Day 11: Ostuni to Brindisi (49km)
Still in bed, but feeling more refreshed I booked three tickets with Grimaldi Lines for the passage from Brindisi to Patras that evening. I secured a three-birth superior cabin, meaning that, as we sailed to Greece, we would have a view of the sea from our bunks, and afterwards I felt pleased.
The night before I’d turned in early and begun to read Yanis Varoufakis’s ‘And the weak suffer what they must?’ Varoufakis has been one of the most prominent commentators on the EU and Greece over the past couple of years and the book was an obvious choice to bring along as background reading.
That night as I leafed through the pages I learnt about the military dictatorship and persecution of the communists in the 1960s. Read more about the Greek state’s bankruptcy in 2009 initiated by the collapse of Leham Brothers and the following euro crisis and the bailouts.
The introduction to Chapater 7 made an impression on me particularly. For it was about a man named Kaprias, who the author had met in December 1991. Kaprias had been a member of a paramilitary unit connected to the Gestapo during the Second World War and had remained a fascist all his life. The author had included his, and his wife’s story mainly, to demonstrate how during the war’s aftermath, allegiances had divided and destroyed families. The wife of Kaprias had been widowed after her father’s nationalists killed her first husband and then orphaned by the partisans her husband had been fighting for. But, Varoufakis had also included the story of Kaprias to talk about the fascist revival in Greece. He’d assumed back in the 90s the fascists were ‘a dying breed’. But this turned out not to be the case. Since the financial and refugee crises, support for the neo-fascist, racist, and xenophobic Golden Dawn has swelled by over 2,000% and is currently the main opposition party in the Hellenic Parliament.
Soon I got dressed, and went out to buy food for breakfast. My clothes were clammy and foul after ten days on the road and as I made my way along the steep, stone pavement I stopped passers by to enquire if there was a laundrette nearby. Outside the supermarket, I met a woman and her daughter who explained to me in English I would find one by the park.
When I returned to the apartment Matt 1 was making coffee. For breakfast we ate boiled eggs, cheese, bread and fruit, sitting at a round IKEA table in the pristine flat. Later I set off with my bundle of clothes. I figured it would take an hour or so to do some washing. We would still have time to visit the old town, and make our way comfortably to the port, an easy, half a day’s ride away. At the laundrette I loaded a machine. Then strolled back through the park, stopping people to take their photos. Now, after using the camera every day I was beginning to feel more adept and confident and I was pleased with the way I framed the shots.
At the apartment the others were nearly ready to leave. We washed up, and carried our belongings downstairs. The night before we’d stored the bikes in the shop next door and while we were retrieving them, the owner of the holiday let came out to help.
He greeted us warmly. Then pointing to Matt 1’s bike leaning against the wall said appreciatively,
‘That’s a nice bike.’
Turning to Becky’s he added, ‘That is a good bike also.’
Then he looked at mine.
‘That is not such a good bike,’ I offered and laughed.
I attached my panniers and loaded up the rest of my gear. Matt 1 was still packing and sorting and while we waited I chatted to our host. Told him about Outsider, and asked him my usual question about Europe.
He drew on his cigarette and shrugged.
‘I’ve been to Amsterdam, to London, Germany, Budapest.’ He told me. ‘I like to travel’. Then he added, ‘For me Europe is a good thing.’
But afterwards he changed the subject. He said he liked running marathons. That he had been to New York and run the marathon there. He asked us next about the apartment.
‘Did you like it? Were you comfortable? Did you have everything you needed?’ He enquired. ‘You are the first guests to stay there.’
He told me the flat belonged to his son who lived in Milan. He said he was a builder but that he was helping his son out over the winter.
‘I just finished working on a big house for an Emirate.’ He explained showing me some pictures on his phone. ‘I worked on it over the summer. It was a big house in the countryside. Very big, very expensive, a very nice house.’ He said.
Now Matt 1 was ready. We thanked the man for his hospitality. As we were preparing to cycle away he called, ‘Can you write us a review on booking.com?’
We had only a few hours left in Italy. I cannot say the days we spent there, unlike in France, delivered any new ideas on the wider consequences of the UK leaving the EU. I thought then, as I’ve mentioned before, that it was because indifference is intangible. That resignation and apathy are difficult to convey because they are expressed indistinctly. No one I’d spoken with had mentioned Brexit or asked us how we felt about it. It seemed people were not interested.
I was also beginning to realise that if I wanted to get closer to what Europe is, I would have to think more carefully about my approach and I would have to look beyond people’s views of the EU. In Italy the EU had been unpopular, but I hadn’t gained a deeper understanding of why. No one had mentioned the national debt (second to Greece), but neither had anyone said anything about EU funding or subsidies, which in the south particularly, people were reliant on in many ways. I decided when I returned home I would look more closely at what others had thought and written before me, and perhaps begin to explore more philosophical ideas of Europe as well.
We cycled back towards the laundrette. After carefully folding my clothes, I hugged the warm, fresh bundle to my body, relishing the luxury of clean pants and t-shirts. Afterwards we cycled through the narrow streets towards the old town. On reaching the white medieval walls, we followed the road round, where we were met by a light breeze. We stopped to admire the view. Below us reaching as far as the coast was a vast forest of olive trees. Beyond this, we saw for the first time the blue waters of the Adriatic.
Soon after, we entered the city walls. At first we tried to cycle but then dismounted when the road became a path too steep and uneven to ride. Following our intuition rather than having any sense of where we were going, we explored the labyrinth of white washed walls. We pushed the loaded bikes up a sharp and sudden hill, and afterwards joined a wider road leading to the town’s summit.
Here I met two Irishmen from Dublin and I asked if I could take their picture. Afterwards we talked about Brexit. The first, a tall, cheerful man, thought the British public had not known what they were voting for. Then added optimistically.
‘You know, I think it might not happen.’ But afterwards said, ‘If it does there has to be another vote. The people must decide the final deal.’
He’s companion shorter and more earnest interrupted.
‘It’s a total disaster.’ He complained. ‘Did you know Ireland is set to loose 10% of its GDP?’
This was before the treasury had released their report on Brexit and the UK economy. I must admit then, I’d given the trade implications of exiting the EU little thought and certainly hadn’t considered the consequences for Ireland. There had been a great deal of discussion, rightfully, in the UK press about the border question, but less about the other effects of Brexit. What he said, reminded me of the importance to remain inquisitive and outward looking. Afterwards I told them that for my next trip I was planning to cycle from the southern tip of the Republic to the Northern Irish coast and asked if they had any tips.
‘You’ll be taking the Atlantic route then, if you’re starting near Cork.’ The second man said. ‘It’s over 3,000km long you know.’
‘Oh,’ I gulped.
‘But that’s of course if you explore every crag and cove. You can cut across parts of the route.’ He said reassuringly. The men had been walking down the hill after visiting the Cathedral and before they left they urged me to visit, but they also warned that it had just closed for lunch.
We ate ice cream while we waited. Afterwards we took it in turns to step inside the cool interior. Then we were off, on the final leg of our Italian journey.
We freewheeled towards the coast for 10km or so. Old olive trees, their trunks broad and sturdy lined the way. Close to the coast, we crossed under the main road from Bari and Brindisi and then searched for a road heading towards the sea. At the beach we dismounted. Took off our shoes and sandals and bathed our feet in the cool water. There we studied the map and decided to avoid the beach resorts and instead visit the nature reserve surrounding the Torre Guaceto, on a small peninsula just before Brindisi.
On we cycled along the small road running beside the SS379. Soon the track led away from the motorway. Now it was quiet. At the entrance to the park we turned left towards the headland following a sandy path lined with reeds. Flocks of birds rose and landed in the rushes beside us. Eagerly I stopped to photograph the passing scenery. The road turned sharply. Afterwards the landscape opened up in front of me. In the distance was the fort, behind me a small inlet. I caught up with the others and together we cycled around the fort confronting the bracing onshore wind.
We had to keep moving. We had only a few hours before we would catch the ferry. But still, as we cycled back the way we had come I stopped briefly to record the mumurations. We re-joined the track. The ground was rough. Our laden bikes bounced and wobbled along the uneven path. Trying to maintain speed, Matt 1 suddenly hit a furrow of dried earth and his tyre burst. Worried now, he turned the bike over to investigate the damage. It was just two hours before check in and we were unsure how long the rest of the ride would take. He rummaged in his bag looking for his tool kit and spare tyre. I handed him my spanner. Practised now, he worked faster than before, and in ten minutes we were on our way again.
Not long after the path re-joined the tarmac. The sun began to set. Each day the long dusk, as the light faded had been both a delight and cautionary warning that night was approaching. The beauty of the burnt glow from the fading sun as it met the earth, struck me once more. My heart soared appreciatively. This would be our last sunset in Italy.
The way to Brindisi was simple. It was necessary only to follow the straight, flat road, towards the city. As we rushed on I thought about the Africans once more. How they had travelled across the Mediterranean. Soon we would be in Greece and I wondered what, of the refugee crisis we would see there. Not for the first time I thought of the differences between the journeys we were making. We found the cycling tough. It was physically demanding and the need to constantly plan and ensure our basic needs were satisfied was exhausting. It had begun to take its toll on our state of mind. But all the time I wondered what it must be like for those who had fewer options. We were making the journey to challenge ourselves and for pleasure. Those travelling the other way, sometimes on foot, were doing so seeking security and opportunity. For us it was a luxury, for them a necessity.
It was dusk when we entered the outskirts of Brindisi. We navigated our way around the town towards the port. By the time we reached the terminal it was night. Lorries overtook as they joined the queue waiting to board. We waited in line with the trucks from Albania, Bulgaria and Greece. It was unpleasant there amongst the exhaust fumes, for we felt small and exposed. Precariously we crossed the line of trucks. The others stayed with the bikes while I went into the terminal to check in. Afterwards, while we hungrily snacked on crisps and coke we watched a driver reverse into a stationary car ahead of us, and then drive away.
Soon it was time to board. We cycled up to the passport control and then onto the boat. In the clanking hull we unloaded the bikes and tied them to the wall of the ship. We took the lift up to the deck. In the reception area a man chewing on a toothpick watched as we walked by. Ahead of us we heard a commotion as three men climbed out of the broken lift opposite.
The interior of the boat had changed little in 40 years. On every available seat and sofa people were making up their beds for the night. After dropping our belongings off in the cabin we made our way towards the cafeteria. Inside, large truckers were eating huge plates of chips and stew washed down with home made alcohol. We grabbed a tray. Loaded up our own plates and found an empty table. The men’s eyes followed Becky and I. The boat set sale. We played a game of cards. Soon, after walking around the deck of the ship, we turned in for the night.