A short escape to the Mediterranean

Mediterrrean

I squeeze myself between the wall and the chairs, under one of the tables at the canteen of M/V Aqua Hercules. Not wanting to pay for a cabin bed, I am left with no choice but to sleep in this less than comfortable accommodations. I try not to think that it’s going to be a 10-hour trip from Bari, Italy to Corfu, Greece. It’s a small price to pay if I wanted to have my little break in the Mediterranean before summer ends. I deserve a few days off from this business trip. Conveniently, an efficient ferry system connects the two countries. As I try to sleep, I remember the wonderful time I just had in Puglia.

DISCOVERING BRINDISI
Brindisi is the capital of the Puglia region, located in the Southern coast of Italy. I expected that this city would be teeming with tourists when I arrived but surprisingly, almost no tourist was in sight.

There is absolutely no rushing in Brindisi. Mornings will see residents taking their time with their espresso, stopping for a quick chat with other locals before heading their way. At any given time of the day, a group of old men play chess or simply while the day away on benches in front of the Anchors Fountain in the town centre.

The Sailor's Monument as seen from the other harbor in Brindisi

Typical afternoon

Evenings are a different story. When the sun sets, the air getting cooler, the townsfolk stream out into the streets to enjoy the night in a typical Mediterranean fashion – wining, dining and dancing. The best place to be is in one of the al fresco restaurants fronting the harbour. Try the grilled fish with Brindisi Rosso at Betty’s Café (www. bettycafe.it).
Perhaps the most picturesque in Brindisi’s historical town is its harbour, easily recognizable by the towering Monument to Italian Sailors (also known as the Big Rudder) fronting the Eastern part of the port. The structure is a memoriam to the fallen soldiers of World War I and II.

I was not able to visit Aragones (or Alfonsino Castle) due to logistical reasons. One needs a car, which I didn’t have, to get to the castle located on the islet of S. Andrea. Instead, I ran around Old Town, stopping to take photos of different historical landmarks like the Roman Column and the Brindisi Cathedral. What I enjoyed most was my quiet morning walk along the harbour, photographing small, blue boats moored at the port and watching Brindisi men trying to catch some fish.

One day was enough for me to appreciate Brindisi. On my second day, I was off to another Italian beauty.

HITCHHIKING LA CITTA BIANCI
I left Hotel Orientale (www.hotelorientale. it) at seven in the morning to catch the first bus to Ostuni, Italy’s White City, only to find out that the bus does not leave until two hours later. Luckily, I met a friendly Nonna who told me that her son’s wife is also a Filipina living in Pampanga. She even tried to make a long-distance call to her son to introduce me but to no avail. She got off the bus, in the town before Ostuni. That’s when I got into trouble.

I am geographically inept and usually miss the bus wherever I go. So I got off the bus before the city proper of Ostuni. I found myself in the middle of the road with no one to ask for directions.

I walked under the sweltering heat of the sun until I came across a small pub. In my very limited Italian, I asked the barman for directions. Two customers overheard me and offered me a ride as they are passing by the city. I have never hitchhiked in my life. While I have done some scary stuff while travelling, I draw the line when
it comes to riding in a stranger’s car, especially if that stranger reeks of alcohol and missing a front tooth. But somehow, I forgot my fears that day.

I took the passenger seat and happily chatted with my new “friends” along the way. Travelling does challenge your conventional ideas and teach you to trust strangers. However, to be on the safe side, you have to listen to your instincts as well.

ostuni

purple shrimps

Perched on a hilltop, Ostuni’s whiteness is like a mirage rising from the sea on a sweltering summer day. It is a fortified city and its walls as well as its houses are painted in immaculate white. The windows and doors are awashed in bright colors of green and blue, typical of Mediterranean architecture.

The houses are built attached to each other and walking around them is like being in a maze with its complex, narrow alleyways and hidden passages. There are several Baroque churches, the most prominent of which is the Cathedral, painted white up to its interiors.

PURPLE SHRIMP FOR LUNCH
It was lunchtime when I got tired of exploring the Old Town of Ostuni. I wanted to dine in a restaurant with a view of the White City. Luckily, I stumbled upon Porta Nova, which looks nothing spectacular from the outside but hides breathking views from its terrace once you step inside.

The menu was as tantalizing as the view. The restaurant’s leather-bound wine book offered the best of Italian wines including several Puglian wines. I chose a bottle of 2011 Puglian Fiano Salento to go with my scallop in black rice and saffron sauce and purple shrimps in butter sauce and potatoes.

Because Ostuni is situated just eight kilometers away from the Adriatic sea, locals and tourists are spoiled for choice when it comes to the freshest catch of the day at Porta Nova.
I finished my meal with a plate of local cheeses, a glass of grappa and a shot of espresso. Needless to say, I was a bit tipsy and a little too cheerful by the time I left the restaurant. I managed to get out of the old town maze but failed. I asked an old Italian gentleman for directions and charmed him to take me to the bus station on his Vespa.

The next day, I took the train to Bari, another Puglian city to catch M/V Aqua Hercules.

corfu

SUMMER STORM IN CORFU
I was exhausted by the time the boat docked on Corfu Island the next morning, having spent the night on a cold, hard floor with no blankets to keep me warm.

Corfu is a castle city and the second largest among the Ionian Islands. Its history is marred by battles and bloodshed, being Europe’s first line of defense against the Ottoman Empire and was eventually conquered by England. Its fortress and castles are some of the most visited, particularly by English holiday-goers.

The city is popular for its blue skies, white beaches and secret coves. I was looking forward to enjoying it. As fate would have it, it rained the day I arrived. Later, the waiter at one of the seaside restaurants in Paleokastritsa, a village outside the city proper, told me that after so many years, a summer storm was coming to the island. I should consider myself lucky.

But I was not going to let a brewing storm stop me from enjoying my swim. I put on my bikini after dumping my luggage at Apollon Hotel (www.corfu- apollon-hotel.com) and jumped into the already angry sea. After a while, dark clouds filled the sky, the water turned colder. I decided to go back to the hotel.

monastery

MESMERIZING CHANTS
I checked the Internet for Plan B and it pointed me to Theotokos Monastery, a modest 13th century Orthodox monastery with a nicely manicured courtyard, friendly monks and a thousand cats inhabiting the place. The monastery is perched on the highest
hill in the village. Inside are a small Byzantine museum and a church. I arrived in time for the afternoon service.
I sat at the back of the church to be able to observe the ceremony. Three monks were presiding over the mass. Their long, mesmerizing chanting in an unfamiliar language combined with the flickering candles in the dimly lit church was hypnotizing, taking me to a strange yet tranquil state of mind. I closed my eyes and enjoyed that peaceful sensation, very different from a Catholic mass service however solemn. The memory stayed with me.

This rite lasted for at least half an hour before women and children, some in traditional Greek clothing, made a beeline for the altar with their baskets of fruits, meat and flowers for the monks. Some lighted candles while others kissed the hands of the monks.
I felt light and rejuvenated after leaving the monastery. Walking back to the village, I enjoyed the view of the waves crashing on the rocks below. At that moment, I appreciated life more than I am wont to do.

An array of local food and drinks at a souvenir shop in the centre

An old Orthodox bible displayed at the museum in Theotokos Monastery

EXPLORING CORFU’S OLD TOWN
Corfu’s Old Town is compact and easily explorable within a day.

Markets, colorful houses and al fresco restaurants line the seaside. Other interesting attractions are the Palace of Saints Michael and George, the Old and New Fortresses and the Church of St. Spyridon where the mummified body of the city’s patron saint is displayed.

I gravitated towards the less popular church of Andivouniotissa or the Byzantine Museum. It houses a marble altar displaying several Orthodox religious icons as well as Medieval manuscripts, religious clothings, liturgical objects and paintings dating back to the 15th century.

Tired and drenched from the heavy rain, I settled myself in one of the terrace restaurants fronting the seaside cliffs and filled my stomach with another sardine dish, a staple on the island.

At midday, I hopped on the bus back to Paleokastrista to enjoy my last sunset in the Mediterranean. This before I catch the plane that will take me back to cold Holland early the next day.

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