It was around this time four years ago that I first realised that I was head over heels in love with Italy. Well, there’s something to be said for a country that can make me actively enjoy the sound of hooting car horns and riotously joyful football fans …
This story was first published on the blog in May 2010, but I reread it recently and it still makes me smile to think of that day. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did experiencing it.
The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s strong, and not entirely pleasant, although not disgusting either, so long as you don’t breathe it in too deeply. It’s the smell of salt water and fish guts, with a strong undertone of diesel, all melded into one: the smell of a working harbour. Further evidence of this is the sight of rows upon rows of fishing boats, and refrigerated vans lined up neatly waiting for their cargo. Of course, today is Sunday, so it’s quiet at the moment. The wind whips the waves up into a frenzy and catches at my hair, blowing it into an instant bird’s nest. A rusting sign attached to a bank of rock proclaims that this is Yachting Club Gallipoli. The only boats within sight are working ones, so presumably the pleasure-sailors have gone elsewhere, if they were ever here at all. This is the south of Italy, not France. It’s far more reminiscent of Cornwall than Cannes, and all the more interesting for that fact. I stare out to sea until I am rudely roused from reverie by a faceful of salt water, splashing up as a wave hits the sea wall hard. Gasping and spluttering, I hastily head for a more sheltered spot in the inner harbour.
In contrast to the breaking waves on the seafront, the water here is as calm as a millpond, and glittering in the bright mid-afternoon light. I bask in the sunshine and pull out my camera. Fishing nets are piled up on the quay, weighted down with old duvets and bits of broken board to stop them blowing away or being torn. The boats that the nets belong to are tied to stout bollards, which are flaking with rust. Being attacked on a daily basis by salt sea air doesn’t appear to do metal much good – or wood, in fact. The paint on the rowing boats pulled up onto the foreshore is blistered and peeling, which, combined with the cracks in the wood, creates beautiful patterns and textures. I snap away happily for 15 minutes, watched with benevolent bemusement by the bearded harbourmaster as he listens to the Inter match on his car radio.
Walking around to the front of the harbour wall again, I am hit with a blast of salty air. There is a breakwater – made up of huge concrete blocks, each of them four foot across – set out to sea a little way from the harbour wall. On a day like today, when the Scirocco whistles across the Salento, bringing bad weather in its wake, it’s needed. The waves crash against it, sending white spray ten foot up into the air. It seems that Gallipoli is more than used to receiving bad weather and is well prepared to deal with the force of the water crashing towards the shore.
Heading back onto the main promenade, I spy a large, weathered, sculpted fountain at the town side entrance to the harbour. Three dogs flop on its leeward side, sheltered from the wind. They’re a motley crew – one golden retriever, one bristly little rough-coated terrier with a happy grin on his muzzle, and an overweight labrador cross. They probably don’t belong to anyone sitting here now, but have chosen the spot for its prime sunbathing opportunities. As I move closer to take a photo, the terrier stretches to the very ends of his toes and sighs luxuriously, while the retriever twitches his nose at me, checking whether I’m bringing food. (No.) I leave them to their lazing, and head inside the handy next door cafe to start the important process of choosing gelato.
Ice cream cravings satisfied for the day, it’s time to head back home. Outside the cafe the promenade is full of cars draped in Inter and Italian flags. Inter have, apparently, won the Serie A, and everyone is out in the street to celebrate. In the UK, football fans go to the pub when their team wins. Italians, however, head for their cars and drive round and round in circles, shouting joyfully out of car windows and hooting their horns like crazy. I’m not a football fan but the excitement is infectious. If I were stuck in a noisy traffic jam like this in London, I’d be wanting to kill someone within a few minutes, but here I just enjoy the vicarious thrill of victory, and grin along with everyone else around me. I am suntanned, windblown, and very, very happy.
Images by Kate Bailward