Monday, 17 June 2013

A bee-line to Bari

According to the guidebook a survey of southern Italians found that 90% of men had never used a washing machine.   It seems that this part of the world is still quite traditional.  I reflect on gender roles in southern Italy as I fiddle with the brakes on both bikes whilst waiting for Gayle to finish the shopping in the supermarket.  We are now doubling back through the centre of Puglia and up towards Bari where we hope to collect three parcels: a windshield for our stove from Sweden (Primus offered to send one when the replacement we had bought in Nice split in half after only three uses); a replacement Thermarest mattress (to replace the replacement sent to Gayle in December - after only 5 months it developed the same fault, but they didn't hesitate to send a new one); and lastly, two second-hand e-readers ordered over the internet and forwarded on by my parents. Once we have received everything we'll take a ferry across the Adriatic.

The thing is, we have some time to wait and we're not entirely decided on where to go.  I'm also looking for replacement crankset and cassette for my bike as mine is wearing down.  Thus, we fuddle our way from town to pretty town, checking out bike shops along the way.  Only when we descend down to the coast at Monopoli do we find a sensible bike shop owner.  He's very helpful but would have to order the parts for us.  We like Monopoli a lot - a small old centre with narrow streets, archways, whitewashed houses and churches.  On the seafront is the harbour and along the rocky coast a series of tiny bays, mostly sandy, from where we can swim.  The local campsites are lousy though - one with very little shade and the other with only chemical toilets and portakabin showers.   We decide to camp wild close to one campsite within easy reach of a nice beach and then find a field another night.  The Adriatic here is a perfectly clear turquoise colour and the swimming is wonderful.

The beach life is quite entertaining in Italy.  The tan is of all-importance.  On one beach we came to there were rows of people facing the concrete wall behind the beach, backs to the gorgeous Adriatic.  They have to face the sun.  Down at the shoreline people come to stand ankle-deep in the water, deliberating for a long time whether to venture into the bright blue waters.  The young men are very good at this, hands on hips, chest out, stomachs in, hair brushed and cut in a style that makes them look like tropical birds in their bright swimming trunks.  Women are showing both cheeks if they're up with the trend.  Everyone has a mobile phone handy. "Ciao bella, yes, I'm on the beach...."

We move on to Mola di Bari where we Couch-Surf with Franz, who lives just outside the town, on a low hill overlooking the coast.  It's a great spot with some breeze.  Franz is not convinced the summer has arrived yet and has a sweater on. He is an almost-retired physics professor from Bari University who worked for years at Cern in Switzerland. I say almost because he still teaches on a limited basis, but he obviously does this out of love.  He explains the way nepotism and corruption works in Italy - a recurring theme with everyone we stay with - and how those in power are able to keep the system in their favour.  He jokes about it in that way that Italians have.  One afternoon we visit nearby Polignano di Mare for ice-cream and to look out over the cliffs on which the town is built.  The old town here feels less "real" than Monopoli as a lot of it has been taken over for tourism.  We hear English tourists - the season is hotting up.  

In fact, the day after we leave Franz it really does hot up.  I think Franz might be out of his sweater by now.  We circle Bari and head inland and uphill to the Castello di Monte.  This is, as the name implies, on a hill and can be seen for miles around.  Built by Frederick II back in the 1100s in a perfect octagon but never occupied, never used as a castle, it remains a mystery.  Now when you read about Freddy he sounds like a real lark and I can't help wondering whether the castle is just a bluff - you can see it from the coast - or was he really striving for perfection?  We don't know, but the place has a regular trickle of visitors and as there's little free parking on the surrounding hills, so someone is making money on the mystery.  Here we change our route and turn around back to Bari.  We have a glorious ride back down to the coast and then mooch along the coastal road towards the port.  There's a campsite before it, so we take advantage of showers and do some laundry - spick and span for the big city tomorrow.

It's a good feeling riding into a big city on a coast - you can't get lost for a start, with the sea on one side of the road. The old town sticks out on a promontory.  We ride past the port and find our way to the post office where we each hope to collect a parcel.  Gayle goes in first, but the guy at the counter shrugs dismissively and says there's no 'fermo posta' here.  Gayle presses him. He rolls his eyes and shouts across the post office to a colleague at the far end.  There are a few more histrionics before a parcel is presented with Gayle's name on it.  She has a new Thermarest.  When it's my turn I begin to suspect the guy has a pyschological problem.  "No, no more parcels, (this is all in Italian so I didn't grasp it all, but I always get a lot from the hand gestures) there is no fermo posta, where do you come from? England? (a man in the queue behind echoes this with amusement: England!) Are you serious? (hands waving in the air) Do you think we are here just to please you idiot foreigners who expect to receive mail that comes in here each morning in these sealed yellow boxes, yes, like this one (he picks up the one at his feet), and when I can get it open, (struggling with the seal) you expect me to pull out your goddamned stupid little......(he looks heavenwards).......Burnham is the name?" He hands me a packet with our e-readers inside.  I thank Basilio Fawlty and clear off before he starts to punch the wall.  2 out of 3.  We go to a different post office to see if our windshield has arrived. I gave Primus the post office listed in our guidebook, but later found on the Italian post office website that it does not have 'fermo posta'.  When I ask at the counter the friendly man pulls out a shoe box from a cupboard behind him.  On the box is written 'fermo posta'.  Sadly there's nothing for me.  We will have to wait a bit longer.  So we enjoy some time in the old town, have our lunch and decide to head back to Monopoli for the weekend.

We have almost become blase about the lovely old town centres we are passing through, but when we arrive in Monopli the next day it feels good.  We know where we can camp nearby and the old harbour is a peaceful shady place to have our lunch and watch the people walking around.  In the evenings we return to our previous camping spots which are handy for early morning swims.  On one morning I head off to get the shopping and when I return Gayle has been adopted by a family who come to the beach every Sunday, complete with barbecue, table and benches and paddling pool - it's a big family affair.  We stay there all day and they are the last to pack up and leave.  We wonder what they think about us, cooking our pasta as the sun sets, no home to go to, just a corner of a field tucked out of sight....... 
homeless bums or free souls?