Gorgeous Puglia has much to offer anyone who visits this sunny region of Italy. Whitewashed hilltop towns, historical architecture, an azure blue sea and of course amazing food and wine, locally sourced. What more could any traveler yearn for?
Embarking on a visit to Puglia always includes the port town of Bari. Colonized by Rome in the 3rd century BC, Bari, or Barion as the Romans then-dubbed it, is a thriving city.
Bari has been called the gateway to Puglia. Given its busy main port, with cruise ships from all over the globe and daily ferries departing to Greece, Croatia and Albania, among other destinations, Bari is a popular spot in this region and, itself, an incredible destination. Let’s discover what makes this Italian city so full of surprises, history and beauty shall we?
A Step Back in Time
Yes, the busy main port of Bari is something to see but to truly appreciate the uniqueness of Bari you really must go to the old harbor, or Porto Vecchio. It is one of the most historic and traditional places in the city and offers a glimpse into the soul of Bari.
Located between San Nicola and San Antonio piers the old port is a hubbub of fishing activity and a wonderful place to witness the tradition of fishing in Bari as it has existed for millennia.
Bari’s Porto Vecchio is also a popular meeting point for many of her residents. Morning and afternoon might bring out the serious seafood shoppers but as evening draws near and the boats dock for the day, the Portside square takes on a much more festive tone.
Food carts laden with regional street food, including some raw delicacies from the sea, along with beer and other refreshments encourage locals and visitors to mill about and enjoy the evening by the sea. Restaurants and lively bars line the path and you can even take off your shoes and stroll the sandy beach if you like.
Bari’s Historic City Center
Porto Vecchio is located in the historic city center, Bari Vecchio. The old town sits on a peninsula overlooking Porto Vecchio. Inside the walled section of the old city you’ll find an explorer’s dream. Cobbled streets and piazzas are peppered throughout the town and some of the labyrinthian alleys and pathways take you past churches (40 of them!), cathedrals and the stunning Basilica San Nicola (Saint Nicholas).
Saint Nicholas (recognized by many as Santa Claus) is a patron saint of Bari and the Basilica contains relics, or bones, of the saint. Many faithful Christians make a pilgrimage to the Basilica to honor San Nicola, recognized for his generosity throughout the world.
There’s also a Norman castle that’s quite interesting. The Norman-Hohenstaufen Castle, also known as the Normanno-Svevo or Swabian Castle is a medieval structure and is huge. Located between the old port and the cathedral, the impressive fortress is a “can’t miss” site.
The castle has quite a colorful history as well. Built in the 13th century by Emperor Frederick ll (quite colorful himself) and transformed many times over, the castle served as the seat of a Renaissance period court and was run by two women. Today the castle is a museum and cultural center that offers a walk through time inside its impressive walls.
Shopping! Bari’s Bustle and Buzz
Life in Bari is not just about the past. Although fascinating, sometimes you have to step back into the present day and find the enjoyment of the bustle and buzz of this Puglian port city.
Bari’s shopping scene is exciting. Located in central Bari, near the rail station, you’ll find the Fashion Centre. This shoppers’ paradise offers a large selection of designer clothing, leather goods and accessories, among other items from such names as Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Stella McCartney, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermes, Armani and on and on. If you’re looking to indulge this is the pace!
Via Soprano caters to every kind of shopper, from high-end to those who want to bring home a little something special from one of the most famous shopping streets in Puglia.
One of our favorite shopping experiences is the Corso Cavour, which opens to the water at the end, and via Manzoni district. These narrow streets are brimming with activity and you can find all manner of unique shops, artisan crafts and fashion stores and boutiques. When you have shopped and are ready to drop stop in one of the lovely cafes or restaurants that also line the streets
Situated at the Via Santa Caterina is the Centro Commerciale Mongolfiera. Here you’ll find local Italian designers along with international retailers.
A Street of Pasta?
Italians are known for their iconic love of pasta. And anyplace that claims an annual pasta consumption of 50 lbs per person is definitely a country of pasta lovers! But the Italians are also known for their devotion to tradition and making their own pasta is a cherished one. In Italy each region has their special pasta and in Bari it’s orecchiette. The pasta is so popular that there is a street, Strada Arco Basso, that is affectionately known as Via delle Orecchiette.
Stroll the street and come upon the older section and you will see, almost directly across from the famous Norman Swabian castle, an alleyway of women busily making the little ear shaped bits of pasta goodness. You’ll be mesmerized by the deft and easy manner in which these mammas and nonas make this delightful pasta. The shape is just perfect for catching the luscious sauces for which Bari is known.
More Food to Try? Of Course! It’s Italy!
Another local dish you should try while in Bari is called riso, patate e cozze. Seafood is prevalent and oh-so-fresh in Bari and the people of Bari showcase it in many different ways. This dish of layered rice, potato and mussels, seasoned with garlic, tomatoes and salt and pepper, baked over a wood fire in a pot made of terracotta, is a great way to sample local fare.
Street food is another popular nosh. If you aren’t quite into the raw seafood that’s sampled out at the Porto Vecchio try a panzerotti. This is a simple cheese and tomato stuffed pastry that is deep fried and served hot. Another street food along the same lines is the calzone di cipola. Similar to the calzones with which you’re familiar, this is a kind of closed pizza that’s stuffed with cheese, onions and olives and sometimes capers, raisins and anchovies.
You’ve likely heard of braciole, meat that is stuffed, rolled and simmered to succulent perfection in a tasty ragu sauce. The traditional Bari braciole is made of horse meat.
As is part of the Italian magic of food there is a dish called fave e cicoria a luscious bean dish that combines fava beans and chicory along with a potato for the right consistency. It is pureed and served alongside the heart Puglian bread.
And of course there is always a sweet end to a delicious meal in Bari. Custard filled sporcamuss pastries, crumbly and delectable intorchiate almond cookies and a deep fried cartellate“rose” shaped pastry made of strips of dough artistically put together to resemble the flower. It is often served alongside some honey or sugar for dipping.
The Unique Culture of Bari
The harbor front is home to a beautiful building, the Teatro Margherita. It’s been compared to the famous La Scan in Milan and the San Carlos in Naples, both quite beautiful and appreciated for their acoustical qualities for centuries. Bari’s Teatro Margherita has hosted many of the greats for more than a century. You can tour the Teatro and see the stage where the likes of Luciano Pavarotti sang and Rudolph Nureyev danced.
Music is a much-loved pastime in Bari and there are several venues, from bars and clubs to auditoriums to the street performers in the piazza.
Bari: a Captivating Destination
Bari is a beautiful city with much to see, experience and appreciate. The people of Bari are welcoming, the food is amazing and the history is fascinating. All of this in a wondrous spot on the shore of the sparkling azure Adriatic. The beauty of Bari will follow you home and remain in your heart for a very long time.
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