We drove south, into the sun, for three days. We could feel the call of the Mediterranean, as the mountains disappeared, the scenery opened up, the sun shone, the roads straightened, and we ate up the miles speeding down the Adriatic autostrada. From time to time the sea appeared – the Adriatic, a sea we are familiar with, having sailed on, and swum in it, a few years ago on the cruise from Athens. Sunflower fields taunted me, though as mentioned earlier, many were ready for harvest, dark brown and drooping disconsolate heads. We saw vines everywhere – grapes, and something else, possibly kiwifruit. Picturesque ruins, like only the Italians can do, dotted the landscape as if scattered artfully by a designer.
We stopped on the way. On the afternoon of our first day, we visited the Republic of San Marino, our sixth new country on this trip. It is essentially a tax haven (or as our landlady in Vittorio Veneto said “a fiscal paradise”) on a hill, with an at times charming old town packed with gelaterias and duty-free shops for tourists. Ancient walls and towers overlook the town, and in fact the entire country. It has an interesting history though, and it claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, as the continuation of a monastic community founded in 301. When modern-day Italy was being formed, San Marino opted out, and due to the fact that in the early years of the process it had given refuge to many of those who were in favour of unification, Garibaldi agreed that it should remain independent. And so it remains today. It is not part of the European Union, but it uses the euro as currency. Once again it seems absurd that we drive along a particular road, and find ourselves in a completely new country. Even more so when you can pop in, drive across the entire country in about 15 minutes, and drive out again.
We stopped on the coast for the first night, and as noted earlier, our second night in Molise was a great success – with the exception of the lack of sunflowers – as noted earlier, and so on we drove down Italy’s boot, diverting around its spur (Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor told us it would enchant us – they were wrong), and finally into its heel. Now we were in Puglia, or more correctly, Apulia, the Italian name for this area. In the previous two months, when I would tell Italians that we were spending three months in Italy, and September in Puglia, they would sigh in delight. “Apulia! in Settembre!” they would swoon. “Bellissimo.” “The light!” they would gush, rendered inarticulate with longing.
In the middle of Apulia, on the Adriatic coast, there is a town. South of the more well-known Bari, unheralded by guidebooks or tourist websites, Monopoli is our base for September.