There’s a bottle of ice cold water near my laptop that I would’ve given five years off my life or my left testicle last night if it was available. I’m so dehydrated I don’t know if I felt worse this morning or yesterday when I had the vicious hangover. My relaxing day at the beach turned into the Tour di Puglia. I had a harder time finding the beach than Columbus did finding the New World. Notice I said “harder.” Columbus actually found the New World.
I’d heard ever since I reached Italy that the Bay of Turki had the best beaches in Puglia and possibly Italy. And the Turki Beach was the best in the bay. Unfortunately, beaches in Southern Europe are never convenient. It’s always beaches by bus. And in Otranto, which is as dead as Nebraska in the off season, it’s beaches by bike.
I’m serious. Beach buses don’t start running until June and the Baia del Turchi is, they say, 4 kilometers north of the city. That’s about 2 ½ miles. That’s one trip around my neighborhood’s Washington Park. It takes me about 12 minutes to circumvent said park. How long did it take to find the Baia del Turchi?
Try 2 ½ hours.
I received a free day’s bike rental with a card my hotel gave me and the rental guy in the scuba dive shop, which likely hadn’t had a customer in eight months, just said, “Oh, it’s right past the harbor.” Really? Which harbor, the one in Venice?
I wasn’t crazy about riding a girl’s bike without a cross bar (“Standard,” the scuba pro insisted). I wondered why they left off the little basket and bell. But its five gears worked well even if my legs climbing the small hills through town didn’t.
I started out in such a great mood. I felt like I hit the adventurous travel writer’s home run: riding through a small Pugliese town in a swimsuit and backpack, exploring exotic beaches. My sweet disposition turned into mild desperation when I took a small road going parallel to the sea and it slowly narrowed into deep farmland. I was going past greenhouses and lettuce farms. Meanwhile, the vegetation on the right separating me from the sea was getting wider. I must’ve ridden 6-7 kilometers before I stopped two locals who told me (I’d get used to this) go back where I came from then take a right to the next parallel road, the Alumini, and take another right. I thought Alumini was some kind of factory or an Italian venereal disease. My frustration was soon replaced with unabashed joy after, one, finding my true connection to a beautiful beach, two, negotiating an exchange, plus an explanation of my purpose in Puglia, in seemingly perfect Italian.
“Parla bene Italiano!” one yelled as I sped away.
On the Otranto map, the Alumini looks like an interstate freeway. In reality, it’s a narrow two-lane road where Italians drive like it’s an interstate freeway. The “bike lane” consisted of a three-lane designated area that disappears into the middle of the street every 500 meters or so. The “bicycle” sign painted on the road should have a skeleton riding it. I rode and rode and rode and saw nothing, absolutely nothing, indicating a right-hand turn to the beach. I saw lots of big signs for big resorts with a foreboding closed gate blocking the entrance to a dirt path toward a beach that I knew was out there somewhere.
I rode for an hour before I stopped a farmer. Next right, he said, and straight. That’s easy. Well, which right? Is it this tiny pathway leading into a forest, or the bigger street leading into another resort? During the course of one of the most maddening mornings of my life, neither led anywhere.
On my fifth stopping of a local – I think I talked to half the farmers in Puglia at this point – the guy told me to go to Club Med. I can’t enter but I can go to the beach from there. I found Club Med and I couldn’t enter because IT WASN’T OPEN. IT WAS STILL BEING BUILT.
I rode my bike around a skeleton of a giant resort, with shells of cabins and an empty swimming pool and stairs leading to tiny beaches that were little more than cement shorelines. I think I saw the beginning of what appeared to be a very painful slide. Not a soul was around. On a Friday. With tourist season approaching in three weeks.
I ventured around the grounds, took off down foreboding lanes, weaving around piles of sand and gravel. I found nothing. To reach the beach I didn’t need a bike. I needed a machete.
At this point I was roiling into a major boil. I even followed a guy down Alimini for a ways when he told me to take a right. It was a dirt road past another set of farms where I stopped three women – one looking like a sexy gypsy with a beautiful face and scarflet. They, of course, pointed the direction from whence I came.
I answered that with a resounding “FAMME BOCCHINO!” (“BLOW ME!”) which the hot babe responded with two raised eyebrows and a major step backward. Meanwhile, every farmer in Puglia seemed to drop their hoe and looked at me.
Exasperated and hot with a growing thirst and hunger, I cursed myself for not packing my last PowerBar and went up the road farther. I found a sign for Resort di Lido. With all kinds of colors and Disney water characters, the sign made it look like an overgrown waterpark. Well, that means there had to be water. I dragged my bike around two big guardrails, road down a path that was half-cracked cement and overgrown grass and started seeing something I hadn’t seen in 2 ½ hours.
Sky blue, cool and, apparently, real. I saw a beat-up parking lot and a cement platform where a worker was prepping it. A middle-aged local walked by me and he spoke English. I was so tired and thirsty I didn’t even bother talking Italian.
“Where the hell am I?”
He looked at my map and pointed at Alumini. It’s just the beach north of Turchi.
“Where the HELL is Turchi?”
I thought he’d say go to Greece and take a right but he said, “It’s very difficult to find, it’s about 100 meters around the beach.”
“Is it better than this beach?” I’d taken a look up and it looked fantastic. It’s about 3 kilometers long with thick gold sand and the only thing desecrating it were hundreds of umbrella poles with no umbrellas.
“No. This is a little better. It’s bigger. Turchi is small beach. But it’s more protected from wind.”
Wind I can handle. I needed protection from myself. I thanked him, quietly said, “Fuck Turchi,” which, knowing Puglia’s tragic history I wasn’t the first one here to say that, and plopped my bike next to some sand-covered rocks. I spread my towel and read for two hours.
I’m really glad I can write this: It was worth the effort. The beach was spectacular and the water even better. It was turquoise and warmer than in Vieste. It was shallow without a single hidden rock to step on as you waded out toward the horizon. Little waves splashed against me as I dove in and swam as fast and as far as I could. I didn’t worry about anyone stealing my bike or backpack carrying my very expensive and large camera. The only people on the 3-kilometer beach were three workers in swimsuits prepping the grounds for the tourist season that starts in June. I didn’t care that two of the workers were driving steamshovels. It was 75 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and the Adriatic felt as nice as any ocean in the world.
My ride back took 30 minutes which means, if the rental agency was correct, I rode 8 kph. I guess that’s right. But going up and down the same road, reading the same signs and seeing the same farmers I must’ve ridden 30 kilometers. It was not fun. Watching tourists ride by in their Lycra it was all I could do to keep from responding to their smiling waves with a middle finger.
Back in town, I waited for the agency to open by plopping down at one of the outdoor cafes facing the harbor and sucked down an Abruzzo beer as if it was the nectar of the gods. I really came at the right time, no beach buses notwithstanding. The port side of Otranto is lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants and matching seats facing the water. Hardly any tourists are here. I’m mingling with locals in bright sunshine but not the oppressive heat I hear makes Puglia like a greenhouse for African violets.
It also seems like a retirement community. Lots of old men in fishing caps sitting at tables talking and playing cards. Old women in heels strut slowly along the sea. A bald, squat, middle-aged man in a shirt with the sleeves crudely torn off played video blackjack next to me in the Internet café.
I avoided wine most of the day and tried hydrating myself the way smart travel writers do: by drinking beer all night. First, I had one with a pizza the size of one of Pizza Hut’s giant pizzas at La Bella Idrusa, this outdoor pizzeria with a great view of the sea. Then I went back to L’Ora e Mezzo and sucked down two Merineas, Italy’s best beer and one killing Peroni on the market. I was too weak to decipher Francesco’s growingly dialect-laden Italian and turned in early. I had one small bottle of water from the time I woke up yesterday.
Note to anyone coming to Puglia: Pugliese tap water tastes like and has the general texture of the Tiber after a gypsy’s camping trip. Stick to beer. And good maps.