Located beside the Adriatic Sea, Bari has forever been a crossroads of people and cultures who have conquered, inhabited or made a stopover of it before leaving for faraway ports. Today, the city still boasts being as lively as any other coastal city, whilst firmly clinging onto the uniqueness of its vernacular dialects.
Its origins have unfortunately been lost in amidst archaeological mysteries and fabrications of mythology. However, one thing that's certain is that Bari experienced the splendours of Magna Graecia and Ancient Rome, and also saw the comings and goings, century after century, of the Saracens, the Byzantines, the Normans, the Swabians, the Angevins and the Aragonese, each of which brought along their own, unique cultural influence.
It is at the heart of the tiny narrow streets of 'Bari Vecchia' (Bari's old town) that the charm of this city and its incredible wealth can really be discovered. Strangely not very popular with tourists, the historic centre of Bari is a labyrinth of narrow streets which conceal little churches and monuments, protected by the highly religious inhabitants of this working-class neighbourhood. Although cars are unable to drive down these narrow streets, there are an awful lot of mopeds here: they zigzag between the children returning home clutching their football under their arms and the elderly sitting in front of their houses chitchatting in their strange but beautiful-sounding dialect.
In this city home to more than 320,000 inhabitants, there are unfortunately few places that are really worth visiting, since they have been covered by a blanket of buildings built within the last few centuries and with no historic interest. However, if you head towards the sea you can enjoy a splendid stroll through the 19th century neighbourhood where the recently renovated Petruzzelli Theatre, the Prefecture Palace, and the Piccinni Theatre are located.
You could even leave the city and head for Alberobello, a small village famous for its trulli (typical houses), which you can visit in a day and is only an hour away from Bari. Not far from there, on the coast heading north, we highly recommend that you visit Trani. If you really want to enjoy the beach, it's best to head for the province's small towns, boasting sandy and well-maintained beaches perfect for families.
The not to be missed monuments:
The Basilica di San Nicola, standing at the heart of Bari Vecchia, is concealed within the maze of little streets that make up this lively, seaside, working-class neighbourhood. However, you'll know you're getting close when you spot the long line of souvenir shops. The history of this church is linked to a group of sailors who travelled to Myra (today part of Turkey) at the beginning of the 11th century in order to steal the remains of the saint and bring them back to Bari. The remains were initially held in another church while a worthy resting place for the saint was created. Construction of the basilica began in 1087 on the area of land once known as the Catepanate province under the Byzantine Empire. Today, the church the inhabitants of the region simply call 'San Nicola' is a destination popular with Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims.
The Norman-Swabian Castle of Bari, dating back to the 12th century, is an imposing building that towers on the edge of the old town, almost facing the sea. Built mostly upon the ruins of a former Roman castrum, this castle was built during the Norman domination. It was then rebuilt by Frederick II and finally restored in the Angevin period.
There is no underground system in Bari and it is quite difficult to find a parking space.
Although Bari Vecchia is beautiful, it can also be dangerous, according to the inhabitants who advise tourists against wandering the narrow streets alone.
Wonderfully prepared by the skilful hands of local chefs, but also and principally thanks to the devotion and love put into the food by the women of the region, the very diverse food in Apulia is rich in flavours of the sea and the earth. One particularly common, typical recipe in the Apulia region is orecchiette pasta (rigorously handmade) served with turnip greens, or even tomato and cacioricotta. You only have to wander down the narrow streets here to find a kind lady who will welcome you into her kitchen and informally offer to sell you some excellent homemade pasta. You really must taste the local mozzarella, or even better, the 'barrata', which is truly delicious.
In addition to the vegetables flavoured with quality olive oil from Apulia, you should definitely try the fish. One treasured address that it would be a real shame to miss when visiting Bari is 'Il Pescatore', a fish restaurant located right beside the Castle. In a relatively informal atmosphere, you can enjoy generous portions of wonderfully cooked fresh fish, all at very affordable prices given the quality of the cuisine presented.
Taralli, oil, limoncello, fresh homemade pasta, preserves, cacioricotta... If you want to bring something back that's really typical of Apulia, it's got to be the food!