Remember Elizabeth Gilbert and her year-long journey of self-discovery that took her to Italy, India and Indonesia? During that memorable trip she satisfied her taste buds, sought and found her spiritual core and fell in love. Well, you can experience almost all of it in Italy just in few days! Can’t promise you love, but then knowing Italians, anything can happen!
Upon my arrival to Bari, Puglia region, it all came back to me. Italy, I have missed you! The loud talking, the gestures, the smell of fresh pizza, the colours of gelato, small winding streets, people chilling in cafes in the middle of day, crazy driving, male stares and many other things. Barese themselves will tell you, in terms of culture and architecture, there isn’t much to see apart from the Old Town or Bari vecchia as they call it. It used to be a rather dangerous part of the city but as locals told me it took one mayor to redevelop it, clean it up of crime and make it once again a cool spot for locals and tourists to enjoy. If you go to visit Bari, you won’t need more than a couple of days to see it. Instead, rent a car (if you can) and explore rest of Puglia, which is really beautiful. Lucky for me, I met some amazing people through Couchsurfing who showed me around and shared these great experiences with me.
My personal reason to visit Bari was to pay tributes to St. Nicholas, a journey that took me from his motherland in Myra, Turkey to a small town in Italy, where his remains are laid. Whether you are religious or not, everyone was once a child and believed in Santa Claus! So, my two-day trip to Bari has began exactly at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, built in the 11th century. According to the story, Italian sailors following Pope’s orders have stolen the remains of St. Nicholas from Turkey and brought to Bari. Then the basilica was erected in his honour and to become Saint’s last home. St. Nicholas is now a patron of Bari and his images can be seen throughout the city.
Leaving St. Nicholas Basilica, you can wonder around this ancient part of the town and see some of following sights. Bari Cathedral di San Sabino, build in 1170-1178 in Romanesque style and resembles Basilica of Saint Nicholas.
Castello Svevo (Swabian Castle) looks like a beautiful fortress, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. It was built by the Norman King Roger II in 1132.
As in every Italian town, there are numerous piazzas in Bari with small churches, cafes and shops. Piazza Mecantile caught my eye thanks to this small column with a lion lying at its foot. Historically, as my local guide explained, Colonna della Guistizia was used to publicly chain and whip debtors. Ouch!
Piazza del Ferrarese, named after the Ferrara merchant Stefano Fabri, who lived here in the 17th century, provides an elegant entrance to the Old Town and houses various food and souvenir vending stalls.
Walking around the Old Town, sooner or later you will come to Lungomare, beautiful and romantic 15 km promenade built in the 1920s. It provides amazing sights of town’s architecture and calming views of the deep-blue sea. Also, if you walk along the coastline from the Old Town for about 20 mins, you will arrive at the small beach, a great place to lounge under the Italian sun.
Outside the Old Town’s walls, where life is a bit slower and more relaxed, you’ll see hassle and bustle of a small, but modern city. However, take time to walk around and lift your head up to see great architecture of Petruzzelli Theater, one of the grandest (after La Scala and San Carlo) opera houses in Italy that was rebuilt after fire and opened again in 2009.
Or next to the Church of San Ferdinando note the grandeur of the Mincuzzi house, former residence of the Mincuzzi family and now an office and store of the United Colours of Benetton.
Or just do a bit of shopping and check out street art of the local artists and modern statues, like this one!
Also, don’t forget to try some of the local delicacies. Food, as we know, is a second religion for Italians and Barese are no exception. Given that the town is located right by the sea, the fishing industry is well-developed and fresh seafood is one of the best here. They even serve it raw, which is becoming a big trend in Italian cuisine.
Apart from amazing gelato, good cheeses, ham, bruschetta, focaccia (local invention, which makes Barese very proud), sea urchins (still moving when being served!), various pastas and pizzas, you MUST try Tiella Barese (tiella di patate, riso e cozze) at Vine e Cucina – Osteria di barivecchia (address: Via Vallisa 23). My local guide introduced me to this dish with a beaming smile, saying that I won’t find this dish anywhere else in Italy. It’s a tasty concoction of rice, potatoes and mussels cooked together with oil, herbs, garlic and cheese. Bad for your waste line but really delicious! Afterall, Italians invented dolce vita and enjoying good food and wine is an important part of it.
For drinks I would recommend checking out Chat Noir(address: Via Re Manfredi 4) with its cool bookish and artsy atmosphere. This literary cafe turns into a swanky bar at night, a great place to mingle and check out what the local hipsters are up to!
On the third day, apart from catching up with a friend from my days of living in Ukraine (small world!), I was able to take a beautiful drive with my other friend through Puglia countryside and see three small towns: Ostuni, Lecce and Alberobello.
I thought there isn’t much to do or see in Ostuni (La Citta Bianca, as Italians call it, for its white walls) apart from the Old Town, an ancient citadel built on the top of the hill and its winding streets. Yet, Ostuni is better to be enjoyed from the outside: its white buildings crowded on the top of the hill look like a giant white bee house.
Lecce is another historic town and one of the important ones in Puglia. Built in Baroque architectural style, it is nicknamed “Florence of the south”. Unfortunately, I saw it briefly and in the evening, but if you have time, check out this beautiful place and its numerous attractions, such as the Roman amphitheatre (built in the 2nd century), Piazza del Duomo and Cathedral, Park Tower (Torre del Parco), the Sedile Palace, Church of San Niccolo and Cataldo, the Triumphal Arch, the Castle of Charles V, the Opera House, the Basilica di Santa Croce and other sights.
I have to say Alberobello was a highlight of my trip and what has captured my heart and imagination! “Why?” you will ask…Well, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a home of the trulli culture. The main feature of it is a traditional house, trullo, a prehistoric type of building with a conical roof made out of stones without mortar or any kind of the bonding material.
The legend says that trulli were built this way on purpose to avoid paying taxes on the new settlements. And when King of Naples’ tax inspectors came with a visit, trulli could be easily dismantled and then reconstructed just as easily and quickly after they have gone. The key that holds the whole roof together is in the round point on the top of the cone (that looks like a chess pawn!). Inside, trulli are quite small, but while some of them today are used as shops and restaurants, others are still inhabited by the locals.
Without sounding corny, it’s a truly fun and beautiful place. Just follow its tiny streets, chat to the shop keepers, try some local delicacies at the trulli restaurant or pop into the small trulli church located in the heart of the village.
My Bari trip came to its end way too soon. I have met some amazing people, encountered random acts of kindness but most importantly, I was reminded how to enjoy life, recognize beauty around me and not sweat the small stuff. For that sense of dolce vita, Italy, I thank you!
While writing this article, I discovered an old photo from my 2007 Italy trip.
The photos have a stark resemblance, don’t you agree, which probably shows that
I love Italy as much as Elizabeth does!