“A city as exciting and cultural and historic and artistic as this…it’s meant to be earned.”
Adriatic waters calmly splash against the ritzy yachts in the harbor. Preteens scheme in the plaza, wreaking havoc outside an ongoing mass, “bicicletas!” at their hips. A chorus line of soaring palm trees separates the new town from the old. Impregnable stone walls as ancient as dirt protect the cathedral of San Nicola from the revelers convening at bar-hop row.
Old women use their thumbprints to meticulously form individual orecchiette, lay them out to dry on folding tables outside their homes. The business district of banks and office buildings makes way for a wide esplanade of high end fashion stores and expensive steakhouses. Beggars roam the streets, boldly approach outdoor diners, gently place roses on tables in exchange for some coin. Potbellied men bake their epidermises in Speedos at Bread & Tomato Beach (Pane & Pomodoro to locals).
This is Bari (pronounced Bah-di). And it was, without a doubt, my favorite part of Italy.
Like any historical but developed city, it’s made up of old parts, and new, and that weird middle area that’s sort of hung in the balance, which is where our AirBnb was located. We arrived in Bari in the middle of the afternoon after a four hour train ride – a straight line across the Southern half of the country (with one changeover in Caserta). We had actually splurged on first-class tickets, which meant we were the only people in the cabin besides a group of businessmen still using flip phones. This was my very first time traveling long distance on a commuter train, let alone first-class with its comfortable seats and expansive table for working that we didn’t use except to stow large water bottles. Stretching our legs, we stepped out on to the platform in the literal outskirts of Bari, where modern, boxy condominiums met train tracks, which met swampland.
We traversed our way through the fairly easy to navigate grid system of newish Bari, passing a jungly-looking community park that looked like it had seen better days, corner news stands selling pocket umbrellas and lottery tickets, nail salons, diners, luggage stores, grocery marts and pharmacies, and a plethora of Asian eateries advertising hibachi and pad Thai and bowls of ramen, all situated on the first floors of stories-high, drab new-build apartment complexes. I admit I felt skeptical walking these streets. I could have been in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, or even Jersey City for that matter. It didn’t invoke feelings of being in Italy, minus the “Via” street names set in kitschy plaques on building sides, the Vespas parked diagonally in the curbside metered parking spots, the soggy cardboard boxes outside restaurants with fresh whole fish from the Adriatic. This area of the city wasn’t ultra modern, but it wasn’t teeming with rich history, either. It felt…forgotten about. Like sometime between 1980 and 2000, a wealthy developer with a lot of cash and time to spare decided to play tetris, gentrification style, stacking and rotating and resizing cement foundation blocks and metal fire escapes, criss-crossing them like red and green Monopoly real estate pieces, until highway and river stopped them.
About ten blocks up and three blocks left on the game board, we arrived at an apartment complex with a locked glass door and an intercom, its facade mimicking the hundreds of others we passed along the way. After some language barrier confusion, we made our way up to the AirBnb on the second to last floor where we would be staying for the next three days, a nicely decorated studio apartment with a spacious, modern bathroom and galley kitchen stocked with yogurt, juices, fresh fruits, cereals, and pastries. Sandblasted windows slid open to the view of the backs of identical apartments across the way, sans for their small balconies. Below, instead of street, was the black tar roofs of whatever businesses or parking garages connected our side to theirs. A community of stray cats rented space here, sunning on the hot asphalt, their painful howls echoing throughout the whole city block. There wasn’t a single ounce of nature or urban charm here like you would find in Salerno or Naples, unless you counted the weeds that grew out of any imperfections in the concrete.
I was not entirely impressed, but knew from researching prior (and our AirBnb’s helpful map) that the town center of brand new Bari was a 10 minute or so walk several paces north and a few paces west. Old Bari, the ancient, seaside town, was about five minutes north from there. Immediately wanting to explore and get some food in our belly after dining only on train station snacks, we headed out towards the way we came and walked the length of the broad center boulevard a la Miami, patterned with brick and too-perfect palm trees, the skinny trunks of which matched the height of the adjacent buildings. Several people surrounded us as we passed polizia setting up orange cones, and we soon realized this wasn’t just any old day in Bari: large, loud groups of families with bored teenagers sporting fanny packs and confetti-filled helium balloons on sticks, street vendors surveying the crowds, waving large cardboard cutouts of saints and multi-colored crowns made of foam and glitter, people taking pictures with their phones, children excitedly running to a cotton candy stand up ahead. As we passed brand new Bari, where early 20-somethings drank on patios at bars blasting club music and watched the hoards walk by, we rounded the bend to enter Old Bari where gray outlines of intricate lights on scaffolding stood, waiting for sunset to illuminate.
It was the annual three-day San Nicola Festival, infamous to the Bari region where thousands pilgrimaged to every year, and we were lucky enough to happen across the final day of it.
Old Bari is an entirely different animal than New Bari, so much so I wouldn’t even consider it part of the same city. We followed the crowds of Italians around the harbor-side, strolling the second level of centuries-old castle walkways protecting all that lies below. The oceanside two lane road was now converted into a miles-long celebration, pitched red and white tents, strung bulb lights, smoke billowing from porchetta on grills, vapors emitting scents of funnel cake and cinnamon into the air.
Though I was tempted to give in to the smells of meat on spits and caramel popcorn for dinner, we ventured into the thick of Old Bari on the high hopes search for a not-too-crowded place serving dinner without reservations. We passed the courtyard of the significant San Nicola Cathedral, its impeccably clean eggshell white stone the least impressive feature of a building with hand-carved, scalloped trim around the perimeter and gargoyle-like statues of saints above a solid, imposing iron door. A projector was cast on the courtyard’s walls with speakers overhead, broadcasting the mass taking place inside for the lucky ones who got front row seats at the pulpit for this historic event. Feeling like we were in The Godfather, we side-stepped around the worshippers outside as the priest sermonized in rapid Italian. At the high stone arch, we entered the absolute maze of pedestrian-only walkways, meticulously hand-placed brick under foot, secret passageways leading you every which way, where a right turn leads you to competing shops selling scroll calendars, the likeness of San Nicola watermarked behind the dates, and a left brings you to a corridor of lively outdoor restaurants where potted fawns and patio lights separate the diners from the festival-goers waiting forever in line at the famous bakery selling their signature focaccia bread.
We managed to get a seat at La Uascezze, a hip little tapas-style restaurant hidden down a dead-end alleyway with house made wine and a menu printed entirely in Italian (Bari was, most notably, the least American-friendly city, a fact that drew me even closer to it). Absolutely lost, our server (who thankfully spoke English and could tell by our frantic page shuffling that we needed help) offered to instead bring us several courses to sample traditional Apulian cuisine. We were sold. He brought us a carafe of their house-made red and I savored every spicy, rich sip since all we had drunk the entire week before was white wine. The food came out at random, and it couldn’t have been more starkly different from the citrusy/herby seafood heavy meals in Atrani and Amalfi. In no particular order, there was: a charcuterie of sorts containing prosciutto, salami, burrata, something that I think was sundried tomato but could have been sausage, a cheese tower resembling feta in texture but queso fresco in taste, and the local favorite of toasty focaccia with olive oil; a cast iron skillet of fennel-spiced sausage and a fava bean puree (one of my favorite dishes in Bari); a piping hot meaty, cheesy, melty, baked-beany concoction with bread for dipping; and a hearty lasagna. So this was where all the carnivores went.
It was fully dark by the time we left dinner and got lost trying to find our way back to the festival so we could see the now-illuminated scaffolding. Thousands convened to snap pictures in front of the LED rendering of the San Nicola cathedral, technicolor dots of indigo and watermelon green and cherry red filigreed into mandalas on the facade: underneath, an optical illusion tunnel of Cinderella carriage white gold leading you to the very end where a shrine of the man of the hour himself stood, carrying a staff and ensconced in gold. We’re not religious, so in a way, the symbolism of it all was lost on us, but there was no denying the monumental impact of this guy who lived very long ago bringing the Puglia region together for three days a year to pray and drink and be merry. More impressive was the nearby cut-out section of roadway (possibly earlier than 10th century), roped off in velvet, revealing broken, pearly white stones the size of elephant teeth where horse drawn carriages once transported San Nicola and all the saints before him. It was very Gladiator, if you looked past the soda cups some kid tossed in there.
Craving dessert, we tiredly avoided groups of middle schoolers at the seaside bazaar, my head pivoting to catch all the different vendors selling ice cream, beaded necklaces, halal food, shimmery bikinis, fuzzy cellphone cases, and carnival games to win stuffed unicorns and goldfish in bags. It was like my days of youth at the Saint Mary’s church picnic in Scranton, but on crack. I imagined my 11 year old self would have killed to be here, wiping pizza fritta sugar from my lipgloss, but it was time to call it a night (not before buying a plastic cup of beer and a nutella and chocolate-filled crepe stuffed with cookie crisp cereal, hot and fresh off the flat top). Growing up doesn’t have to be so boring, after all. Then, a loud pop, fizzle, and flash of light set the fireworks show in motion. We stood at a small opening near the pier with the rest, gazing at the display, snuggled up in our jackets, and it all sunk in at how very far we were from home.
After a long walk back to the residential section, litter from today’s events strewn about the streets, we finished the night cozied up on the feather down watching surprisingly English-spoken reruns of Baywatch and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (funny enough, listed as “Willy, il principe di Bel-Air” on the TV guide).
I was already in love with this city and its many dichotomies, and the festival was a fantastic way to kickstart our time in Bari. The next day would be spent exploring the Old Town even deeper without the chaos of the crowds, and, obviously, finding a place for dinner that night. We woke up late our second day and took advantage of our Airbnb’s offerings, snacking on kumquats and shortbread biscotti and Nescafe cups of ginseng coffee that reminded us of Atrani, which felt like ages ago by now. We took a different route into the Old Town, instead making an immediate left off the main boulevard and entering in the back way at the outskirts near a castle-turned-museum with manicured lawns and an art installation of calabria peppers out front. This part of the city was quiet and lent its space to park benches and various abstract sculptures. Rounding the bend here took us back to the waterfront road that hosted the bazaar the night before, but today, resumed its normal activity of vehicular traffic. The afternoon sunshine was a welcome relief after days of jackets, so we took an outdoor seat at an adorable cafe overlooking the yachts and palms on the harbor, sipping sparkly rosé and snacking on bar food of marinated olives and sampler appetizers served on slate slabs, keeping in the vein of eating only local favorites: bruschetta crostini, buffalo mozzarella twists on a stick, grilled cheese, caprese salad, quinoa, spiced meatballs, eggplant lasagna, pizza fritta pocket, and that same mystery cheese from the previous night with pickled beets on top.
Satisfied and energized for the day, we allowed Old Bari to guide us where it saw fit, rather than the other way around, welcoming, rather than fearing, the prospect of getting positively lost. We took a seat at the rocky, unswimmable beach waters of the harbor and watched a couple’s engagement photo session. We entered the grounds of San Nicola, this time casually strolling inside (I covered my tattoos with a sweater since people told me that’s the thing you do, allegedly), whispering in hushed voices so the old gods wouldn’t shun us from the walls. If you’re a religious person, this is the holy grail of Catholicism (besides the Vatican). The interior architecture and baroque design was spectacular, to say the least, with gold and marble on every surface and an ornate, cherubic vaulted ceiling I would argue could rival the Sistine Chapel, and a pulpit even I would swoon to be wedded in. We tiptoed down the stairs to the chilly crypts, encouraged to silence cellphones and avoid flash photography, where we peered through grates at the tomb of San Nicola. We giggled at the seriousness of it all, not sure how you’re supposed to pay your respects to someone long dead and knowing full well we didn’t belong here. Stopping in the gift shop on the way out (it wouldn’t be a church without commodification), I purchased my Aunt rosary beads the color of garnet and an accompanying prayer card in Italian.
Just over the walls from this relic lies the opposite: an open circular plaza like a clock, rowdy bars and restaurants and cafes with outdoor patios around the circumference, as if beckoning you to visit each one an hour, on the hour. We stopped at a gelateria for pistachio on a cone (my mouth agape at how a modern cash register and centuries-old slanted, beachy stone ceilings could coexist), and continued to wander. The midnight hour appendage off this makes way for what I would call bar-hop row, oblong holes of violet and blue and amber in the ancient walls that activate at night, pumping thirsty crowds in and out, all unique in theme and drink: a Sailor Jerry-type nautical dive bar serving up pints of beer, a trendy martini bar serving fruity cocktails, a sultry speakeasy with chandeliers and thick tapestries on the walls offering whiskey on ice.
Heading further into the city by way of the 6:00 hour appendage brings you to the quaint, rustic homes in cobblestone lanes whose front yards are the very walkways you trespass on, tough-looking nonnas hand-pressing pasta on folding tables, drying their hands on kitchen lap towels, eyeing your every move, young mothers hanging laundry out on lines, barefoot toddlers skittering in between your legs for attention, wise men that could be 65 or 95, pacing, hands behind backs, cigars hanging out of their mouths. It was like stepping back in time to the 1940s. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw scrappy children playing with marbles and jacks and young men in news caps shooting craps, it was that antiquated, the only signs of modernity being the satellite dishes and air conditioning units punctuating the building’s surfaces. The common area of these residences was a courtyard of ruins looking like they belonged to a temple, dating back to the early Roman days (or Greek, which heavily influenced the area): a handful of evenly spaced columns, still standing but beginning to crumble, the original ground miraculously unscathed, and a wall preserved in time with a bit of mossy overgrowth and a Latin scrawl in all caps neatly carved into it like stencil.
Having drunk in all the history, it was time to needle our way further into the center of town to drop a pin at a place to eat for dinner that night. After a couple lefts and a right under an archway, we found a stone-walled gem in a dead-end court that had pop art inside. It was siesta now, so we couldn’t put a hold on a table, but we made a mental note to remember where it was. We never did, and after a couple rights and a left under a different archway that brought us in a complete circle, and several confusing compass rotations of Google Maps walking directions, we resigned ourselves to the fact that it just wasn’t meant to be, instead retreating to the outskirts by the big castle by the sea, where we finally landed on Al Pescatore, a flashy corner restaurant with large clear tents outside and white linen tablecloths. They, too, were booked up, but managed to whip up a small two-seater near the kitchen and service station where we spent the entire meal witnessing all the back of the house drama: in-the-weeds shouts and eye rolls and dishes shattering. Dinner and a show.
Craving some seafood a la Amalfi, we ate cocktail shrimp and simple grilled fish with lemon, but stopped midway through for the most fantastic pasta course I had in all of Italy: fresh orecchiette, straight from the fingerprints of Bari women. It was olive green and perfectly al dente and as authentic as it gets, swimming in an addicting butter sauce with baby shrimp and cherry tomatoes. After the waiters straight up turned off all the lights in the restaurant to illuminate candles on cake and sing “Tanti Auguri” for someone’s birthday, we finished the meal with an addicting cereal cheesecake that tasted like Cap’n Crunch.
Venturing over to nightlife central, we ended the night at Chat Noir, the speakeasy bar we saw before, all Chicago red and black, plushy armchairs swathed in beaded blankets, vintage lamps, and ornamental cameos on the wall. I drank a too-sweet strawberry prosecco and my boyfriend had the best Belvedere martini of his life. Pre-conceived TripAdvisor review charm aside, I actually didn’t enjoy this place and it’s sour service too much. Seated uncomfortably at the only rickety chairs in the whole establishment, with a server who scowled at us and refused to acknowledge my presence, requests for a second drink or the check, that was the first time I truly felt like I wasn’t welcome. I chalked it up to being an unfortunately necessary part of the travel experience: that is, you can smile wide and act overly polite and bend to the local customs and tip well and bashfully order in broken Italian all you want, but at the end of the day, some places are just not going to like foreigners wandering into their midst…and especially Americans (who, let’s face it, probably barge in there occupying a lot of loud space and taking flash photography where it’s unwarranted). I gave up trying to overcompensate by smiling too much, instead retreating ashamedly into myself, all bullseye Americana of me: blonde hair, blue eyes, and a sleeve of tattoos, clutching the drink I didn’t even like. My boyfriend’s handsome, brunette features and lack of body art got him a pass, I guess. He got a second martini while I was denied anything past my first drink, but hey, at least his martini was impeccable and I got some good eavesdropping in on a Brit trying too hard to impress his date.
Truthfully, most places in Bari were very friendly and accommodating, but it didn’t go unnoticed by me that locals eyed my tattoos with disdain and didn’t return warm smiles on the street. It was a tad disheartening, the feeling that you’re trying to immerse yourself in the culture only to catch a waitress on a bad day. But I wasn’t meant to feel comfortable. A city as exciting and cultural and historic and artistic as this is not meant to be spoiled by my converted Euros withdrawn from the ATM until it’s on to the next one…it’s meant to be earned. And you only get that by living there.
Desperate for one day of experiencing a beach in Italy, on our final day in Bari, I had grand plans of visiting the Insta-famous Polignano a Mare, which was a short ways away headed south, but soon realized trying to coordinate the buses to get there would take up a big chunk of our afternoon. We instead stayed local, trudging the half hour or so by foot along the waterfront promenade in the heat of the afternoon sun, past the harbor, past the ferris wheel, past the area of the city that looked like it could have been Havana in the 1960s, toting our Airbnb’s bath towels as beach towels, bathing suits under our shorts, socks and sneakers (the only other shoes we had), and a bottle of expensive but cheapo suntan lotion I purchased at a drug store near the apartment.
The beach was small and not too clean, cigarette butts and wrappers in the sand, but it felt like the Jersey Shore, which in turn felt a bit like home. It was partly cloudy and low 70s, but was actually the hottest day of our entire fourteen day vacation, so I braved the occasional chill in the shade just for a chance to dip my bare feet in Apulian sands and Adriatic waters (which were Atlantic-level freezing but Caribbean clear). We ate a slice of pizza and a prosciutto sandwich in the sand from the snack bar and people-watched in-shape men play volleyball and fly kites. (Much to my surprise, Italian men weren’t all brown hair and brown eyes like I was led to believe…here, they had jet black hair, crystal blue eyes, and tan skin.) At the other end of the spectrum, in the grassy park area that felt very 1980s Malibu Beach, bald, leather-skinned men with white tufts of hair in patches on their backs and Santa Claus bellies laid out to dry on the low walls like seals, fast asleep with cigarettes in hand.
After a tiring day of doing nothing, we walked back to our Airbnb, taking the inland way to explore the new New Bari: the business and fashion district that felt a lot like Salerno, high-end designer stores and McDonald’s chains and bougie coffee shops running the length of its massive pedestrian sidewalks of clean slate. To switch it up, we decided we’d do dinner in this area tonight, first stopping at the apartment to peel off our swimsuits, nap, and freshen up. It was a pretty standard, family-friendly restaurant that could have been in any American suburb, but the prawn and shrimp scampi was anything but ordinary. They were out of the waffle ice cream sandwich I ordered for dessert, but made up for it by bringing us the candy dish from the lobby as reparations. By sundown, the streets formerly packed with shoppers and their big Coach bags now hosted weekenders dining and drinking in large outdoor tents with heat lamps. It was a local scene I was not part of, but observed wistfully as we made our way back into the Old Town for one final time before heading back to Naples the next morning.
We finished at party hop row off the piazza, this time picking the place across from Chat Noir that was nautical in theme and German in beer, a menu boasting soft pretzels and dipping cheeses, classic rock on the stereo, and hipsters with piercings and dreads serving and bartending. It was cozy and discreet, like Oscar’s Tavern from back home. This was my kind of place. Gulping ice cold pilsners in frosted mugs, we admired the round, Hobbit-like ceiling, kitschy bathroom signage, and towers of wax-dripped candles, feeling comfortable in their red glow and in our silence, a bit mournful this hodgepodge city of sea and sidewalk, of cathedrals and condominiums, of pasta and palm trees, was all coming to an end.
We awoke very early the next Sunday morning to, lo and behold, another downpour, no umbrellas, and hardly a plan as to how to get to our bus stop for the long journey to Naples. After wasting a lot of time trying to figure out how to return the keys to our nowhere to be found AirBnb host, and me wandering the neighborhood in search of anywhere selling an umbrella or ponchos, we were running frantically late by the time we left to make the 20 or so minute speed walk in the pouring rain to the bus stop, as no cabs were roaming around on a day of worship at that hour. All shops were closed and the few that were open didn’t sell anything for the rain, so by the time we reached the end of the main palm tree-lined boulevard, we gave up trying, our hair and clothes soaked through, our shoes squishy, my glasses entirely obscured. Google Maps once again failed us as we panic-searched for a no-name bus stop near the castle on the oceanfront road. Finally, after running through puddles to get misleading directions from multiple strangers, we eventually reached our inconspicuous stop with only five minutes left to spare, our drenched backpacks dripping on the bus floor as we huffed and shook ourselves dry.
Perhaps we had gotten a little too cocky in our short time in Bari, thinking we had the network of its veiny, incomprehensible streets figured out like the back of our hands. But it chewed us up and spit us out, sending us on our merry way out of its borders, sopping wet, our final look at its shoreline through the foggy bus window. It wasn’t ready for us just yet. We hadn’t earned it.
© 2020 Andrea Festa