The first stop on the epic Italian adventure was Bari, a port town on the northern/eastern coast of Puglia. I was excited to see it because I was reading a book about the First Crusade over the summer and some of the Crusaders set off from this port, and were generally from around this area; southern Italy was conquered by the Normans around about the same time they conquered England, in case you didn't know. They built a castle here.
Interesting hotel - the window looked out onto a covered, internal courtyard, but it did have this -
They ignored our request for twin beds, which wasn't unusual as it turned out; we both tried to stay as far to the edge as possible, which is probably why Tutt fell out of bed in the night. There was also a roof top bar which promised wine tasting, but when we went there, around 10pm, it was completely deserted. Disappointing - it meant there was no wine consumed on night one of the holiday. Wrong!
After we'd walked to the hotel through what felt like quite a threatening part of town, around the train station, we went out for a walk along the sea front and then through the windy alleys of the old town. It is a proper maze there. Apparently they built it like that on purpose to protect the residents from (a) the strong winds off the sea and (b) marauding troops, who would supposedly get completely lost/hopelessly separated.
Having walked around these windy streets a lot, I can completely understand how this tactic would work. The thing that amazed me about it was that we'd walk through some teeny narrow street, with old folks sitting outside their front doors on chairs playing backgammon or cards (yes, actually saw this), and barely enough room to swing a cat, and then we'd come across a car parked by the side of the road. A car! I would have felt the necessity to breathe in if I'd been driving a moped down some of those streets.
After our walk around we went for dinner at L'Osteria del Borgo Antico which had tables free out in the main square and a reasonable looking menu. I was keen to tuck right into the antipasti and their cheese platter really did not disappoint -
One of these was a delicious type of (I think) mozzarella they seem to serve everywhere in the south - soft in the centre so it just oozes across the plate when it is cut into. The cheese souffle on the left of the platter was also very good. Mmmm, cheese.
As if this wasn't enough dairy for one night, we toddled off to the bright ice cream parlour at the edge of the square, which had been dead two hours earlier but was now bursting at the seams. Took us a moment to work out how to order: pay the clerk for what you want, order the flavours with the ladies and your receipt. I tried caramelised fig which was delicious. Tutt had chocolate but it gave her some problems -
We sat and ate these on a low wall on the adjoining main square. By this point it was about 10pm and La Passegiatta was in full swing - Italians strolling everywhere, strutting up and down eating slices of pizza or ice cream, walking dogs, showing off to their friends and so on. It was a warm evening with a light breeze and excellent people watching (whilst also laughing with Tutt about her ice cream pouring all over her hand, top, bag, purse, feet....) - all in all, a fine way to get the holiday off to a great start.
The next morning we set out early from out hotel, after a breakfast involving cake (what breakfast should be without it?), and walked around the town wall in the opposite direction. It's clustered with quaint little houses, again, usually with lots of people sitting outside them watching things happen.
It was gloriously sunny. We walked until we found the church of St Nicholas - or the tomb of Santa Claus, as it is also known. It was a really fascinating place.
Of course it is a Catholic church, being in Italy; but St Nicholas is also an extremely important person to the orthodox Church, so there were any number of Orthodox people filing into the crypt below the church to pray, decked out in head scarves. Literally, coachloads of them turned up. At first we thought there was some kind of ceremony going on and so didn't venture down, but eventually curiosity got the better of me -
(There were other people taking pictures; I wasn't breaking any rules, I don't think). More about St Nicholas and Bari here - we didn't see any Juice of Santa Claus for sale but had read about it in the guidebook.
Upstairs there was a wedding just about to begin so we sat in the pews for a while until the bride walked down the aisle, soaking up the atmosphere. Then, a short walk back to the hotel via the Norman castle for inspection, then a tramp in the midday sun to find the hire car place (staffed by the rudest man in the history of the world) ... and then off to the Gargano peninsula for the next adventure.
I can really recommend Bari. We were there for just under 24 hours and I can't imagine spending a whole week in the place, but it would definitely have borne further investigation. I think it would be a nice place to hang out in pavement cafes, people watching; of course there's no shortage of places like this, but exploring the tiny alleys would be fun for at least half a day. There was also some kind of opera venue that looked interesting, and I'm sorry I didn't get a closer look at the castle.