the storyteller

“Le Barise so’ come a Sanda Necole: so amande de le frastejiere” – “Bari’s inhabitants are like Saint Nicholas, they love strangers”. This Apulian saying makes a lot of sense when you consider that the natives of the city of Bari have long lived sandwiched between East and West. Although the city of Bari itself is situated beneath the sky of Apulia, it borders on the Eastern Mediterranean, whose influences can be seen everywhere. So, first you should take the opportunity to see the Russian Orthodox church, the Chiesa Russa Ortodossa di San Nicola, during your visit.

Its green onion domes, with their unmistakably Oriental influence, sit oddly juxtaposed between the surrounding palazzi, stealing the show from the surrounding buildings. Imagine yourself at the end of a long, hot and thirsty pilgrimage, reaching the San Nicola Church, where Orthodox art and culture presents a feast for the eyes and senses. Its services according to the Byzantine rite are held only on Sundays and feast days, and always in the morning. In our latitudes, only in Bari is it possible to be transported by the bewitching aroma of orthodox incense and religious singsong of the Russian steppe.

Here you can zoom from one culture to the next in minutes. The Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII offers the fastest route to the covered market, the Mercato Coperto di Santa Scolastica, where a storm of colours and smells assaults you, and many of the facial gestures that are typical of Bari’s natives. The market provides a wonderful opportunity to get to know the city’s inhabitants up close. Here, amid Bari life, you also find vegetables, fish, spices, bread, cakes and pastries, cheese, specialities preserved in oil, and ham.

After shopping, head to the Via Sparano, the main thoroughfare of the Murat district. The street network of the Via Sparano was created during the reign of Joachim Murat – King of Naples during the era of Napoleon – and it’s nowadays the shopping mile of Bari.

If the city’s history rather than fashion is more to your taste, you must visit the Libreria Laterza. You’ll find it at the corner of Via Sparano and Via Dante. It’s one of Italy’s oldest bookshops, and has been in operation for 110 years. Here you can browse to your heart’s content in the ever-present intellectual footsteps of Benedetto Croce, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Renato Guttuso and Dario Fo.

Don’t just stand outside, but instead enter and lose yourself among the bookshelves, book covers and pages. Choose your new favourite book and enjoy an hour of reading leisure. Bari is full of excellent little spots for reading.

Faro San Cataldo. Bari
San Cataldo Lighthouse
Bar Santa Lucia. Faro di Punta San Cataldo.
Santa Lucia bar, San Cataldo neighbourhood
Mercato coperto di Santa Scolastica
Covered market of Santa Scolastica

From the bookshop, follow the Via Sparano up to the art nouveau building of the Palazzo Mincuzzi. With its Ionian capitals, mascarons and impressive window architecture, the Palazzo marks a complete break with the surrounding building styles. The Palazzo’s interior also offers a monumental flight of stairs and, of course, an overarching glass dome. Bari is full of majestic and imposing city palaces, such as the Palazzo Acquedotto Pugliese behind the Teatro Petruzzelli.

The building appears somewhat simple from the outside, but is impressive nonetheless. With its many windows and beautiful Trani white stone adorning its walls, it’s a fascinating edifice. The architecture is reminiscent of Apulia’s Romanesque style, although not constructed until the 1930s. The Palazzo resembles a fortress. As soon as you step through the mighty entrance, art nouveau merges with aquatic elements like a golden thread running through the entire building. Head upstairs and be sure to explore the Palazzo’s interior – it’s well worth your time. You can learn more about the Acquedotto Pugliese in the first-floor museum.

Near to the Palazzo Acquedotto Pugliese you’ll encounter Bari’s hallmark for local street food: El Focacciaro. Its panzerotti are an institution. Along with the classical variant with tomato mozzarella, you can also try their specialities with cima di rape and ricotta forte. Make sure you pick up some provisions here, to be rounded off with freshly caught delicacies from the Apulian sea.

And where are they to be found? In the nearby Molo San Nicola dock between the Araldo di Crollalanza promenade and the Teatro Margherita where you can taste fish “n’ dèrr’a la lanze“. In former times, the fishermen landed their catch and immediately sold it “from the ground (n’ derr’a) next to the boat (lanze)”, and whoever bought the fish said he had bought it “n’ dèrr’a la lanze“. Nowadays, too, fishermen still land here and sell their catch at all hours of the day, including Sunday mornings. So, what are you still waiting for? Your freshly caught lunch is served.

Still hungry? Then follow the Lungomare Augusto Imperatore until you reach an entrance. Just go in. Here you find not only the Basilica di San Nicola church, but also the historic Panificio Fiore bakery, established within the old Byzantine church from 1208. Yes, you’re right – there’s a baker’s oven in the middle of a church – something you’ll only find in Bari.

Except here the marvellous Italian baker’s trade happily intermingles with veneration of city patron San Nicola (Saint Nicholas). In this small “concept store” – comprising bakery and church – ancient capitals and architraves form the backdrop for magnificently aromatic focacce – which are more than just Italian bakery but rather an art form, and a craft passed down from father to son.

It’s exactly this air of omnipresent sanctity that accompanies us further into the old city district of Bari Vecchia. Lose yourself in its winding Byzantine streets and you’ll soon discover there’s no corner, courtyard, alley or arch in Bari’s old town where Saint Nicholas or the Virgin Mary are not keeping an eye on you. Bari Vecchia is like an open-air art gallery amid magnificent, white paved streets, its chianche. The chianche are more than just paving stones, they present the Bari of long ago – when streets were named after saints and its inhabitants found their way solely by the colour of the chianche.

The white paving stones lead into the city, and the black paving stones to the churches, and out of the city. When the prisons were once so overfilled that Bari Vecchia was turned into an open-air prison, the black and white chianche set the outer limits of where prisoners were permitted to stray.

The white-paved labyrinth of streets and alleys leads me to the excavations of the church of Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio, the remains of an ancient church from the 9th to 10th centuries. You’re immediately struck by its floor mosaic. The church itself is Byzantine, but today only its Romanesque pillars and capitals are to be seen. Until it was destroyed in the 1930s, the Chiesa Santa Maria was for centuries the mainstay of numerous stories and legends.

It received its name after an episode of bloodletting, after Byzantine nobles became entitled to marry Bari’s women. Many Byzantines were killed in the revolt that ensued. When the truce – the “tregua del buon consiglio” – was declared, the church of Santa Maria del Popolo was renamed the Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio.

Chiesa Russa Ortodossa San Nicola. Bari
St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church

There’s a lot to discover outside the ancient city walls, too. Such as the Faro di Punta San Cataldo lighthouse. The first radio connection between Bari and Antivari in Montenegro was established here at the adjacent pier in 1904 by none other than Guglielmo Marconi.

The lighthouse itself is situated on a slight incline where previously two air defence missiles and numerous bunkers were based. In the shade of the lighthouse I spot fishermen playing cards at an old table, and drinking beer. I join them, and they tell me fantastic tales of the high seas.

Bari Vecchia
Votive shrine, Bari old town

Such as the story of the legendary sea monster said to have visited the harbour. Or the turtle as big as an old Fiat 500.

Bar Santa Lucia (Faro di Punta San Cataldo)
Santa Lucia bar, San Cataldo neighbourhood
El Focacciaro. Bari
El Focacciaro

Such as the story of the legendary sea monster said to have visited the harbour. Or the turtle as big as an old Fiat 500. The fishermen fondly refer to it as the “Nessie” of Bari, and it seems no less impressive than the Loch Ness Monster itself.

Bari is a melting pot of cultures and traditions drawing on East and West. If you fall under Bari’s spell, then return soon. Whether you prefer to see the city through the eyes of the East or the West will be your choice. Like Odysseus’s loyal wife Penelope, Bari will wait for you always.

Filled pastry cases Turnip tops, an Italian vegetable speciality Apulian cheese Speciality, creamy ricotta – mostly made from goats’ milk.

di Giorgio Ventricelli

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