The Milano train station at 6 a.m. is quiet, and my train for Bari, a primary port on the Adriatic Sea, doesn’t leave until 7:35. So I find a spot to sit. Unfortunately, the only place I can find is Smokers’ Corner, so I periodically have to put up with tobacco, the Indians’ Revenge.
As rush hour approaches, the station starts to get busy and I move to where I can see the schedule to find out the platform where I’ll board. I notice a black man, carrying a large bag, as he keeps traipsing around a circle of his own making. Then he puts down his bag, next to a light pole, and goes back to his circling. By now there are a lot of commuters coming and going.
Suddenly the black man starts hollering as he walks, his comments in a dialect that only he understands. The other schedule watchers start watching him as well. A passing policeman, typical of Italian officialdom, studiously ignores him.
Finally, my train shows up on the schedule and I make my way to Platform 12. I’m in seat 54, car 2. I find car 2, but its seat numbers stop at 32. So I plop down in the nearest empty seat and stow my bags overhead.
As we pull out, four train officials claim the spots across the aisle and another passenger, also unable to find his reserved seat, questions them. They wave him off – “Don’t bother us with your problem.” So I stay put since the car is not crowded and plenty of seats are available.
But as we get closer to Bologna, the train gains more commuters at each stop. I have to move twice as passengers claim my seat. At least I’m able to stay in the vicinity of my bags so I don’t have to pull them down and then put them somewhere else.
East of Bologna the crowd thins as we speed through vineyards toward the Adriatic. At Ancona, we turn south and head down the coast. The towns are beach escapes, some with sleek new resort hotels, others with older, funkier facilities. Blue sky, blue sea, palms swaying in the breeze – interesting ride, until all the towns start to blur together.
I’m scheduled to catch a ferry at Bari, an overnighter for Patras, Greece, with stops in Corfu and Igoumenitsa, at 10 p.m. The train is scheduled to arrive at Bari at 3:35 p.m. We make it at about 6, during a downpour. I’m beginning to understand the contention that Mussolini was popular in Italy solely because he made the trains run on time. And I’m glad I’ve got until 10 p.m.
At the port, I don’t have to worry with Italian officialdom – there isn’t any. Nor signs. But there are a large number of wet motorcyclists, apparently together and heading for Patras, too. With the help of the ferry folks, I find my way to customs and the ship. Pulling my bag, dodging puddles and tractor-trailer trucks pulling up into the boat, I make it aboard and am shown my room.
The facilities are nice, much better than I expected for a ferry. But, I soon discover, the smokers have the run of the ship, and most of the bikers are smokers. The bikers, male and female, are Harley-Davidson riders, sporting gear with home club information on the back. They are from Poland, Sweden, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark.
In the dining room cafeteria line, I opt for pastitsia, the Greek pasta casserole, and a salad. The servings are huge. Not paying attention to signage, I sit down in a section marked “Welcome Truckers” and soon find myself in conversation with a German driver from Hanover on his way to Kalamata, Greece, with a load of furniture. Our neighbors are two Dutch drivers and five guys from Romania. All have massive plates of fries that they cover with massive amounts of mayonnaise. The bikers display similar culinary tastes.
The German speaks fair English, and translates for the other guys, all of whom speak some German. I ask why they drive through Italy and take the ferry across instead of traveling through the Balkans. The answer is quick – it’s less expensive because they don’t have to stop every 100 kilometers and pay a bribe, which they tell me is the norm through the Balkans.
When the others return to their fries and mayo, the German confides that he only does this about once a month, that he’s old enough to retire. Then, with a wink, he adds, “I have reasons not to stay at home.”
After the German takes his bottle of wine and retires, and the bikers get heavily into their cigarettes and Carlsbergs, I return to my stateroom and hit the sack, sleeping through Corfu and Igoumenitsa and only waking as we maneuver into port at Patras the next morning. Three days and three countries, by train and by boat.