When it’s cold and grey in January, I like to let my mind wander back to things to do in Bari, Italy. Walking the sea coast in Europe is #1. Eating fresh caught fish is #2. Exploring ancient streets in #3. Visiting Basilicla di San Nicola is #4. And so the list goes on . . .
In July 2018, I hiked in Southern Italy in the region known as the “heel” or “boot” of Italy. While Puglia is attracting more European visitors thanks to direct trips by low-cost airlines, it is not nearly as popular as star destinations, such as Rome, Florence, Venice and Tuscany.
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I am still haunted by memories of the Adriatic Sea, as this was the first time that I had ever seen it. Its long blue arm seemed to cross the big shoulder of the horizon. It stretches from the Gulf of Venice in the north along a 500-mile Italian coastline, eventually merging into the Ionian Sea. Seven European counties claim coastlines on the Adriatic Sea: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and Slovenia.
The Adriatic is a constant presence in the port city of Bari, which is the capital of Puglia. Oftentimes people visiting this region skip it, as they are enroute to the Roman enclave of Lecce or spending a week at a beach resort.
Things to Do in Bari
But Bari deserves at least a weekend. Things to do in Bari, Italy always revolve around the sea. Cobalt blue boats bob in the harbor. There is a pungent salty smell when you walk anywhere.
Bari is a cosmopolitan city. Its long avenues run parallel to the Adriatic Sea.
Staying by the sea always uncorks my inner child, reminding me of long sunburnt days building sand castles and wrestling with the waves on a flimsy air raft.
My favorite Bari neighborhood is old town Bari Vecchia. I wander down the skinny streets near the two medieval churches. It is mazelike—a puzzle to be mentally assembled by the mind with its darkened alleys, one-way streets and nonsensical deadends. The medieval enclave straddles two harbors.
The tall homes rise four stories high and boast intricate balconies. Multiple homes keep twirly toys inserted in their black wrought balconies. The windows seemingly monitor my halting progress like old nonnas who hang out from an upper-story window.
I walk in twilight because the hot Italian sun can’t flood these narrow passageways with light. Stopping often, I raise my head to closely examine the architecture.
Duomo di Bari
My next stop is the Duomo di Bari (Cattedrale di San Sabino). There is a Saturday morning wedding so the church steps are adorned with a long white carpet, reminiscent of the train on a bride’s gown.
The Cathedral is massive so I spend about 45 minutes wandering through the building.
I also buy a ticket to see the crypt. It strikes me as creepy to go into the vault which Is the underground chamber beneath the floor of the church. I enter this coffin space and feel trapped. Crypts typically contain coffins, sarcophagi, and religious relics.
The church is home to the relics of Saint Sabinus brought here in the 9th century. Consecrated in 1292, the Duomo di Bari is a medieval church constructed on Roman foundations. It was an ancient Christian basilica.
Basilica di San Nicola
Equally notable in the Old Town is the Basilica di San Nicola, a key pilgrimage site for Catholics and Orthodox Christians. It is Bari’s top tourist attraction An early example of a Norman church in this region, its exterior is the color of sand. Lonely Planet describes it as an important place of pilgrimage: “Bari’s signature basilica was one of the first Norman churches to be built in southern Italy, and is a splendid (if square and solid) example of Pugliese-Romanesque architecture.”
This Romanesque architecture church is the resting place of the relics of the real-life Greek Saint Nicholas (who is believed to be the inspiration for Santa Claus).
How the saint’s bones ended up in Bari is quite fantastical. The city fathers were quite jealous of Venice’s fame and wanted to earn the distinction. So in 1087, sailors from Bari traveled across the seas to steal the bones of Saint Nicholas. He was an early Christian bishop from the maritime city of Myra. The sailors broke open the crypt and stole away with the bishop’s remains.
They were chased back to their boat but succeeded in their theft. Saint Nicholas was famous for his early works of charity for the poor, including secretly giving gifts that he threw into the windows of houses. His feast day is December 6 in Western Christian countries, such as Italy and Spain. The holiday is celebrated on December 19 in Eastern Christian countries.
Gateway to Puglia
I know Bari plundered my heart, as the gateway to Puglia. It was the perfect introduction to the oddities of Southern Italy, with its cave dwellings in Matera, trulli homes in Alberobello and Roman encampments in Lecce. And like Saint Nicholas, the city dispenses its gifts of medieval churches, museums, art galleries, and world-class seafood restaurants.
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