Bari before deciding on a day and night there, but it certainly struck me as cleaner and more tidy than Naples or Rome. People tell me that it should have been filthy, scary and a place to avoid. Which is why I'd seriously consider going back there for another visit. I've now experienced many Italian port cities and this one, along with Ancona is probably my joint favourite. Bari's old city is a warren of tiny streets, with people living their lives outside on them; from noisy shop keepers conversations and football exclamations, to hushed musical Italian gossiping and lovers' seafront murmurings. The golden buildings were colourfully adorned with painted Madonnas, bright plastic flowers, and clean washing. The low stone archways between buildings framed the scenery like monochrome rainbows, picture perfect and a photographer's dream.
As I headed out of the old town into the new on my way to the train station, the atmosphere changed and suddenly I was in a shopper's paradise. I sat in an ice-cream bar waiting for a morning coffee but I didn't feel at ease. After the natural beauties of Macedonia and the uncertain dirtiness of Albania, the likes of Prada, Gucci, and other labels didn't sit right with my jeans and rucksack so I got up and headed through town to find something more suitable. The little portable espresso bar in the public park was perfect - 2 euros for a chocolate bun and an excellent caffe latte was just the job. I was inevitably joined by a gentleman who was compelled to tell me about his marital difficulties. In Italian. It's not my strongest language to be honest. I was torn between annoyance at having my musings interrupted, and compassion at his loneliness, after all, making time for people has been my biggest lesson of this year.
After an uneventful ticket purchase, a quick trip to a supermarket for sundries, and clambering on the right train, I was smoothly making my way to Lecce. It's a sign of how immured I've become to travelling under difficult circumstances. As much as I love Croatia, train travel in other parts of Europe is something I've missed - efficient, cheap, clean, convenient, comfortable. Balkan buses are certainly cheap and relatively efficient, but I'm a bit fed up of them and the roads. So I just sat back and admired the Italian scenery; dramatic clouds, blue seas, green olives and vines, and towns with romantic names. Brindisi, I am determined to return to you....not to mention Monopolis!
I arrived in Lecce just under two hours later, calm and unruffled, with back symptoms under control. I can definitely recommend the loos at the station and after a quick tidy up, I was strolling into the quiet town. The weather was stunning and there was a photograph around every corner. Unexpectedly for an ordinary southern Italian city, it felt cosmopolitan and the population there is very diverse; I haven't seen ethic clothing like that since leaving east London. The supermarkets reflected the foods of the people and it made a change from the predominant Mediterranean flavours I've been used to. It helped that I was sharing a house with a young Argentinian and we compared travelling notes over a brew of yerba mate. I later shared my mushroom risotto!
Italy is very expensive after Albania etc, but despite this I quite enjoyed making myself at home there. I went to the hairdressers, indulged in a bit of clothes shopping, and wandered around many of the churches, parks, museum grounds and the incredible cemetery. The latter should be on everyone's list. It's like a mini-city of tiny desirable properties; it makes London's Bishop's Avenue look a bit cheap. I particularly loved the Egyptian temple with the sphinxes. I probably should have gone further afield but I was happy just to relax in the town and catch up with my rest. Such a party animal! Sadly, the contacts that I had in Lecce didn't materialise so there was no socialising.
Roman theatre. I wasn't planning a Roman architectural trip but it had been a delight to find these classical gems in each town - what a wonderful part of the world this is!
My break now thoroughly wound down, with nothing unexpected on the horizon, I was gladly thinking about heading back to paradise. The journey was a dream. It was almost too easy getting back; train was on time, pizza and beer demolished and a slow stroll along the sea to the port. Although the Jadrolinjia office in Bari port decided to give me last minor panic by remaining determinedly closed come check in time. I had clearly missed the memo about needing to take a bus a few kilometres down the road to another terminal. A kind lady there took my money for a private cabin and I have never been so relieved about having guaranteed access to a private space the size of a wardrobe, in the bowels of a ferry. I was waved through passport control quickly.
As soon I was on the ferry, I couldn't believe the contrast with the Durres-Bari experience. That same ship happened to be moored nearby, and I looked at it and the same harbour-side in disbelief, remembering the chaotic scenes of immigration. The Dubrovnik was an ordinary car ferry but somehow it felt civilised - probably something to do with groups of ladies sipping wine in the bar, and signs pointing to a 'children's snug', and the excellent looking restaurant. Oh, and the fact I was clutching a key to my own private bunk. I ignored all of these social gatherings, and I was undressed, in bed and asleep before we even disembarked at 10pm.
I've already said that I was in tears on reaching my favourite port of Dubrovik café but it honestly felt like I'd returned home. The friendly welcome from passport control, the flirty Croatian exchange with a local taxi driver, and the sight of the little Postira - not to mention the fact that I was looking respectable, showered, refreshed and no longer tired and in pain. It was an epic trip and it had turned out to be a lot more arduous than I expected, but as usual difficult trips leave more of a mark and it was definitely one to remember.