Mezzogiorno Road Trip

17:06 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Via Appia, the road to Rome. After foreign campaigns in Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor, Roman ships would dock in Brindisi and disembark their soldiers. The soldiers would climb Virgil's Steps and march onto Rome. Perhaps to a celebratory Triumph, perhaps to overthrow the Government. Marcy and I began our journey in Brindisi, underneath those same steps. We weren't heading to Rome, we were heading to Napoli - the beating heart of southern Italy.

Over breakfast, Marcy told me something I was shocked by. Mozzarella isn't cheese (formaggio). Ricotta isn't cheese either! In Italy, they fall into their own group, Latticini. Mind blown.

We moved onto the beautiful city of Lecce in the centre of the Puglia region. A baroque masterpiece constructed out of brilliantly white stone. At the centre of the town there are the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre. The tigers, elephants and other exotic creatures captured on foreign campaigns would be brought here to be proved and tested. The best went on to the Colosseum in Rome. I was also going to be severely tested in Italy - Would I be able to survive driving a car in the crazy south? And would my Italian show any improvement?

Before we hired a car, we got ourselves a Vespa for a few days. I bloody love riding Vespas. Especially in such a beautiful city full of great architecture and lots of narrow alleyways to explore. We headed off to explore the Ionian coast and soak up the sun. After leaving the city, I expected to ride on country lanes. Instead we ended up on the SS101 which was basically a 90kpm motorway. It was a bit scary on the bike, especially when the wind picked up. Italian drivers make their manoeuvres very late compared to the British, so the cars behind me were often filling my mirrors before they overtook me at the last possible moment. I filled my pants every time. There is also no room for consideration, it is every man for themselves on the Italian roads. In England, flashing the headlights means 'please go ahead', in Italy it means 'get out of my way. Actually, beeping the horn also means 'get out of my way', as well as a million other hand gestures. Thankfully, the roads weren't to busy and I had time to get used to the roads.
We reached the rocky coastline at a village called Santa Caterina. We bought ourselves some fetching plastic shoes for the rocks and dived into the crystal blue sea. We did some cliff diving and a bit of snorkelling until I couldn't take the heat any more. Despite the lovely sunny weather, the village was ghostly quiet. It is the off-season at the end of September and the Italians are surprisingly regimented about when they take their holidays. We had the village to ourselves and we made full use of it on the Vespa.

We spent the rest of our time like this in Lecce. Exploring by bike, hitting the beaches and soaking up the sun. This is what's wonderful about Puglia, a wealth of different places and activities which are all relatively close together. We picked up out car and Marcy drove us to Otranto - my turn to drive would have to wait.

We were lucky enough to be in Otranto at the same time as a Steve McCurry exhibition. He's the only photographer whose name I've ever bothered to learn and the exhibition was great. It was held in the Castello Aragonese which looks out over the sea. His photography is so colourful and striking and every picture tells a fascinating story. I was really happy to see the exhibition and I left feeling motivated to travel and experience more new cultures. When we left the Castello, we could hear music coming from across the bay. We followed the music until we reached a bar on the seafront where the people had all spilled out into the street. The locals were singing songs and dancing together to the sound of tambourines and an accordion. The whole street was partying and singing along - with one particular song very popular - a funny song about wishing your mother-in-law would spit blood. It was wonderful to see such a spontaneous burst of life. This wasn't for tourists,  it was locals enjoying themselves and I'd finally felt like I'd began to see through Italy's stylish surface and glimpse it's warm heart. I'd travelled only a few minutes away from the exhibition and already discovered the culture I was hoping to find.

The following day came and it was my turn to drive. I'd never driven on the opposite side of the road and I was a little nervous. Italy is known for it's crazy drivers. I needn't have worried, it was fine. I occasionally hit the door when I tried to change gear, but that was it. I had to be so vigilant though. The road layouts are seriously complicated and the local Council's only seems to bother painting lines on the road while they were digging them up. Italian drivers drift in and out of lanes at random and constantly try to overtake whoever is in front of them. They also drive with one hand holding their phone and their other hand holding a cigarette. I had to adapt quickly.

We arrived at Grotta della Poesia, a natural swimming pool that's connected to the sea. It's famous for cliff jumping, but we were the first ones there so we had to judge by ourselves where to jump. We climbed down first to investigate the depth of the water. The water was crystal clear but not much deeper than my own height. I was a little nervous - I wanted to jump in but I didn't want to break my legs! Anyway, I jumped. It was so high that after my feet left the rocks I still had time to think "Sh**... I still haven't hit the water yet!" my heart raced and then I crashed into the water. Bubbles and sea water everywhere. In the excitement I'd forgot to hold my nose and got sea water up my nose and right to the back of my head. It was fantastic. Filled with excitement, I dived in a few more times and and even Marcy joined in. She was really pound to be the only girl that dived while we were there. By the time we left there were a few locals doing flips and twists, but that wasn't the most amazing thing to see. The locals would dive in and come back with whatever litter they could find. They'd even brought bin bags so everyone could dispose of their rubbish without littering their favourite natural spot. They really cared about this place.
Our next stop on the road trip was Alberobello, to see the famous trulli. The town itself was pleasant but overrun with tourists. We'd had enough foresight to arrange to stay in a trulli in the countryside and it was beautiful. These little houses are built from stone with large cone roofs. They sort of resemble a stone igloo and could be easily at home on the set of Lord of the Rings.
We also visited Matera. I didn't know what to expect for the town, but I was blown away. I have decided to write a whole separate article about Matera.

Santa Maria di Castellabate
Out final stop was Santa Maria di Castellabate. It is a beautiful little village in the Cilento region. The village is split between the seafront and the local hilltops. The views were stunning and we spent all our time enjoying the sun and letting the sea wash away life's stresses and strains.

We'd originally seen the village in the film, Benvenuti al Sud, a hugely successful comedy in Italy. Marcy and I love the film and were so happy to be there in person. However, we had to drive all the way to the top of a monstrous hill, climbing up winding trails with hairpin turns, with the sun shining directly into my eyes. Throw in a couple of Italians driving towards us on the wrong side of the road and I'd had the most difficult driving experience of my life. I swore a lot, Marcy laughed a lot, and the car's poor first gear got revved a lot.
The driving was great fun though. The south of Italy is truly beautiful too. It has a rich history, wonderful scenery, warm weather, lovely locals and amazing, affordable local food. But the things I'll remember most are those moments that came in the spaces in between the big tourist attractions and the dramatic countryside. At Grotta della Poesia I saw how Italians will really care for a place if their are emotionally connected to it. In the bars and cafes, I occasionally began listening to people's telephone conversations (when I could understand them) and every single time the person on the phone was speaking to their Mum or Nan and describing the food they were eating. The conversations were genuine and heartfelt. Families really care for each other in Italy. And they really love their food too, whether it is talking about it or eating it.

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