It’s a long story how I ended up in Ruvo di Puglia late Monday night in a Wellness & Spa hotel but I eventually did and it took some effort on my part to get there.
This stretch of Italy from Bari to Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea coast is intoxicating because it feels far from everything in a good way and is as welcoming as Italy can possibly be. It’s also very historical, including Sassi di Matera, which was doubling as old Jerusalem in the Passion of Christ movie. I’ve been to both, and Matera makes a bigger impression, my opinion.
It took me almost an hour drive from the airport in Bari in a rented Citroen whose ergonomics were defeating me all the way to the hotel. GPS offered information like: “your current location is not on the map,” and this is not a message you want to hear.
At some point I stopped the car on the highway, turned up the light on my iPhone and looked around the steering wheel “how do you lower the temperature in this damn car??” It was not immediately clear, so I drove with my windows down. I was still looking persistently for the dial in the car when a Cinquecento doing maybe 50 km/h appeared in front of me and I hit the brakes hard only to find out that my car has no ABS and the back of it was going square on the highway.
Fun, and I thought only the bikers have good road stories.
Then I finally found the hotel, parked the damn car, went into the reception and the black-haired lady said, “you made it” with a hint of surprise in her accented English.
“Yes, I die hard.”
She looked me with slight amusement the way the Italians make you feel good.
“The kitchen is closed,” she said, “if you had called before we would have prepared something for you, but all I can offer now is some tarallis, you know what that is?” She looked at me again “and a glass of wine if you want.”
“I go for red.”
This was when I realized the brand of frames she was wearing, and it was on my mind since I saw her the first time. These were Tom Ford’s Cat-Eye frames and I like the shape of them and I told her that.
“Well, it seems they sent a bright guy,” she said without lifting her eyes from the computer. “Have a good night, ciao.”
The next morning there was a clear view from my room of the planes to the east and the sea after, flat and undisturbed. It was also cold and the car was covered with frost, I scrapped the glass as far as I had too and went to Bari. She wasn’t there, in the reception when I was leaving. This was the Tuesday morning in Ruvo and streets downtown were closed for a market and the GPS went nuts.
I was backing up the car from between the fruit stands, people screaming and all.
In the evening the restaurants open at 7:30. I was back in town a bit before that, so I went to the great church in the middle of it. A group of older ladies were saying the rosary sitting close to the altar and I sat in the back not knowing what to say or do.
It was very quiet inside, as if the great church separated the living world from ancient history that had defined humanity. Maybe this contrast, like crossing from one world to the other, makes it so addictive to people.
Then the day came I had to check out from the hotel and go to the airport.
“How was your stay?” she asked looking at me with piercing black eyes behind the frames.
And I ran a tally in my mind.
“Good, I’ll be back.”
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler