Sunday 3 September 2017
Today was the day. Today was the day that would make or break The Eurodyssey Challenge.
If I was to stand any chance of setting this Guinness World Record I had to get from Valletta in Malta to the city of Bari on the back of Italy’s shin in just 17 hours. A ferry was scheduled to leave for the port of Durres in Albania at 23:00.
The odds were not in my favour. Google reckons that the journey takes 11 and a half hours… and that’s driving. It doesn’t even have an option for public transport. Oh, and did I mention it was a Sunday? Cos it was a Sunday.
This meant, amongst other things, that the options for getting around were severely limited.
First up, as bonkers as this might sound considering a ferry arrives every Sunday morning from Malta, there was no train from the port of Pozzallo up the coast to Syracuse or Catania… only a bus that left at 8:30am. The ferry was scheduled to arrive at 8:15am. I was praying that it came in on time.
There was also no bus going direct from the toe of Italy over to the east coast. Not one.
Getting to Bari would have to be the bodgiest of bodge jobs. And so it was.
STAGE ONE: From Valletta to Pozzallo
I was up at 5am to say my goodbyes to Cricket. She had been remarkable this whole journey; keeping me grounded, helping out in all manner of situations, helping pay for everything, coming up with ideas when the schedule went out of the window. I had one rule for somebody coming along with me on the journey – they were not to slow me down. Cricket actually sped me up – if it wasn’t for her I might not have even made it this far. I couldn’t have wished for a better travel buddy.
But alas, now it was time to bid our farewells. Cricket would remain in Malta before heading back to her native land of America. It was fair enough – when I proposed the journey I had it in my head that it could be done in just 2 weeks. 18 days was pushing things, anything more than that would be right out.
Nevertheless, our 18 days had elapsed and I still had 3 more countries to visit.
The nice man behind the desk at the hostel had ordered me an excruciatingly overpriced taxi (Valletta slaps a massive congestion charge on vehicles in the old town, so I was more understanding than I usually am in these situations), so I got to the port with a good half-hour to spare.
Onto the ferry for the return leg of a journey I had taken just 6 hours earlier.
The ferry was supposed to arrive at Pozzallo at 8:15am. But by 8:30am, thanks to some particularly choppy water, we still hadn’t come into port. I had well and truly missed the bus.
The only plan I could come up with was to get in a taxi when we arrived and chase the bus up to the town of Noto, where it was scheduled to arrive around 9:15am. My Italian buddy Simone Cannizzo organised a taxi to be waiting at the port for me, the driver being informed of what I was trying to do.
By 8:50am the ferry had come alongside, but they were letting the first class passengers off first. The rest of us just had to wait. I really wished I had paid that extra fiver.
At 9am, my crazy plan for racing up to Noto went from “unlikely” to “impossible”. I was still on the ferry.
But then my phone pinged. It was the indefatigable Alex Hanyok, my backpacking buddy from America. She had been helping out behind the scenes for much of the journey, with revision after revision of the journey planning spreadsheet – and in my hour of need, she didn’t let me down. Despite it being godknows-o’clock in the New World, she found a bus that ran from the town of Ragusa to Catania.
Ragusa is only 16 miles from Pozzallo, so taking a taxi there would be within the rules. The bus left at 10am and arrived around noon. All I needed to do was to get off this damn ferry…
At 9:01am the stewardess opened the door and I raced out onto the quayside.
STAGE TWO: From Pozzallo to Ragusa
I was running towards the port authority building when a security guy ordered me to “fermare!” I did as I was told. They were letting the trucks off the ferry, and for some reason the trucks had priority (pesky truckers). So I had to wait at the side of the road (rather impatiently, as you might imagine) while a bunch of lorries trundled past. Eventually I got out of the damn port and met up with my taxi driver, who was waiting with my name written on a sign (which is super cool). He had been waiting for me for the best part of an hour. I apologised profusely.
My driver, whose name was Salvatore, was tremendously understanding. He told me he had a better option: he had to go to Catania anyway as he was picking up some fares from the airport, if I wanted to go straight there he’d take me for half the cost.
It was a great deal. However, it was also against the rules. No more than 50km in a taxi. Pozzallo to Catania is over double that. So we stuck with the original (revised) plan. Happily, we got to Ragusa with 10 minutes to spare. I bought my ticket to Catania and waited for my bus.
STAGE THREE: From Ragusa to Catania
The bus left bang on time and would get me into Catania for noon. Catania is Sicily’s second biggest city so I knew there’d be loads of buses running up to Messina and over to mainland Italy.
While on the bus I plotted the rest of the day’s journey with Simone and Alex. Alex had found a bus running from a place called Sibari (on the bay that separates Italy’s heel from its toes) to Bari. It left at 19:40 and was scheduled to arrive at 22:00. I was meant to be at the port an hour before the 23:00 departure of the ferry to Albania, but I figured that so long as I didn’t muck about getting to the boat from the coach station, I should just make it by the skin of my teeth. I was warned that this bus often sells out, and when I looked on the website there was only one seat left, so I bought it straight away.
However, getting to Sibari for 19:40 wasn’t going to be easy. There was nothing direct, my best hope was a bus that Simone found going from Catania, which crossed the Strait of Messina on a car ferry and then drove up to a place called Tarsia. The bus left Catania at 1.30pm and was scheduled to arrive in Tarsia around 7:20pm. Sibari is only 30km from Tarsia so I could take a taxi. But (and there’s always a but), the road was said to be dreadful. There was little chance I would make it, even if the bus was bang on time. But Simone had a plan. Before getting to Tarsia, the bus was scheduled to make a stop at a place called Hotel Ferramonti, just off the side of the freeway. It was almost equidistant to Sibari, and it was scheduled to get there at 7pm. That would just – just! – get me to Sibari in time for the 7.40pm bus to Bari, with 8 minutes of leeway.
If there were any holdups whatsoever on the five and a half hour journey from Catania to Tarsia (and don’t forget there was a whopping great ferry ride in the middle of it) I was screwed. Furthermore, the bus from Sibari to Bari was non-stop. If I missed it, there’d be no “catching up before the next town” malarkey.
Oh, and I was told that the road I’d be taking from San Giovanni (where the ferry arrives from Sicily) to Tarsia has been notoriously “under construction” since the 70s.
Nevertheless, I asked Simone to book the taxi.
STAGE FOUR: From Catania to Messina
I had a couple of hours to kill in Catania, so I found myself a little cafe and enjoyed a pastry in the cool (it was pushing the high thirties outside) and a coffee while I plotted my route onwards from Durres. If all went to plan, I’d be getting in the following morning, then taking a bus to Thessaloniki in Greece, the overnight bus to Istanbul, then the earliest possible bus down to Silifke, arriving just in time to take the midnight ferry from nearby Taşucu over to Cyprus, arriving Wednesday morning. Iceland to Cyprus in less than three weeks via every country in Europe, without flying. Job’s a good’un.
By 1.30pm I was on the bus to Tarsia. With the rest of the day’s transportation out of my hands (for now), I took the opportunity to breathe in the magnificence of Sicily. I’ve been here before, the first time was when my good friends Chris and Debbie got married in Taormina back in 2007. Aside from the big day (which was fab, by the way, if you’re going to bother getting married, a holiday with all your mates, pizzas and a pool party are the way to go, trust me on this), I got to explore the place, climbing Mount Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, and driving all the way from one coast to the other. And I have to say this island is just absolutely magical. Plus Cinema Paradiso was set here and it’s one of my favourite movies of all time. What’s not to love?
STAGE FIVE: From Messina to San Giovanni
The bus arrived in the town of Messina around 3pm. My worry at the time was the the ferry only ran every 40 minutes, so if we missed it, we might be waiting ages for the next one. But fear not dear reader! By 3:15pm we were on the ferry HURRAH! I got off the bus, went for a piss, and by the time I got up on deck we were already halfway back to Italy. It wasn’t quite as exciting as last time as I wasn’t on a train. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the cool breeze up on deck. Although I often claim to hate being at sea, there’s a part of me that secretly loves it.
STAGE SIX: From San Giovanni to Hotel Ferramonti
The journey off the ferry to Hotel Ferramonti could really have not gone any smoother. I checked Google maps at 18:40 and we were exactly 20 minutes away from the hotel. Still, I was rather anxious (and that’s putting it mildly). But I need not have worried! The bus arrived at EXACTLY 7pm! I couldn’t believe it.
STAGE SEVEN: From Hotel Ferramonti to Sibari
I jumped off the bus and straight into the waiting taxi. My driver’s name was Siro. He drove like a goddamn maniac and by 7:27pm we were coming into Sibari… but what’s this?! A queue of traffic? GODDAMN IT. It was a level crossing, god knows where the train was going. Not Bari, I knew that for sure. Not to worry, by 7.30pm I was at the bus and train station. EXCELLENT.
STAGE EIGHT: From Sibari to Bari
After all that, the bus was late. I grabbed myself a kebab and a Coke from the van parked up outside the station, sat on the kerb at the side of the road and waited. It finally rolled into the station at 8pm.
With the bus being so late getting into Sibari, I was on tenterhooks the whole journey. Every second counted. Every time we stopped or even slowed down, my heart was in my mouth. I watched pretty much the whole journey unfold via Google Maps on my phone, obsessively checking the ETA over and over.
The bus arrived at 10:15pm. Check-in closed at 10:30pm. The port was ten minutes drive away. I could make this. I could actually make it!
THERE WERE NO TAXIS.
This was highly unusual. Bari is a big city. A lot of people got off the bus. Where did they all go? I kicked myself for not asking Simone to order me a taxi so there’d be one waiting. I just kinda assumed that there’d be taxis. I mean, Bari is a city of over 300,000 people for heaven’s sake.
The daytime heat had given way to nighttime drizzle, lending a steaming quality to the city streets, and also making me sweat like a chump. I felt like a chump. I started walking down the road towards the port, scanning all around for a nice bright yellow taxi light, but there was nothing. I started to jog. I saw what could be a taxi, but it was a police car. Five minutes had gone by. I started to RUN.
There! There – a taxi. At the side of the road. I made my way over to it, but the driver took one look at me and tore off.
This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.
I’ve come so far, I’ve done so much.
I was clever, I was resourceful, I had my friends helping me, I was lucky.
Well yeah, it looks like my luck just had run out.
It was 10:30pm.
A lit taxi drove by on the opposite side of the wide city street. I whistled. It didn’t stop.
I made my way on foot towards the port, carrying my backpack and all my gear. I finally got a taxi at 10:55. I was already so close to the port that the journey took two minutes. The bastard taxi driver charged me €15 for the privilege. The f***er.
I got into the terminal building at 11pm. People were boarding. Ferries never leave on time. There was a chance. I held my ticket up on my phone.
“You need to check in.”
“Out and to your left.”
I ran. There was nothing there. NOTHING. There was a whopping great big ferry boat though. I ran along the the wire fence to the boom gate, 800 metres away, where the cars and lorries clamber aboard. The guy at the gate told me I had gone the wrong way. I should have turned right. A port official in a tiny Fiat took pity on me and drove me to the check-in area. It was a good kilometre away. I always seem to forget just how big ports are.
The check-in area was a series of container-offices set out in a horse-shoe configuration. Each ferry company had its own office. The only one with the light still on was the company that ran the ferry to Albania.
Two big guys inside, laughing and smoking, speaking loudly in Albanian.
“I need to check in!” I pleaded, all puppy-dog eyes.
“We closed 45 minutes ago.”
“I have a ticket.”
“The boat is still there – they say it doesn’t leave until midnight… it’s still loading cars! Please! I’ll pay extra.”
The guy sighed. “I’m very sorry. It’s not us, it’s the system” he said, pointing at his computer. “I can’t put passengers on the ship now, the system won’t let me.”
“Okay. I understand” I said, screaming internally.
Shoulders slumped, I turned to face the rain.
STAGE NINE: From Despair to Where
One of the things that buoyed me up when things went wrong on The Odyssey Expedition (which they did a lot) was the fact that nobody had done it before. So really, it didn’t matter how long the damn thing took, so long as I finished it within a reasonable timeframe. The record still stands, because it’s damn hard to beat.
There would be ferries to Albania or Greece the next day, I knew that. But the ferry from Turkey to Cyprus: that didn’t go every day. If I had made the ferry tonight, I would have (fairly) easily got to Cyprus by Wednesday morning. Now, it would be Friday morning. A good 3 weeks and 1 day after I began the challenge.
A record that would patently not be damn hard to beat.
But what could I do? So many wonderful people had helped fund this challenge, so many people had helped me on my way, so many people had believed me when I had said that I can do it.
I couldn’t give up now. I had to finish what I had started, or else I’d be left with a gnawing feeling that I had let everybody down. And, genuinely, who knows? I invented this world record, nobody has claimed it yet, maybe I’ll get it anyway.
I walked around the beautiful white stone old town of Bari looking for a place to stay the night. I tried a dozen different hostels and guest houses that I found on the internet. I walked for a good couple of miles, round in circles in the old town. It was quite tricky finding these places, most had a tiny sign the size of a postcard to indicate that they were anything other than a private residence. Blink and you’ll miss it. I knocked on doors, I rang phone numbers. All were full or not answering. Maybe there was a big taxi-eating festival going on, drawing crowds from around the world.
After a frustrating and dispiriting hour of feeling like a heavily pregnant Mary being repeatedly turned away from the inn, I texted Simone (who was still up, still helping, the champion!) to ask if he could help me out. The only place he could find nearby was the Hotel Moderne, €70 for the night. It had two double beds and a mini kitchen. It was right by where I had got off the bus in the first place. I checked in at 1am. I only planned to stay four hours.
The train for Brindisi left at 5:55am.
Since you’re reading this…….
We’re all human.