A stop-over in Puglia's hectic metropolis

Trip Start Apr 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Flag of Italy  ,
Monday, May 21, 2007

We're part-way through the dash down to (hopefully) sunny Greece, pausing momentarily at one of Italy's largest Adriatic ports. As most Italians can probably tell you, Bari doesn't exactly have the best of reputations. Known for its confusingly mazelike old town, terrible traffic, high crime rate and chaotic streetlife, it's the kind of place most people get in and out of as quickly as possible. Most travel guides advise just that, making no mention of anything that may be of interest to the average tourist. Mayu wasn't too keen about us spending any significant time here, but I tried to reassure her that - according to most sources - it's gotten better in recent years. In any case, surely a stroll around town beats spending hours in the train station!

Actually, it's not that bad of a place. Sure, the main thoroughfares are overflowing with belching cars, buses and trucks. Parking doesn't appear to correspond to any sort of order or rules. There isn't a single tourist around (hey, that's a good thing, right?) and the infrastructure isn't the least bit set up to cater to them. The centro storico is dirty, sun-baked and baffling to get around in, and an awful lot of police seem to be lurking around waiting for something bad to happen. But at the same time, that same old town is fascinating to wander through. It helps to have a map, for sure, but it gives a great insight into the southern Italy of old, without the gawking, jabbering tour groups.

Oddly enough, Bari is home to the relics of St. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas -  the one the Santa Claus mythology comes from. It was a little bizarre stumbling upon the church playing host to them. It was even more bizarre being there with a bunch of Russian tourists (eh?), but apparently there's some Russian arts fair going on in town. Adding to the puzzle was the question of why the completely untouristed castle by the water was asking a €12 admission fee. It's perhaps understandable in light of admission fees we've encountered elsewhere, but seriously - supply and demand?

The whole labyrinthine historic quarter made for a pleasant surprise for me. For a city with such a rough-and-tumble reputation, it was pleasure to explore. The old stone facades and Romanesque churches were distinctly reminiscent of Split, Croatia for me. Perhaps it's only logical given that it's just across the Adriatic. Anyhow, sometimes it pays to put away preconceptions about a place and just have a look.

Now we're waiting for the onward ferry to Patras with a huge group of Americans and an equally large number of British soccer fans. I think it's going to be an interesting night. . .
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