“Bari is flat, so it’s perfect for cycling,” says Alf, who turns to look at me as he pedals. I have it easy, I’m sat under the canopy of his rickshaw and taking a foodie tour around Bari Vecchia, the old town in the heart of Apulia capital.
We’re in Italy but Alf, or Alfredo, is Spanish. He’s one of a team of Veloservice’s multilingual rickshaw drivers. The company works mainly with tour and cruise groups but also offers bespoke tours. The goal of mine is to gain a taster of Bari’s heritage and cuisine.
Touring the streets of Bari Vecchia
As we roll into town, along the busy Corso Cavour, warm evening sunlight casts long shadows. While we’re underway I learn that just 2,000 of Bari’s 320,000 inhabitants live in Bari Vecchia, which has 30 churches.
We pause on the Piazza del Ferrarese, a public square where locals are sitting and chatting – a handful have brought chairs from their houses. It strikes me that on Britain’s streets it’s youths who hang out together but here it’s often old men in flat caps. Not all though. A couple of young lads pass a football back and forth. An inquisitive kid comes over to inspect the rickshaw. We’re parked next to a sunken, uncovered section of Roman road.
Pilloried at Piazza Mercantile
At the Piazza Mercantile we stop by the ‘column of justice’ a stone pillory with a medieval lion sculpture. I hear how in bygone times people would have been tied naked to the pillory and humiliated on market days. Bars now surround the square, which becomes the hub for weekend nightlife. Freshly landed fish used to be sold on the square, in front of the governor’s palace. Being based near the harbour meant the authorities were well-placed for levying taxes and controlling the arrival of pilgrims.
“This is the most important city in the West for Orthodox people,” says Alf as he navigates along narrow lanes with time worn beige flagstones, turning expertly between stone buildings which have a warm, pinky hue. Rickshaws can enter alleys that are not accessible to cars.
Visiting the Basilica of St Nicholas
At the Basilica of St Nicholas I look up at the huge, east-facing rose window that lets light flood the church on mornings. The design is typical of Apulian churches. As the sun rises the interior remains in shadow and cool.
Oxen are carved by the main entrance of the basilica, which has an Orthodox chapel in the crypt and a grand Roman Catholic altar on the ground floor. In medieval times the relics of saints were key to drawing pilgrims, so good for a city’s economy. A party of sailors raided Myra, in modern day Turkey, for the bones of St Nicholas and brought them back on 8 May 1087. According to legend, the oxen drawing his relics refused to budge once they reached this spot. It was regarded a divine sign, so chosen as the location for the basilica.
A statue of St Nicholas stands outside. It was a gift from Russia and came with a greeting from Vladimir Putin, who has visited the crypt.
The origins of Santa Claus
By the la colonna miracolosa, a red stone column inside an iron cage, I hear how women throw bigliettini (‘little tickets’) inside. They bear the name of man they’d like to be their husband.
St Nicholas is the patron saint of children as well as women. My guide recounts a legend about a poor family, with three daughters, living in Myra during the 4th century. Poverty forced the women into prostitution. Over three separate nights, St Nicholas is said to have dropped three golden balls (with which you’ll see him depicted in paintings and statues) down the chimney, thus providing for their dowries and saving them from their profession.
Back then his intervention was deemed a miracle. Today searching questions would probably be asked if a bishop was to leave gold at a house inhabited by prostitutes. If you’ve ever wondered why Santa Claus slips down chimneys to deliver gifts then the basis is this legend.
Where to find freshly baked Focaccia
Around the corner from the basilica we head into Panificio Fiore (Strada Palazzo di Città 38), a bakery from which the delicious aroma of fresh bread is wafting. The interior walls bear icons of St Nicholas. Amphorae stand by carved pillars – remnants from an 8th century church. Focaccia bread is sold by weight. Slices cost around €1 each and are proving popular with locals.
I’m ushered into the kitchen, where a smiling baker greets me while kneading dough with his fingertips in the style of a manic piano player playing a concerto. Exuberantly, he sprinkles salt and olive oil over the circular dough before chucking on a topping of olives and tomatoes.
“I make 50 to 60 in a half-day shift. More if the weather’s really good and we have lots of tourists,” he says before placing his work into the bakery’s wood-fired oven. On leaving I grab a slice of his handiwork, which is simple and delicious.
A delicatessen with Apulian cuisine
Alf pedals us past the subtly illuminated white façade of Bari’s cathedral to the Antica Salumeria (Strada dei Bianchi Dottula 17), a rustic, family-run delicatessen with a boar’s head by the door. Flintlock pistols are ranged on the walls, above stone arches. In broken English the owner tells me the shop has been in his family for four generations and 150 years.
Bottles of wine, regional cheeses and taralli (bread rings made from flour and olive oil), are among the wares on sale in the attractively laid out store. I nibble on olives, dip into an intensely creamy strachiatella cheese and taste Apulian salami before moving on.
Street food in Bari Vecchia
On an under lit square in the centre of Bari Vecchia a woman wearing a blue striped pinafore stands under a once red, sun-bleached umbrella that bears a Peroni advert. Hot oil fizzles in a broad pan and she fries slices of polenta to make sgagliozze. As she cooks I learn this woman is called Carmela. She sprinkles salt onto the sgagliozze. Six slices, served on a paper plate, cost €1. This is what locals eat after they’ve had a couple of drinks I learn. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of deep fried food.
Carmela is, however, a fantastic cook. Using a knife, she scrapes a doughy sausage of fresh pasta – made from semolina flours and water – along a wooden board. Working at speed with her thumbs she creates ear-shaped forms known as orecchiette, Bari’s traditional pasta.
Orecchiette – Bari’s speciality pasta
Hundreds of orecchiette dry on a metal grill by her table. She’s one of dozens of women who sit outdoors in the old town, making pasta which is sold directly to passing individuals as well as restaurants and hotels. With a rasping voice Carmela explains she started making orecchiette aged six.
She returns to her pans when the leaves of a broccoli-like vegetable, cime di rapa, are simmering. Carmela adds orecchiette. In a separate pan, with a tomato sauce, she heats anchovies, garlic and olive oil. The result is delicious, inexpensive food that I eat while sat by plastic table a couple of metres from her stall.
Alf, too, has enjoyed a plateful of orecchiette, so is fuelled for the journey back to the hotel. It’s been an insightful tour and an enjoyable way of tasting the traditional cuisine of Bari and the Apulia region.
To learn more about attractions the Apulia region see the Pugliapromozione – Apulia Tourism’s website.
If you’re thinking about combining a visit to Apulia with other destinations in Italy, see the Italian Tourism website.
For details on how to book a rickshaw tour, a bicycle tour or to hire a cycle take a look at the Veloservice website (Strada Vallisa 81, 70122 Bari; tel. +39 389 6207353).
Where to stay in Bari
The VOI Hotel Oriente (Corso Cavour 32, 70122 Bari; tel. +39 (0)80 5255100) is a 4-star hotel located near the Teatro Petruzzelli, within a 10-minute stroll of Bari’s old town. The hotel has 75 guestrooms, meeting facilities plus a bar-restaurant which doubles as the breakfast room. The building was constructed in 1928 as the Palazzo Marroccoli. Head up to the rooftop to enjoy an evening drink with views over the city.
Where to eat and drink in Bari
If you’re in the mood for an ice cream choose from the many flavours available at the long-established Martinucci café on Piazza Mercantile.
To enjoy a glass of Apulia’s Primitivo wine in a central setting head to the terrace of La Parilla de Juan (Piazza Mercantle 21), where wi-fi is available.
How to get there
Alitalia operates direct flights between London Stansted and Karol Wojtyla International Airport (named in honour of the man who became Pope John Paul II). KLM flies between Newcastle International Airport and Bari, via its Amsterdam Schiphol hub.