It’s time to leave Rome. Escaping big cities is always the tricky part. I have the Hitchwiki directions on a piece of paper, but somehow we get lost on step two and find ourselves surrounded by fields and small villages. The first rule of hitchhiking: there’s no such thing as stranded. I stick out my thumb and the third car stops. This wonderful elderly couple type our service station road name into their GPS and drive us straight there. “He’s a gentleman,” the woman says, smiling as we thank the man profusely and step through the turnstile gate, ignoring the “no entry” sign as directed by Hitchwiki.
The bus out of Rome was packed full of people and it’s not ’til I go to pay for a coffee that I realise my wallet is gone. €70, three cash cards, pictures of friends and my Euopean Health Card, gone. Memories of a faint suspiscion about the man next to me come flooding back. Why did I not zip my bag up? Fool! I kick myself for being so stupid and steal myself a massive bar of hazelnut chocolate to cheer myself up. I hope whoever it was really, really, really needed that money.
Now we’re at the service station things are easier, at least where lifts are concerned. A party of fully-grown-men-scouts take us to just outside Caserta, but the place they drop us is small, out of the way and full of police and Carabinieri. Since hitching is supposed to be illegal in Italy we have to use even more stealth than usual, sidling up to people and muttering “mi scusi…dove e diretto…” under our breath. It’s another hour or more before a man takes pity on us and drives us completely out of his way to the train station in Caserta, where Valentina and her dreadlocked boyfriend Antonio are waiting patiently in their car.
I first met Valentina eight years ago while looking for a map in Alicante. The Tourist Office denied they had one, despite me asking nicely in my best Spanish. So when I saw a girl emerge from the same Tourist Office brandishing a map not ten minutes later, I marched over to her and demanded to know how she got it. Somehow this was the beginning of a friendship and Vale, an Italian Erasmus student who had just arrived in the city, spontaneously accompnied me to Valencia for three days a couple of days later. We lost touch over the last six years, but fortunately she kept the same email address and I remembered she had last said she was living in Naples. Well, it’s Caserta now actually, a smaller city very close by.
We’ve only just managed to squeeze in our visit as they’re flying out to Morrocco tomorrow, but we still have time to hang out and catch up. They take us to their small local social centre, Mille Piani. Antonio plays cards at the counter while the rest of us check emails and I ask a friend back home to cancel the cards that were stolen on our way out of Rome.
In the morning they drop us at the station on their way to the airport and for once we pay for a bus – only €1.30 all the way to Naples.
We’ve been hearing all about Naples’ rubbish problem from several of our lifts. They aren’t kidding – giant piles of trash have built up on every street corner. Apparently it’s the Mafia that are to blame – crazy to think there’s a lucrative underworld waste collection racket. I tat myself a really nice green woolly jumper, but it’s wet and adds extra weight to my load, which is heavy enough already being lugged all over Naples on foot the whole day in search of squats, couchsurfers or some other place to sleep. Our search continues up and down the smelly, chaotic streets until it’s dark and late and we’re completely exhausted. A friend of Vale’s texts me to say the Faculty of Arts was occupied by the students today and if we like, we can sleep there.
The students have occupied the University in preperation for a demonstration they’re having the following day. We spend the night in a lecture theatre, transformed into a cinema for the night. City of God plays loudly in Italian ’til the early hours. Not a lot of sleep, but at least we’re warm and dry.
We came to Naples primarily because David wanted to see Pompeii and Vesuvius, but after all the walking yesterday, the sleepless night, the improbablility of finding a new place to sleep and given it’s now torrentially raining, we decide to get the hell out of Napoli a.s.a.p.
For once Hitchwiki is no help at all, the only directions are for hitching North and we want to go South-East. We do our own research on the lecture theatre computers and find a petrol station on the peripheral road. It’s a hell of a job to get there, but we arrive tired and soggy after wading through undergrowth, climbing through a fence and crossing two lanes of a motorway.
It takes a long time to find a lift and when we do the guy turns out to be a nut job and drops us in the worst possible place imaginable – a Telepass office almost right on the motorway with hardly any cars outside. What we should do is shout and scream at him to take us somewhere better, but instead we thank him politely and get out of the car, stunned that anyone could possibly think of dropping us here. Nobody’s going our way, of course, but after some amount of waiting another man takes pity on us and drives us out of his way and through a toll to the next service station. This one’s also small, but we manage to get a lift all the way to Brindisi with the manager of Pfizer in his business hire car. He’s very nice, despite working for a really evil company. This has been something of a theme for us: generosity from nice men with evil jobs.
Brindisi was a popluar tourist resort some years back, but now this small harbour town is apparently much less visited, especially now in the off-season. Still, it’s not that cheap and again we can’t find a couchsurfer, despite Pete emailing twenty-seven of them for us from back home. We spend the night on a cafe patio by the harbour, lying behind a stack of chairs. Again we sleep little. Ships are very loud.
The boat to Greece isn’t ’til 6pm. A nice woman out walking her dog lets us store our bags at her grandmother’s place for a few hours so we can explore the city freely. It’s small and there’s not much to see, but it’s warm and nice enough with palm trees and cobbled streets.
The boat is fourteen hours from Brindisi to Patras, in Greece. We’re kicked out of the posh seats and directed to the “Pullman Seats” – the area for plebs like us. This room is uncarpeted, with chairs in rows that don’t lean all the way back and a 24 hour television, which at least is turned down during the night - a step up from the university cinema.
We paid for the boat in the end. After the night we had we were getting lazy and couldn’t find where the trucks parked up, to ask for this potentially mythical spare ticket the truck owners are given. My friend Sma has since hitched this boat from Bari and written it up on Hitchwiki, but she still had to pay €15. David managed to get a student discount on ours, making them €36 each including €10 for the dubious sounding “port tax”. Still, it’s not bad for a fourteen hour journey, warm place to sleep and a hot shower in the morning.
We wave goodbye to Italy from the deck with wine, beer and tapas under a fake rush umbrella. A bit cold for the pool unfortunately and it’s got no water in anyway. We lay our mats down the isle at the back of the Pullman Seats and it’s a good night’s sleep after all.
Crossing a border by sea always feels more significant, a bigger step. My first glimpse of Greece is islands floating past the boat in the morning: mountains emerge from silver-blue sea as rays of light slit through clouds and hit the water. We’re approaching Patras and there’s blue sky above it.
The directions for escaping Bologna on Hitchwiki look fairly challenging:
“Take the bus to Casalecchio… change the bus… walk 200 metres until you reach the fences… Normally you can’t enter the service station… fences you can’t cross… a little parking lot of the service station staff… ring there and maybe they will open… If not, at the service station on the other side… a little hole in the fence… Crossing the motorway… a bit difficult… under the motorway through the building site, but it is muddy… easier to get off the bus one stop before it crosses the motorway… inside the service station, you can cross the motorway easily. Enter the building and go upstairs to the restaurant. .. down on the other side of the motorway. Attention: You are not able to cross the motorway in the morning… the restaurant is closed. But if you have luck, the barmen will help you.”
Blimey. Well, we’re up for it. Our first lift turns out to be our host Diana, who works in Casalecchio, so we only have to hop one short bus ride to the edge of the city. Here we find something Hitchwiki didn’t mention: there’s a trainline between us and the service station. We manage to find our way through allotments, clamber first over the trainline, then the ditch on the other side. Nobody ever said hitchhiking was glamorous! Now we’re outside the service station, AKA Fortnox – there’s a giant fence running all around it. We find our way to the gate Hitchwiki mentions and when some workers turn up in a van, I ask if they might let us in? The man wags his finger at me aggressively, “no, no, no, tutututut.” Great. Now what?
We walk around the perimeter, looking for an opening or lower fence. One part is a possible last-resort clamber which I’m not looking forward to, but then we find… some steps leading up to a small open gate! We walk up the steps and into the service area, grinning inanely and wondering how many poor unwitting hitchhikers have clambered over that wall. Must make sure to update Hitchwiki…
Inside the Autogrill I buy a coffee and ask the man I share a table with where he’s going. Turns out he’s going a good way in our direction and agrees to take us to Prato. Here we’re picked up by The Rock ‘n’ Roll Vicar (my words, not his). He’s not really a vicar, but he sings in churches throughout Italy and Spain. I speak Spanish with him and we listen to Lynrd Skynrd and Janis Joplin on the way to Orviedo, where our paths diverge. Our next lift is an economist. He’s soon to fly to Manchester for one day to watch a football match. He doesn’t want to see the city though, he tells us, only the football.
He takes us right inside the perimeter of Rome, but drops us at another Autogrill. We do a bit of table-diving (chips mostly) and find our last lift with six trainee priests in a minibus, all in their mid-twenties and on their way to the Vatican to meet another set of trainees for dinner. I sit in the back next to “Luigi”, who speaks good English. He lowers his voice when he says he initially had doubts about living such a controlled life, constantly obeying another’s orders. “But now I think it’s ok”, he adds. David had asked how he came to this path. “For love,” he says softly, “I wanted more love and now I have found love with Jesus which I can share with others… Perhaps you too will find your path,” he adds. “Oh, I don’t think so,” David replies. “But maybe…” “Hm.”
They drop us near the Cathedral and we find our way to the metro and over to our Couchsurfing host. I’m looking forward to meeting this Buddhist-Anarchist-cycling-enthusiast, if his CS profile is anything to go by.
We sit down on the bed exhausted while our host procedes to tell us all about Buddhism, the type of Buddhism he practices and it’s history, all unprompted. He opens up a shrine on the cupboard and and tells us what each part means, talks us through the printed parchment and repeatedly announces how simple and open his type of Buddhism is – not like those other types that won’t allow women or scholars to become enlightened, no – this Buddhism is for everyone. David and I watch him speak, bleary eyed. “Wow, I’m really tired,” I attempt during a pause. He nods briefly, and continues…
We agree to go to a Buddhist meeting the following night, politely declining the one this evening on account of how very tired we are. David manages to change the topic to Anarchism and asks about social centres, resulting in a tyrade about how he has tried to push the local couchsurfers into meeting in one of them, but they just won’t listen. “When you see the place,” he tells us, “you will agree with me.” “I’m sure we will,” says David and we change the topic to cycling. Now we hear about the many bike kitchens in the city and the Critical Mass on Friday, for which he kindly offers to lend us some bikes. There will also be a potluck at one of the bike kitchens tomorrow. “I’ve never met such a pushy Buddhist!” David whispers when we finally get left to sleep.
Our host has agreed we can stay for two nights, but we want to stay in Rome longer, so our first priority is finding a new place to stay. We borrow a bike each and cross the city through crazy traffic in search of a couple of social centres. Ex Snia is closed, but we meet two men there who direct us to Forte Prenestino, the second and more infamous place I’ve heard about.
It really is an occupied fort, complete with moat and warren of underground tunnels. We find the gate open and some people hanging out inside the entrance tunnel. One of the girls speaks English. I explain our sitauation and she says she’ll ask for us. She tells us to take ourselves on a tour and then come and find her again.
The place is amazing – tunnels and doors everywhere, covered in thirty years worth of graffiti, posters and art. There’s a cinema, cafe, bar, tea salon, infoshop, wine bar, massage parlour, theatre and a yard with lots of live-in vehicles. Memories of Pete and Princess bring a lump to my throat, I wish he was here to share this.
We find the girl again who says yes, we can stay for two nights – three at most. I’m so excited I hug her. She smiles and shows us to our room – down a tunnel, past a robot and up into a tower, is a small prison cell painted white with two single beds, neatly laid out – our own room – wow!
The girl has lived here for six years, the man who is accompanying us, twenty. Forte Prenestino has been occupied for almost thirty years. I wonder how many police hours have been spent puzzling over how to evict a fort?
We go upstairs to meet our neighbours, a Spanish girl and American guy, free travellers like ourselves. We share stories a while before the long cycle ride back to our host. I’ve already decided I want to stay at the fort tonight, even though we have one night left with him. We go to his place first to collect our bags and let him know, then jump the metro to the potluck, where friendly bike-enthusiasts welcome us like personal guests and ply us with red wine. A “Bike Kitchen” turns out to be a D.I.Y. bike-maintenance workshop, much like Cranks in Brighton.
Forte Prenestino is a squatted community, but strangely commercial. A meal in the cafe costs up to €6, a beer isn’t much below standard price, a cup of tea in the salon is €1.50… but they are letting us stay for free and they’re all very friendly. For sure I would stay here again.
Apart from Forte Prenestino and the bike kitchens, I feel like a big fat tourist in Rome. David and I visit the Colloseum (it’s very big) and the Palatina and Foro Romano ruins. I’ve always had a thing for ruins and ancient Roman ruins are really something to get excited about. I have the strange experience of watching an enormous communist demonstration from up in the Colloseum. A communist march and helicoptors in ancient Rome – how surreal!
Following the directions on Hitchwiki we get the number 6 bus off Venice isalnd and navigate our way to the service station, despite mis-spellings of several roads.
We’re both nervous about hitching in Italy. It’s illegal to hitch on the motorway, and this extends to petrol stations and service areas. But it’s ok and despite some surprised expressions and a few rude people who just ignore us completely, most people are friendly. After repeating our now well-learned mantra “Mi scusi, dove e diretto Bologna?” seemingly several hundred times to bemused drivers, we get a ride first to a bigger service station 10km away, then in two seperate cars to another, 5km short of Bologna. Here we reconvene, much to the astonishment of the women from David’s lift, who can’t understand how he could possibly have met up with a friend from Britain in a seemingly random service station. I drink a coffee and David table-dives some chips, then we get a lift together with a father and his young teenage son to the railway station in Bologna.
Unlike Venice, here we come prepared with written directions to a couchsurfers house. Diana greets us at the door, “Welcome, this is your home.” She reiterates this as she shows us around. “This is your home – do as you like, don’t ask for anything. There is not much food, but what there is you can eat it. Here are your keys…” She hands them to us and puts the kettle on. “Ah, you’re one of those couchsurfing hosts!” I hug her thanks and kiss her cheek. We sit together on sofa and floor cushions, discuss travels, politics and love. I make pasta, Diana opens some wine and we continue chatting until midnight.
In the morning Diana has to work early before I get up. I take advantage of the spacious living room and that gap of time alone before David gets up to practice some yoga. I realise I need some space.
We travel by bus together to the city centre and hunt down Tourist Information to precure some maps before going our seperate ways for the day.
Bologna is very orange. It’s nickname is apparently “La Rossa” (The Red One), referring to the colour, but also the citiy’s Socialist reputation after World War II. I don’t think it’s red. It’s orange. The historic centre has some beautiful (orange and yellow) architecture, but otherwise I find the city unremarkable. I feel this is good – I need to be somewhere unremarkable for the moment, take time for myself without the push and pull of tourist urges.
Writing my diary in a vegetarian (and fish) cafe, I’m interrupted by a Nigerian man trying to sell me a pair of socks and asking if I might buy him a coffee. I refuse politely and explain I’m a hitchhiker, travelling cheap. He wishes me well on my journey and leaves. Then I feel ridiculous, and mean. The guy only wants a coffee. How many people give me lifts, buy me coffee, feed and house me out of generosity? I go out and look for him, but he’s already out of sight.
I meet David and Diana at the “Anarchic Circle”, inside one of the city gates at Santa Stefano. There are two social centres, including Atlantide, which I had already heard of. They’re opposite one another, either side of the place where the gate once stood: old buildings with Roman columns, very impressive – but closed. This is becoming a theme for us. We go in search of other social centres, directed by a group of older generation anarchists, who tell us the younger ones are harder to find these days as they’ve had problems with “diggers” – undercover intelligence gathering police. They tell us the best place to go is Xm24, so we cross the city to get there.
It’s like some kind of old hangar, covered in graffiti and dogs. A punk gig is about to start downstairs and a crusty of indeterminate gender is asleep with their head on a table. Ah yes, this feels much more like home. We drink a beer at the table and listen to the punk through the floor, begrudging paying the €4 entry fee, though actually it sounds really good. Suddenly it’s midnight, time to jump the last bus home.
Tuesday we planned to go to Rome, but at 2am Monday night we still don’t have a couch there. This combined with a late night and late morning means postponing the 400km hitch for the following day.
Walking into town I see a familiar face: it’s the Nigerian man from yesterday. We greet one another like old friends and I apologise for not buying him a coffee. I offer him one now, but he’s already taken two today and says if he has another then he won’t sleep. He hints subtly and with astonishing politeness, humility and tact that he would actually like some money – without directly asking. I give him a euro, feeling slightly ridiculous as it’s such a small amount. We chat a while. He asks about my travels and I ask how it is for Nigerians in Italy. He says there are many of them, just getting by. Things are difficult without documents. Well, I already noticed that – in Italy it’s illegal even to use the internet without identification. We speak about Schengen and fingerprints. He wants to get papers here and then a visa for England. He thinks England won’t see his fingerprints because it’s not in Schengen. I’m sorry to inform him otherwise. “Shit shit shit, oh fuck!” I’m so sorry. We talk some more and he says goodbye. I wish him luck, sad to think he’s going to need it.
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