Across to the Toe-From Puglia to Sicily
Mar 16, 2014
|Across to the Toe-From Puglia to Sicily
On my last day in Lecce, I walked around the old part of town, which was so much prettier than the burbs where I was staying. The main piazza had the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheatre fenced off in the center, but I didn’t stray too far off the main area. That night, I met the friend of a friend, Paolo, for drinks on the piazza. He had grown up here and had an apartment that he came to when the chill and damp of Brussels became too much. We had such a great time talking and watching the world go by, that we decided to extend our drinks into dinner at a little restaurant Paolo likes, just off the main square. We each got a different type of bruschetta, his with anchovies, mine with salami and cheese, both so tasty, but mine was better!
After dinner, he took me to several spots just off the piazza, places that I had missed earlier in the day, which were beautifully lit at night, no crowds, the stone buildings glowing reddish gold. It was wonderful. We had both walked to into town, so we walked together back towards our respective homes. It was nearly 10pm now, and when it was time to part ways on the edge of the old town, Paolo was worried about me walking home alone in the dark.
“It’s OK Paolo, I have the GPS in my phone, it showed me how to get here, it can show me how to get back.”
So we triple cheek kissed goodnight and promised to keep in touch. I started back home, but about ten minutes into my walk, things started looking unfamiliar in the dark. I looked at my phone and realized that the GPS wasn’t working, it was only telling me where I was, but none of the street names were coming up on the map, so I couldn’t program in the street my house was on, and nothing I was seeing looked exactly right. I tried to go in the general direction of home, and as I kept walking, I knew I was getting closer but all the streets and buildings looked the same. After 30 minutes, I was really beginning to panic a little. There weren’t many people on the streets, but the only ones that were out were men. Nobody was messing with me, but I was not comfortable at all. Finally, I called Marco.
“Marco, I’m so sorry, I know it’s late but I am completely lost, I have no idea where I am.”
I told him the intersection of the streets, which was tricky given that Europeans seem to hate labeling them. He tried to explain how to get back, then said, “Stay there, I will drive to you,” and hung up.
Standing on a busy street corner was actually scarier than walking, especially because I was looking at every car to see if it was Marco. I kept thinking someone was eventually going to pull over and start negotiating prices for my services. Seven anxious minutes later, he and his girlfriend pulled up. It took two minutes to drive back to the house, I was that close, but I could have wandered all night and still not have found it. I was so grateful to Marco for coming to rescue me.
I left the next morning, telling Marco that I was leaving early and not to worry about breakfast. It seemed pointless really, I could have a cracker and be just as satisfied. I was going first to Alberobello, a village filled with homes called “trullo,” round, white buildings with grey stone conical roofs. It’s protected as a World Heritage site, the buildings are unique to the area and just beautiful. It was very touristy, and I don’t think anyone lived in the homes anymore, they had all been turned into souvenir shops or cafes. The drive to the town was peaceful and beautiful, the town was worth seeing but I was glad I hadn’t planned to stay here, not a lot going on other than the houses.
As I drove, it was easier on my ears to keep Blacky’s windows down a little and I really noticed an unusual smell about the whole area of Puglia. It was wonderful and unique, a mix of dirt, garlic, onion, cow manure and pine-an earthy dense smell for someplace so rocky and sunny. I loved it.
That night I was staying at a town called Matera, in the Basilicata region, between Puglia and Calabria, near the top of the arch of the boot. I had splurged, booking a real hotel, right in the middle of the old town, one with a pool and spa area, and parking. The hotel didn’t have an exact street number, I should have Google Earthed it to see it from ground level. Leona got me fairly close, but I kept going down streets so small, I really didn’t think cars were supposed to be on them. But I would see them parked in tiny scooped out alcoves occasionally so I just kept going. I finally found the hotel and pulled up in front, but there was no scoop out here, I was totally blocking the tiny road. I went to get my luggage out and some old man standing in his door next to the car started yelling at me and waving his arms at Blacky. I put my luggage on the steps up to the hotel then moved Blacky up the road to someone's driveway and put the hazards on.
I ended up paying someone to come and drive the car to a nearby parking garage, I was only here one night, it wasn’t worth trying to figure out this warren of a place. The room at the hotel looked like an elegant cave carved in stone, with views over the beautiful old town, and a giant bathroom. So far so good. I couldn’t go to the pool until 3pm, it was closed during the middle of the day. That was the only thing I didn’t like, it cost ten Euro to use the spa area, this extra cost not advertised on the website, and I thought for as much as I’m paying, I should be allowed to use the pool for free. I went out for a delicious lunch, bypassing the menu choices of horse filet, or pasta with offal, choosing a simple pasta dish instead. I walked all over the town for two hours after lunch, and loved the tiny streets and alleys. As I walked up a steep street, I could see a pale pinkish building at the top. I could hear violins playing scales, then saw signs saying Musica Scuolo, Music School. It was a corner building and as I came around the corner, I walked into a small piazza. It was a warm day, the large windows of the school were wide open, and from one of the windows, came the sound of a man and woman singing an opera duet, with a fabulous pianist accompanying them. I don’t like opera, but this sounded so beautiful, the day was sunny, the voices floated on a warm breeze, it was just like in a movie. There was a café on the piazza, so I sat out in the sun, sipped a cappuccino and listened to free opera. Serendipity at its finest.
As soon as I got back to the hotel, I got ready for my spa visit. I realized it was the first time I’d used my bathing suit since I left home. The one time I’d been swimming, in Denmark, I didn’t wear the suit. I wanted to get in the hot tub before I got in the pool, but when I got arrived, there was already a couple in the tub. It wasn’t a huge hot tub, it looked like a four man tub, so I just took my robe off and plopped my ass in there. When they realized I was actually getting in, instead of sitting nearby and waiting for them to finish, I could see the look they exchanged, but I was oblivimous, as Mary likes to say, and didn’t even think to wait to get in.
“Hi, wow, this water is cold. I thought this was supposed to be a hot tub?”
They just looked at me, looked at each other and shrugged the “Meh” shrug. They didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Italian, we were looking a lot like a can of awkward Italian sardines. I was cold, so I got out after two minutes to try the sauna and see if that was any warmer. After the sauna, I slipped into the lovely lukewarm pool, with stone arched ceilings, and an almost hidden alcove around a little curve, benches carved into the walls and spa jets that could be turned on with the press of a red button on the wall. It was fabulous and so romantic, but I was absolutely alone in here, my couple chose to stay in the hot tub and sauna area, as far away from me as they could get.
At the time, I didn’t give it a second thought, but afterwards, when I was falling asleep in bed that night, thinking about what I now call the hot tub incident, I got so embarrassed, my face turned red, alone and in the dark. The nice couple were probably at this lovely, romantic hotel to have a weekend to re-kindle romance, and here I come, barging in on their alone time, sitting right in between them with my big chubby American self. Ugh, I just hoped I didn’t see them again.
The next morning, after a huge wonderful breakfast that came with the room, I asked the woman at the desk to get my car out of the lot, wherever that was.
“Oh, it’s just around the corner, you walk to the lot and they’ll have it ready for you.”
So, off I go, lugging my shit, yes UP the stairs from my hotel, which is built into the side of a hill. I walk along the street it’s supposed to be on, looking for Blacky or for any person, sign, office, anything, but it’s dead quiet, no Blacky, no attendant. I sit on a low wall and wait for five minutes, then call the hotel.
“There’s no one here.”
“Do you see your car?”
“No, I don’t see a parking lot either.”
“I’ll call them and see what’s going on.”
They never called back. After another ten minutes, I looked down a sloping driveway. There was no sign anywhere on the street or on the driveway, but I decided to check it out. Sure enough, there was a little parking garage at the bottom of the driveway, on the left, invisible from the street. Very well camouflaged….A tiny old lady came out to greet me like I was her long lost daughter from far away, kissing my cheeks and my hand. She walked me to Blacky but insisted on pulling him out herself, and she creeped from the back of the garage to the entrance, craning her neck so she could see over the steering wheel. I had to move the seat from outside the car, she had it so close I couldn’t have gotten an arm between the seat and the wheel. I got into Blacky and worked on programming Leona.
Meanwhile, my sweet, little old lady was moving a shiny black brand new BMW from the front of the garage to somewhere else, when I heard a horrible “sccccrrraaaape, crrrrruuuunch” noise.
“Oh shit, I know that sound.”
She got out of the Beemer right quick and went to the passenger side. She had scraped the passenger side mirror along the cement wall of the garage. While I watched, she spit on the sleeve of her sweater and rubbed the outside of the mirror then walked back to the office.
I could imagine her son once he got to work…
“MA, I told you not to drive the cars,” and her smacking the back of his head, “Well, Guido, maybe if you’d get to work before Noon, I wouldn’t have to.”
I was leaving Matera, but I wasn’t certain where I would end up tonight. I was entering Calabria- Mafia country, so I knew I wouldn’t be stopping for anything other than gas as I drove to the toe. I was catching a ferry from Reggio Calabria to Messina, Sicily. I wasn’t sure how long this would take and how tired I would be, so I hadn’t booked anything. The following night I was staying in Gardini Naxos, right on the coast, next to Taormina but I thought that would be too far for a one day drive, so I was playing things loose.
It turned out to be an extremely easy drive, the ferry ran every 20 minutes and was only 20 minutes long. I had thought I might stay in Messina, but the drive from the docks through the town was one of the worst yet, so I decided to keep going. I made it all the way to Furci Siculo, a tiny beach town, when I just felt too tired to go on. I found a Pensione up a tiny street and booked a room for one night. It was one of the creepier places I’d stayed, it seemed like a place where itinerant workers might stay, although it wasn’t hostel cheap. I ate in the hotel restaurant. A man who looked and sounded just like Ray Romano’s TV brother, Brad Garrett, only in Italian, sat me, and a fat little unkempt chef came out to take my order. The chef, Mimmo, spoke a little English, and asked if I was alone.
He made a sad face and said, “Why alone?”
“Mi esposa est morte,” (my husband is dead) and made a cutting motion across my neck and did that weird back of the throat “grrrckk” noise.
Mimmo’s face got really sad then, he actually had tears in his eyes as he grabbed both my hands.
“So sorry, so sorry,” he said as he shook his head and brought me a glass of Prosecco on the house. He asked if I wanted pasta, then recommended the special of the night which I ordered. It was good and Mimmo kept coming out to check on me. In the middle of my meal, I heard him sneeze, presumably back in the kitchen, and the next time he came out, he had a little booger on the end of his nose and I just couldn’t eat another bite. I couldn’t even look at him anymore, I looked at the wall behind him.
I went up to bed shortly after that, checked the room for hidden cameras, bolted the door and went to sleep.