I was intrigued by Bari, but I don’t believe the right word for it was “excited”. At least not the same way that I’ve been excited to visit other cities. Boy was I wrong. I checked in and dropped off my luggage at the Albergo delle Nazionali, which is just across the street from the sea. I set off on foot toward the old town, having no plans but to find myself some lunch in a piazza where I could do some people watching and sipping on local wine. It’d been a busy last week and a half, so I opted to just see where the wind took me.
As I walked along the edge of the water on the sidewalk, I came up to a small port where I could see fishermen cleaning up their catch of the day. It took me a whole 3 seconds to recognize where I was. I’d seen it many times before, but not personally. Elizabeth and Sophie Minchilli visit Bari often and when they do, one of their main stops is at this port to taste test the local fish. In that moment, I sure wish I liked fish! There were tables set up, with plates full of different kinds of fish, each with a wedge of lemon on it. I sat there staring at the fish, with my camera clutched in my hands, when all of the sudden two fishermen weren’t going to let me go without asking me to buy something. When I turned them down, one of them came back right away with “buy a fish for your mamma.” I told him my mamma is in America and I don’t think the fish would like that long of a journey. By the look of surprise on his face, I think he liked my very strange response.
I bid the fishermen farewell and looked at the skyline to see which way was one of the tall towers or churches that I knew I’d probably plant myself in front of for a while. I passed a group of tourists on a walking tour, then Italian families that you could see where on holiday, pointing at a map that they had in their hands. I saw tourists on a bike tour, their fearless leader hardly looking in front of himself as he shouted back to the people behind him, in a strong German accent. By then I had made it into one of the main squares, where each restaurant is packed, side by side to each other, most with seating in the glass containers that make me feel like a fish in a fishbowl. If you’ve been to Italy, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. In one corner was an old fountain and people were lined up filling their water bottles.
I found a small restaurant that served only meat and cheese plates and panini. No menu on the tables to be found, everything was written on chalkboards, which were hanging on the doors of the place. I took a seat, ordered a spritz and panini. I was more thirsty than hungry, but I couldn’t resist when I saw a panino go by me, the fior di latte cheese dripping from the bread. I sat and took my time at this place, I could tell it was family run and the women behind the counter were inviting and kind. I ordered a second spritz and bantered back and forth a bit with the owner. She was stunned when I told her how much aperol costs in the states! (Double that it does in Italy).
My next stop was to visit the churches in the old town. I rounded the corner and came upon my first church, which was the Basilica di San Nicola. I was immediately drawn to the entrance of the church, which still had the impressive external details, such as the two lions that are carved out of limestone. I circled both of them, in complete awe that these have somehow withstood so much time and so much ware in the weather. There they stood, intact and still fiercely guarding the doors of the church. I walked into one of the side doors and was floored at what I was looking at. Finally, a differently designed church. The arches which crossed from one side to the other of the church, were slightly off set, but obviously on purpose. It drew me in and had me gapping, literally with my mouth hanging open saying “woooow” until I realized I said it a bit too loud and a lady in front of me turned around and giggled. The ceilings were a brilliant red and gold. The paintings seemed fresh and new, so vibrant against the stone of the structure it was painted on.
I saw someone walk down a staircase to the back right of the church and proceeded to follow them, hoping that the crypt was open. It was open, but there was currently a church session or mass happening (and in Russian I believe), so I stood by the door and gazed across the crypt. Others passed me and walked straight through, taking photos without even a slight bit of hesitation. Though I’m not religious, I believe we should all have the same respect for each others beliefs and with that comes space. I took a couple of photos of the entrance, but I took my leave pretty quickly.
From the church I zig zagged through the small alley ways, making up each turn as I went. I passed by grandmothers that were planted in their folding chairs, each wearing a decorated apron and they were in their house slippers. They were chatting with someone either in the house across from them or to another person in a balcony nearby. I call those people the “Italian security guards”, always silently watching from above.
Bari certainly lacks in the rain department, so the streets aren’t as washed down as you’d hope. Though the only smells I was experiencing were coming from the kitchens with their windows open. I smelled sauces being cooked, espresso being brewed, I could hear chopping on a cutting board and a voice asking for someone to get something out of the fridge. Each of these small moments made me feel relaxed and so at home in this foreign place. There’s one thing that Italy does to each of it’s visitors, even to people that don’t claim that they are foodies- they become foodies while they are in Italy. If you ever travel to Italy and don’t eat well, you’re doing it all wrong…somehow. It’s not just about a fancy dinner reservation that you make at a Michelin star restaurant, food is a way of life, it’s a daily enjoyment of flavors and mainly of balance.
I was walking along, thinking about which way I should head next, when I came across a woman sitting outside of her home, making pasta on a table. Her head was down and she was focused, but you could tell this was a rhythm that her hands knew well. She pressed and pushed, pressed and pushed and then grabbed the next set of pasta dough that was on the side and began the same repetitive motions. Pressed to make the shape, pushed it to the side to dry. She looked up from her work and greeted me. Not in the most welcoming of ways, but more cautious as she looked from my camera to me and then at her work. She probably knew I wasn’t going to buy anything, but she asked anyways. I told her that I was still traveling for a while, otherwise I wish that I could buy the whole table of goodies. I asked if I could take a photo and she nodded and went back to work.
I continued on and just a couple of unknown turns later, I saw an old column, then two, then I realized it was a small courtyard with 6 of them. Not all completely intact, but there they stood, surrounded by apartments and cars parked next to them. Like they weren’t there at all. I walked closer and realized that the ground where the columns were, were made up of very well placed and beautiful tile. Not mosaics, but just tiles that were all placed quite differently, never mimicking the last pattern. The shapes and colors all different as well. I looked around for a sign, some kind of explanation of what this fantastic find was, but all I saw were two men, sitting on the side of the courtyard, drinking beers and passing the time.
Just like this small courtyard, I felt like I had found a special place in Italy as well. I really enjoyed my time in Bari and I look forward to my return. Possibly even in 2019?