Nel blu dipinto di blu (knell blew dee-pean-toe dee blew) starts off the refrain of ‘Volare‘ (voh-lah-ray), one of those songs that came out of Italy in the 1950’s and were played, some would say, ad nauseum. The lyrics of one made (in)famous by Dean Martin tell it all: ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore… Italians apparently detest the things. In any event, during the seemingly endless days of bleak, gray skies and bone-chilling dampness that was last January, I fell into a bit of a funk. A dispiriting sludge of cravings for blue and the feeling that the sun had taken off for another, more enlightened solar system. Of course I knew the sun was up there all along, but after days and days of having not made an appearance, it might as well have not existed. Like the good in some people. You see how dark my thoughts were getting? So I resorted to my favourite antidote. I started planning a trip to Italy. To a region I hadn’t been to in a while. Puglia. The ‘heel’ of Italy. Between the blue skies and coastline – 800 km of it – my blue cravings were bound to volare. Fly away.
Of course, if I had just wanted to see a lot of water, I could have taken a road trip around Lake Ontario. The shore of Lake Ontario is 1170 km long, so if you lop off a couple of the bigger inlets, you’re talking similar numbers. But there was something wrong with that comparison, so I booked a flight to Rome and then, more because of a dislike for airports than a preference for train stations, a dislike that had been exacerbated by the hours-long delay in the departure of the connecting flight on my last trip to Puglia, I decided to go the rest of the way by train.
Then I started looking at places to stay. In this era of world-wide access to lodgings, if you’re looking for a buon rapporto qualità-prezzo, January is not at all early for a May trip. I soon had all the accommodations booked, starting with two nights in a charming B&B in Polignano a Mare, one of my favourite seaside villages on my last trip.
Then I looked at the train schedule. And that is when I discovered the flaw in my lovely itinerary. The fastest train, the Frecciargento (Silver Arrow), took four hours. Which makes sense, given that the distance between Rome and Bari is 450 km, compared to 544 between Toronto and Montreal and the train between those two cities, which I had taken more than once, takes over five hours. But I wasn’t thinking along those lines. I was thinking about Italy, three and a half of which could easily fit into the province of Ontario.
My flight was scheduled to land in Rome at 11:40 am. By the time I made my way through customs, picked up my luggage, took the shuttle to the Stazione Termini in Rome, the earliest train I could reasonably hope to catch left at 14:45 and arrived at Bari Centrale at 18:49. The good news was that the Bari station really is centrale. The bad news was that the car rental agency, a ten-minute walk from the station, closed at 18:00. Polignano was a forty-minute drive south of Bari.
After indulging in a bit of self-flagellation I pulled myself together and slightly buoyed by the thought that I had chosen the slightly more expensive cancellazione gratis option, I cancelled the reservation in Polignano and started looking at B&B’s in Bari. It’s not a place I would have chosen to visit. Until fairly recently its reputation has been, let’s say, chequered, and as a woman d’une certain âge travelling on my own, I am more comfortable erring on the side of caution, but I figured I could manage one night. Besides, what choice did I have? Despite the many warnings about visiting Bari Vecchia (Old Bari) at night, I found a simple B&B in the heart of the centro storico. If I had to stay in Bari, I wanted to stay in the most interesting part. On the B&B site, the location was described as a 15-minute walk from the train station. What that didn’t take into account of course was the circuitous route a jet-lagged, first-time visitor was likely to take.
The first part, between the station and Old Bari, was easy. It went through the ‘new’ part of the city that had been built in the 19th century on the Roman grid system. Once I found Via Sparano all I had to do was keep on going.
Once I crossed over to the other side of Corso Emanuele and entered Old Bari things got a lot more challenging.
Fortunately the B&B was close to Bari’s numero uno church, the Basilica di San Nicola and there were lots of signs pointing the way. I managed to stay awake long enough to have dinner at a trattoria nearby and then it was Buona notte. I had set my alarm for 8 am – none of that gentle switch-over to local time for me when I’m on a trip – but I needn’t have bothered. The adrenalin rush of being on a trip had, as usual, reset my circadian rhythm. After breakfast I had a couple of hours to explore the town before picking up my car at 11. I probably could have picked it up earlier, but then I would have had to return it earlier at the end of my trip to avoid being dinged for an extra day.
I spent most of my book-ended visit to Bari exploring the centro storico. It really was a labyrinth and I got lost many times, but it was so small I knew that no matter which narrow alley I followed, I would eventually come to the sea or one of the major landmarks.
More than any other region of Italy I’ve visited, signs of religious devotion are everywhere.
Paintings of saints and other religious figures were hung outdoors along the narrow alleys.
I was reading the plaque next to this little shrine when a young woman approached me and offered to show me the way. Immediately I tensed up. I was not lost. I was not looking helplessly at a map. I was reading the plaque. Two other women close by were watching. Street smarts are not my forte, but even so I didn’t think this was one of those gypsy ambush situations. Also, she had spoken to me in Italian. What kind of con artist speaks Italian to a tourist? I thanked her for her offer and explained that it was not necessario. I was fine. Sto girovagando. I used a big word for ‘wandering around’, thinking it might put her on notice that she wasn’t dealing with an ingenue, but someone who knew her way around Italian and by inference Italians.
Undaunted she insisted on showing me the way back onto the usual tourist track. Maybe she was just bored. I have no idea. What I was sure about was that there was nothing shady going on. In fact the only untoward thing I saw happened in broad daylight in a busy alley close to the basilica. The alley is lined with bars and small shops selling everything from fruit and vegetables, to fish and laundry detergent. One of the smallest was a friggitoria. It was maybe six feet wide. Just enough room for a single line of customers and an enormous vat in which slices of what looked like polenta, a northern speciality, were fried. I watched as a young man stepped into the tiny space, picked up one of the pieces from the vat, had a bit of a feel with his finger. And put it back in the vat. Then he grabbed another piece and took off. I love trying local foods, but this was one local speciality I decided to pass on.
I saw three weddings in the day and a half I spent in Bari. After the ceremony friends and family usually mill around in front of the church while the newlyweds sign the documents that make the deed official. Several of the young men in the group below had long tubes that looked a bit like fireworks.
A few minutes later the mystery was solved. The crowd gathered near the church entrance and a series of little booms marked the triggering of the tubes which were filled, not with pyrotechnics, but with tiny pieces of white paper. At the end of one of the ceremonies I watched – strangely, at least for a North American, most churches remain open to the hoi poloi during wedding ceremonies – the priest reminded the attendees that in the interests of keeping the church clean and respectable, tossing rice or confetti or anything else was no longer permitted in the interior.
I left the celebrations to continue my meanderings. About an hour later, in one of the alleys off Piazza Mercantile where I was looking for a restaurant for dinner (more on that in a bit) I saw the newlyweds and their entourage again.
As they day wore on, more and more chairs and people started appearing along the alleys.
Just beyond one group of old friends was something I had been hoping to see. Orecchiette, the unofficial symbol of Bari, maybe even Puglia, spread out to dry. As I got closer to take a photo, one of the men got up and approached me. Orecchiette, he said, pointing at the little pasta ears. From the jeers of his friends – they spoke in dialect so I couldn’t understand a word – I got the feeling they were accusing him of something along the lines of ‘Would you like to come and see my orecchiette…?
For dinner, as usual I had asked the signora at the B&B for a recommendation. Un posto semplice dove si mangia una buona cucina locale. (A simple place that served good, local food.) Vini e Cucina (Wines and Food), she was sure, was just what I was looking for. She wrote down the name and told me approximately where it was. During my meanderings around Old Bari I made a point of going by it – as much to check it out as to make sure I’d be able to find it. Good thing I did, because although I found Strada Vallisa easily enough, I went back and forth several times and still couldn’t find the restaurant. Finally, feeling more than a bit disgruntled, I asked at a butcher shop that was open at noon, but not when I returned in the evening. The signora stepped out into the alley and pointed to a restaurant I had passed several times. Eccolo. There it is. I shook my head. No, sto cercando Vini e Cucina. (No, I’m looking for Vini e Cucina.) Sì sì, she replied, è proprio quello. (Yes. That’s the one.) By this time I had been travelling around Puglia for almost three weeks and not once had I encountered any problems communicating with the locals. What was going on? It seemed rude to ignore the macellaia (butcheress – not sure if there’s such a word) so under her watchful eye I walked back to the establishment she pointed to. Over the entrance, in enormous letters, was written PAGLIONICO, which I had foolishly taken to be the name of the restaurant. Instead, ‘Paglionico’, as I read upon my return home in the Lonely Planet, is the name of the family that has run Vini e Cucina – later I noticed a very small sign on the far right – for over a century. I had a peek at the interior. Nice, rustic ambiance and every table was taken. It was just what I was looking for and now I knew how to get to it.
But when I returned at 8 pm, there were only quattro gatti. Normally I would not even consider eating at a restaurant where there were only ‘four cats’, which in this case consisted of one table of six and two tables of two, but I had seen this one at lunch when it was packed. Maybe it was early. Southerners tend to eat fairly late. I went in and, feeling a bit foolish, given that the restaurant was essentially empty, asked if there was ‘Un tavolo per una persona‘. I was shown to a table squashed in between a table occupied by one of the two couples and a freezer. Hmmm. I started to squeeze between the two tables and then I thought, this is ridiculous. I turned around and asked if I could sit at one of the many, other, unoccupied tables. If I had read the review in the Lonely Planet beforehand – ‘The owners/waiters are brusque but brilliant.‘ – I might have been somewhat prepared for what followed. ‘No, no, no! Non è possibile!’, he bellowed. ‘The other tables are all tables for two. This is the only table for one.’ Hmmm. I don’t like to give up easily and the signora at the B&B had been very enthusiastic about the food here, so with a few scusi to the two fellows who’d had the misfortune to have been seated next to the only tavolo per una persona in the entire restaurant, I managed to get into my chair without knocking anything over. The bellower came back to take my order. At least that’s what I thought he was doing. He reeled off the items on the menu: antipasto, primo, which today was pasta ai frutti di mare (seafood pasta), a choice of two secondi (main courses) and dolce (dessert). When he was finished I said, as I had done numerous times as I travelled around Puglia, Vorrei il primo e un quarto di vino bianco. (I would like the pasta and a 1/4 caraffe of white wine). To my utter surprise – and dismay – this request unleashed a torrent that made the first round of No, no, no! seem the apotheosis of hospitality. He ranted on and on, in a loud, heated manner, even by Italian standards, about how he couldn’t let people just have a first course!! the fish alone cost him 5 euros!! how was he supposed to survive?! It was all so unexpected – and spiacevole (piacevole belongs to the piacere group of words that have to do with pleasure; putting an ‘s’ on the beginning of a word creates its opposite) – I don’t remember much else of what he said. I do remember thinking, well why don’t you just charge 10 euros for the primo and everyone will be happy? On another occasion I might have simply walked out at this point, but I was tired and not in the mood for looking for another place to eat, so I said, as calmly as I could, Scusi, ma non riesco a mangiare tutto e mi dispiace quando devo mandare indietro la roba perchè dopo la gente pensa che non mi sia piaciuta. (I’m sorry, but I can’t eat that much and I feel badly when a plate of uneaten food goes back to the kitchen and the staff thinks I didn’t like it.) The waiter/owner/tyrant stomped off without saying a word. I sat there, dumbstruck, for a moment and then, assuming I had been dismissed from the restaurant, started to gather my things. And that is when another, equally unexpected thing happened. One of the men at the table next to mine, who like his companion couldn’t help overhearing the exchange between me and what turned out to be the owner, leaned over and said, very soothingly, in a beautiful, velvety, northern Italian, ‘Signora, qui si mangia veramente bene. Noi abbiamo già ordinato. Se vuole, può dare un’occhiata a quello che ci porta e poi decidere se andarsene o no.’ (Madame, here one eats extremely well. We have already ordered. If you want, you can have a look at what he brings us and then decide whether to leave or not.) Just then the dreaded padrone reappeared, mercifully at their table, with their primi. Which looked delicious. Hmmm. He then disappeared into the kitchen and as I mulling things over, he came back. To my table. Before I had time to take a deep breath he announced that while he was right, I also was right, so this is what was going to happen: I was going to have the antipasto, un primo, la frutta e vino bianco. I glanced at the fellow next to me and said, Benissimo! My ‘server’ marched off to to the kitchen. A few minutes later he came back and without a word plunked a 1/2 litre jug of white wine on my table. I resisted pointing out that 1/2 litre was far too much, and instead thanked him as graciously as I could. A word you hear quite a lot in Italy came to mind – Pazienza! Just ‘go with the flow’. And a very pleasant flow it turned out to be. The food was delicious and the company wonderful. My saviour, originally from Bari, was a music agent and had been living in Rome for twenty years. His companion, from Holland, was his client. He was a member of a chamber ensemble and had played all over the world including a number of cities in Canada. They were in Bari for a concert later that evening. We had a great time chatting – mostly in English, which like so many Dutch tourists I’ve encountered, the musician spoke beautifully – and what could easily have turned into a very ugly way to end my trip to Puglia, instead, because a stranger reached out, was in the end a wonderful one.
Next: To the sea