User Stories > Backpacking and Getting Lost in Puglia, Italy

15 min read
January 16th, 2021

When you think about the beautiful pictures of Puglia, sandy beaches, caves and ravines, the beautiful 19th-century old townhouses overlooking the clear sea. That's what we were expecting but after almost 24h out of the Airbnb, arrived back from a "quick trip to the seat", tired of a sleepless night, with aching feet, broke and hungry, and with a hell of a story to tell.

Baroque Beginnings

I and my close friend and travel companion Basanta arrived in Lecce the previous day in the morning after a 13h night train trip from Bologna, and spent the arrival day in Lecce, a very picturesque old Italian southern town, right in the "heel" of Italy's "boot" shape, that is not as much tourist prone as other destinations such as Bari, Naples or Sicily, and with a pandemic on top of that, we have found a very local destination with few people speaking English on the street, just as we wanted, and filled with an amazing charm of what you'd picture of a warm town of South Italy, indeed, people are extremely warm and talkative, it's as if every cafe waiter has a story to tell you (it can also be the lack of tourists this season due to COVID but it was very special regardless).

Basanta and I have a long history of spontaneous trips, we are into minimalistic travels.

The city old-town is like a quaint little village if it wasn't for the 100,000 people living in and around it. The stone baroque-style houses and alleyways dating back from the 16th century has on first glance the same style as so many other Italian cities, although, I am not sure if it was the lack of tourists or just the more laid-back philosophy of the city in comparison with places such as Firenze or Bologna just makes it more authentic, that really takes you back a few centuries, that can be a matter of opinion though.

But here we are, 8 am on a cloudy morning as we plan to travel to the picturesque coastal town of Otranto, just a train ride away, what could possibly go wrong?

A bumpy slow ride to the middle of nowhere

We arrive at the station 15 minutes before departure time, just in time to buy a ticket on the slow Trenitalia ticket machines and run to the platform with a kebab in hand, which Basanta bought on the way as breakfast for 3 euros (fries included). Basanta was pleasantly surprised he could get by using Hindi here, the shops and restaurants were mainly run by immigrants.

Right on arriving at the station, however, I noticed I had committed two serious mistakes: Firstly my phone was less than half charged and my power bank was empty, and secondly, I committed the great sin of global pandemic travel: Not taking a mask, I left it out on swapping things out of my bag a few minutes before leaving the Airbnb, so the travel started with me having to improvise, with something, quick, and all there was available nearby was... Toilet paper.

In a rush of a few minutes, I am in the station toilet, which deserves no comments, ingeniously trying to carve a mask out of half a meter or so of toilet paper, I was never good at handcraft but after some adjustments, I made something that would tie tightly around my face and considering how hard it was to breathe, probably just as effective if not more, then a regular mask at blocking outgoing germs. It was no surprise that the looks of people at me while walking around were... Unique.

Nathan Danzmann the CEO of trippola wearing toilet paper amid the pandemic

The train station of Lecce is small and manages to still be considerably confusing, with the train to Otranto not showing up in any of the electronic departure boards, so I just had to improvise and run through the platforms going up the stairs in each to see (or ask) where the train parked there was headed to. On the very last platform we saw it and confirmed it was the train going to Otranto (or actually not, but that was something we'd find out later).

The Italian train system is kind of a mess by itself, any service that doesn't start with "freccia-", or is not run by private operator Italo, is just a gamble of what kind of thing you'll ride on, and the one to Otranto? Well, it has seen better days... Some 50 years ago.

And no, the inside wasn't much better, but well, I've been in much, much worse, and Otranto is less than 50km away... If it was going to Otranto, but it turns out that due to much-needed maintenance it only goes as far as a small town called Maglie 30km away, and then we should switch for a replacement bus service, but hey, it was one euro.

As soon as we board the train and take a seat this friendly elderly Italian sir came and sat with us, Emmanuel, he was, he could not speak almost any word in English but managed to still tell us all about his life as a farmer in Apulia and how his son now lives in Manchester and something about his worries of the current government, and he didn't seem to mind my custom design mask at all. It is truly amazing how much can be said with not just a few common words, but looks and gestures, and you always find a way to understand each other. Not just friendly characters on board though, as the diesel-powered train rolled the countryside puffing smoke, someone decided to join the train in that activity and lighten up something inside the car! It definitely wasn't a cigarette judging by how it looked like he went straight to wonderland after one puff.

As the conversation came to an end and Emmanuel dropped off on his way, we realized it had been half an hour and we'd be less than halfway, at a speed that could not be higher than 40km/h, we were rolling through the south Italian farmland very, very slowly.

How better way to start off an adventure, other than sloowly rolling through a historical countryside filled with olive tree plantations, cobblestone fences, and houses with a funny conical shaped ceiling, while traveling in something which is in itself a piece of history (although not nearly as well preserved) alongside some farmers and someone on a drug-induced trip to the gods while wearing a truly unique, very effective, almost fashionable, environmentally friendly (bio-degradable!) facemask.

One hour, fifteen minutes, and 30km later we arrive in Maglie, something that looks like a mini version of Lecce, with its own very specific charm. The old baroque houses contrast with the new buildings and roads risen around them, except in the tiny and cute old town, traversable in 10 minutes.

It was just turned noon and the whole population of the city was off for the Pennichella, the south Italian equivalent of Siesta in Spain, the famous nap after lunch, where everything closes down.

After a small stroll through town and a visit to a pharmacy to buy a proper mask, we came back to the half-dilapidated train station to wait for the bus, or that's what we assumed as there was no indication besides a piece of paper glued to the wall with the times of the replacement bus, that was completely different than the times on the website, and after asking an old lady around, she tells us yet another time, in over an hour. We sit, and we wait until a few buses come around, none of them to Otranto, so we do what any sane, logical person would. We hop into one of them headed towards a random direction opposite Lecce that we have never heard of. What could possibly go wrong?

An Amazing Surprise

As the bus strolls through the farmland, much closer to the properties than the train was, not any faster either, but that is never a problem (when I have a proper mask), I like to glue myself to the window and see the different scenery pass close by, with proper respiration, fewer drugs, and no worries, I didn't mind and actually very much enjoyed the slow ride.

By this time my phone battery was considerably low and I wanted to save it for better views, this picture is courtesy of iStockphoto

Suddenly after about half an hour and probably some 20km from Maglie, we are presented by the sea and this beautiful coastal village pops up, Santa Cesarea Terme google maps says, and we decide, let's get out right here.

The small village stretches along the stone coast with a couple of beaches and a beautiful Gruta (Grotto) where a beautiful beach with clear water is located.

Out of lack of pictures from a dying phone battery, here is a stock picture from the other side of the Gruta overviewing the village from iStockPhoto:

It is very fascinating to see these stone structures, such as stairs and walkways, built on the side of the cliffs going around much of the coastline of the village, it certainly is not new, most of it is eroding away which makes me think it is at least 50 years old, probably more, but even if it is as modern as a few decades, it perfectly connects with the general architecture of the entire village, making it look like it was designed with the construction of the town all the way back in the 16th century.

Also, Basanta was looking fly from the straw hat he received from a random guy on the street.

Basanta enjoying the accidental beach discovery

After a very basic lunch in an open-air bar and with no clue where to go and even how to come back, we decide the best course of action to just keep walking down the road along the coast to the next town Castro Marina some 6km to the south.

The village is a bit bigger than Santa Cesarea Terme but still following the same architecture and style, after we walked through the slightly bigger old town with much more and better food options, regretting not stopping here for lunch instead, we reach the central point of the Porto di Enea where people bath in a large natural pool of clear water.

Our long journey should now be approaching the end, it was getting dark and we had to figure out some way to get back to Lecce, which until the present moment we had absolutely no clue of.

No way back? No problem

Naturally, google maps, a local bus company website and the timetable stuck on the wall all heavily disagreed with each other over what time does the bus back to Lecce arrives, the last of the day, which according to one of the sources was already gone, so then our fate of returning was in the hands of a pure gamble.

After 30 minutes and dozens of failed attempts to hitchhike out of there (Pro tip: If you want to hitchhike, make sure there are no global pandemics around) and then, amongst the sea of headlights coming from the dark street behind us, one of them stood out, taller, stronger and heading slower then the rest: A bus, as it got closer we realized we only got ourselves half-lucky, the bus was going to Maglie.

Arrived in Maglie, end of problems? We wish. Now how do we get the other half of the way to Lecce? We checked websites, all of them, although having very diverging timetables, all agreed that the last bus and train had already left, we asked everyone around us and the few that understood said the same thing, well cr*p.

As we went to the previously dead old town, we were surprised to see it absolutely flourishing, with hundreds of young people about, bars and restaurants open everywhere with live music and tables full of laughing Italians. We were starving and stopped in the L'AllegraScottona restaurant where we ate surprisingly delicious plates of barbeque for 5 euros.

As we explained our situation to the extremely friendly waiter working there, he promptly offered to call us a taxi to Lecce, we were a bit not happy with what that would cost but went with it anyway, it's our only option.

After an unsuccessful attempt to call a taxi company the waiter went from table to table asking if anyone was going to Lecce and that we would be willing to pay for it, but even after a lot of effort and going much out of his way to help us, he could not find anyone that was going to Lecce or willing to take us, still, we thanked him from the bottom of our hearts, gave a big tip and went off into the old town.

Excuse the lack of photos as right now all our phones were dead.

Well, it was Friday, the city had sprung with life, we decided to go around into some bars and enjoy it while they were open, maybe get some more help. We met a group of high school friends who were enjoying their last days of vacation before school starts talking all about how they were so eager to leave Maglie and go study university in places like Rome, Milan, Turin, or even other countries, and asking all about us too, how did one Brazilian and one Nepalese end up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere of south Italy.

Although we were having our fun we really needed to charge our phones, so we decided to do both, we'd start going from bar to bar getting one drink, and asking for a charger, if no charger, repeat. After, Uhm... A lot of drinks that neither of us correctly remember how much, and a bit more out of ourselves than we would truly admit to anyone, at past 1 am when the places were starting to close down, on one of the last bars open, the owner had the sacred type-c charger hanging around! It was like seeing a "light at the end of the tunnel", and he even let us stay after he closed down his bar, sharing his very special Rum with us and telling some stories about his life in Maglie and how we grew up and inherited the bar and decided to continue on his father's footsteps and settle in Maglie, like many before him.

Instead of paying 120 euro for a local hotel, we decided we would just stay awake all night, and get the train to Lecce at 6 am, but upon booting my phone for the first time in a few hours and rechecking the website, I stumbled upon a big problem: I had checked the train and bus timetables on Saturday, the day we came in, but on Sunday the earliest transport was at 10 am. So we thought a bit more again and decided upon walking, yes, walking to Lecce, 37 km on the dead of night.

After about 4 hours of walking along the highway, and a few soul-bonding conversations back and forth with my friend, we decided it was enough, by this time we were in Zollino, another tinier village about 20km from Lecce, we could no longer walk, it as 6 am, the sun was bright, and we decided to go to the city center, have a coffee, and just sleep in a bench in the park until 10 to get a train back to Lecce. As we were in the cafe, we explained our story to the barista, very briefly, we were tired even to speak, and he said "that guy right there is a taxi driver, he can take you to Lecce", oh damn.

So here we are, arrived back from a "quick trip to the sea", tired of a sleepless night, with aching feet, broke and hungry, and with a hell of a story to tell. Oh and about 6 hours to sleep, we had a train to Venice!

Was it all worth it?

The first thing that would come to mind is that this was absolutely insane, and it surely ruined an entire day of vacation if not the whole trip, while reading this article one may even think that throughout the day we were pissed, disappointed, and feeling like we were the unluckiest people on Earth, how could this happen to us?

NO, and I cannot stress this enough, this was an amazing adventure, and if everything had worked out exactly well from the very beginning, this would have been a nice normal vacation day, but I remember it as an epic adventure filled with twists and turns that just keeps on giving. We travel according to our philosophy of adhering to the Minimalistic Travel Lifestyle and Optimistic Nihilism. This means that we are mentally ready to embrace all of life's experiences and make most of the moment, do our very best to turn the stress of things going out of control, into opportunities for new life adventures. Of course, it is not for everyone, but we recommend everyone to at least try out this philosophy that can change not just travels but every aspect of life.


Nathan Danzmann

Still round the corner, there may wait, a new road or secret gate - J.R.R.Tolkien