And how to sum up my journey so far, from coast to coast? I am more in love with Italy than ever before. I have been the guest of many people, restaurants and hotels, and have made so many new friends. I have become used to the constant questions, the feeling of being a monkey in a zoo as people stare at me in frank disbelief as I explain my journey. They often look at me as if I’ve just escaped from the mental asylum. In a world ruled by cars and time constraints, the thought of walking free is inconceivable for so many. But it’s this feeling, and these chance meetings, that keep me going, and without all these people my journey would not be possible. More than ever I am realising how important it is for me to travel with this freedom and simplicity.
So this post is an extract from my diary, with a little embellishment. I wrote it after my first month of walking, when I spent 12 days on the small island of Ventotene, off the coast just north of Napoli. It was my first opportunity to reflect and relax…
The early morning silence is split by the pealing church bells, as they vigorously ring and signal the dawning of a new day. But it’s not the typical day you would expect on this island. It’s November 4th, and suddenly the weekend festivities, the last of the season, have given way to an atmosphere of serene tranquility.
During the summer months the locals would be preparing for the arrival of the tourists. The small ancient roman harbour would be teeming with life: fisherman returning with the morning catch to fill the local restaurants that abound across the island, Scuba diving, boat hire, day tripper boat vendors all setting up and preparing for the mid morning tourist rush; the hustle and bustle of local anticipation and the smell of freshly brewed coffee from the harbour side restaurants mixing with the salty sea air.
Everything you would expect from a Mediterranean island.
But not today. Despite the fantastic weather, summer is past, and now everyone begins to prepare for winter. The hotels, with their beautiful sea facing views are closed and shuttered, as are most of the hotels, restaurants and bars. Now only a few remain open, mostly catering to the locals and their desire for coffee and alcohol. Walking through the square a sleepiness has descended. Old men sit looking bleary eyed over a coffee, or are just parked on the benches staring aimlessly, giving me an inquisitive glance as I pass. There is almost no sound.
The bakery, where Antonio and his son Joaquino make delicious sweet and savoury treats, still opens every day of the week. After all, a meal without bread in Italy would be unthinkable. And someone has to make the pizza!
Most of my days are spent exploring the island and chatting with the locals. I am declared the only tourist left on the island, which is plainly evident from the often bemused looks I receive, as I walk around barefoot in the November sunshine.
Although it’s only about 3km long, with 2 roads running up and down the length of the island, it’s such a pleasure to enjoy the peace and tranquility. Every day I find a different, but equally beautiful place to watch the sunset. There are no other people to break my meditations as I find secluded spots along the cliff tops.
One evening I head for Punta degli Ulivi. At 135m above sea level, it’s the highest point on the island. I follow the paved road until it turns right onto a rough track, winding through prickly pears and fennel scented wilderness. I pass a house surrounded by huge impassable cactus. An old man shuffles out of the gate as I’m ascending the path and looks at me from beneath his blue cap.
‘Dead battery. I need a mechanic. You know how to fix a car?’ He gestures to an old banged up car behind the gate. He turns back to look at me. His rheumy eyes search my face as I respond that I don’t know anything about cars. If I did I’d be happy to help.
‘The battery is good but it won’t go. Where are you going? Up there? There’s nothing up there…except wind’.
I can’t find the words to explain that’s exactly why I’m going up there…because there is nothing but the wind, and the sound of the waves, and the globe of the sun which will shortly sink into the depths of the sea.
‘The wind is good…it clears the brain’ I tell him. He looks at me uncomprehending as I take my leave.
When I finally reach the top of the hill I find myself surrounded on all sides by by a forest of spiky trees. However, there are man made paths through them for the intrepid traveler, who is willing to brave a few scratches for the sake of a beautiful sunset. Moments later I emerge, more or less unscathed, on a headland looking out to sea and the rapidly descending sun. I have arrived just in time. I find a patch of earth to sit on, and again that sense of peace descends. Here it really does feel like the end of the world. Also the sudden realisation dawns: if I fall, nobody would hear my scream. I lie back, breathing in this feeling, enjoying the wild solitude, broken only by the gulls gliding on the ebb and flow of the wind above me.
In the distance, the sun sets against a clear, cloudless blue sky, only discernible from the sea due to its hazy blur and the light of the sun, which casts a soft glow on the horizon as it sinks into the ocean. The crescent moon and the northern star glow in the sky, seemingly suspended in nothingness, as if an artist has artfully placed them there to contrast the fading light of day. The artist is nature.
The next morning I get up at 5am, to watch the sunrise and find a fisherman who can take me with him for the morning. 2 hours later Fabio pulls be aboard a boat and we head off in the direction of Santo Stefano and the sun. The boat belongs to Cristofano, the aged fisherman of the island. As well as providing fresh fish for the locals every day, “Pesce Turismo” is his business during the summer – he takes tourists out on the boat.
‘What do they do?’ I ask.
‘Photos…they take lots of photos. And sunbathe. And they help a little’. I don’t really see much to help with; Fabio has everything under control. So I sit back and do just what the tourists do, enjoying the sun on my face as we surge over the early morning waves.
Soon after we stop at 3 petrol cans bobbing on the surface of the sea. Cristofano kills the engine and Fabio begins to haul up the net, attaching it to an electric wheel on the side of the boat. For what seems an age there is nothing but rocks, caught in a red net which doesn’t look like it could catch anything that actually moves. Then all of a sudden the thread changes colour, and I realise that only now is the real net being revealed. Trapped in its white snare I begin to see brightly coloured fish, still wriggling in their prison. And then a huge (at least it seems huge in comparison to the minnows from before) long ruddy brown fish comes out of the water, thrashing it’s tail.
Fabio doesn’t bat an eyelid and just goes on hauling in the net. I wonder if this is a typical days catch, and remember that the Mediterranean is seriously overfished. Idly I think about how humans have been fishing here for thousands of years, and the only thing that has really changed is the technology. Roman fisherman would have been doing the same 2 thousand years before, bringing home the pick of the daily catch for the imperial guests of the Villa Giulia, and providing the staple for the inhabitants of the island.
I go and sit with Cristofano, who controls the boat in the choppy water from his cabin.
‘What religion are you? Catholic?’ He asks. I tell him I’m not religious and he begins a long discourse on how I should have communion – we’ll do it when we get back. I think he he says something about bad luck, but I really only understand 50 percent of what he says. The ventotene dialect is not the easiest to grasp, words are seemingly chopped at will, intermingled with an undulating cadence.
Cristofano is still going on about how I should be baptised when another fish comes sprawling out of the water.
‘Priest fish’ declares Cristofano with a deadpan face. ‘He can baptise you!’
Cristofano and Fabio look at each other and grin at the irony. I contemplate the fish flopping around on the deck. It’s the shape of a very small whale, light brown and speckled, it’s mouth opening and closing and appearing to gape at me through squinty black eyes. I am struck by a sadness for these poor creatures. Somehow the net doesn’t seem fair. I ask Cristofano how long the net is and he looks at me uncomprehending. Finally, as if I’ve asked the most ridiculous question ever, he shrugs at the unimportance of the question, and tells me it’s about 1km long. I have a sudden image of the sea floor, with this huge net strung out, fish becoming entangled as if they were a football being booted into a goal. Fabio finishes hauling in the net and we set off back to port.
I had come to Ventotene wanting to learn to fish. My plan was to find a fisherman who would be willing to take on a young helper for a short period. The sudden realisation of the realities make me laugh. How ridiculous I must look to these seasoned mariners. I had a vision of spending a month learning as much as I could, but seeing these fish caught up in the net, as Cristofano and Fabio twist their bodies free, it seems that the only fish out of water is me.
During the days, I spend the week wandering the island and every day I swim in the port, which is protected by the wind, turning it into the equivalent of a swimming pool, even when the seas are rough. In the past it was the fish tank of the villa Giulia, the old Roman villa on the hill which housed the women of the emperors of Rome. Giulia, daughter of Augustus, was the first to take up residence here. Her father, the emperor, wanted to keep her away from the advances of the men of Rome! The remains of the villa can still be visited and in the museum in the piazza there are reconstructions and lots of info. It’s also one of the best places on the island to watch the sunset.
Rudolph, a Swiss tourist, has come to Ventotene in search of a dream. He is chasing a vision of the island which he has seen on the screen. In 2008 Marcello Marcello was filmed here (although the film is set in 1956 on the imaginary island of Amatrello) and Rudolph has come with one aim – to watch the sunset as it is in the film. The only problem is…it’s all an invention. Sunset in the film is in reality sunrise! And Rudolph is not happy! He’s spent the last 24 hours getting more and more irate, and almost chokes on his salad when I tell him i’ve been here for 10 days. He looks at me aghast. He only came because of the film, and feels cheated because the sun sets in the wrong place – it should set on the other side of the island apparently. And when he headed for Punta degli Ulivi to watch the sunset he turned back because of the spiky trees which have absorbed the path. I sense in his tone that there is clearly somebody at fault for all this. All the things that I have been enjoying so much are anathama to him. He just wants to get on the ferry and leave. Unfortunately, the weather has turned, and Ventotene is living up to its name as the windy Island! There are no boats back to the mainland for at least 24 hours so Rudolph is stuck. He consoles himself by attempting to woo Valentina, the Ukrainian lady who runs the bar.
The next few days strong winds shake the island from all sides. The seas froth and foam, and I see the wild side of island life. In the evening I head to the rocks around the lighthouse for a last try at fishing. As I cast the line into the seas, the waves crash all around me. And then, as I turn and look out to the horizon, a rainbow splits the sky by the Italian mainland, and all around me the heavens are an intense deep pink. Fishing forgotten, I am once again blown away by the beauty of this island and the coast. But at the same time, I am aware that my feet are itching to be on the move again.
The next day I take the afternoon ferry, watching the island shrink in the distance. The sky around me turns purple, orange and gold, and my eyes are drawn towards the city of Gaeta sitting proudly overlooking the bay. The sense of excitement again arises as the ferry docks at the port in Formia, and I step off the boat and head into the city. I don’t know where i’ll sleep tonight, but that is just what I like.