Wednesday 19 November 2014

Italy: Sea swimming, Gargano Peninsula

As I clomped down the 200 steps to the water's edge by our hotel, passing four poster day beds populated by middle aged sun worshipping Europeans, trying not to slip in the puddles after the rain shower that had just finished, I was slightly concerned that Libero might not be there. The desk clerk had assured me that, to rent a canoe, all I had to do was see Libero on the jetty; it was a long way down, though. And sure enough, as if I had some sort of sixth sense, the dock was deserted. The canoes were there, and the paddles, and an empty Peroni bottle; but no Libero. I couldn't blame him: it had been raining quite hard and there was no shelter.

I sat on the wet ground for a while and tried to decide what to do. The dock was wet and required me to pull it by its rope until it was level with the gangplank and then jump down onto it; I had visions of it dipping sharply as I leapt, tipping me backwards into the water. There might have been a head cracking incident, and anyway, the canoes were half full of rainwater and I didn't trust myself to empty one without capsizing it.

That left me with two options: walk back up, or swim. There was a swimming pool step set attached to the cliff, leading into deep water; the cove I want to visit didn't look THAT far. I shuddered at the memory of Dr Who, an episode of which has given me a lifelong creeping dread about deep water when I can't see the bottom. The water was crystalline and turquoise but it's not a rational fear.

I waited, watching the clouds pass and hoping Libero might appear and save me the choice. After a while I realised the clouds were at an end, and it was just about to be sunny for an extended period. It was now or never: overcome the creeping dread or walk back up the steps past all those couples in the humid, steaming sunshine, slippery with all my sun protection and shamefully dry.

I stripped down to my bikini - another fear to overcome - and, trying not to think about it, slid into the water. Not as cold as I'd feared, and even though I was wearing prescription sunglasses I could still see quite well. I struck out for the shore. I started to think about how stupid I was being: what if I got into trouble? What if I got there and could get back? What if there were dangerous currents or giant squid? Luckily I was overlooked by some of the four posters so I figured they could raise the alarm if I disappeared. I got into a rhythm with the breast stroke and concentrated on the gloriousness of it all. The limestone cliffs and their interesting weathering patterns. The cool water. The hot sun on my back (am I burning? Too late now!) I marked my progress by the hotel and started to enjoy it, until I got relatively close to the shore and the colour of the water under me changed...I assume it was just a massive boulder, and actually I think if I had put my foot down it would have touched the bottom, but the splash pattern I was making also changed - presumably because it was that much shallower - and I panicked that something was swimming up behind me, which made the last 25m or so a breathless rush.

But I made it and it was amazing. I walked along an utterly deserted stretch of shore. It was totally private, impossible to reach without a boat or a swim. I examined the interesting limestone cliffs with their thin diagonal lines of brown flint. I left footprints in virgin sand. I climbed up onto a low piece of cliff and basked on it like a lizard. Someone else swam over after me and we shared a moment of cheerfulness at our surroundings before she swam back, leaving me alone in my private paradise. The experience of a lifetime and only a few hours from home! I must bring everyone I know here, I thought.

Soon the sun slipped behind the cliff and I had to start back. I remembered the swim across the lake and back at summer camp and how my friend Tina always made a lot of it being "one quarter mile". It couldn't be any further than that, could it? And indeed, once during a private twilight version of that swim I was interrupted by a huge freshwater turtle, the Mama Zeus, and I didn't panic and drown. These things all comforted me on the way back, as did the man who got into the water and swam directly out to sea, and the family who came to inspect the canoes. Still no sign of the mythic Libero but at least they might notice if I didn't make it back. The return seemed swifter and I emerged triumphant and even took some bikini selfies to mark my achievement. The whole thing felt like the embodiment of feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

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