the socialite

Salento blood runs through my veins. Not Apulia blood – mind you – but the Salento blood of my home region. To an outsider this might seem to be the same thing, but not for us Southern Italians. I spent the summers of my childhood and teenage years holidaying between Lecce, Gallipoli and Otranto. “Lu sole, lu mare, lu ientu” – home for me means sun, sea, wind as well as cream-filled pasticciotti and pizzica. The rivalry among many Italian towns and cities is legendary: Bergamo and Brescia, Pisa and Livorno – and not forgetting Lecce and Bari, of course.

As an adult, I became a world traveller – I’ve washed my clothes in the Arno, Amazon, Nile and Danube rivers. Nevertheless, I arrived in Bari with a suitcase full of prejudices – a legacy of my Salentino grandmother who was fond of giving loud and forceful vent to her disapproval of the natives of Bari. I wish she were still alive, so I could tell her just how mistaken she had been.

I’ve been in Bari for just five minutes and I’m already gripped by an indescribable feeling of well-being. The Southern Italian sky is bluer than ever, the white buildings and walls of Bari’s old town reflect the light in a way otherwise only snow can, and the wonderfully salty sea air fills my lungs.

I’ve opted to stay in the San Nicola quarter in Bari’s old town: a good choice. Il Pescatore isn’t just a fish restaurant, it’s imperative to visit – a restaurant your friends would definitely rave about – it has also recently started a small B&B, offering direct views of the Castello Normanno-Svevo castle. The beds are so soft you seem to be floating on clouds, and breakfast is like a king’s banquet.

A fortifying breakfast is exactly what I need today, as I will explore the city – and the only way to get around the heart of the old city is on foot. Just the walk there, through the labyrinth of streets and narrow alleys between the promenade and the Murat quarter, is already an experience.

Speakeasy. Bari
Inside the Speakeasy bar
Speakeasy. Bari
Speakeasy barmen
La Corderia 1995. Bari
Fabrics on display at Corderia 1995

Here, Bari’s elegant side with its upmarket shops seems a whole world away. You catch glimpses into kitchens and see women preparing fresh orecchiette, or watch them cleaning the white paving slabs with waste paper and bleach. Here, the housewives of Bari hang out their fresh-smelling laundry on their balconies as if the quarter were one big house. But there’s no sign of traditional housewife-types in aprons – the women here are always highly styled, already stepping out in their tight-fitting jeans and high heels in the early morning, impeccably made up.

Out on their balconies you see them styling their hair with incredible professionalism – never forgetting, of course, to wave occasionally to the men zipping by on scooters. How could it be otherwise? And, of course, none of these kamikaze two-wheeler rides is ever properly insured.

Bari’s old town is the right place for a gastronomic excursion, too. I wander around between the houses and the courtyards, while Bari’s local hero warbles a fitting soundtrack for me – only far too loud, of course. Suddenly I find myself standing before the words Assaporando le Delizie Pugliesi, which means something along the lines of “Enjoy the delicacies of Apulia”.

These words have simply been inscribed directly onto the white plaster – which piques my curiosity, so I enter the small shop adjacent. Wonderful green olive oil from the region, dried tomatoes, peperoncini, home-made preserved specialities, and naturally the ever-present fresh orecchiette. And then I spot friselle – the traditional fisherman’s bread made from semolina. Antipasti in Apulia would be inconceivable without it.

This isn’t usually my favourite type of shop, but this time I find myself leaving it with a whole bag packed full of tasty souvenirs. In the Tana del Polpo trattoria, in a side street where Bari’s old town meets the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, just a few steps from the Chiesa di San Michele, they’re selling delightful cartocci, panini and fritture di polpo to take away. I order a panino with red tuna and some of the famous pistachios from Bronte, and head off to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.

Here you discover a completely different side to the city. You’d think you’d suddenly landed in Miami – rows of high palm trees line the streets, the beach promenade bursts with well-tended flowerbeds, and men proudly sport Panama hats. You could believe you’d been transported to the set of the next Hollywood blockbuster.

After sundown, Bari’s hip nightlife gets underway in the Umbertino Quarter, the triangle between the Corso Cavour, the Via Imbriani and the beach promenade up as far as the semicircle-shaped viewing point in front of the Piazza Armando. Upmarket wine bars and bistros, all of them stylishly decorated and well frequented, nestle together beneath beautiful art nouveau palaces, the meeting places for Bari’s local scene. For me, it’s love at first sight with Speakeasy (in Largo Giordano Bruno).

La Corderia 1995. Bari
La Corderia 1995

As the name already suggests, the restaurant is themed on the United States’ Prohibition era – with a very long bar made of heavy wood and beautiful retro chic objects everywhere. I’m blown away by the cocktail-names – It’s Pear Thyme Punch, Vieux Carré, The Day After Tomorrow – but finally opt for a glass of wine – from the region, of course. A delightful silky Primitivo di Manduria red.

A bit later at Faros Beer Cafè, I find a younger clientele, sipping happily on colourful cocktails and contemplating next weekend’s party in Monopoli. The KGB Katzuti Garage Bari in the Via Salvatore Cognetti offers a perfect mix of bikers’ hangout and fashionable New York hipster club.

When you see Bari’s upmarket quarter, you could imagine that the rich and the beautiful from the 1980s were still there, with jewel-bedecked, fur-coated women, whose chauffeurs were usually waiting for them in their dark cars outside hairdressers’ salons. Gianfranco at Giuseppe Bozzi is today’s top hairdresser for the ladies of Bari, all of whom leave his salon – and his capable hands – with artful curls à la Charlie’s Angels, and rigorously lightened ends. Gianfranco’s balayage is by far the new hair trend in the Umbertino quarter.

Alongside his hairstyling talents, he has found a way to further secure his customers’ loyalty: at his GF Luxury Vintage store – just a few steps from his hair salon – you can shop for genuine vintage brand treasures. Gianfranco’s range includes barely used Chanel bags and almost new Hermès scarves.

Bari’s fashion scene has two major fixed points: Mimma Ninni and Dante 5. Both shops offer sheer luxury and are particularly sought after among high-end trendsetters. I decide on Mimma Ninni, as it’s more streetwear-oriented, boasts an extraordinary selection of clothing and is always on the lookout for up-and-coming brands.

Furnishings store Corderia is the next destination on my shopping trip, an emporium that clearly furnishes not just Bari but also the grand villas in Monopoli, Ostuni, Conversano and Locorotondo – the holiday and weekend destinations for Bari’s inhabitants. Corderia is like a big sitting room with velvety sofas and outsize cushions, plaster sculptures, ancient oriental lamps and stacks of wonderful ethnic knickknacks.

La via delle signore delle orecchiette. Bari
Handmade pasta: Bari‘s Via delle Orecchiette

For antique collectors, on the other hand, Dordoni is the right spot. Locals say it’s one of the biggest shops for tapestries and carpets of all types in the whole of Italy. But to me – and I’m really no antiques expert – Dordoni more resembles a museum than a shop.

I head further south and in just thirty minutes I’ve reached one of the new amusement areas. The Torre Quetta district in the south of Bari, which has already been an amusement area for some years, is where many natives of Bari flee to on hot summer days, and resembles Barceloneta, Barcelona’s trendy beach district. Torre Quetta is ideal if you want to take a refreshing dip in the sea.

Torre Quetta. Bari
Torre Quetta beach

Couples, families and friends meet here to drink a chilled beer in one of the many bars decked out in cool europallet design, or play beach volleyball, or take part in one of the other numerous sports options on the beach.

KGB. Bari
Inside KGB
La Tana del Polpo. Bari
La Tana del Polpo restaurant

Couples, families and friends meet here to drink a chilled beer in one of the many bars decked out in cool europallet design, or play beach volleyball, or take part in one of the other numerous sports options on the beach.

The sea at Bari is blue, crystal-clear and very salty – in other words, completely different to how my envious and super-patriotic grandmother recounted, who would always say: “There must be a good reason why everybody always comes to visit us here at Salento!” I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny the beauty of her home region with its striking cliffs, but I’ve swum in the sea at Bari, and I have to say – it’s obvious she’d never done so.

di Veronica Gabbuti

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