey had a fair amount of press and her finish was almost appeared to be scripted.  She had hurt her foot in the last leg of her trip and she entered her hometown to cheers and on crutches.  Loved ones ran upto her, newspapers interviewed her and she rode off into a sunset of accolades and a lecture circut.  It was worthy of fiction and my version of it, an entrance to the crashing of the waters against the rocks nestled underneath the city’s lighthouse and perhaps a rainbow, was what I wanted.  Instead I sat there propped up on my greasy backpack, leaning against a factory long abandoned, sitting on broken asphalt littered with dirt, cigarette butts and ripped newspapers.  My imaginary celebratory banner greeting me at the end of my walk was replaced by a sign so thoroughly rusted that unless you knew what it was supposed to say, it was more or less illegible.  It was also listing to the right and didn’t look like it had much longer to be of any use.  Once it fell, it would remain there for a few months and then after the right people received the right kickbacks, a sign which would cost three times what it was worth would be hatched up a few meters away.   My endless Mediterranean was swapped out for unrelentingly flat salt plans.

Realizing at the time that this was one of those moments in life that you’ll look back on, I did my best to manufacture something properly befitting.  I couldn’t.  I couldn’t distinguish it any differently than any other town I had entered on my trip.  Grandiose thoughts settled meekly on the pale of the practical and I wondered where I could (cheaply) replenish my water supplies.  Where was the youth hostel?  I didn’t even have a map of the city.  I was starving and almost all my food had been eaten in Marsala under the curious gaze of schoolkids.  John Lennon once said that life was what was happening while you were doing other things.  Something in my life was happening and the other things were clearly winning.

After about an hour of suburbs and industrial parks, I came into the city proper.  Its a lovely old city and it doesn’t receive nearly enough tourists that it deserves.  Its a day trip for most who visit Palermo and compared Rome, Firenze and Venezia, Palermo is a tourist backwater.  Still, I find that to my liking and I was happy to see that the modernization did not wreak too much havoc since my last visit.  After fighting with an internet cafe owner over a quarter of a Euro, I booked myself a room in a pensione and set out to find my lighthouse.  Armed with a can of beans which I bought from a little alimentari and a bottled water, I wandered through the disheveled part of town and found it.  It was nearly desolate aside from a couple of teenagers who were intent to be away from the eyes of their parents.  As I approached the landing, the wind picked up and a few drops of rain started to fall.  Rain is the oddest of things in a trip like this.  When tenting out in a farmer’s field, or a roadside, or the beach, rain is the worst, as slogging it out while wet and having to sleep in damp clothes is something I never became comfortable with.  But when home is a dry room with a shower, it becomes wonderful, and it doesn’t matter how hard it gets because you know in the end, it will be fine.  I made it out to the tip of the lighthouse’s jetty and watched the ocean’s swell.  Off in the distance, I imagined others doing the same in Tunisia and Sardenga.

Without a watch to tell the time or people around to measure its passing, I gently traipsed among my mind’s weeds, a year’s worth of tangle knotted about.  Was it all worth it?  Am I a different person and if so, am I a better one?  Did all of this just amount to memories which will diminish over the years?  Will something so fabulously important to me peter out to perhaps a small remark at a cocktail party sometime? Did I just go from someone who was doing something they always wanted to do to just another American in Italy?  Is the grass greener, or atleast do I perceive it to be so?  Will i appreciate the little things in life, or will I fall back into the trap which I struggled to get out of.  Is that a trap at all?  Was my nervous springboard into the unknown, quitting my steady job and not seeing my family for all this time something worth the adulation my mind gave it?  I thought of the moments which would stick with me.  Of the cities I visited, the places I camped, the people I met.  A lifetime of experiences loosely crammed into a year.  They made me smile and made me want to cry, made me want to do it all over again and made me glad that it was all over, but they failed to satiate any of my ponderings.  I don’t know how long I was out there, for the clouds forbade me from using the sun as a clock, but eventually I walked away.  My trip was now complete.

For over two years, I had left this final writing as a draft, never publishing it.  It just never seemed appropriate to do so.  It’s cliche to remark, but there is no sunset.  I am neither Kleobis nor Biton.  I still think of those questions I asked myself on that jetty and still wonder what it is all about.  About a month ago I read through some of my old entries in my written journal and came across something which sparked my thoughts on it.  I must have had alot of time on my hands that night, because I got around to musing Sophocles, who wrote  ”One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been”.  I realized my evening was not on that pier in Trapani, but willingly in the far distant future.  Hopefully the time in between will prove my trip was not be an apex, but just another part of what has been so far a very splendid day.

Dogs

Full moons are wonderful not only for the light they give but as a sound nighttime clock.  It took me a bit getting used to at first, as its arc in the sky is dimished by the proportion of how much of it is visible.  Crescent moons skip along low in the sky and only give away times in thick generalities.  Half moons are better but a full moon is as dependable a clock as the sun may ever be.

It had been three days since I left Signora Concetta in Ragusa.  Easily the nicest place I have stayed on my journey, she was nothing less than fantastic in the B & B that she runs.  Breakfasts consisted of coffee, eggs, proscuitto, caciovaddu, provola (two types of local cheeses), cakes, bread, biscuits and six different types of marmalades which she made herself (strawberry, cherry, orange, kiwi, peach and fig, the lattermost being my favorite as it tasted of wine).  After hearing of my trip, she made up dinner of pasta incaciata (sort of like baked fetticine).  All the while she helped me with my Italian, confused me with the Sicilian dialect and generally mothered over me.  I did not want to leave, but as I was on my way out the door, she gave me a jar of fig marmalade to take with me.

Overhead the sky cleared up and the moon once again bathed the landscape with its light.  An empty road, darkened farms to the left, the sand and the white foam of the surf to the right.  Not quite finished with its journey thorugh the northern sky, I reckoned it to be a bit before midnight.  That would be round 5 o’clock or so in New York.  Right now my friends would be somewhere in the middle of christening a baby.  None of the participants are really catholics and it would be a frank surprise if the child would grow up to be one, but what did it matter?  An excuse to see friends and family is the best of any reason.  They’d be sipping whiskeys and snatching finger foods and yapping about who did what and the upcoming superbowl.  What I would have given to be there and be drinking and yapping along with them.  Not being with them, and not seeing my family is thee sacrifice of the trip.

The land goes dark and the sky opens up.  Cold rain begins to fall in sheets.  I huddle back against the abandoned building, trying to keep myself and my bag as dry as possible.  The wind, the original cause of my situation, is my saviour.  It is so strong and so direct that it is blowing the rain horizontally to the west.  It is  few degrees above freezing.  I am in the only shelter for miles.  I pray for the wind to not change direction.  In this rain I would be in serious trouble.

All that day there had been signs of storms.  The weather forecasts called for rain and strong winds and the skies were never really clear at any part of the day.  But as I started my walk a bit outside of Gela, the dry weather seemed to hold.  It was a chore to walk directly into the wind, but one I would willingly pay if I could get through the 35 kilometers and not have to bed down with wet gear.  I took lunch in Licata, but did not dawdle, as even the locals seemed to have a bit of haste in their step and umbrellas in their hands (and forgive me, but Licata has little to dawdle over).  An hour later it rained on me, but by the time I got my raingear on and my rainsack over my bag it had stopped.  A half an hour after that, I made my objective of Torre Gaffe.

I was so intent on finding a place to camp that I hadn’t noticed her at first.  I should have really, as I have not seen this many since I was on the Ionian coast south of Taranto.  But as I dropped my bag next to the leeward side of a small well, I saw her just staring at me.  I was in her spot.  The sky was getting grey quickly and as much as I felt it was wrong, I started setting up camp.

I settled in and decided that I owed her something.  She had taken up a position about 15 meters away, nestled into a small bump in the land to protect against the strengthening wind.  I only had a loaf of bread and Signora Concetta’s fig marmalada, so I split the bread with her.  She was frightened, but the prospect of food bridged that.  At first she would carefully eat the bread while watching me, but soon she took me in her confidence and ate without reservation.  I placed the bread on the side of my tent which blocked the wind, to encourage her to stay there.  She did and after eating, as I layed down in my tent, I could see her laying a couple of meters away.

The wind picked up in strength.  It was stronger than anything I had camped in.  It got to the point that I was considering picking up and finding a new place to camp, more inland, more sheltered from the wind, but the rain was on again off again, and the sky was darkened.  Nighttime is the province of the wild dogs and it is best not to travel during such.  Each time the wind gusted, my tent flap would fly up and I would see her either sleeping or scanning the landscape.  Normally I would not be able to sleep, but her presence was reassuring, and I eventually nodded off.

I awoke to the sound of barking.  I opened my eyes and in the pitchness of the night I made out that my tent was listing.  The wind blew off one corner of the fly from its metal support.  For a moment I was frozen, not knowing what to do, and to be honest, on the edge of panic.  Her barking was getting closer and alot more aggressive, which unnerved me as she was a fairly decent sized dog.  The darkness and the calamity could throw any previously friendly dog into a scared, dangerous one.

A while ago, I had taken to carrying a club and anti dog spray.  I have always hoped that the spray would be a fantastic waste of money, as I loathe using it, even successfully.  Thus far, however, the most effective thing to do to a barking dog is talk to it like I would my own pups.  And as I did, telling her that everything was alright, she stopped her barking and became calm.  As she became calm, I became calm and I made the decision to abandon my campsite.  As I did, a second corner of the fly came undone, and now the only thing keeping the tent from flipping was my back to the wind, literally propping up the tent fly.  It began to rain at that moment and I had to work as quickly as I could to stow my supplies and get my raingear on.  Though pitch black, I managed to pack myself up, helped by the scores of times I had illegally camped on farms and did everything by touch, not wanting to use a flashlight as it would attract attention.

By the time I was all set the rain let up.  The whole time she was faithfully watching me.  I owed her considerbly and here I was about to abandon her.  I apologized to her as if she could understand and gave her the last of my bread.  She understood something, as after I started to leave the field, she gave me a last look and then disappeared into the mounds of earth.

It took me about a kilometer to find the adandoned building.  It was miserable and gave little protection, but was the best I could do, as the sky was just full of pregnant clouds.  For about an hour or so I stayed there, the rain coming and going.  Curled up and shivvering, I thought of my friends christening their baby.  I thought about how nice it would be to be there with them, to be warm, with dry clothes, a roof overhead, a full belly and be surrounded by loved ones.  The people and things we take for granted are the more important than anything else when you boil it down. 

When I saw a decent gp in the clouds I took a chance to find better shelter.  I was going to freeze if I stayed there all night and could not depend on the wind not changing direction.  It took me about two kilometers to find a place which was sheltered enough to camp in.  It was perfect except that it was already claimed by a family of wild dogs.  They let me pass in peace, though a bit more down a couple of dogs occupied the street and seemed pretty intent on keeping it.  Not wanting to waste time looking for a new route or even slow down, I charged the dogs with baton raised and they scattered.  A little while later, right down the rod from a bar which was kept playing Shakira dance music, I found an abandoned stretch of road barricaded off from the main road.  I made my camp.  My gear was wet, but all in all, things were not nearly as bad as they could have been.

The Southern Tip of Sicily

When we were younger, we had a globe which would seem dated today. Myamar was called Burma, Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia and Siagon hadn’t quite morphed into Ho Chi Minh City.  For hours (well probably not hours, but it sings so much better than minutes I’d stare at the globe and imagine the places I wanted to go to.  Aden, on the tip of the Arabian Penninsula was one, and the very tip of the Deccan in India was another.  Invariably, the places that grabbed me were those out on a limb, isolated, perched on a little stretch land jutting out into an impossibly empty space of water.  Included on this ist of places was the southern tip of Sicily, which I had fully intended on visiting when tinkering around with the planning of this trip.

But being off the road for three weeks, living like a proper citizen in Siracusa and Palermo took a bit of the edge off of me.  Once I got back on the trail, I was prompted reminded that every place visited requires days of walking and a full assortment of pains and troubles.  My neck and ankles got soft during my haitus and hurt like they did when I started back in May.  Monkeybutt came back strong and the kilometers did not roll so effortlessly off as they did before.  The vagueries of Italy, which are only magnified in Sicily, made themselves known as well.  The youth hostel in Taormina was closed, making me pitch my tent in a grassy alleyway next to an abandoned factory.  The main bridge between Catania and Siracusa had been dismantled because the Italians finished the new highway bridge that spanned the Simeto River had been completed.  Since pedestrians are not allowed to use the highway bridge, my next available option lay 6 kilometers upriver.

By the time I got into Siracusa, I was a bit disheartened and pretty much abandoned the thought of adding three days of travel down to the dingy city of Pachino so I could see the southern tip of Italy.  How much easier would it be just to cut across to Ragusa?  I mean, how many coasts have I already seen, ones so beautiful that it breaks your heart to have to leave them?  I have to mimic the southern coastline of Sicily anyways after Ragusa, as I make my way through Gela and Licata to Agrigento.  Won’t I see enough then?

And that is when the gin and tonic was handed to me by the folks who run the hostel in Siracusa.  After chatting with them and hearing the accolades dumped on the tip of Sicily, I realized I just had to go.  While this trip certainly has its physical aspects, it is considerably more a mental strain than anything else.

So I diverted down the coast, got rained on everyday and learned that abandoned railway tracks make excellent nurseries for thorn bushes.  Pachino is still a dinghy little place and Portopalo was no great shakes, but the coastline was as wonderful as my mind had ever made it out to be while looking at that globe.  I made camp on a cliff overlooking the sea and fell asleep to the sound of the waves hiting the coast (and rain on my tent fly).   The next morning, I took a few pictures when I left.

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The Magnificently Parked Car

It began as everything always does around here.  Merely a murmur  in the pervading chaos which passes as normalcy.  Just before walking into a hardware shop for batteries, a middle aged police man, scratching the bridge of his nose trapsed past me with a little more effort than seemed normal.  In tow came a younger policewoman, whose uniform seemed to be a bit too presentable for the City of Catania.  Should the local police wear costumes identical to the Carabineri, they would still be easy to tell apart.  The latter are crisp, clean shaven and alert.  Even the most corpulent look smart in their uniforms which have barely changed since Facist times.  The former, however, while most likely dressing both fashonably and fantasticly off the job, just cannot be bothered to do it while on the clock.  They are not paid to do so and it’s not their job. While docile, easy going and generally likable, they have a perfect aversion to work and anything which breaks their pleasurable routine of coffee and chatting makes them scratch furiously at the bridge of their noses.  I have tired of 16th century paintings but petty street theater I just cannot get enough of, so I put the batteries on hold and went to see what was going on.

The scene unfolded splendidly.  A cabal of old men, looking serious and pointing at each other and the street held the corner.  Sprinkled along the street were loners smoking cigarettes with crisp half grins on their face.  Ciagrettes barely outnumbered the cell phones.  A butcher with thick hair arms folded over his bloody apron talked out of this side of his mouth to a waiter whose tray was filled with dirty, empty glasses.  I was trying to see what they might be looking at, but a dirty orange municipal bus blocked my view across the street.  As I waited for it to move I saw that it couldn’t, as a large, topless yellow tourist bus was slanted in front of it and it couldn’t move either as a magniciently parked car blocked the tourist bus.  Until something happened, nothing was going to happen.

Italy is one of the most legalistic countries in the world.  Newly passed laws reinforce, augment, strengthen, weaken, contradict and confound existing laws, but then never remove them.  In the arena of parking, it is no different.  Legally parking in the older city centers requires a myriad of permits and prayers.  Neat little boxes are painted in neat little rows clearly delinating where one can and cannot park.  Even little crevices are niched out in white paint for scooters.  Sometimes, it is even done in blue paint to further specify who can or cannot park there.

And the end result is that all of it is completely and utterly ignored.  Only a cornuto (a wildly thrown around insult which has lost most of its potency but would lead to violence in most other places across the globe) would follow a law which which failed to disrupt either their moral codes or money clips.  And since nearly nobody gets tickets for parking, no matter how illegally, it goes on unreproached.  I once saw four cops pushing and pulling traffic through a snarled intersection in Bari (one directed the traffic, two smoked cigarettes and one drank the coffee).  One feared that if one more car squeezed into the intersection that it would simply explode.  So at the height of it all, a woman double parks about 30 feet away from the policemen.  In America, the reaction of the law officer would be sure and serious.  Here, instead, the policeman clasped both of his hands together, as in prayer and gently wagged them towards the woman, as if to say Why would you do this to me?  What have I done to you? Why are you making my life more difficult?  The woman just held up her finger and then put up a second one.  Just one or two minutes.  The policeman hung his head a bit and then continued on.  It really wouldn’t have mattered if she meant just one hour or two, it is all the same because no one gets parking tickets around here.  So a magnificently parked car is not only parked illegally, but it is parked with such distain for any legal conventions.  Partway on the sidewalk, halfway into the crosswalk, its ass dumping right out into traffic, it is a perfect mess and one can only grin at it.

And that is what most of the people were doing on that street corner.  The tourist bus was pressed into a foriegn duty, as it denizens with their black jackets almost as dark as their hair, were clearly locals.  Most likely, they were on the clock, as the delay only seemed to buoy their spirits and they carried on well.  The middle aged, embattled policeman waved his hand to his junior, who then instinctively looked around vainly to see in what possible way could she secure the scene.  Seeing none, she shooed a few people off of the street and looked at the bus, as if she were able to reduce its proportions by properly sizing it up.  The people she shooed away went right back to their places.  She then turned and said something toone of them.  He responded by holding up a lighter for her cigarette.

The other policeman had his own smoke lit up and he began a series of hand gestures which was reminiscent of the arm gestures one sees while staring outside the big windows at airports in the long minutes before one is allowed to board.  The hand gestures lacked sincerity, as the policeman was wise enough to realize that no one is ever going to tell a Sicilian just how to drive their vehicle.  The bus driver of the tourist bus patently ignored him but did acknowledge that since the police showed up, something had to be done.  So, after lighting his ciagrette (smoking in buses is illegal in Italy, but desperate times calls for desperate measures), he began to inch the bus forward, his eyes darting about between the orange wall of the city bus and the corners of the magnificently parked car.  With each inch, the boys atop the bus clamored and shouted.  Slowly, the head of the municipal bus came into view.  The bus driver, along with a few of the passengers, had gotten off the bus to stretch their legs have a smoke.  Two were shaking their heads at the delay in their schedules, but it seemed decidely odd.  Who takes a bus in Sicily to get anywhere quickly?

With the entire ensamble performing their part, the situation slowly began to resolve itself.  A Carabinieri, along with two green fatigued soldiers who had been pressed into domestic duty, came by for a little bit to survey the situation but became bored and continued on.  Slowly and hesitiatingly, the tourist bus squirmed between its Scyllia and Charbydis.  Finally, after its cleared itself a quarter an hour later, the top of the bus cheered.  As the bus pulled away, they waved to the spectators and they would have bowed for an encore if given the chance.  The crowd then began to disburse and the man who happened to own the hardware shop walked past me and opened the door to his business.  I walked in and bought my batteries.

A few minutes later, I passed by the Magnificently Parked Car and looked through its clear and unfettered windshield and could only smile.

Confederate Cosenza

It appears that both the United States and Italy share the common ground of having somewhat disconsolate southern provinces that were brought into their unions in the 1860’s against their wills.

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Confederate or not, Cosenza was a welcome relief to arrive in.  400 plus kilometers seperate Matera and Reggio di Calabria and the only youth hostel between the two is in Cosenza.  Unlike the summertime, when 50 or 55 kilometers could be covered in a day, the autumn and winter months can expect only between 30 or 35 kilometers.  For one, the pack I carry is heavier, both due to the need to carry a sleeping bag and warm weather clothing, but also because the towns in the south are fewer and farther between, necessitating that more food and water be carried.  Second, the shorter days make it hazardous to walk along the narrow shoulders past 4 in the afternoon, thereby only allowing for 8 or so hours of walking (average walking speed without breaks is 5 kilometers per hour). Finally, the colder, wetter weather requires a greater attention be paid to finding a good camping site, as my thin tent needs to be both blocked from the wind and kept out of terrain where the cold misty night tends to settle in.

The walk itself was not too bad, as the number of wild dogs dropped considerably, though in Bernalda I was accosted by a Jehovah Witness.  The town made up for it though, when a few folks noticed me and upon finding out I was American, proudly showed me a room where there was a little shrine to Francis Ford Coppola, whose family hails from the burg.  But still, by the end of 7 days, I was ragged, tied and as filthy as I ever have been (I keep seeing fleas, but I do not seem to have them).  And so when walking into the youth hostel in Cosenza, it seemed like absolute heaven.

The hostel here is excellent on its own merits, with  gracious owners who make marmalade out of the fruit that grows in their yard and a spacious kitchen which I have the run of.  A kitchen to me is the word in luxury and I had never thought I would have missed them that much. 

The town itself is understated in my mind.  There are two excellent, free museums to peruse, and an old center which runs up the mountain side.  One thing about the mountains towns, I find it always of interest that the crystaline views which us cityfolk fawn over and splash on our screensavers are treated so moderately by folks who see it everyday.  Fancy stringing up your wash in front of a viewlike this.

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The farther south I get, the more Italy becomes like New York.  A while ago, I mentioned that Italians are quite sparse with their car horns.  Here, they treat them like the toys like they do back home (Tom from England, wryly remarked that scooters and cars often honk not only because they feel someone is doing something stupid, but in fact, they themselves are about to do something stupid and are issuing a general warning).  People are more brusk and bald about looking someone over.  Litter is everywhere and so is formless graffiti, though I still found a bit of talent in that department.

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I stayed here in Cosenza an extra day on account of the heavy rains, but the weatherman says the Calabrian Pennisula ought be sunny for the next week, so tomorrow I light out for Reggio di Calabria, which means another 7 days without roof, plumbing or electricty.

Cave Number 65

I have been in Italy for over a half of a year.  I am constantly talking to people and the farther south I move, the more it is exclusively in Italian.  There are times I have even acted as translator between anglophones and the Italian folk (especially in Taranto when a US naval ship pulled in and sailors were everywhere).  However, for all of this practice, I still do not “get” the language.  I still see the language as a collection of words, rather than grasping the essence of what is being said to me.  I gave up writing my journal out in Italian as my true thoughts couldn’t be recorded and I tired of reading childrens books in order to improve my understanding.  It really won’t surprise me if I never become fluent and in the end, that won’t bother me as much as I thought it would.

But the by product of this is that I often feel like I am not quite understanding what is being said to me, even if I know every single word uttered.  And this was certainly the case when the girl behind the desk at the youth hostel in Matera told me that I could only stay for that night, as the next night they’d be closing due to lack of business.

“But I am business” I just retorted.  Normally, this wouldn’t bother me.  I had been locked out of enough hostels to resort to  plan B without too much fuss.  But this it was a bit different this time.  It grew alot colder over the course of the day and at 400 meters, wild camping near Materta would be a chilly affair.  Add to that just an hour before three farm dogs came as close to attacking me without actually doing so and I was pretty rattled.

“We can’t keep the hostel open just for you” was her polite, but definate response.  Ouch!

Still, I have a bed for the night and I could sort out what to do over the night.  Upon getting to the room, I immediately met Anja, who, as I learned is in the middle of a bike ride between her native Belgium and “Indonesia or I hope Austrialia”.  I’d bet on her making the latter, as a few years ago she biked from northern Canada to Patagonia.  She was bummed out about having to leave the hostel.  After a bit of badmouthing the owner of the hostel (who, later castigated us and told us that “we were on vacation while she was stuck working!”, wins the obvious award of someone who ought not be in the hospitality business), we figured our only option was to wild camp somewhere near Matera, as both of us wanted to still see the city and have access to its numerous water fountains and food markets.

Now Matera is filled with things called Sassi.  Originally they were meant to mean the dwellings which the locals carved into the actual rock which the city is built upon.  The tourism industry expanded the meaning of sassi to include all of the buildings located in the old town (sort of how the boundries of Astoria has grown with every new realtor opening up).  Back in the 1950’s, the government forcibly removed the lice infected, desperately poor inhabitants of the sassi and put them in Soviet Style housing blocks.  Some of them have since been reinhabited, but whole blocks of them also haven’t.  This is where we looked for camping.

After about an hour, we found it, after hopping over a wall and winding down a slippery path of stones, mud and grass.  Really a wonderful spot, it was 4 sassi carved out right next to each other, with a grassy front area which looked out over the ravine which Matera teeters over.  Unbelievably, these sassi were actually numbered some time ago, and we settled upon number 65.  Here is a view of the block.

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Satisfied, we went back to the youth hostel and after eating, another traveller walked into the dorm room.  The first thing I did was accuse him of being English and then offering him wine, in which he responded positively both times.  Tom is cruising around France and Italy in his car and came upon Matera on a whim, as he has no specific plan other then to be back in England by Christmas.  Within a few minutes Tom was game for camping out at cave 65.  Here are the two of them by the front of the cave.

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We moved in the next day and had an absolute ball.  How many times can one say they stayed in a cave?  We felt pretty comfortable, as it was a pain in the neck to get to and that meant no one was going to come snooping around.  Anja cooked up our meals and provided endless cups of hot coffee.  Tom kept producing wine from seemingly out of thin air.  We yapped away the whole night, discussing the lack of an NHS in America, the reinvigeration of Welsh as a language and the ethnic realpolitik of Belgium and did not sleep one wink.  Here is a picture of our little community.

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We were so sleep deprived the next morning that we couldn’t stop laughing at the sexual qualities of ducks (after I mentioned that Leda, the mother of Helen of Troy, explained away her very suspicious pregnancy by claiming that Zeus impregnated her while he assumed the form of a swan).  In this state, we figured that the best thing to do was to spend another night in the cave!  So we trapsed up to town, reloaded on supplies and at my suggestion, we brought back cardboard boxes to lay on the filthy cave floor (my hobo skills were thereupon commended) and we even purloined an unattended broom from the front of a house to give the cave a cleaning (the broom was returned after its use, as we were squatters, not theives). 

When we were all preparing to leave Matera two days later, Tom, who is probably the most likable pessimist out there (from what we gandered, the only things he reckoned were good were beer and cornish pasties), stated that he was not sour on all things and he thought Woodstock was one of the best things to have happened.  While filling up our waters at the fountain in front of the Duomo, I thought about this for a bit.  While there was no music, no naked dancing in the mud and we were short about 499,997 people, there was one thing which made both had in common:  Both seemed to be spontaneous sums of a series of events that could not be recreated if tried.  And that is what makes them so wonderful and so memorable.

The Bronx is Burning

You just can’t quite believe what you are looking at in Taranto.  You can’t believe that you are in athe middle of a working city.  You can’t quiet believe you are in the first world country.  You can’t quite believe that you are in Italy.  You can’t quite believe that people live here.

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What might be hardest to believe at all is that this was not accidentally created by misgided B-25s 65 years ago.  A combination of real estate economics, an age of combat zone mentality (put all the vices in one area and keep the rest of the city free of it) and corruption that would make a Louisiana Governor blush has led to a systematic disregard for the old city.  In buildings which haven’t been abandoned, they are often braced up with a mish mash of iron and wood.  Some of this bracing has been in place for years.

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People live in the apartments above all of this scaffolding and they live their lives underneath it.  The inhabited apartment buildings seem to uniformly bulge out between the first and second floors, as the buildings upper floors press down on those below.  I am regularly astounded that people will place chairs next to buildings and sit on them all day, seemingly tempting fate with each passing minute.  On my first night in Taranto, bowling ball sized chunks fell three stories fromt he top of a crumbling building.  The police department showed up after a bit, then the fire department, then the reporters and then the politicians.  They talked for a bit, smoked a few ciagrettes and sooner or later got around to cordoning the area off.

Not all of Taranto looks like this of course.  There are newer sections of town which might not be crumbling, but would make Soviet housing designers cringe.

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But as much as the city seems to be literally sliding off of the map, there are signs of the Pheonix rising from the ashes.  Some parts of the new town do look spiffy and despite the town declaring bankruptcy to the tune of 600 million euro (given the population is only a quarter a million, that is whopping), new life is being breathed into the old town.  I, of course, like the town and the squalor and find myself at great ease in the old town.

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I almost did a double take seeing the stone nymphs on the rocks.  It seems to be a losing battle they are having with the port and the steel industry, but they look so peaceful in the sun.

Baroque Lecce

As I am nearing the halfway mark over here, somethings have managed to wear themselves a bit thin.  While the landscapes and beaches and winding little streets never fail to comfort me, in general, artsie type things have stopped registering quite a while ago, probably during Firenze.  Lecce has been the exception to the rule. 

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All in all, I have no idea what the word “Baroque” really means, other then I think it must have been a homogram word pun in some Pink Panther Movie “Miss, I am sorry to inform you that  your furniture is Baroque”.  What I do know is, is that in my eyes, it is the perfect balance between the ornate and and the subdued.

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The above is a picture of the Piazza Duomo, which is the most balanced and visually pleasing Piazza I have seen in all of Italy.  Perhaps if I saw St. Marks Piazza in Venezia without thousands of tourists milling about, I would have thought differently, but I didn’t and its not bloody likely that I (or anyone else for that matter) ever will.  Along with Siena and Genoa, I put Lecce in the must see cities of Italy.  Its just that beautiful.

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But just when you start allowing yourself to think of Italy as the center of classic understatement and refinement, you go ahead and see something like this.

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I have seen ultra tacky Obama tee shirts in our nation’s capital (including one wherein his head is superimposed on the body of Michael Jordan doing a slam dunk) and I have seen some haglio\quasi god Obama worshipping in New York, but this seems to trump them both.

4 Nights In Brindisi

I could not have been more then two kilometers from Brindisi before I lost the game of hide and seek I had been playing with a windy and wet weather system which blew in from the Adriatic 48 hours before.  For two days I had been able to dodge the rain by slipping under various structures (including a stone fortification built on the coast to be on the lookout for enemy ships) or setting up my tent quickly.  I was not in the rain for more then five minutes, but between the time it started and I found shelter under a highway underpass, I was so soaked that water shot out of my hiking boots with each step I took.  So by the time I made the youth hostel in Brindisi, I had little more then drying up and warming up on my mind.  From the brief look I got from the city and from what I knew about it, I reckoned that 2 nights would be fine enough.  It ended up not being long enough by a longshot.

Now I do not mean to slight Brindisi one bit.  The city sports an impressive free archeological museum as well as some wonderful churches.  The old section of the city has been mostly rebuilt, but it still makes for good wandering, especially during lunchtime when the scents of the calamari cooking up in the kitchens settles over the streets.  But if I have learned one thing over this trip, it has been that everyone has their own tastes, whether they admit it or not, and for my money, the port facilities remove any intimacy one can have with the sea and the city’s lanes can’t quite compare with Monopoli in beauty or Bari in energy.  I couldn’t fancy the city of Brindisi if I tried with everything I had, but the true gift on backpacking is less on what you see, but who you meet.  And on that, the youth hostel in Brinidisi made the four nights seem too short for a traveller who has been on the road for nearly half a year.

We can start with Maurizo, the gruff, likable owner of the hostel.   Before owning the hostel he saw a good chunk of the world with the Italian military and other uniformed services.  Within a minute of hearing me talk (tawk) he had me pegged as a New Yorker.   Aside from personally going to the train station to pick up folks, he also personally cooks up the hostel lunches and dinners, for which he charges a pittance.  I did the math, between the shopping and the cooking, he doesn’t make a much off it, its just he likes proper sit down dinners.  I cannot overstate how important those dinners were for me.

Three folks help out at the hostel.  The first one I met was Katherine, from New Zealand.  I had asked her in Italian if there was a bed available in the hostel and she looked at me like a deer in the headlights.  She doesn’t speak Italian, but she’s no slouch when it comes to languages.  She spent 10 months in France becoming perfectly fluent in French and then cut out of the program and came to Italy when she figured that she would get more out of the latter then the former.

She referred me to Nina, who speaks Italian, English and German, as she calls Austria her home.  She did call it home until a few months ago when she figured that the life she had made herself, a comfortable and rather affable exercise in routine, was not what she wanted.  She has admitted that these months on the road she has not found her answers, and she doesn’t even know what to look for or what questions to ask.  If she never does find her answers, it won’t be for lack of trying, as she was toying with the idea of volunteering on ships that cruise the world by the time I left.

Finishing out the trio was Sasha.  No slouch in the language department herself, she is fluent in English and Canadian.  Shes been in Italy for a while but she was gearing up to head out to Germany for atleast a week and after that, her adventure was a big question mark.  She was also the unofficial matron of the hostels three dogs, as she called out the name of the four month old “Ti-gah!!” so many times that I will probably be unable to hear about the animal without thinking of her yelling his name.

First sharing my room was Mike from Toronto.  Mike had it in his mind to buy an old Enfeild motorcycle and ride from England to India.  When he gets to India he wants to take a shot at opening a business.  Mike was one of those travellers whose enthusiasm and love of travelling is infectious, and after talking to him a bit, one cannot fail to want to length their own travels and take the road less travelled.

Not far behind Mike in enthusiasm was Renee from Seattle.  She has worked her way across Europe from Spain, and when I say worked, I mean work, volunteering on farms and hitching most of the way.  She was supposed to go back stateside in October, but she was having none of that.  She is now in Greece volunteering on a horse farm and if she has her way, perhaps in a vineyard afterwards.  She really has no idea when she is going home.

Jason from New Jersey also shared the dorm room.  He is in the middle of a three month long voyage of Europe.  He found relatives who have not been in touch with his side of the family for 130 years in Vasto and broke bread with them.  He was supposed to head off to Greece, but when the ferries weren’t running on Sunday, he took this as a sign and took a train north to Bari.  Just like that, he changed the course of his travels.

Francesco was a native Brindisian, but is a fixture at the hostel.  Wearing a perpetual smile, he has a seemingly unexhaustable supply of chocolate on him (he quit smoking a few months ago).  He gave us a primer on Italian hand gestures which we mimicked for the rest of the evening.

Also making appearences was Timor, a UN worker from Turkmenistan in Brindisi for training and Urgut, a German biking his way all over the Salatine Pennisula.

Every night we would get together and play cards, exchange customs and ideas from where we were from.  Dinner was always a big part of the evening and twice Maurizo saved us from the shockingly cheap wine we bought for ourselves, once with a jug of homemade wine and another time with a bottle of 27 year old wine so rich that you could almost chew the wine.

Eventually travellers fluttered away and after four days my time came to hoist anchor.  Goodbyes are always curt with just a wishing of good luck.  Thats the way it is with backpacking.  Become close with people who you never meet and most likely, shall never meet again.  But you are thankful to have met them, for you met folks who make the world a more colorful and interesting place.  So to everyone at the Brindisi hostel, good luck and thanks for everything! (raises up a cup of bathroom tap water which accompanies my cold canned green beans and lentils)

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Katherine, Francesco, Sasha and myself sporting exceptionally cheap strawberry wine product while yapping all night about our travels and about the little things that make home home.

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Maurizo at the com.  He has a policy of “If you bring a flag into my hostel, I’m hanging it up!”  I am sure it is the only hostel in all of Italy with a “Prince Edward Island” flag in it.  I’m going to send him a New York City Flag.

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Mike and Renee, just before they left to continue on their adventures.

Monopoly!

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Okay, okay, the spelling is slightly different, but that will not stop my immaturity from beating this joke to death (my friend Andrew once informed me that a group of people considered me the man who ruined Monopoly with my property trading tactics, money lending schemes, consolidated building consortiums, shared property ownership, floating free stays and the like.  It just might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me).  I spent a whole day trying to find a street in the city which can be found on the monopoly board but wouldn’t you know the Italians didn’t find the time to name a street after Connecticut, Tennessee, or Illinios!  So the Castello Carlo (St. Charles Place) is the best I could come up with.

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After I finally got over it, I wandered the streets at night.  Monopoli is wonderfully lit at night and it gives the whole town a sepia feel to it.  Lonely, imposing churches rising up out of nowhere in plazas that utterly fail to match in granduer, lit up by dying yellowish streetlamps and curving alleys lined by cobblestones and laundry make the city wonderous to walk about at nighttime.

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