Palazzo del Governo or Town Hall in the centre of Bari, Italy.
Palazzo del Governo or Town Hall in the centre of Bari, Italy.

A Bari nice place to visit in Italy

THERE'S nothing quite like sitting dozily in the sun at an al fresco European café. And there's nowhere quite like an Italian piazza for that most cost-effective of all sports, people-watching.

In big tourist cities like Florence or Rome, however, it can be a tad annoying when you're inspected, dissected and often neglected by snooty waiters. Worse, a cappuccino can cost as much as 10 euros in the "best" places like San Marco in Venice.

Bari, the capital of the southern province of Puglia, is not like that. It's refreshingly non-touristy and authentic, but it doesn't always get a good rap from the guide books. "Watch your pockets, handbag, your wife, anything that's easily removed" we were told. I'm not sure about the wife bit, but you get the point.

In fact the same comment could be made about almost any city in Europe, or even the world, these days. But fears about Bari were totally unfounded. The Bariese, whether in hotels, cafés or shops are invariably kind and courteous; and most speak English to some degree. Even the polizia (local cops) were good for a chat although they all offered completely different directions on getting from A to B. We left them arguing volubly.

Bari is the gateway to Puglia for most tourists. You can fly there from various cities in Italy, or London...better still, take the train from Rome or Milan and avoid airports. With any luck, your train won't be delayed as ours was (3 hours late) but again, it's Italy and a sense of humour coupled with a "que sera sera" attitude will get you through any situation.

If you're heading for the rustic delights of Puglia with its beautiful ancient villages and agriturismo lifestyle, a few days spent in Bari is a perfect introduction to the South. We decided we needed to learn more about the area, so a tour seemed the answer.

Giovanna, Manager of our lovely hotel Villa Romanazzi Carducci recommended a private guide and we were very glad we adopted her suggestion. Giovanni (no relation) turned up in a BMW and drove us to the Old City not far away...until about 10 years ago this was a "no go" area at night, where nefarious characters were said to roam and get up to all sorts of mischief. Best not to ask questions.   

Today it's a benign scene, with families strolling together and the churches doing brisk business, especially at festival times like Easter when street parades are common, bands are competing for attention and the children dash hither and yon. Small shops selling religious icons, souvenirs, shirts and footwear abound and an interesting sight is groups of women making orecchiette (little ears) pasta...a Puglian speciality which requires deft fingers to master. We later tried to emulate their skill, but concluded that we couldn't afford to hang around for several months of learning!

Giovanni spoke impeccable English, no surprise given his academic background...he was a goldmine of information about Puglia's history, culture and even different dialects that can be found from village to village. Not unusual, he said, because this region has been populated over centuries by ancient tribes, Greeks, Romans, Normans,Turks, Arabs and other invaders. Puglia was prized for its agricultural bounty (and still is) chiefly olives, fruit and wine.

One significant piece of Bari's history lies within the Basilica di San Nicola (St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus). The legend goes that his remains were covertly removed from his original resting place in Myra (a city now in Turkey) in the year 1087 by faithful disciples, leading to the construction of the Basilica between 1087 and 1089, and consecrated in 1197. This is now an important place of pilgrimage for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians; even Vladimir Putin has been there, in 2007!

What else does Bari have to offer the peripatetic tourist anxious to rent a car and head for the beaches and backblocks of Puglia? Plenty. Some ideas:

  • Bari Castle, an imposing 12th century fortress of Norman King Roger 11
  • Bari Provincial Art Gallery with ancient and modern exhibits
  • Via Sparano for shopping, cheaper than Milan
  • Teatro Petruzzelli, the 4th largest theatre in Italy, ornately decorated
  • San Sabino church with the tomb of St. Columba
  • Piazza Mercantile, one of the most attractive in Italy
  • Excursions to nearby Polignano al Mare and Monopoli... lunch at the fabulous seafront restaurant La Peschiera, one of the top tables in the whole of Puglia

The message? Spare some time for bustling Bari, one of Italy's unsung treasures.

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