(Image by freto78 on Flickr)
The first week of November has been beautifully sunny and warm, so it’s a disappointment to wake up on Friday morning, my day off, to find that it’s grey and threatening rain. By Saturday this has turned to torrential downpour. Alex and I spend the day sitting in our respective rooms staring out of the window and wishing the day away. By the evening we have resorted to games of Snap and Black Queen, adding arbitrary rules to make the games slightly more challenging. A bottle of wine is downed, as if to prove the Italian flatmate’s observation that we drink too much, and we are in bed early, feeling miserable.
It is therefore very exciting to wake up on Sunday morning to bright autumn sunshine. There’s not quite a cloudless sky, but the rain looks to be holding off today. We consult the map to find out where we should go, although anywhere would be better than the inside of the flat. Otranto is discussed, and dismissed, as being somewhere that we have already been. Gallipoli is suggested, but discarded. Our eyes travel further down the page, right to the southernmost point of Italy, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet: Santa Maria di Leuca. An adventure, by George!
An hour later and we are on the road. Alex is chief mapreader: no mean feat, given that the map that we have is from a leaflet about local festas and has nothing so constructive as road names or numbers marked on it. By our calculations, once we have got onto the correct road, it’s pretty much straight down the peninsula. However, road signs in Italy are nothing if not esoteric – it’s as if they want to make up for the straightness of the main roads by sending you on a wild goose chase along mule trails. If there is a turning off to the right of the main road to a certain town, rather than signing the continuing road straight on, it is signed directly left. This throws us a couple of times, but we manage to stay on track for the most part, and the detour around the centre of Scorrano is quite pretty, really. We chuckle about the signs at the entrance to each town: ‘centro abitato‘. Well, thank you for pointing that one out. People! In a town! Who’d have thought it? We also laugh slightly grimly at the ‘pericolo‘ signs at some of the larger intersections. Is there an Italian crossroad that isn‘t dangerous?
We turn off the main road, following the signs for Leuca. As we come over the crest of the hill, past the town sign, the sea suddenly appears directly ahead of us, and there is a waft of salty air through my open window. The sea never fails to lift my spirits, and I can feel the misery of yesterday’s rain being totally banished. We drive slowly down the hill, taking in our surroundings. At the bottom of the hill, at one end of the seafront promenade, is a small marina. We park beside it and climb out of the car, pulling our coats closer at the sudden blast of sea air. There are a few people out and about, but the feeling is mainly of an out-of-season seaside town, which is, of course, exactly what it is. I am in heaven. Alex and I walk to the edge of the promenade and gaze out to sea in silence. I glance at him and see his face set in wistful contemplation – I imagine mine looks much the same.
The sun is sitting quite low in the sky and reflecting beautifully off the waves. There are some surfers further along, in the small patch of water that breaks onto sandy beach, rather than basalt rock, and I pull my camera out to try to get some pictures. After only a couple of shots the battery indicator starts flashing. I hunt hurriedly for the spare battery which I always carry with me – stupidly, on this occasion I have managed to leave it at home. I move further along the promenade, closer to the surfers, and perch myself on a low wall to get a few final shots before the battery dies completely. The people here are different from the ones in my town. They are coastal folk, with long hair, salty clothes and eyes creased from looking out to sea. They are quieter and not so prone to staring. A surfer-type perches a little further along the wall from me, pulling one knee up to his chest and resting his chin on it as he watches the three surfboards out in the water. My battery dies completely. I sit, pushing the hair out of my face and licking the salt from my lips, at peace.
The sun goes behind a cloud temporarily, and I realise that I am cold. I stand up and find Alex a little further along the promenade. We walk in companiable silence to the far end, being joined by a dog with sand on her muzzle and a happy smile on her face. I’m not sure who she belongs to, but for half an hour she adopts us, sitting peacefully while we watch the sea, and joyfully attempting to climb into my lap and lick my face when I perch on the wall. We turn around to walk back, and she comes with us, trotting purposefully a little way ahead of us. Five minutes further on she finds some new owners climbing out of a car, and we lose her. We carry on, walking towards the lighthouse. There is a crepe stall, which has pretty much every flavour you could wish for – so long as it is on a base of Nutella. I am sorely tempted but decide to hold off. There is a little girl there who is not being so abstemious. Her father has lifted her up on the counter, and she is perched there making her selection, legs dangling in woollen tights, with wild curly hair and a cheeky grin.
We realise that the lighthouse is out of walking distance of the promenade and so return to the car. The seafront is one way, and we are therefore temporarily driving away from the direction in which we need to be headed, but how hard can it really be to find an enormous great building with a flashing light at the top? Apparently very. As soon as we leave the seafront the lighthouse disappears from view and we are pushed onto a road which signs towns 45 minutes’ north. For a few minutes it looks as though we may have missed our chance to see the Santuaria. Suddenly, however, we turn a corner and are back on the main road, with Leuca signs aplenty. We have somehow done a circuit of the outskirts of the town, and are now back on track. Hooray!
In contrast to the beautiful bleakness of the seafront, the Santuaria is absolutely crawling with people. The car park is rammed, but I spot a car about to leave. It has a disabled sticker in the window, so I give them plenty of space to pull out. Major mistake. An Italian driver and his po-faced wife are nothing like so charitable, and sneak behind the car as it pulls towards me. I make a valiant effort to barge through, but fail miserably. The air in the car turns blue but luckily another space comes free and this time I am quicker off the mark. Sorely tempted to key the Italians’ car as I walk past, I settle for calling them unmentionable names loudly in English. There are moments when not being understood is a real advantage.