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David Nightingale: Altamura, Or Hitch-hiking In Southern Italy

la Piazza Amendola, Avellino, Campania, Italy
Daniel Jünger
Wikimedia Commons

In the ‘60s, if you were young and had little money, it was difficult to see the world unless (maybe) by hitch-hiking.

I had less than a week, and had slept on deck since Istanbul, no meals – and as the ship approached Brindisi I felt that, after the bare dry stretches of Turkey and Greece, Italy might well turn into love at first sight.

So I walked through Brindisi and waited for two hours at a junction. Three females I’d seen on the boat got immediate rides, and after an hour a sputtering Fiat took me a few miles up the coast before I began to walk again. Reaching Bari after dark I found a cheap room.

The next morning, no breakfast, I hitch-hiked on. Everywhere were fields and greenness. I crossed the mountains through Borino, then on to Avellino high up in the hills. From its market square I tried to find the road towards Naples. After an hour at a junction, where some American girls were taken up no sooner than alighting, a man came up, rapidly jabbering a blend of English and Italian, and signing that he wanted a cigarette. I gave him my almost empty Turkish packet. Then he was shouting to a truck that was pulling up. I climbed up and sat back, at last in a comfortable padded seat, and we headed down the mountains towards the west, which might be, time and rides permitting, Naples and Rome.

At this point I really cursed my perpetual insufficient money for trains or buses. Naples was huge, but I couldn’t stay, as I had only a few days to get back to Brindisi for my sleep-on-the-deck return ticket to Istanbul – so Rome would have to be written off. Thus, Salerno, Eboli, Potenza. After waiting four hours outside Potenza a new car swept me up and took me at an incredible pace, until dusk, all the way to Altamura.

Altamura. I walked into town, looking for a simple café. Although it wasn’t yet nine, I seemed to be the only occupant of Altamura’s unlit streets. Occasionally a vehicle projected a brief bouncing cone of light that always disappeared too quickly, and I could only guess the direction of the city center. I penetrated deeper into darkness, listening to my own echoing footsteps. Then a dimly-lit sign protruding from a wall – Trattoria. I entered an unoccupied room of tables with drab red and white vinyl covers. The wallpaper was peeling and discolored. I knew the Italian word for eggs, and ordered an egg and spaghetti. An old man appeared from the street, coughing badly, and leaning against the door jamb.

After the cheap meal, I returned to the unlit night, hoping to find the city center. After four ghostly streets I decided to retrace my steps to the Trattoria. Happy to see the old man still leaning by the door, I said “hotel?” Coughing another batch of phlegm from deep in his chest, he beckoned me to follow.

Shuffling ahead, face bent towards the cobbles, he led me further into still dark medieval streets. Anxiety began to take hold; something nagged that he might be leading me to a place from which I might never escape. Perhaps there would be a dagger ... and my scant travelers checks ripped from me.

Then, rounding a corner we found ourselves in a brightly-lit colorful square. Doggedly he led me through a festive crowd of singers and dancers, to a neon-lit “hotel”, and up some steps to where a middle-aged woman sat at a desk. I was wondering whether or how to tip him when I noticed he’d gone. I handed the woman my passport and was given a room overlooking the square and three guitarists.

The next morning, I paid my bill and asked how to reach the road to Taranto. Only the mother was at the desk, plus a servant – a kindly old gentleman who, I surmised, had known better days than hotel porter. She gave me the directions in careful good English – left at the crossroads /right at the fork / third right to the main road.

I held out my thumb, no luck, walked further, then began to think of buses – I had to be in Brindisi the next morning to catch my boat.

Suddenly, I recognized the porter from the hotel struggling towards me, puffing, grinning, waving something in his hand.

My passport!

Moments later, a VW swept me straight through to Taranto and on to Brindisi.

Yes, I knew that if I ever had a little more money, I’d be back.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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