‘Travel is brutal, wrote Cesare Pavese, it forces you to trust strangers...’ Pavese was born in northern Italy in 1908, which meant that his formative years would coincide with two of the darkest periods in Italy’s long history. An experience that no doubt exacerbated a natural inclination to melancholy. Paul Theroux, the inveterate traveller and travel writer, has a much more sanguine take on the issue, but even he adds a sobering note. ‘Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.‘ (The Tao of Travel, Enlightenments from Lives on the Road). While I have never experienced travel as the brutalità Pavese wrote about, or been in a situation where I had to trust strangers with my life, my willingness to trust in strangers has occasionally been tested. Most recently in Ostuni, my next base.
Ostuni is a short drive south of the garden in the lama. (previous post). To be precise, according to Google maps, it’s either 41.8 k via the SS16 and E55 or, there’s Option B, which is 39 k via the SS16 and SS16 (?!). The first will take 38 minutes, the second 39. Like I said, it’s a short drive. Però – (peh-roe) – it’s one of those short/long drives that Italy has an astonishing array of. They are all bellissimi and, depending on whether you are designing the itinerary, driving or enjoying the view, either exasperating or exhilarating. The most notable (notorious?) of course being the SS163 along the Amalfi Coast where, if you are so foolish as to, for example, decide to drive from Sorrento to Amalfi, you’re looking at well over an hour of white knuckle, heart-stopping curves with the occasional oncoming bus – so be prepared to back up. All to cover 31 km. In the off season. And if it weren’t for the fact that most of the time there is hardly enough room for one lane in each direction, let alone room to pull over to give the driver an opportunity to see what the passenger is oohing and aahing about, it would take even longer.
But Puglia’s SS16 is a wide, flat, mostly straight 4-lane highway and the cars really zip along. Except when it’s a ponte (pon-tay), which usually means ‘bridge’, but sometimes, as in the weekend closest to June 2, which I had forgotten is the Festa della Repubblica, a national holiday, means ‘long weekend’. At those times, as the signora at one of the B&B’s I stayed in warned me, the highway becomes un macello. ‘Ma-chel-low’ is one of those words that seem rather harsh the first time you hear it – its primary meaning is ‘slaughterhouse’, but what she meant was that it would be bumper to bumper cars, packed to the gills with food, people and stuff, all heading for their favourite beach.
So what makes the SS16 a short/long drive? The exits. With all the beautiful and luxuriant oleanders along the highway, it’s often hard to see the signs for the exits. But that’s not the problem.
The problem is the sheer number of exits. At 120 km, which, going by the number of cars that passed me, was slow by local standards, there seemed to be one every five minutes. And through breaks in the oleanders near those exits I caught tantalizing glimpses of the coast and olive groves and wheat fields.
I didn’t take all of the exits. But it was probably a good thing I was on my own.
With many hours of daylight still left for these meanderings, eventually I decided I better head inland. Ostuni is only 8 km from the coast, but I knew that once I entered the city things would get complicato. Molto complicato. I took the following photo on my previous trip as I was walking along Corso Vittorio Emanuele towards the city’s historic centre. The round signs with the red ‘x’ against a blue background – if you look closely you’ll see there are three of them along this short stretch – mean DIVIETO DI FERMATA. NO STOPPING. EVER.
Parking anywhere near Italy’s historic centres is always a challenge. After I had driven around one town a few times without seeing a single parking spot – not even one that a local might have been able to squeeze into – I pulled over and asked a fellow that looked like a local if he had any ideas. ‘Ah signora, he replied in an ominous tone, parcheggiare qui è un’impresa.‘ An impresa (im-pray-zuh) is un’iniziativa importante e difficile. You got it. Parking may be ‘an important and difficult initiative’, but Italian is easy. And if you believe that…
If parking was an undertaking in that village, it was almost un’impossibilità in Ostuni. I didn’t even try looking for the B&B while I was driving. I headed to a parking lot a few blocks removed from the centro storico that I remembered from my previous trip and walked back.
Outside the historic centre, la città bianca is not all bianca.
The last time I had been to Ostuni was in December. It was damp and it rained a fair bit – there is a reason why prices are lower in the ‘off’ season – but coming from Toronto it was astonishing to see plants that were obviously left outside even in winter.
I was looking forward to seeing the centro on a hot, sunny day. But first I had to take care of lodgings and the car. I found the B&B easily enough. But when I explained where I had parked my car, the owner didn’t seem too pleased. Why hadn’t I simply pulled up in front of the B&B to check in and drop off my suitcase? He didn’t seem at all concerned about the NO STOPPING signs. In any event, he trudged all the way back with me to where I had parked my car. I thought I’d done a very nice job of parking, so was a little miffed when he suggested that he drive it back to a more reasonable location. But hey, it would be a lot more relaxing to be a passenger for a change. Besides I was curious to see how he would navigate the one-way streets and confusing piazzas I’d just driven through.
What I hadn’t anticipated is that he would squeeze past a barrier, drive into a tiny piazza and then turn off the motor. Right next to a sign that looked a lot like the ones along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The only difference was it was missing one of the arms of the cross. This, I knew, was a NO PARKING sign. There was even an image of a tow truck hauling away a car in case you missed the blue circle outlined in red and the red slash. It was more than a little awkward. I was the straniera, the one from away. He was the local, the one who presumably knew how things worked here. Still, among the many experiences I hoped to have on this trip, having my car towed was not one of them.
At the risk of appearing foolish again, I pointed out the wording below the image of the tow truck. E’ vietata la sosta in tutto il piazzale per svolgimento mercatino dell’antiquariato dalle ore 6 alle ore 21,30 di domenica 22 maggio 2016. (No parking anywhere in the piazza due to the antique market from 6 am until 9:30 pm Sunday May 22, 2016.) It was Saturday evening. May 21. I knew this and presumably so did he because he had checked my reservation before we set out for my car. Nevertheless he waved his hand, dismissing my concern. ‘Non si preoccupi. (Don’t worry.) Non c’è più.’ This second phrase – It isn’t here any more – was a little ambiguous. It could have meant ‘it isn’t here because the powers that be decided to hold it somewhere else and forgot to take down the sign’ or, and this is how I interpreted it, ‘it isn’t here because they don’t hold it anymore.’ My little inner voice was screaming ‘NO, NO, NO!’ but what more could I say without being – what? unreasonable? ornery? unfriendly? After all, what person in their right mind would park the car of a guest who was staying in his B&B where she would be sure to get a ticket?
When I came by the next morning and saw the market in full swing and my car – the only one around – with a ticket under the windshield wiper I was, well, I’ll leave it to you to imagine how I felt. I looked around to see if the wretched vigile who had written the ticket was anywhere in sight. Then I walked over to a group of vendors who no doubt had been curious to have a look at the dimwit foreigner the car belonged to. I tried not to vent too much – they weren’t to blame – as I told them how I had happened to end up parked next to the NO PARKING sign. They did a lot of tsk tsking, which helped a bit, but I was shaking, I was so upset – which is why the photo they suggested I take is partly out of focus. Then they urged me to take the ticket to the B&B fellow right away and get him to take care of it. Which I did. He was very apologetic, had mixed up the dates, of course he would pay the fine, but when I took the ticket out of my purse, he almost shouted at me, ‘But signora, they’ll give you another ticket!’ Now I felt angry and stupid.
There was no new ticket on my windshield when I got back to the car. Had the vigile returned and the vendors persuaded him not to write a second ticket? I don’t know. In any event I moved my car to a spot nearby, put a bunch of change into the parking machine, put the receipt – right side up – on the dashboard and headed for Piazza della Libertà to have a cappuccino and recompose myself before setting off to explore the centro storico.
Trust is a tricky thing. Even at home with people you know, or who live in the same community. When we travel among strangers, it’s an even bigger leap of faith. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. On the road, we are just passing through. The stakes aren’t usually as high as with people we are close to. In any event, it seems to me there are two types of travellers – without getting into the hornets’ nest of the travellers vs. tourists argument – the ones that are totally self-reliant, arm themselves with an array of electronic devices designed to reduce interaction with locals to the absolute minimum and then there are those who deliberately choose to rely on the locals for directions, advice and insights. I can see the advantages of the first approach, but I always wonder, why bother going to a place if your goal is to have as little real interaction with that place as possible? Why not stay home and watch a documentary? There are lots of great ones. On the other hand, as I had just experienced, there are definitive risks to the second approach. Still, even though I could have done without the drama (and probably cortisol surge), my car didn’t get towed, the guilty party was going to take of the fine and, as they say, tutto è bene che finisce bene. All’s well that ends well. Besides, who wants to be like the cat Mark Twain wrote about? ‘We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.’
In my experience, getting burned occasionally on one of life’s hot stove lids vale la pena (vah-lay lah pay-nuh), literally ‘is worth the pain’. It’s a risk I’m willing to live with.
Next: Revisiting the White City