How wrong I was about Bari. The region of Puglia down in the heel of Italy offers a great deal of interesting sights, great food and some fabulous experiences. However, to me Bari was just the entry portal into southern Italy and the region of Puglia. In my short time there I discovered it is well worth pausing in Bari and enjoying some of what the city has to offer.
Firstly I discovered it prides itself on serving up local food as opposed to the catch-all Italian food. You can read about Puglia street food in Bari by clicking on the link.
Secondly, away from the food of Bari, there is plenty to do and see. Here are my seven reasons for spending time in Bari before heading off to the interior or along the coast.
1. To visit the theatre
The Barese like their theatre and are great patrons of the performing arts. The red facade of the Teatro Petruzzelli does not go unnoticed and ranks among the top theatres in Italy, up there with La Scala in Milan and San Carlo in Naples. Luciano Pavarotti and Rudolf Nureyev are among the big names who have performed here.
It is well worth taking in a performance just to see the magnificently frescoed cupola and the cherry wood stage. Sadly a fire in 1991 destroyed much of the theatre but it has been faithfully restored and is once again the hub of cultural life in Bari and still attracts big names.
2. To wander in the Old Harbour
The Old Harbour is some distance from the port where the ferries and cruise ships dock and is close to the centre of the city. It is where the traditional fishing boats land their catches and there is always some activity going on. There is a covered fish market where you can buy fresh fish and seafood straight off the boats. Men and boys can be seen repairing nets and boats, landing their catches or preparing the fish for sale. There is a raw grittiness about the place that is not hidden behind a “for tourists” facade which I liked as here more than anywhere else you seem to get under the skin of the city of Bari.
3. To stroll along the Lungomare
The Old Harbour is the best place to view the Lungomare, the Mussolini built seafront. It is the longest seafront in Italy and although it stretches north and south from the Old Harbour it is southern section that as viewed from the harbour walls. The superb beaches of Puglia start in Bari and stretch southwards and the Lungomare is a magnet for the citizens of Bari. It is lined with restaurants, cafe and the ubiquitous gelateria and is a favourite place to stroll, stopping off for a coffee or a fish dinner and rounding the day off with a gelato. Of course the sandy beaches might tempt you away from your stroll to a less active afternoon of sunbathing.
4. To take a cyclo tour of Bari Vecchio
A visit to Bari without visiting Bari Vecchio is like an evening without stars. Translated as Old Bari it is that part of the city within the city walls. It is constructed on a peninsula adjacent to the Old Harbour and its narrow, twisting alleys, cobbled streets and small piazzas just invite exploration. Within the walls are 40 churches, a cathedral and a basilica (see below). As you wander you will see children playing in the streets, matriarchs cooking and serving the Puglia pasta orrechiette and old men watching the world go by. This is an old town that is still lived in.
It is very easy to get lost in Bari Vecchio with all the twists and turns. For me getting lost is a great way to explore somewhere but if you are short on time a guide is essential . Velo Service (www.veloservice.org) offer a very good cyclo-tour of the old city that can be tailored to your interests. They do all the cycling, you sit in the “rickshaw” behind. (Contact and pricing information below)
5. To visit the Basilica St Nicholas
The Basilica St Nicholas, built in the Apulian Romanesque style, specifically to house the bones of Saint Nicholas which were stolen from Myra in Turkey by Barese sailors. Dominating Bari Vecchio it is the most visited building in the city because of the large number of pilgrims the relics of Saint Nicholas attracts. These pilgrims come mostly from countries where the Orthodox church is the de facto religion.
The interior is simple with an ornate wooden ceiling added in the 17th century. Beneath the cathedral is the crypt where the remains of the saint are kept. Saint Nicholas, of course, is the person we know in Western Europe as Santa Claus and in America as Father Christmas. The statue Saint Nicholas inside the basilica however, bears no resemblance to the plump, jolly old man with a beard dressed in red and white. That was a later transformation by the makers of Coca Cola.
6. To visit the Cathedrale San Sabino
The Apulia Romanesque structure is built on an earlier Christian basilica and is dedicated to the less well-known San Sabino. Built in a similar style to the Basilica St Nicholas it has a number of Baroque modifications. From outside the walls of the Old City the bell tower dominates the skyline.
7. To enjoy an evening in Piazza Mercantile
Piazza Mercantile is the place to relax at the end of the day. Once the market square were merchants, fishermen and farmers sold their goods it is now lined with cafes, gelateria and restaurants. People watching and strolling are the main activities here but there are one or two places of historic interest.
The arcaded building overlooking the piazza is the Palazzo del Sedile which was the headquarters of Bari’s Council of Nobles. When justice was dished out there was the Colonna della Guistizia or Pillar of Justice. Debtors were tied to it and whipped and criminals were tied naked to the column to shame them into mending their ways.
There is a great deal more to Bari than the seven suggestions above. Make time for shopping on the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, an evening sampling the street food of Bari or sampling the lively nightlife of the city. You won’t regret it.
I stayed at the VOI Oriente Hotel while in Bari. It is ideally located for Bari Vecchio, the Lungomare and the Old Harbour and is very close to, and on the same street as, Teatro Petruzzelli. Rooms are on the small side but the service and staff are excellent. The roof bar has a wonderful view over the city and is a great place to relax on a balmy evening. www.voihotels.com or call +39 06 39 80 61
Velo Service – A bespoke tour with a guide (who does all the pedalling) lasts about three hours. Prices for a Prestige tour start at €40 per person. Contact: www.veloservice.org; firstname.lastname@example.org or call +39 0802 37 40 39
Declaration: I travelled as a guest of Pugliapromozione. However I value my editorial independence and write as I see things.