The ferry sailed into the port of Brindisi very slowly, two hours late. Toilets were so dirty I avoided them. The sky didn’t promise any great weather. Driving out of the port Southern Italy hit me already on the very first meters. Run down warehouses, roads being reclaimed by nature on the sidelines, trash everywhere, roadsigns you couldn’t trust or read. It was a short half hour drive on a straight narrow road to Lecce, where a quick breakfast at a bar in the old town raised spirits significantly. Staff was somewhat unfriendly though, I noticed. It rained slightly every once in a while, but the beauty of Lecce’s baroque old town shined nonetheless. I had been here several years back and had taken fond memories with me. This time I noticed there were black African faces everywhere, the migrants from the boats crossing the Mediterranean in the past years. In Greece I had seen a few, mostly in kitchens of all kinds of restaurants. Here I crossed them on every street, and it wasn’t quite clear to me what they were doing.
Although the weather wasn’t for a day on the beach, I took the road along the Adriatic coast, curious to see a few beach spots I had read great things about while doing research. For about an hour I passed pothole-littered roads along beaches plastered with umbrellas and deck chairs on one side, and cheap hotels and resorts on the other. The few places with turquoise water were full of people running around, bars and restaurants separating the road from the beach. Trash everywhere, roads in a bad state. Also in 2013 I had come to Otranto on my way back through Italy. I remember few shops open in November at the time. I wanted to give it another try this time around. And yes, more shops and restaurants were open. But it seemed everybody at 13:00 sharp went for lunch in overcrowded restaurants, stressing out the waiters. At 14:30 although tables started to get empty again I got a lot of “sorry no table” from unfriendly waiters. In the end one was so “kind” to serve lunch, but service turned out to be hasty and aimed at kicking the last customers out fast. Time to go.
I stopped at Alberobello on the way north. It turned out the local traditional stone houses had become a major tourist attraction. A few years back on a tour in the area I had avoided this place, and now I realized it had been the right decision at the time. Kitsch souvenir stores, ice cream parlors everywhere. A flow of tourists through the few streets set up for them. The people working in these places seemed all pretty fed up, tired or angry. I left, taking countryside roads to the west. Google maps calculates some strange detours sometimes, and this made me see a few small villages and roads by accident. Every time I crossed a bridge here I thought of the Morandi bridge, as the infrastructure around here was so bad, old, not maintained. This place was so different to anything I have seen travelling Europe – poor, run down, dirty, sub-standard. But the worst was that in the 25 years I’ve been coming back here, nothing has changed, and there is no hope that it ever will. In May I had crossed several countries in Eastern Europe, some of which had been part of the Soviet Union, that in the 1990s were left in a very precarious state, to say the least. In under 30 years they have changed significantly, for the better. While the traces of Socialist mismanagement and poverty are still present, there seems to be a clear way out of it, forward, towards modernity and European standards. Not everybody turns out a winner of this change, not everywhere there is prosperity, but there is movement and opportunity for improvement and change. In contrast, Southern Italy seems a lost cause. In over 75 years of investment and subsidies from Italy and Europe, the poverty has not gone away, living standards stay low, and there is no movement. As I drove I kept thinking how much taxpayer money had been sunk in this place for such a long time, and wondered why Italy had not been capable of achieving what every other country in Europe had made happen, in the east as well as in the south. Poor Greece, battered by years of painful downturn and crisis, had looked better than where I was now.
Entering the old part of Matera through narrow roads winging down, a few cars filming road scenes for the next Bond movie drove past the Mini quite fast. Soon after traffic came almost to a standstill as the set was shut down for the day, and the whole area was occupied by an army of workers of the film crew. It took a lot of patience and waiting to find a place to park and take the bags to the small hotel along the main road. Touring the old town at night looking for a place to eat, the first place’s waiters were pretty unfriendly and claimed to have no table, while there were three evidently empty ones on the terrace outside. Luckily not everybody was in a bad mood and dinner turned out to be delicious a few restaurants later. The next morning a smiling hotel owner greeted and brought a plentiful and mouthwatering breakfast on a sunbathed terrace with views on old Matera. Finally somebody friendly and positive.
The road down to the tip of the Italian peninsula passed without noteworthy events. Reaching the port from where the ferries to Sicily leave, dirt and poverty struck again. The Sicilian side was no better, and the motorway outright dangerous due to bad road conditions and unpredictable vehicles. Reaching Taormina the search for a parking space was complicated, including a heated swear word exchange with a scooter driver and another one with a delivery van parked across the whole entrance to a parking lot. The walk to the old town initially led along a road with no pedestrian walkway and a lot of traffic. Once in the old town, a sea of tourists flowing through streets lined with boutiques, restaurants and ice cream parlors hit me. The tourists put me in a bad mood, and visiting the amphitheater didn’t help. Too crowded, not well maintained. Having seen a few of them in the past weeks I clearly felt this visit hadn’t been worth it.
Reaching Noto shortly after sundown, I had to fuel up at the entrance of town. I had never seen the range counter going to zero km on the Mini before. I remembered this baroque jewel of a Sicilian town from a previous visit. Still beautiful, tourism had expanded, more restaurants, more accommodation, more fancy places. But the center of town itself was stunning, with beautiful churches, palaces, a theater and piazze in the typical yellow stone of the region’s buildings.
The next morning, while parking at the Valle dei Templi, I got an SMS from the ferry company that was supposed to take me 2h later that day to Lampedusa. “Your ferry got cancelled due to weather conditions. Call this number to get a refund.” Nice, I had organized the ferry many months ago to go to a wedding of friends on the last island before Africa, had taken a suit, shirt and shoes with me all the way through this trip, and these guys tell me a few hours before “bad luck”? 20 minutes later I had requested a refund, found a flight later that day from the other end of the island, from Palermo, and the problem was solved before I could get really angry. But in the meantime the sky over the temples had gotten pretty dark. Half an hour later, while strolling through the ruins of this ancient Greek settlement with its wonderfully preserved, yellow stone temples, the rain started to come down. I had to run back to the Mini.
Later that day, arriving at the airport of Palermo, I flew to Lampedusa. Stefi and Andrea were getting married there, and I spent two days on the island to celebrate with them.
Back in Palermo, I drove for a short lunch stint to Erice. Compared to my visit a few years back, the amount of tourists this time around was huge, streets crammed, souvenir shops packed. While the tiny town on a mountain was above the skies last time, with a mysterious feeling about it, now it was difficult to appreciate the beauty of it with so many visitors all around. After lunch, passing through Palermo, I fuelled up. Diesel in Italy is the most expensive of all of Europe, so I tried to find a cheaper gas station. As I got out of the car to fuel up a guy took over the hose. When I went to pay, the liter didn’t cost €1.50 as advertised, but almost €1.80 – for the “service”. I had been out of Italy for some time and was no longer used to these rip-offs. This place was truly unique in how it drove me mad every minute. I left angry, and drove for a few hours towards mount Etna. leaving the main road at Adrano, a curvy but well paved road led up the mountain, through the black lava fields and the impressive forms the rocks take once it cools down. Submerged houses, underground canals, and black rocks everywhere. The following morning a lot of tourist activity made me leave fast. Hikers, bikers, Porsche drivers, marathon runners, families. Crowded parking lots, cars everywhere, no chance to stop.
The rest of the day I drove to Messina, crossed over to mainland Italy again, and from there continued further north. As the sun went down, I reached Amalfi and spent a night in a very beautiful small hotel on the hillside outside of town. Views from the terrace in the early morning light offered a spectacular battle in the sky of clouds v first sunshine, with reflections of light on the sea, the first boats of the day starting their journeys. Fresh orange and lemon juice from fruits grown in the garden next door, a decent coffee and crispy croissant were a reminder how close I was to home. The further I drove up the Italian peninsula, the more modern infrastructure got, the more Europe started to fade in. At lunchtime I drove through the streets of northern Rome, right up to my parents house. My mother opened the door with a smile, and when I hugged her, I felt I had reached home.