It was a dark and stormy night on the Adriatic. “’The sea was angry that day, my friends,’” said Rich, quoting the Seinfeld episode where George plays a marine biologist. “’Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.’” We were reeling about the pitching ferry, trying to find our mini-cabin in its lower depths. “You do realize,” he added, “that we’re actually below the cars and cargo? We’re in steerage.”
We were sleeping in a six- by twelve-foot closet with two stacked bunks, a sink the size of a salad bowl, and nothing else. Well, sleeping is a bit of an exaggeration; we spent the night there, dozing fitfully, praying the tiny railings would hold and we wouldn’t go hurtling to the floor. Around two in the morning, when a trip to the bathrooms became necessary, we lurched through a series of heaving corridors, stumbling and crashing into walls, hoping we wouldn’t be flung bodily through anyone’s door. It was like trying to walk on the back of a bucking bronco, but with handrails.
"Imagine weeks of this on the Atlantic,” I gasped.
“Now I know why my grandmother vowed she’d never cross the ocean again,” said Rich.
We were on deck at dawn, thrilled to see solid land on the horizon, even the unlovely harbor of Bari, which had clearly chosen the profits of shipping and petrochemicals over quaintness and charm. Leaving the cranes and silos behind and heading into the old quarter, we seemed to be the only non-locals about, which suited us just fine.
On that bright, windy morning following the storm, every balcony was aflutter with sheets and flapping clothes, occasionally pinwheels as well. Doors stood wide open, and we saw cobblers tapping on boot heels, tailors stitching, women gossiping as their fingers shaped the little ears of pasta known as orecchiette, which they spread on mesh trays to dry in the midday sun.
Our next port of call was Barletta, another town where industrialization helps keep the tourist hordes at bay. We wanted to pay homage to the town’s most famous resident, The Colossus, an ancient bronze statue standing 5 meters (16 feet) tall. No one is quite sure who he was – a fifth-century Roman emperor maybe? – or how he got to Barletta – washed up on shore after the sack of Constantinople perhaps? But everyone agrees he’s the guy who saved the city.
According to ancient legend, when the Saracens were about to invade, The Colossus went down to the harbor and stood on the shore, weeping. “Why are you crying?” the Saracens asked. “Because I am so much smaller and weaker than everyone else in this city,” he moaned. Terrified at the prospect of fighting an army of giants, the Saracens rowed back to their ships with all due haste and left Barletta in peace. And I am sure every word of that story is true...
En route to our last stop, Pompeii, we decided to visit Naples, mainly because so many people had warned us against it. And it turned out to be everything we’d heard: dirty, noisy, crowded, chaotic. As our taxi roared down the wrong side of the street along the trolley tracks, honking at anyone who stopped at a red light, we saw a city as vibrant as the back streets of Asia, as zany as a street market in Mexico, and as quirky as San Francisco’s Height-Asbury during the summer of love (but as it turned out, with much better food). Within five minutes we had abandoned all thought of going to Pompeii and spent the next few days absorbing the madcap atmosphere of a city that refuses to conform to anyone else’s standards or expectations.
Then it was time for an overnight ferry (smooth as glass! in our own stateroom!) to Barcelona and a high-speed train to Seville. I’m still getting over my train lag; I keep having urges to head to the station and board a train for somewhere. But mostly I’m simply delighted to be home, sifting through memories of the trip, and mulling over all the stories and travel tips I’ll be sharing with you in the months ahead.
Yes, I've got lots more photos of Southern Italy. And for more about the journey – planning, packing, things we've learned, how many miles we traveled, etc. – see Train Trip/Central & Eastern Europe.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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