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Wanderthirst: ritualistic swims under the blood moon and healing heart-ache in Italy

For this month's Wanderthirst, Aarushi travels to Varigotti, in the Italian Riviera and Monopoli, in Puglia, southern Italy, in the hopes of fixing a broken heart.

12 Aug 2022

Illustration by Serina Kitazono

Nearly a year had gone by since a painful pandemic break-up, the aftermath of which had latched on like a permanent tattoo. During this time, I calendarised activities aimed at moving on – trying my hand at baking, making craft and binge-watching every apocalyptic movie. Yet no amount of Limoncello-soaked cupcakes or end-of-the-world narratives proved distraction enough. 

So, when travel restrictions eased in early July 2021, I threw caution to the wind and booked two solo trips from my home in Milan to the Italian coast. One was a train ticket to Varigotti, a small town along the Riviera. The other was a flight to Monopoli, a southern village where sea-facing white-washed houses are perched atop a cliff. 

This impulsive decision was made under the looming pressure of Ferragosto, the Italian term used to describe peak summer in August; a time when natives leave the city behind and dogmatically flock to the ocean. Days are spent tanning and swimming, eating fresh mozzarella by the beach and drinking at all and any hours. Love is in the air and at its saturated best, and PDA has no limits. However, I intended these two trips to be 100% romance-free conquests. 

Being a brown girl in Italy isn’t too uncommon. But being an Indian in Italy? I’m often mistaken as Mexican and surprisingly expected to have a fair command over the Italian language (due to lexical similarities). Luckily, months of practice on Duolingo have paid off and I always get by – whether it’s to order ‘un bicchiere di vino’ at a restaurant or flirt back with a Pugliesi surfer.

Quasi-confident in my linguistic abilities, I embarked on the first phase of my solo quest: a long weekend in Varigotti. One of the many towns across the Ligurian coast where posh northern Italians come to soak in the sun, and where I went to hit pause on that replay button of memories. Here, the houses are colour-blocked rows of orange and yellow, pebbled beaches are lined with sunbeds and umbrellas, and the sea is a clear bright blue. 

After checking into my room-for-one at the ocean-front Hotel Mare Inn, I spent the rest of the day at the beach. Time stretched on in a cyclic manner: the blisteringly hot sun beat down on my bikini-clad body and I swam to cool it down.  The continuous indistinct chatter of people around me served as white noise and all trespassing thoughts were blocked out. I considered this a small victory in an uphill battle.

“Watching it all from my spot in the cold sand, I felt the crushing weight of loneliness as an intrusive spectator. There, I swore off solo travel as a solution to heartbreak.”

Little did I know that my trip was booked during the Blood Moon of July – a sight so spectacular it brought people together in an almost ritualistic sense. A silver-haired couple waded into the sea following the reflection of the full red moon, partners embraced each other as they bathed under its reddish glow and teens danced in the water in a trance-like state. In the square behind the beach, a lone musician stood surrounded by a large crowd. He sang Italian love songs, strumming his guitar and unknowingly plucked at my heartstrings instead. Watching it all from my spot in the cold sand, I felt the crushing weight of loneliness as an intrusive spectator. There, I swore off solo travel as a solution to heartbreak.

It was a temporary vow. 

Two weeks later, I was in Puglia, one of the most characteristic regions in Italy; rich in topography, culture, food and warm people. Having travelled there before – to the historic port of Bari, the trulli-huts of the village Alberobello, and the underground city of Matera – Puglia had already stolen a piece of my heart. I remember thinking that maybe I subconsciously returned to reclaim a bit of it.  

This time around, the destination was Monopoli, which is a 40-minute train ride from the airport at Bari. Once there, I navigated the cobblestoned walkways in the historic centre towards the cliff-side promenade and found myself completely at home with Monopoli’s many moods. Hole-in-the-wall cafes lined the streets in town with coloured outdoor seating; both tourists and residents had settled down for the evening aperitivo and local tunes wafted through the lanes. Wine was flowing freely and I spotted fresh charcuterie platters at every table. The summer festivity was contagious and my heart was surprisingly happy! 

The pace slowed down once I reached the lungomare connecting the town’s many coves: Cala Porta Vecchia, Porto Rosso, Porto Bianco, Porto Verde and Porto Nero were jam-packed by day. However, in the evenings only a few people hung back to watch the sunset and sometimes prepare for a barbecue by the beach. 

On my first night, this slow-life beckoned, so I sipped wine from a plastic cup and tore at a pizza diavola at the beach of Porto Bianco. There I met an Italian nonna who had just recovered from hip surgery and was afraid to swim in the crowded sea by day. She asked for my hand and I waded in the shallows with her until she was confident alone. 

It was in Monopoli that I met the Pugliesi surfer Paolo. He caught up with me as I meandered down from a rocky overhang. Paolo explained that he happened to see me blissfully enjoying the sunrise from up there and he couldn’t bring himself to look away. That cheesy line elicited a cautious smile and the short-lived flirtationship ended with my hollow promise to catch up later that evening. Mostly because I was preoccupied with the pressing matter of breakfast and Paolo didn’t seem to know that the quickest way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach. It was still early, around 6.15 am and the bars (common name for coffee shops in Italy) were just opening for the day. Over croissants filled with ‘crema di pistacchio’, I conversed with a curly-haired barista about the joys of being a morning person and what the other half were missing out on. 

During this solo escape, I made the most of Monopoli’s many ‘spiagge libere’, or free beaches. As I swam farther into the sea and pampered myself with scrumptious seafood and fresh burrata cheese, something changed in me. From witnessing ritualistic swims under a Blood Moon to conversations over croissants and sunrises, the detriment at Varigotti was largely reversed in Puglia. I felt lighter than I had in a long time, found strength in embracing the solo ride, letting go of people and being in the moment of my choosing.  

Highlights: 

  • In Puglia, visit Polignano a mare (after sundown), Alberobello, Ostuni and Lecce.
  • Burrata is a must-try Apulian cheese. Order it over a pizza Napolitana, in pasta or in a deceptively simple Caprese salad.
  • In Varigotti, visit the Punta Crena beach, Baia di Saraceni and don’t miss out on a hike to the Falsari cave during sunset for some great photo ops. 
  • When in Liguria, crispy fatty focaccia for breakfast is a must-have and the smaller the bakery the better the bread!

Useful information: 

  • Varigotti is one of many coastal towns along the Italian Riviera, all of which are well connected by an economical train. Choosing one as a base and making day trips to the others is a great option for a relaxing vacation. 
  • Most beaches in Italy are monopolised by paid clubs that offer umbrellas and sunbeds at a steep price. Consider the free beaches or ask the locals for a ‘spiagga libera’ when travelling on a budget.
  • During Ferragosto, every hotel, hostel or Airbnb is overpriced – book your trip for shoulder seasons or plan in advance.
  • In the smaller towns, language is a barrier – so being prepped with a few basic phrases could play out in your favour.