Our flight from Germany landed us as far from mainland Italy as one can get without the need for a very, very long boat ride. While we’d hitched happily and successfully through the Czech Republic and Germany, online sources said Italians aren’t so keen on picking up strangers. Each article noted that the mafia should be of no concern to tourists, but I thought it uncanny that it bore mentioning each time. While my funny bone suspected writers on the subject were potentially full of baloney, we didn’t have the energy to take our chances. And so, a bus delivered us from Trapani to Palermo to Messina where we overnighted in an overpriced hovel and dined with the Couchsurfing hosts mentioned in the last post.
In the morning, however, we dredged up our courage and confidence. We met Antonio – an off duty cop – on the ferry who insisted on personally walking us to an ideal hitching spot. There, we held a sign for Cosenza and wore two enormous grins until Sergio and Danio decided to take us onboard. This father-son truck-driving duo were returning home from a road-trip in the family car. My slowly growing Italian skills got a fierce workout. They insisted on feeding us pounds of cherries and buying us quality cups of coffee at a rest stop.
Much of the drive from the toe of the Italian boot up along the coast is on roads of impressive engineering. Bridges span enormous gorges at thrilling heights and long tunnels plow through hillsides that rise abruptly from the sea. Must be why the plumbing in some Sicilian outposts hasn’t been updated in a few centuries: they’ve spent every cent on these incredible roads.
From the highway gas station, Giuseppe (Joseph) the suit-wearing business man gave us a lift all the way to the obscure round-about that would head us in the direction of the heel of the boot – not a place the masses venture. So imagine our surprise, when we’d barely set down our bags and not one, but two cars pulled over to offer us a ride. “Italians aren’t so keen on picking up strangers.” Yeah, okay. Which Italians did that guy meet?
Salvatore is a methane gas sales manager from Taranto whose Monday to Friday commute is over two hours each way; poor guy! When we could see over the ill-placed and ubiquitous guardrails, we enjoyed the patchwork countryside (not much monoculture here!). I attempted to act as group translator. Salvatore pointed out some “younger” (2,000 year old!) ruins, and then a Greek temple he thinks is 3 or 4,000 years old. Wow.
From the outskirts of his town, we tried for about five minutes to hitch onto our final destination – Lecce. But then we realized we were right by a bus stop. And those waiting said the bus was coming in three minutes. Score!
Not score: apparently you have to buy bus tickets in advance here – kind of like the metro. Many drivers don’t even sell them, or if they do you incur a hefty on-bus surcharge. Thankfully, this driver let us on, said we could buy tickets later, and then tolerated each time other passengers said I should dart off and grab a ticket at a nearby shop. If he spoke English he would have rolled his eyes said something along the lines of, “No, no, no. For christsake. Get back on the bus. I will tell you when to get the ticket.” True to his word, he escorted me into a shop thirty minutes later while the whole bus full of passengers waited. Oops, sorry, thanks, geez you guys are awfully nice!
On the bus we met Giacomo who responded to our request for economic hotel advice with a flurry of phone calls to his friends and family. Turns out we were rolling into town the night before Independence Day, making finding an economical place to stay a serious challenge. By the time we arrived in Lecce, he had organized a stay at a B&B and gotten the price cut down to the very tippy top end of our price range. He even had his friend meet us at the bus stop and drive us all there! I don’t care who you are, Italians are the nicest people ever. Afraid of strangers my eye!
I asked nearly every person we spent time with about the mafia. No one can quite put their finger on what and who the mafia is, apparently. In fact, often mafia seems to be used more as an adjective than a verb. What is widely agreed upon: it’s a crime organization that sustains itself using extortion, shady deals, and manipulation. My joke for the Italians is that we have mafia in the U.S. too – only they’ve managed to legalize their extortion so now we call them corporations.
Besides mafia, the other recurring conversation theme was “Italy is poor, America is rich.” Every single local we spent time with said something to this effect, always unprovoked. Rolling over fancy highways and encountering other signs of prosperity (and having recently spent months in developing nations) I couldn’t quite grasp the chasm that was being implied. Off the cuff, I suppose we have Hollywood to thank for that stereotype.
Upon waking under the dome of our towering ceiling in Lecce, we hustled out the door to see the infamous Baroque city-center. We passed through the medieval city gate into the cobblestone streets and chased bits of shade all the way to the main cathedral. We paid a euro to go down into the crypt, which wasn’t as creepy as I expected. There were no bones, but the air was the same as a musty cave and graves were marked by skulls and crossbones. The room was filled with pews facing three alcoves, I assume for services or perhaps just prayers to the esteemed church member whose remains are contained within.
As the sun rose higher above the town, we packed our bags and made our way to the start of the highway south. We flashed our sign and smiles and thumbed our way to our first Italian WWOOFing farm. Stay tuned! ♣.
Photo credit links: Italian bridges.