There was a 24 hour Italian transport strike on today. Trains stopped at 9pm last night, planes were cancelled from all over the world, buses refused to leave the depots, the whole place was going to come to a grinding halt. Apparently it happens a lot though, all the times I’ve come to Italy (and caught public transport) I’ve never noticed.
To say I was concerned when I realised that we were catching a train from Monopoli to Bari on the day of the strike, would be an understatement. I decided not to tell Mirinda because it would have only made matters worse. I did have a solution – an overnight stay in Monopoli – so there was no need for two of us to stress.
And stress was possibly the furthest thing from Mirinda’s mind as she wiled away the time in typical Mirinda fashion, before our taxi driver/gardener picked us up at 11:20.
Finally, however, with sad hearts and warm thanks, we departed our own trullo in the hills and piled into the car with window winders (who knew such things still existed) in the back and a very competent driver in the front.
Actually I think all Italian drivers have to be competent. They probably have a Driving Competency Gene (DCG) at birth. Some of the split second decisions are extraordinary to watch. In fact most of the decisions are made before you even notice them. Most are probably just instinct, which is where the DCG comes in.
To watch our driver/gardener sit, leisurely, behind the wheel, one hand on the wheel, the other at rest on his lap, his body completely calm and at ease, just makes you marvel at his survival. There was only the need to use his horn once, when an older driver tried to pull out in front of him, but both parties reorganised themselves and the world return to normal.
So, we arrived at Monopoli in one piece and we bade farewell to our taxi driver/gardener before trying the automatic train ticket machine. Like many Italian stations, Monopoli had a completely staffed cafe but no one to sell tickets. Together, we managed to work out the various questions and required answers. We bought two tickets.
Over head there was an indicator board showing the arrivals. On the platform there was an indicator showing the departures. All was well. Trains were running. There was one very odd announcement that made me question my command of English (I’m sure it made sense in Italian) which mentioned the word strike but I think it was merely saying that trains could be delayed because of strike action elsewhere on the network.
(Given the way it was expressed by the computer voice, it could have been calling the signal person to lunch.)
I thought it safe to finally tell Mirinda about the strike. She was shocked…but happy as well because it wouldn’t be affecting her. Actually, she was slightly stressed until we were on the train and heading for Bari.
Half an hour later, following a mostly pleasant train ride punctuated by someone’s mobile phone making pinging sounds every time they received some sort of notification – there were times it sounded like they were receiving messages in Morse Code – we pulled into Bari Centrale and disembarked with everyone else.
We then had the awful return trip along the road by the station, walking beyond the graffiti bridge to our apartment which wasn’t as easy to find as I’d been led to believe. We waited a little way away, Mirinda getting more and more stressed as the seconds ticked by. I WhatsApped the person I’d been in contact with and was told they’d be with me in five minutes.
Shortly longer than five minutes later a chap strode up and told us we were standing outside the wrong building. I saw Mirinda bristle and so I told him we couldn’t find the right one. We all shook hands and he led us back to the unmarked door that was the ‘easily found’ yet impossible to locate entry to the apartment block.
Now, the apartment was lovely. Very bright, colourful, roomy, everything that Bari was not, in fact. Mirinda was instantly at ease as the guy showed us around. He was a bit concerned that Mirinda hated the lift given we were on the fourth floor but we all just shrugged as if it was just one of those things that have to be borne while carrying on.
I went in search of milk (the supermarket that is conveniently across the road from the apartment closed for siesta just before I reached it), finding it back at the station. We enjoyed a coffee/tea before having a bit of a siesta of our own prior to heading down to Old Bari which could only be better than the new one.
And it was. A mighty labyrinth of marble floored alleys, twisting and turning and making a mockery of the new town grid pattern. Of course you shared the narrow alleys with motor bikes, tourists, locals and donkeys but it was okay. It felt alive and vibrant and somewhere we wanted to be, unlike the new town which felt like somewhere you’d catch something fatal just from walking through it.
Mind you, while walking through it I did get to try an ice cream flavour I never thought I’d try. Regular readers will know how much I love trying weird and wacky ice cream flavours. Well, as we walked along the main street we found a rather classy looking ice cream parlour so Mirinda dragged me in and there, in the glass case was a tub of potato and rosemary ice cream.
I was going to go for my favourite (pistachio) but I was transfixed, as if this mash spud like moosh had hypnotised me to choose it. The long stem of rosemary laid along its length also helped. I had to have it. And I did.
But this was only one of the delights awaiting us in Bari.
The TIC contained a person who has to go down as the most unhelpful TIC person we have come across on our many, many travels. The only way she could have been less helpful would have been if she’d not bothered to open the door to the office to start with. As it was she did open it and was then unhelpful. It was certainly very odd behaviour from someone employed to give tourists information but the building was surrounded by scaffolding and plastic so maybe she’s there as a sort of deterrent. If so, she’s doing a very fine job indeed.
And so we went for a wander along the waters edge (the Adriatic) and watched some boats doing some fishing and some couples canoodling before heading into the old town proper.
The first thing we visited was the huge yet strangely under decorated Basilica of Father Christmas…or St Nicholas as he’s much better known in these here parts. Of course, a trip to his big house wouldn’t be complete without Mirinda kissing one of his sacred cows by the front door.
Inside the place is huge but plain apart from the ceiling which holds an incredible amount of painting and proves why it’s important to always look up in a church. There’s also reliefs and mouldings and bosses…the whole shebang. It’s almost as if the guy who painted the ceiling (Carlo De Rosa) did such a good job that the guys hired to do the main body of the place decided to leave it blank in homage.
I was quite interested to see that they had a few relics there in a big room full of gold and silver and other churchly wealth. Included were two items I couldn’t quite believe were real. One was an actual splinter of the one true cross and the other, believe it or not, was an actual thorn from the crown they gave Jesus before the crucifixion. How amazingly amazing is that? Of course it’s very small but, even so, Mirinda reckons you could get enough DNA off of it to prove that Jesus had only a mother and no earthly father.
There’s also, Bona Sforza, a dead Polish queen in the church somewhere but I didn’t notice her, I was so transfixed by the thorn. And the promise it held.
Down in the crypt (silencio!) there were some lovely capitals on the low pillars. It’s rare I’m tall enough to actually see them so that was a treat.
Eventually we made our way out of the massive building and started wandering the streets, peeking into people’s kitchen cum dining rooms where groups of chattering women sat and made little ear shaped pieces of pasta while their menfolk were off chattering and playing cards outside the local betting shop.
I’ve often thought I’d like to be Italian but I really don’t like this sort of division by gender. I far prefer the company of women and could think of nothing worse than to spend every night in just male company.
We stopped in a couple of bars for a drink before making our way out of the maze in order to find a Japanese fusion restaurant that Mirinda had picked out for us to try. And the food was delicious though the ordering process was a bit weird.
Firstly we were the only people there though, to be entirely fair, it was quite early. Then the waiter handed us a tablet after showing us how to find the food we wanted. The idea is to select the dishes you want then, once you’ve finished, hit send. The kitchen receives the order and gets cooking.
That’s fine if a little off putting to begin with. Our waiter, though, wasn’t very experienced as he just started to head off without asking us if we’d like a drink. We had to haul him back. Then the food started coming and it was lovely.
Mind you, if I’m being entirely honest, my ramen had too many noodles and was a bit too beefy. That’s a minor quibble because otherwise the food was delicious and the staff very eager to please.
Then, to add to the pleasure, another couple turned up with a dog and they were welcomed in with open arms. Anyone who allows dogs gets a big star from me.
Then, completely worn out, we headed back to the apartment, marvelling at how much better the new town looked when it was dark.
Tomorrow we’re catching a bus to Matera…which will be a big adventure. Speaking of adventures…here’s the lift to our apartment which Mirinda finds scary without the benefit of using it herself.
Ah, and by the way, the potato and rosemary ice cream was delicious.