This place is almost completely cut off from the rest of Italy by public transport. The vast majority of tourists appear to come by private vehicle and it shows. I was almost at my wit's end a while ago, about to walk down to the freeway and try my luck hitching. But now i am on the bus to Bari because it's better to be going somewhere than to be staying nowhere.
Instead of enjoying this ridiculously slow ride to Bari (it's a replacement for the private train service, which itself appears to be a converted narrow-gauge agricultural railroad), i am frustrated by it. We are riding through bumpy, winding country roads on a bus with no shocks and stopping in every ass-end town. The countryside reminds me a bit of central valley California. Except in America there would have been somewhere to get breakfast this morning.
Low blood sugar-o-rama. I don't know how Italians get up at 7am and then don't eat anything till 1pm. No, a croissant doesn't count. One of my biggest problems with traveling in this country is that i am usually on a bus or train during the lunch hour, which means by the time i arrive nothing is open and i am pretty much fasting all day till the restaurants finally open again at 8 fucking PM. Or, you know, there's pizza.
I only rolled into Bari after 3pm, so gave up and went to McDonalds. (They have a vegeburger.) I don't think i have ever been so happy to eat a McDonalds meal in my life. Now i have food in my stomach and am on a train to Taranto, i am feeling much better. I just wish i would have had more time to explore the city situated less than 50 miles away from where i started 5 hours ago.
It seems Matera is not the only town to have sassis in this area. We have just passed a handful of towns where i can see churches and several other buildings carved into the rock faces. The valleys are full of olive groves and grape vines and citrus - thick with crops yet barely populated - then clinging to hilltops are these awkward-looking towns with cave houses. It's really odd because in most places cities develop in valleys, close to the fertile area and running water. I can understand putting a fort on top of a hill, but i wonder why they built whole cities up there?
Come to think of it, i have seen cave houses one other place in the world - on the train from Granada to Almería in Spain, though nothing as developed as here.
Perhaps the towns are built by descendents of prehistoric cave men who just liked it in the dark. Weird.
Taranto is boss as all hell. It is super interesting. The north coast where the train stops is all industrial. There is a massive refinery there. Then you cross a bridge into a very tight and shabby oldtown where at least half of the buildings appear to be condemned. They are all held up by rusty iron braces and covered with graffiti. Then you cross another bridge and end up in the "new" town, which is pretty much a regular coastal downtown. My B&B is in an epic old building with ridiculously high ceilings and marble everywhere. Now i am in a hipster bar drinking craft beer and eating bruschetta served by Italian men with beards and tattoos.
[Another reconstructed section from drunken notes]
Sitting in the bar, i met J - the accountant from Lecce - and ... someone whose name i forgot, the judge from Bari. They were two old guys who weren't cooler-than-thou hipsters and thus were happy to strike up a conversation. They come here because they love IPAs. "IPAs are English beers, you know? Do they have IPAs in Germany? In America? Since we started drinking IPA we can't drink any other beer!"
They were very upset that i had visited Calabria and not tasted the famous (?) Calabrese chili paste. So, of course, they gave me one of their bruschetta which was spread with it. "Mangia, mangia!" Then they realized i hadn't yet had the local sandwich speciality - puccia. So they ordered a bunch of different types and kept feeding me. "Mangia, mangia!" Some had the spicy chili paste, some had caramelized onions, all had tomato and rucola and different meats and cheeses. I think my favorite was the sliced pork neck and sheep's cheese. This was the best possible way to eat non-vegan - having local food made with local ingredients bought for me by locals. I should mention the bread, which is what makes it a puccia. It is a very thin white bread similar to a pita but a little fluffier, which they then put the food into and put in a grill for just long enough to get the bread wood-smoked/toasted. The best way i could describe it is like a Mexican torta - it is very similar.
Between the force-feeding, they also talked a bit about themselves and Taranto. They are both united in hating it. It's dirty, polluted. Not like Lecce. "Lecce is the most beautiful place in Italy," says the accountant. The judge rolls his eyes and explains the reason everyone in Calabria says Puglia is the best place to go is because of the Salento tourist marketing division. But they both agree that southern Italy is the best Italy, and that Taranto is awful. But they have to live here because it's where the wives are from. "It's like being in prison." The jailers let them out once a week to go for drinks. Then when the bell tolls they have to go back to their cells.
The bell did toll - eventually - but not before we had had several more beers and pucce. I explained being frustrated at Matera and the guys agreed that Matera is tremendously interesting but also very parochial. How ridiculous you can't get out of the city on Sunday. How ridiculous there are no hotels available. They were in competition with Lecce for European cultural capital of the year and won, but "they are too small, they won't be able to handle it". Nothing like a bit of good-natured regional rivalry.
"The best countries in the world are Norway, Sweden, Denmark, then Australia and New Zealand. I would move to New Zealand, i always wanted to go to New Zealand." Stories of my planned travels got them whimsical. "Asia i think would be terrible. Too many people, too busy, maybe Mongolia would be okay. Or North Korea! Ha! Ha! Trump is awful." Everyone in Italy agrees that Trump is awful. "America is nice to visit but they are crazy. No healthcare! My cousin had an accident and was in a coma, when he woke up they charged him 125 thousand dollars. He said just kill me! Ha! Ha! I would never move to America." Everyone in Italy agrees the privatized American healthcare system is shameful. But then, the jailer called. "I wish, if i could do it again, i would be a cosmopolitan, like you! I have to look after the twins. My daughter is sick. There's always something."
When we said our goodbyes and i went to close up my tab, they had paid for everything.
It's Mayday. There were two political marches in town, but - on the advice of everyone i met in Taranto - i decided to visit the archaeological museum instead. I thought it would be empty at 9am, but unfortunately a busload of German tourists rolled up just as i arrived. Sigh. This is why i usually only visit free museums in small towns. You know, the kinds of place where all there is is a cabinet showing the stone axe Grandpa found while digging the herb garden, and some of old Betty's china teacups.
So, i missed almost all of the neolithic section, which is a shame because the little bit i did see had some neat stone idols. But the Greek and Roman sections were rather impressive. I loved the statuettes of tough Amazon warrior women, and the fabulous mosaic floors. Museums are such odd places. Everything is out of context and out of time. But when they are quiet, they are great places to walk around.
Because it's Mayday, the trains aren't running. They must have a better union than the bus drivers and ferry crews, because i will be taking the overnight ferry from Brindisi to Patra (Greece) tonight, and before that the replacement bus from here to Brindisi. I had to rush to make the sole departure of the day, but took a few photos of the squatter, antifa and communist graffiti in the old town. Cross the bridge to the industrial area and neo-nazi graffiti reigns supreme again.
I don't know if they have these sorts of politicized spraypaint turf wars outside of Europe. I don't remember it anywhere else.
The people of this area have some very peculiar traditional buildings. Aside from the cave people, there are also hut people, whose houses you occasionally still see out in the middle of the olive groves. There is a whole town of these huts called Alberobello which, according to the southern Italians i have spoken to, is another major tourist destination. What makes them unique is that they are built out of bricks without mortar. They look a bit like stone igloos, with straight-ish sides and then conical rooves with a funny spike (chimney?) coming out the top in the center. I am assuming the ones in the olive groves are either abandoned or just used for storage.
It's pretty striking how many different cultures seemed to exist in this area. Of course it's all been Greek and Roman and Byzantine... possibly also Ottoman? But between the empires there are just quirky local cultures that persist. I haven't really noticed this much cultural diversity in such a (relatively) small area before. Perhaps i am just paying more attention here.
On a side note, i do find these olive groves a bit oppressive. The first time we dipped into them on the way to Matera it reminded me exactly of how i felt entering the Kalahari in Namibia. From a distance it looks like dry shrubland - washed-out leaves and funny squat-looking trees that are fairly sparsely planted. But when you get up close it turns out the trees are fairly tall and the foliage is thick enough that you can't see the horizon any more in any direction. Forests and jungles are the same, of course, but somehow in humid areas i am more mentally prepared for it. Here the lack of a horizon is very disconcerting.
I really am a plains person. Desert and steppe lands where you can see for miles, those are my happy places. Badlands are a bonus.
Brindisi is all closed up. Fortunately there is a cruise ship docked right in the center of town, so there are a few restaurants open. I gotta say, these coastal towns really step it up when it comes to food vs the rest of Italy. I'm not sure whether it's because they have to cater for cruise passengers or if there is just something inherently more open-minded about port towns, but there are far more options than just pizza. I think the cruise ships that stop might mostly be Italian, because the sandwich shops here also have piadine, which is a type of sandwich from the Emilia-Romagna region up the north. A piadina is basically a taco. The bread is slightly thicker than a tortilla, and it is wheat not corn, but it's definitely a much better way to deliver fresh food to your mouth than on limp pizza or flabby foccacia dough.
So, now i am leaving Italy, i finally know two sandwiches i can order, at certain sandwich joints. Of course, it's only in the port towns where i have found restaurants that will let you mix and match the fillings to get something at least aspirationally vegan, so i still count the vegetable antipasti buffets in Sicily and Calabria as the best Italy has to offer if you want to stay veg. And those deep-fried rice balls. Arancini. Holy shit, those were good. Bruschetta, pucce, piadine, arancini and local, back-alley bars at 8pm sharp. Italian food that doesn't suck.
I have no idea what to expect in Greece. I am expecting to eat a lot of bread and nuts again to start with. But - unlike Italian - i can't read the script or lean on knowledge of French and Spanish to get by, so i will probably end up with a lot more "local speciality" surprise dishes. I guess it'll prepare me for Taiwan.
Now, i still need to find somewhere that can print out my ferry ticket. And scout out where to get a taxi, seeing as i again booked a trucker ferry and need to make my way to the industrial port to catch it.
Pictures from Puglia to come, when i get into a hotel...