Bari: Santa Claus is Buried in Town

Bari is the capital of the South East, and a city whose bad reputation precedes it. Most guide books counsel that Puglia’s three big cities (the others being Taranto and Brindisi) are rough and industrial places, before shepherding you on to quaint fishing towns. Most Italian friends told us that Bari would be edgy and threatening. Was it? As tourists we got some funny looks and were certainly fish out of water, but I felt affection for what I saw and in this gentrified age where everyone is flying with the same airlines to stay in the same hotel chains and buy coffees from the same chain cafés and clothes from the same labels, it felt refreshing to stay in a city which hasn’t been quite as touched by it all yet. At the risk of sounding patronising, going to Bari felt like going to 1982, but in a good way.

Bari Centrale and its crowded surrounds have some shockingly poor, ill looking people. I don’t know how many were locals and how many have travelled from Albania, or on one of those horribly unsafe boats that are dominating the headlines right now. It’s not an enjoyable place to hang around. The cluster of stations are at the southern end of Borgo Nuovo, a large grid that covers most of the city centre and is probably C18th/C19th; like the Trieste grid but on a much larger scale. Its northern end is the seafront; there’s a bit of Lungomare where you can stroll or stop for a coffee, but most of the shoreline appears dedicated to industry, shipping and a large port. Jutting out into the sea is the tongue-shaped Bari Vecchia, the old town that is a tumble of mazy alleyways (I think I read that they were designed like this to disorient invaders), can be crossed in five/ten minutes and contains two important Romanesque cathedrals. Although we only stayed for one quiet Monday when most things were shut, it was the cathedrals that convinced me not to rule Bari out.

Religion still looms large in the rituals of southern life. Walking around Bari Vecchia you will find fairly elaborate shrines to the Virgin on street corners: portraits, paintings, flowers. Every church doorway has crude but energetic and honest carvings in Romanesque style.

Like most of these strategically important cities, it has a castle; two Norman towers, with a structure built around them by Frederick II, the extraordinary Holy Roman Emperor who ruled Germany from Sicily and southern Italy. Active in the mid-C13th, Frederick was a renaissance man before the renaissance. Inquisitive and impious, who loved Islamic culture and thought nothing of quarrelling with the rival mob in Rome, to the extent that he was excommunicated four times. One of the stories often told about him is that he fed two prisoners, sent one hunting and one to bed, then disembowelled them to see who had digested their food better. His reign was a long time ago but he has left traces all over the south and so many major streets, piazzas &c. are still named after him. We had an aperitif in a trendy little cocktail bar, which was one small room with medieval frescoes on the wall. Wondering if it might be a converted chapel, I asked how old the frescoes were and was told “25 years old, but in the Frederick II style”. He feels very present for someone who died 800 years ago.

In one corner of Bari Vecchia is the piazza through which people enter from the Corso, and highlighted as an important place: Piazza Ferrarese. It starts with some Roman foundations between two big palazzi, then has cafés one on side and the palm-lined seafront on the other, with clusters of yachts beyond the fancy street lamps, but it’s a fairly bare pedestrian thoroughfare that just leads to more interesting spots.

From here you can walk along the Lungomare, on a slope that leads uphill. At its summit is a crumbly bit of gate with a big plaque dedicated, in Latin, to the Bourbon kings of the C18th, and fine views out at the shoreline curving outwards to accommodate Bari Vecchia, its stacked-up houses and church spires, and nice views in of the level below; a street with the traditional laundry on balconies, leading into Piazza Mercantile.

Piazza Mercantile feels like two separate piazzas that overlap; it’s a fairly higgledy-piggledy shape but it was as close as Bari got to a great piazza. There’s the familiar palace for the ruling council of nobles, a lovely facade with a screen of arches topped by classical busts, leaning against a campanile. There are benches to sit around a couple of modest stone monuments, both a bit warped by age. One is a stone fountain and one a short pillar on a round platform of steps, guarded by an unconvincing-looking lion. This is the Column of Justice, where debtors would be whipped and flogged. You’ve got to make your own fun in towns like this. Most places were shut because it was Monday, or because they’d just been taken over and were being renovated. If Bari is gentrifying, this piazza is the base camp for it; the establishments didn’t entirely tally with what my guides said would be there and the new places seemed to be expensive Italian equivalents to the gastropub. Mind you, one of the open shop units was an unstaffed room full of vending machines selling inexpensive tins of strong beer, so there’s still an infrastructure for people who want to go out on the cheap.

The rest of Bari Vecchia is a dark and pungent little maze, but a fascinating one and still very much alive. I found myself thinking about the more densely packed residential bits of Venice. There are old ladies scrubbing steps, carrying their shopping or leaving their handmade pasta out in the street, to dry on little trays covered with netting. Men spend all day hanging around their local café, killing time, young folks gather on street corners or drive around on scooters (I couldn’t tell if they were equivalent to ‘corner boys’ in The Wire). The street is a communal living room, and though I was itching to photograph the more picturesque ones, it felt like it would have been an intrusion on folks just living their life.

If you’re ever passing Bari, those cathedrals were well worth the detour; big, bare and early. Bari Cathedral has a three-aisle facade pointing upwards, with a modestly sized rose window and three statues above the door. The virgin stands in a niche, flanked by two chaps who could be saints, but look by their different garb like they might be priests representing Rome and Constantinople. With their left arms clutching something and their right arms gesticulating outwards, they look oddly choreographed like an ecclesiastical Saturday Night Fever. The rest is sparse but there are things like little winged lions with human heads, perched on the tiniest ledges.

Inside, the Cathedral is lovely. Similarly sparse, which brings out the brilliance of the white stone. Two tiers of vast rounded arches support that tall central aisle with small windows along the top of the wall. It feels so much earlier than French or English Gothic, that much closer to the origins of the church and more mystical for it. The altar sitting under a sort of four-poster canopy is a neat theatrical touch.

Its crypt is more decorated and in a much later style. By the steps on the left there are indications that it perhaps looked better before; some frescoes and a mummified body, uncorrupted and unmarked.

The other cathedral is San Nicola- the resting place of Father Christmas, which is mercifully free from any traces of his recent debasement by late capitalism and Coca-Cola. The blank canvas of the facade has a couple of bulls, and discreet etchings in Latin informing travellers that his sepulchre lies within. Inside it is similar too, but with a snazzier altar; framed in front of a marble screen of statues, and with a canopy that contains some very ancient-looking text. The aisles are connected by arches acting like buttresses, which suggests that this one was earlier. Its illustrious inhabitant has, however, brought it more bling- like that ceiling.

The crypt containing the saint’s tomb is surprisingly simple, with some very old carvings of relevant animals, and small orthodox icons like what appears to be a gravy boat. Saint Nick is pretty big in the Eastern church (Bari has a fairly Greek flavour anyway, it was traditionally easier to sail there than cross the Apennines) and I noticed that the shops around the cathedral were selling a lot of gifts & guide books in Russian.

Not much else to say about our fleeting visit to Bari. Our flat was just inside Bari Vecchia, on a narrow street running parallel to the main Corso that divides the two parts of town. The flats on airbnb are 99% neutral colours and decor, entirely kitted out by Ikea, so it’s interesting when you find one that bucks the trend. This girl seemed to be renting out her actual home and taking her two sons off someplace else when she received a booking.

For lunch we ate the traditional Bari foccacia; spaceship sized hunks of bread with lots of olive oil, topped in olive and tomato. For dinner we tried a Spaghetteria; you come across quite a few of these in the south and I’d never tried one before. I now know that they are mostly places for the working man to get a mid-priced lunch; until quite late it was just us, two lone businessmen and three staff in a cavernous place playing Rod Stewart & The Rubettes. In the TripAdvisor age, everyone’s trying to please; the starter was two packets of prosciutto and two balls of mozzarella per person, plus a lot of free side dishes that made us too full.

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