We arrived in Bari as the sun began to dip, casting its apricot glow over the pale, whitewashed houses and turning the sky a deep pink as it broke through the remnant clouds, threatening an otherwise perfect afternoon. This was my first time in Puglia after several years of dreaming of its rugged coves, white sand beaches and clear, turquoise waters.
Living up in northern Italy, walking cobblestone streets, staring out over mile upon mile of wheat neatly sprouting from the verdant Po valley, it was hard to believe that terracotta and marble could give way to flat-roofed, almost Greek-like buildings just a bit further down south. The thought of something so synonymous with summer holidays and scorching heat just at the end of the train line seemed impossible.
Bari is an industrial city, a port, the regional capital and rarely thought of as a must-see for tourists. Yet there I was, list of recommendations in hand, curious to discover what Puglia had to offer. A few paces from the station, wide, modern streets interspersed with the occasional palm tree, eventually gave way to the historic centre with its twisting alleyways and arches. Continue between the sand-coloured walls, beneath balconies festooned with washing lines, and you eventually reach the sea.
We left the main streets of modern Murat with its rows of clothing shops, busy with locals enjoying the relatively cool evening, and followed a passage into the old town or Bari Vecchia. The contrast was immense, bustling shoppers and music turned into the stillness of the evening. A few children played here and there and elderly ladies or nonne, perched out on rickety wooden kitchen chairs in front of their houses, rolling pasta between their thumbs and forefingers and collecting it in trays.
The nonne of Bari are known for making Orecchiette pasta by hand, out on tables in the streets beside their houses, so it was no surprise to come across them. Stumbling upon a pair of elderly ladies, all clad in black, sitting out chatting at dusk, accompanied (of course) by their piles of pasta, seemed however as if we were stuck in some sort of dream.
Around another corner we spotted a gap in the maze of buildings, and there lay the aptly named Largo Albicocca with it’s apricot coloured houses and lights strung like stars above the tiny square. It’s also known as Piazza degli Innamorati (“the square of the lovers”) and for good reason, it feels like a romantic secret. A few children darted after a football between washing racks laden with clothes. It was almost as if the whole square lived together and the piazza acted as some sort of communal garden; a garden to which it just so happened the odd tourist was allowed access. Locals chatting on doorsteps paid us no notice as we walked by, down more winding alleyways and towards the sea and the main square.
I was told to try panzerotti, if I ever found myself in Bari, and so dinner consisted of a pair of the crispy, crescent-moon shaped snacks, one sweet, one savoury. We ate these and washed them down with a Peroni, perched on the sea wall. Similar to a calzone, just deep fried and palm-sized, we found a place dedicated to them near Piazza Mercantile. Every sort of filling you could imagine, with different combinations written on enormous boards across the back of the shop. These ranged from the most simple and classic mozzarella and tomato, to jam or even nutella, all encased in dough and then submerged into hot oil until golden. At about 2€ apiece, they made for a very economical meal and appeared to be popular with a number of others, also busy consuming them in various corners of the square.
The city’s lungomare stretches around the older part of Bari with a relatively peaceful view of the Adriatic, that is until you reach the port. Here a stream of ferries carry both goods and customers across the sea to the Balkan peninsula and beyond. We took the elevated and “pedestrianised” Via Venezia which wound along, following the lungomare, and gave an attractive view of the glittering lights of the ships further out at sea. We passed a family having supper outside, their kitchen almost spilling into the street with an array of freshly caught and cooked fish spread out delicately on a checked tablecloth. More nonne sitting whispering amongst themselves, watched us as we wandered back into the tangle of the old town, past quietly crumbling churches nestled between rows of shuttered, apricot-tinged houses.
In the days that followed we continued our journey down through the heel of Italy, taking in the clear blue waters and row upon row of olive trees that Puglia is famed for. Yet Bari stuck with me for its nonne, Largo Albicocca, the panzerotti, and how it came alive at dusk. I had not expected too much from it, but when I entered the old town, it felt as if I was strolling around someone’s backyard. It seemed unpretentious, casual and friendly, quite different from the northern cities and Rome. It offered a window into life in the far south of the country.
Dishes to try:
Panzerotti – Like a deep fried calzone yet smaller and eaten on the move. They seem to be available with a huge variety of fillings. Try the classic mozzarella and tomato or the regional special cime di rapa (turnip tops). Nutella in a panzerotto also makes for a fun dessert.
Orecchiette – Hand rolled by the nonne of Bari and then dried on huge trays in the sun, this pasta’s name can literally be translated to ‘little ears.’Often served with a sauce of (again) cime di rapa, they are also delicious with broccoli and salsiccia.
Focaccia – Usually associated with the northern region of Liguria, Bari’s version of the Italian bread comes round, studded with fresh tomatoes and olives. Try as a snack from one of the city’s many bakeries.
Olive oil – So many olive groves nearby make for excellent, flavoursome olive oil.
Taralli – Not strictly from Bari but found across Puglia, these small, savoury rings of baked dough are part boiled before cooking. Made using white wine and olive oil, they are often flavoured with fennel seeds or flakes of chilli and make a good pre-dinner snack.
Sgagliozze – Deep-fried squares of polenta, a salty, crispy snack to eat on the move.
Places to visit:
Largo Albicocca (or Piazza degli Innamorati) – A very romantic courtyard in the old town. Strings of lights illuminate the square and locals and tourists chat between a few olive trees. On one side lies Pizzeria di Cosimo which sells a wide variety of pizzas and panzerotti, perfect to eat in the piazza with a drink.
Piazza Mercantile – The centre of the old town, the piazza used to be used for a market and is overlooked by an attractive, 16th century clock tower. The square is now home to a number of lively restaurants and bars.
Murat – Bari’s main shopping area, complete with plenty of Italian clothing shops and gelaterie.
Basilica San Nicola – A beautiful white church in the centre of the city’s old town. It dates from the 12th century and is romanesque in style.
Via Venezia – Follow this street above the main lungomare for views across the harbour and out into the Adriatic. Particularly atmospheric at night.
Bari’s bakeries – Bakery Santa Rita and Panificio Fiore in the old town sell traditional Focaccia Barese, topped generously with fresh tomatoes and olives. Try Maria delle Sgagliozze for some deep-fried polenta.