Down the Boot
I went straight from Alessandra’s to the Republic of San Marino, a small, 24 sq mile, independent state within Italy, because Ale, her friends, and sons all said I should see it, and it was on the way south. I drove to the capital, the city of San Marino, high on a hill on the edge of the Appenine’s, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The drive was in the top 10 scariest drives for this trip, mainly because of the insane Italian drivers, and the town was perched so high, with sheer cliffs on all sides, that I actually was uncomfortable the entire time I was there. I couldn’t quite catch my breath because of the altitude, plus, my very mild and sporadic fear of heights kicked in there for some reason. While visually stunning, and worth the visit, it made me think twice about my current itinerary.
My plan was to spend some time in and around Perugia, using it as my base while I visited hilltop towns nearby like Cortona, Assissi, and others. I decided to continue on to my first stop, Urbino, another hilltop town further south, a little inland, then look at things again. The drive was curvy and slow, I got lost twice and had to backtrack, and pulled into Urbino about 4pm, with no idea where to park or where I was staying for the night. I found an expensive parking lot and walked into town-straight uphill into town. I picked the first hotel that was reasonable, and then set about to find a different place to park. The hotel had given me a map and told me where free parking was, but I couldn’t make it match the streets I was seeing. Finally, I saw the tiniest of roads that a lot of people seemed to be taking, and that’s my fall back-follow the most people, they are usually going somewhere or doing something worthwhile. The tiny road went straight downhill out of town, but there were cars lined up all along the side, which was the free parking I had been looking for. I had to drive halfway down before I found a spot, but I’d already pre-packed my smaller backpack knowing I wouldn’t want to lug the giant one around.
By the time I got back to my room, I looked and felt like I’d run a marathon and had to lay down for 30 minutes before I could go out and explore. Urbino is truly a lovely town, all the buildings built of the same material, so it had that beautiful monotone glow with red-tiled roofs, the darker domes of the many cathedrals poking up above the lowly buildings. It’s a university town, and was filled with very young adults, exuberant and beautiful, smoking, laughing, walking arm in arm. I hated it. I know, that’s wrong, but I just wasn’t in the mood, I think I was still reeling from leaving Ale, and at loose ends. I ate a quiet dinner at the hotel and went to sleep early, hoping to wake up feeling better and explore the town again in the morning.
When I woke up, I felt just the same, so I walked around for an hour, had my expresso and left. Before I left, I pulled out the map again and looked at my plan. There was no part of me that wanted to go to Perugia or the hill towns. I had been to two now, and while they are beautiful to look at from below, I didn’t like driving up into them, then figuring out where to park on the tiny narrow streets with signs I couldn’t read. In both of the towns I’d been to, I felt trapped somehow, like I wouldn’t be able to get down or out of the town fast enough. I realize it makes no sense, but I decided to go with my heart and my heart said WATER. I wanted to get down to Puglia, the heel of the boot, and spend my time by the sea. It was off the beaten track, I don’t know lots of Americans that travel that far from Rome, and I’d heard good things about the area. Lisa’s Dad was born and raised in Puglia, so was Alessandra. Before I left Bologna, I tried to talk her into coming with me but she said she had obligations to family and to her boyfriend Francesco.
She also said, “I want talk with you, but no can, molto dificil.”
I knew exactly what she meant. During my visit with her, we both became very frustrated at times because we wanted to talk about deeper issues in our lives but just didn’t have the language to do so, and the thought of traveling together for several days with no friends there to help translate was too much. Ale is a very social person, and if she can’t express herself and make herself understood, it takes a bit out of the joy of life for her. If either of us had spoken the language of the other, I think she would have blown off obligations and totally Thelma and Louise’d with me.
As it was, I was on my own, I hadn’t booked any rooms since I didn’t know exactly where I was going or when I was getting there, so I headed over to the coast, to the back of the boot and the sea, and began my drive down to the heel. I was heading toward Lecce, a medium sized town in the middle of the heel. A friend I’d made in Brussels had an apartment there and told me it was a wonderful place to base for that region.
As I drove, I pondered over a few things. For one, my unnatural love for Blacky. I’ve become completely attached to the little guy, maybe because he’s a bit like me-he’s got way too many miles on him, a little beat up, bruised, and leaky, not the shiniest or fastest car in the bunch, almost no bells or whistles, but he’s loyal and true, and he gets me where I want to go. Most importantly, he listens to me as I ramble on talking to myself, to Michael, to God and he doesn’t judge my absolutely horrible singing, which I do loudly and often, mainly to stay awake. He did develop a couple of new issues though. The owner had told me that his back window leaks a little, and put a tarp on the floor of the hatchback for me. I didn’t think much about it, it didn’t rain much. But while I was parked in Bologna, it rained a few days, and when I went to put my backpack in the car, the entire floor of the hatch was sopping wet under the tarp.
Then, the first toll booth I came to, I apparently rolled the window down one too many times, and Blacky had had enough. I couldn’t get the window to close all the way, there was about ¼ inch open, no matter how hard I tried, even pushing it up from the outside didn’t work. So now I have a fabulous whistling, whoosh sound to keep me company for the rest of my driving time.
I also thought a lot about my tears in the Vermeer exhibit in Bologna. With those particular tears, there was the added element of wishing Michael were standing next to me so we could experience it together but I didn't want to put that in the blog. I try to keep a balance when I write, and I don't put in nearly the amount of times that I miss him or think of him and wish he were here. I only put in the moments that can't be ignored, but he is a constant presence with me, I think I realize now that he always will be, even if I find someone else to love. Feelings that deep and true and real cannot be erased. I've had to be out here alone to figure these things out for myself, I mean I hear people say it, but hearing words and understanding them at a visceral level are two different things. And I'm also realizing that acceptance is not a one time thing, but a continuous choosing each time it shows up. Like walking up all the stairs that are an integral part of my journey. They’ve become a symbol; going up, over and over and over, lugging my baggage, one step at a time. I get stronger with each step, and when I have to go down the steps, I always come back up. I choose that over and over. I also chose to lighten the baggage a bit, letting go of lots of things I didn’t need, physically, emotionally and mentally.
As I drove along the highway, the water to my left and the hills in the distance to my right, I felt myself relaxing, just with an occasional glimpse of the pistachio green sea, when the highway and the water snuggled up to each other. Eventually, the mountains disappeared and I traveled through nearly flat terrain filled with groves and groves of olive, lemon, and orange trees.
I had arranged an Airbnb place in Lecce, but didn’t book through them, I booked directly with the owner by phone texts, which is not easy to do. It was a very complicated and drawn out process to actually get into the place, and took me over an hour of frustrating missed messages, but I finally did get in. It was farther from the old town than I thought, and the neighborhood was so ugly, just three and four story apartment building after building. My room was nice and I shared the bathroom in the hall with the owner and his girlfriend, but I wasn’t comfortable there, I felt like an intruder. I was only staying for three nights, I’d already booked, I’d be fine, I told myself. The first night I didn’t even go out, just stayed holed up in my room and read my book and wrote. I heard my host, Marco and his girlfriend Leora going out about 9:30 then come back at 10pm. He knocked on my door at 10:15 and asked me if I wanted to have some dinner with them.
“We are having polpo with pasta, octopus, you know? We just went shopping.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to ask Marco, but I’m just not hungry.” For octopus, I thought but didn’t say out loud. Who goes octopus shopping at 9:30 at night, then eats them at 10:30? Italians.
The next day, I decided to drive down to the very bottom of the heel. I started with breakfast, it was provided with the room. Marco had it all laid out for me, it couldn’t have taken long though. Basically, he had a small basket of mini-bread. It’s a strange Italian thing, I haven’t seen it in other countries. It comes in a package like American sliced white bread, except miniature, and toasted. It’s like super stale, mini-slices of white bread. Ale loved it, she had it at her place too, but I didn’t care for it much. There was a big coffee cup and a small one at my setting. The sight of the big cup gave me false hope that he might have an “American” pot of coffee on, but I didn’t see one anywhere and had to go into his office to ask for my coffee. He brought me a tiny expresso….
All filled up with my mini-bread and midget coffee, I took off for Gallipoli, not the famous one from the movie, that’s in Turkey. This was a working fishing town, on the west coast of the heel, a little jut of land out into the Ionian Sea, surrounded on three sides by water, with an old harbor, big stone sea walls, wonderful architecture, lots of old men in groups solving the world’s problems on the benches beside the walls. I walked around for an hour, had my cappuccino, then left to drive further south. I took a tiny country road that hugged the coast, which was beautiful but strange. This area is a summer area, and all the houses were closed up for the season but I also noticed many houses and hotels under construction. It looked like they’d been under construction many years ago but had been abandoned. I had noticed this in many other towns in Italy as well, and mentioned it to Lydia when I was in Bologna.
“The financial crisis in 2008 hit all Europe very hard, and many people had to stop their projects. No money to finish.”
So summer homes were abandoned, and building investments in places like southern Italy were no longer affordable. It was ghost townish. I wondered how busy this area was even in the high season, so many homes looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. When I arrived at Leuca, the town on the tip of the heel, it was also closed down for the summer, with only two restaurants open to choose from. It was a beautiful, peaceful place, with a wide concrete boardwalk and stony beach to walk along. I drove up to a Monastery with a wonderful view, overlooking the small town and the sea, then headed back up to Lecce.