the traveller

If you still have a day left over after your trip to Bari, you must visit Giovinazzo and Molfetta. For me, both cities are rare pearls, whose hard, Apulian Romanesque mussel shells have conserved the spirit of old Byzantium to the present day. Does that seem too poetic to you? Well, you’ll tell me I’m right once you’ve studied its inhabitants’ faces, stood before their brilliantly white buildings, and inhaled the ever-present aroma of the Southern Mediterranean. Whether by car or train, both destinations are easy to reach and just a few minutes from Bari.

Let’s start with Giovinazzo, which apparently no less a figure than Perseus founded in honour of Jupiter (or “Giove” in Italian, and “Jove” in English). And it’s precisely in such an atmosphere of myths and legends that we sit at the Fontana dei Tritoni fountain in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, in the shade of the Chiesa di San Domenico church. We’re near the old city of Natiolum, as Giovinazzo was called in Roman times.

Before we walk through the Arco di Traiano, the former city gate, we should take some time to visit the imposing Aragonese watchtower, the Tamburo. It was built to defend the port and because of its round form was nicknamed “U tammurre“, in other words “drum”.

Polignano a Mare, Bari
Polignano a Mare, Bari
Molfetta. Bari
Molfetta, Bari

But let’s leave the sea behind us and dive into the old part of this coastal town. It’s wonderful to wander without fixed destination through the winding alleys, under arches, peeking into courtyards large and small. The sottani in Giovinazzo’s old town soon catch your attention.

These ancient dwellings once offered accommodation for the poor, and often also their working animals. These underground constructions consist mostly of just one or two rooms and reach only up to street level. Their doors – frequently their sole apertures – permit light into the interior and serve as ventilation. Many older people still live in the sottani, and you often see elderly women making fresh orecchiette in the doorways.

Our wander through the city is brought to an abrupt end by the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. The view of the cathedral just impels you to stop and stand in awe, and feel small in its presence. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta is an outstanding example of Apulia’s Romanesque architecture, rising well above the other buildings.

It’s also visible far out at sea. Just a few metres further along, the Palazzo Ducale stands in all its majesty. Here you should take your time, take in the whole vista, and soak up its architectural style. One tip here: from the end of the quayside you can take a unique panoramic photo capturing the ancient city, watchtower and cathedral all in one shot.

Following our trip to Giovinazzo, we continue our explorations in Molfetta. I’m sure I’ve never seen an old city like it. Its resembles a fishbone in design, living proof of the intimate connection between Molfetta and the sea. Accordingly, the Mercato Pubblico “Minuto Pesce” is also the best starting point for our tour.

This fishmarket is housed in the former convent of Convento di San Francesco and is open to visitors daily from Mondays to Saturdays, from 7 am to 1 pm and from 5 pm to 8 pm. In its centre you encounter a ship-shaped structure on whose sales benches what is certainly the best fish from the South Adriatic lies displayed. And if you don’t know exactly which fish to buy, or how best to prepare it, the fishermen themselves will certainly have the best tips.

But if you simply wish to try something typically local or just eat something tasty, I’d recommend one of the harbour restaurants. Just ask for a “U’Ce’Mbott“, Molfetta’s famous fish soup, typically seasoned with some cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from the region’s olive presses.

Giovinazzo coast, Bari

Lunch is best walked off by heading to the Piazza Municipio. There we encounter the Palazzo Giovene with its portal proudly sporting bas-reliefs, its trompe l’oeil architrave and unique Renaissance facade. The Civica Siloteca Museum, the only museum devoted exclusively to the tree population of Southern Italy, is situated on its ground floor.

Here I recommend investigating the numerous tree cross-sections on display. Perhaps you can guess the trees’ real ages from their growth rings? Follow the exhibition through to the final room, where numerous woodworks are displayed, including Riccardo Muti’s conductor’s baton.

Like any city holding itself in high esteem, Molfetta naturally also treasures its own stories and legends. Such as the legend of “Mammone”, a monstrous horror story and a favourite for retelling to overactive children – a kind of bogeyman “Made in Molfetta”. Mammon was originally an Aramaic demon, and represents the vice of greed (“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” as it says in the Bible).

His image is situated in a recess in a palazzo wall at the corner between the Via Piazza and the Via San Pietro. Here we’re directly next to the Palazzo Galante Gadaleta, from where we reach the majestic Torrione Passari. Assuming you don’t suffer from vertigo and would like to enjoy a breathtaking panorama, simply climb the tower’s steep steps up to its pinnacle. If the sky is clear, you can even see the coast of Montenegro from up here. The outlook also offers a wonderful view of the bell towers of the Apulian Romanesque cathedral of San Corrado.

If you like unusual stories – but above all if you’d like to meet a rare representative of the leathercraft – then you must visit the “Il Matto” workshop. Here you’ll find Matteo, or “Il Matto”, in his small workshop in the Via Roma 17. Matteo learned his handiwork in Florence and then returned to Molfetta to produce and sell his treasures made of leather and fur.

His workshop has no sewing machines or presses. Everything’s worked and sewn by hand using thick leatherworking needles. Buy one of his belts to take home with you, or one of his wonderful wallets, briefcases or holsters. Matteo can also conjure up leather bags for musical instruments, and marvellous handbags.

And why, do you ask, do they call him “Il Matto”, the “madman”? His relatives and friends gave him this nickname when he told them he would give up his safe job in IT and go to Florence to learn leathercraft. He’s never lost his nickname.

Giovinazzo, Bari

The day is long, but far from over. You can’t leave Molfetta without having experienced night turn into day in the Mercato Ittico on the Banchina San Domenico. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, the fishermen land their catches here, and what happens on those days at two o’clock in the morning presents an incomparable spectacle.

The “borsa del pesce” – fish auction – is a real must for anyone holidaying in Apulia. Here, the fish are still transferred to the retail market accompanied by full-volume bellowing and the old singsong of Molfetta. It’s the same procedure every time: as soon as the fishing boat docks, a caravan of three-wheeler Piaggio Ape transporters ferry the catch to the market hall. The tombola starts punctually at two o’clock and the auction numbers are drawn.

sulla strada per Torre e Mare. Bari
On the road to Torre a Mare, Bari

The auctioneers – “astatori” – shout the prices at the tops of their voices, assisted by almost frenetic facial gestures and signalling. They catch everyone’s attention until the respective buyer is located. A small, peripheral detail – there are no weighing scales here.

Leather samples in the “Il Matto” workshop, Molfetta
Molfetta. Bari
Via Mammone, Molfetta, near Bari

The auctioneers – “astatori” – shout the prices at the tops of their voices, assisted by almost frenetic facial gestures and signalling. They catch everyone’s attention until the respective buyer is located. A small, peripheral detail – there are no weighing scales here.

Do as the “astatori” do – who weigh the fish out with an intuition inherited though generations. And follow your instincts, too, and discover the region of Apulia in all its aspects – I can assure you there’s a lot more still waiting to be discovered.

di Giorgio Ventricelli

Antonia Bufi artista di Molfetta. Bari
Artist Antonia Bufi’s studio in Molfetta, Bari
Antonia Bufi artista di Molfetta. Bari
Artist Antonia Bufi’s studio in Molfetta, Bari

“Il Matto” artisanal shop in Molfetta, Bari

other itineraries

  • the intellectual

  • the socialite

  • the storyteller

  • the sporty type