Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The plains of Italy are GORGEOUS

Our destination after the mountains was Taranto, a coastal city. We didn't run into too many problems on the way there, but I did realize driving here has changed the way I drive. We were getting close to Taranto and we were in stop and go traffic. As we neared a stop light the car in front of me was rolling along slowly past a gas station. I saw that the light was green and thought that the car must be planning on turning into the gas station so I hit the gas and pulled around the car in front of me. As I did so the light turned red and the cars in front of me stopped, so I couldn't make it all the way in front of the car I passed, but instead I was kind of caddy-corner. As soon as I stopped I realized I had just been a major asshole, although the car didn't even honk. The next day while we were driving Anson started laughing because I was swearing at the car in front of me (it decelerating as it approached an on ramp ... something I found/find very counterintuative). I even peeled out once when going around a curve. Although, I've also found American traffic frustrating since I've been back I think if I hadn't adapted to Italian traffic at least a little I might not have been able to hack it. I'm sure the same is true of Anson although he's always been more comfortable with speed.

Anywhoo, when we made it to Taranto we parked on the edge of town and started looking around. We quickly stumbled upon a sort of Italian flea market and, before long, Anson found something he wanted to buy. A deck of numberless cards, they simply used symbols. It was only one euro so he bought it right out. We continued on through the crowd browsing. We passed some neat pipes, a sword, and a variety of other interesting things but didn't get any of it. We did, however, discover that Anson's deck of card only had 40 or so cards. They had had another deck or two so we decided to go back and see if we couldn't get one of those and, between the two of them, make a full deck.

This is one of the more, in hindsight, embarrassing language/culture experiences I've had. Anson, after reading a long history of cards, found out that there were only supposed to be 40 cards in the deck. Now the odd, suspicious, sidelong glances they gave us as the looked for the other deck of cards made sense. It makes sense because ... they thought we were crazy. They didn't end up finding another deck of cards so Anson and I set out for our next objective, food.

Anson kept asking for hamburgers and hot dogs in the hope that he would get something crazy and unique and Taranto didn't disappoint. When he ordered his hot dog they asked if he wanted french fries. He did. After a few minutes they served him a hot dog, cut in half long-wise, on a sub with fries sandwiching it on either side. It turned out to be very unique and also very delicious.

After dinner we began our evening search for a campsite. This evening however, we were looking to poach. We wanted something by the road, without much traffic or light. Preferably flat and without grazing animals or trash. It took us a lot of slow driving on back roads and some guts-ing up but we found a suitable place. We didn't find out until after we were laying down in the tent that our spot wasn't as flat as it had looked but we both slept well.

The next morning we got up at 7 and headed out. After getting breakfast we began our search for some archaeological ruins on the coast south of Bari. These too took some searching but these too we found in the end. They turned out to be spectacular. It was a village and burial site that were ~2000 years old. It was neat to see and we even got to walk inside some of the tombs and a large storage chamber. The coast in the areas was particularly
beautiful. It was rocky, which was neat because you could see where the ancient villagers had used the cliffs as a quarry.

By the time we left the ruins it was time to begin our daily ritual of looking for somewhere to eat. After almost an hour and one false start (we thought a pizzeria was open but, upon entering and talking with the management, who were there cooking, we found out it wasn't) we were hungry and frustrated with the whole thing. Just as we were starting to head back to the car to drive somewhere else, we saw a Chinese restaurant. Italians may take 4 hour lunch brakes but I was pretty sure Chinese didn't. We walked into the restaurant and, indeed, someone immediately came out and took us to a table. The food was good and I got to practice my Chinese ... always a bonus.

After a refreshing lunch we left and made for our next destination, the Castellana Grotte. They turned out to be stunning caves but very commercialized. We couldn't even take pictures inside because the city owned the digital rights and would not stand for anyone else trying to usurp them. The cave tour culminated in the 'White Cave', a truly stunning room where the water creating the formations was pure of certain elements leading to completely white stalactites and stalagmites. Another interesting thing in the caves was the effect of the lighting. Previously nothing grew in the caverns because it was dark but now, around the lights, algae was growing. Apparently in some parts of the cave the air was even being turned more acidic by human breath, leading to stalactites being destroyed by the constant dripping of water, instead of created. It was sad and made me wonder what the caves would be like in 20 years.

When we got out of the caves we found that we had gotten a parking ticket. It was a bummer but the main problem was that we didn't know how to pay it. I ended up taking it back to Bologna and asking my Spanish class what to do with it. Then Anson and I took a field trip to the post office, what my class/teacher had recommended, and paid it there. Immediately, however, our concern was to get our car washed and get to Bari. A guy on our tour of the cave was ''backpacking'' around Southern Italy so decided to give him a ride to Bari.

On the way we stopped at a car wash. We had to ask for directions but then we got it figured out and got the car reasonably clean. Anson didn't think it was a big deal but I was paranoid about getting a huge charge after we turned the car in for 'cleaning' (I, so far, haven't). Driving into Bari proved somewhat stressful but we found a parking garage and pulled in there. The parking spots were so narrow that parking was almost more nerve wracking than driving had been but we
made it.

Our main exiting event of the evening was stumbling upon some giant soccer celebrations. We literally rounded a corner and suddenly were confronted by a big screen TV and hordes of people watching, yelling, drinking, and generally carousing. This seemed a little more intense than we were quite ready for so we did our best to skirt most of it, only stopping to get gelato. On the way back to the car we stopped at a Tabacchi (smoke shop) where Anson bought another deck of cards. It wasn't until now that we began to realize the decks were only supposed to have 40 cards, and the used deck he'd gotten hadn't been short at all. It was just Italian.

We had to wake up early the next morning to drop off the car and catch our flight, so we just decided to spend the night in our car. The flight back was uneventful except that the passengers broke out into song a couple of times. The right soccer team must have one the night before. The trumpets sounded again on our landing, promting another round of song. We had made it back to Bologna.

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