Dear fellow travellers
This year, many of our travels have focused on ports. We have criss-crossed Europe from Calais to Cádiz, from Travemünde to Taranto. We sat under the cranes on the quayside of Bari, still as popular today with pilgrims from Russia as it was one hundred years ago. The Orthodox faithful come to venerate the remains of St Nicholas, just as they did in the days of the tsars. We stood amid the anglers at Kiel as huge ferries bound for Norway or Lithuania edged out from their berths. We gazed down from the castello as the ferry packed with day trippers slipped sluggishly into the harbour at Portofino.
Oceans and quays, slow boats and fast ferries, tramp ships and cruise liners, sea breezes and trade winds, charts and compasses have all helped shape the cultures and coastal landscapes of maritime Europe.
These details are lost on Doug, an Englishman who wanders the streets of Taranto with his dog and a two-litre box of the cheapest red wine. Doug cannot remember how he washed up in the Italian city. Nor does the dog. The point is that they are there, and Taranto is home. A lot of folk have, over the centuries, made Taranto their home port. To the Greeks it was Taras, to the Romans it was Tarentum.
"Watch out for the spiders," Doug slurred as we passed him (for the third time within an hour) on our way into the Old Town. Ah, yes, those spiders. Tarantulas and Taranto go together. But we saw no spiders, nor did we witness feverish displays of wild dancing in the shadowy alleys and piazzas of the Old Town. The convulsions of the tarantella are hardly an everyday feature of life around the jumble of houses on the island where lies the heart of the city of Taranto. The island is linked at either end to mainland promontories, so the only real convulsion is the traffic. A stream of speeding cars swirls east on the south side of the island. Walk just a minute or two to the north for the noisy contraflow and exhaust trails that define the other side of the island.
What a comedown for the classical city that was once one of the most distinguished ports of the Mediterranean. The historic Old Town, housed on a fragment of land that is perhaps a kilometre long and just 200 metres wide, is reduced to a traffic island. No surprise, perhaps, that the majority of the residents of the ancient quarter have long since moved away. Life in the new city, on the mainland to the east, is altogether more civilised. There, on the stylish Via d'Aquino, well-dressed couples browse the shops. Elderly ladies meet for coffee and cake at the Caffè Italiano, while naval cadets spend a precious afternoon of shore leave with their girlfriends on the sunny lungomare.
Two thirds of the buildings on the island are now abandoned, many in a woeful state of disrepair. And the civic authorities are trying to coax people back into that historic centre of the city. The university is a beacon of enlightenment amid the urban decay. There are a handful of churches where Holy Mass is still celebrated every day. Now a couple of hotels have opened, and travellers who venture to them will find an impoverished and dilapidated townscape that recalls the southern Italy of times long past. Only the distant roar of traffic brings a reminder that this is 2012. It makes for an eerie conjunction of old and new.
There is a timelessness to many ports across Europe and more widely. Ancient Smyrna on the Anatolian coast of the Aegean morphs into modern Izmir. Historic Syracuse was claimed as home by many peoples over the centuries. And that's the appeal of Taranto. Like so many ports, it reveals a convergence of new and old. Natives and foreigners mingle and tolerate each other. Ports allow space for history, and they give space to the outsider - even for Doug who doesn't remember why he's here in Taranto.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)