Back in the ‘Heel’

As the city skyline outside my window disappears in a swirl of big, fat snowflakes, memories of another view keep coming to mind.  Although unbidden, they are most welcome.  And, as  neuroscientists discover more and more ways our brains undermine our best efforts, it is reassuring to know that all those unconscious synaptic interactions can also – sometimes – have positive effects.  The memories are of a small, fishing village in northern Puglia.


The ancient port of Trani, the ‘Pearl of Puglia’.

It’s not that I’d like to be there now.  I’ve checked the meteo.  The 15-day forecast is for daily lows of 6 (centigrade) and occasionally as high as 13 in the afternoon.  As for the sky, instead of the glorious blue I saw the first time I visited in May, it’s predicted to go from variabile to nuvoloso to coperto.  Variable to cloudy to ‘covered’. (so much more vivid than ‘overcast’).  Granted, there may be a few aperture locali – local openings – but the brief pleasure these bring will no doubt be more than offset by all the piogge deboli. (pyojjay day-boh-lay) Weak rains.


When I returned a few years later – again in May – the sky was nuvoloso.


Luckily a brisk wind broke up the clouds now and then.

Although I doubt I would be drawn to them, I can imagine that some places would be enhanced by dark, brooding clouds.  Trani is not one of them.


On a sunny day the reflections of the boats and palazzi lining the harbour add an extra layer of colour.


Continuing along the harbour, the pleasure yachts give way to rugged, fishing boats.



The fishermen’s piles of ropes always look like impossible tangles to me.

Along the far side of the harbour fishermen replenished their stalls with bins they hauled off the boats tied up behind them.


Taking an order from a local restaurant?

There weren’t a lot of customers – just a few anziani (an-tsee-ah-nee).  Elderly people. I strolled around, watching, listening to the orders being placed.


In one bin, everything you need to make ciambotto, a local fish stew.

One of the vendors had a much bigger selection. While he waited for customers – or maybe a phone call from a local trattoria –  he passed the time joking around with a couple of pals. When I approached and asked “Posso?” (May I?), pointing at my camera, he struck the following pose.


As I continued to take photos of his fish, he and his pals chatted away – in pugliese, the local dialect – which, as they knew, I did not understood.


I had no idea what any of these things were. In Italian or English. Let alone pugliese.


Ghost busters.


Then, encouraged by his friends I later thought, he started coming up with more ‘interesting’ shots for me.


Finally, he pulled a long, wormy-thing out of something that had an unsettling resemblance to a part of the male anatomy.  I took the photo – or rather the bait.


I didn’t quite shriek, but the plan had worked and they burst out laughing.

Beyond the fish stalls,  towering over the harbour is the cathedral. I’m not sure why, but it struck me as an odd sight.  It wasn’t just its size, which was totally out of proportion to today’s village and would have been even more so when it was built.  It was also the location. In other places I’ve visited, whenever the locals of bygone eras built anything by the sea it was always a fortress.


Trani’s magnificent ‘Cathedral by the Sea’.

I haven’t yet found out why it was built in such an obviously vulnerable location, but I have discovered why it was built.

Trani wasn’t always a lovely, but somewhat sleepy, fishing village. In the early Middle Ages it was a prosperous, thriving metropolis with one of the most important ports along the shores of the Adriatic Sea.  Its residents included many of the great families from the Maritime Republics of Amalfi, Pisa, Ragusa and Venice, attracted by the lucrative trade with merchants to the east.  Ironically, Trani’s prosperity was also due to the Crusaders, who launched their ships from its strategically located port. Ironically, because the Crusaders were setting off to destroy the very ‘infidels’ who, only a century earlier, had destroyed the city of Canosa di Puglia, which led to Trani being chosen to replace it as the new ‘Episcopal See’.


The light hues of the local limestone, intensified by the sun reflected off the water, give the bell tower an ethereal feel.

I’d always wondered about the ‘Holy See’.  What was an ‘Episcopal See’?  It obviously had something to do with power.  Why not ‘sea’, especially in a time and region where wealth and power – and destruction – often came from the seas.  It seemed unlikely that a misspelling would have been allowed to endure for so long.  It wasn’t.  These ‘sees’ come from the Latin sedes, meaning seat or chair, symbol of the authority of the church.


At the front entrance to the church built for the new ‘see’,  the usual signs of a wedding ceremony.


The floral decorations were some of the loveliest I’d seen. Or maybe it was the backdrop.


Gargoyles and Hydrangeas by the front door.


Such a delicate touch over the arch. I wonder if there are any regulations as to what you can and cannot do by way of decoration on these ancient churches.

I stepped inside for a quick peek.  The bare walls were a big surprise.   This interior had more of the austerity of the Benedictine Abbeys of northern Italy – Sant’Antimo in Tuscany came to mind – than the typically (over the top) ornate interiors of cathedrals in the south.


The modern feel of the interior is the result of a careful restoration.

The cathedral is dedicated to San Nicola  – not the St. Nicholas of Bari (‘In the Blue-Painted Blue’, July 1, 2016) or the St. Nicholas that comes down chimneys with presents, but a Greek pilgrim, who spent his days wandering around Puglia and was viewed by all who came upon him as a simpleton.  But shortly after he died – in Trani – at the tender age of 19, several miracles occurred which, in the mysterious ways of such things, became attributed to the erstwhile simpleton, who was declared a saint.


Friends and family wait at the entrance  – five metres above ground level – while the newlyweds sign the papers.

Below the cathedral is a crypt, part of an older church dedicated to Santa Maria della Scala.  Saint Mary of the Staircase.  I overheard the custodian tell the leader of a tour group that the crypt would be closing in a few minutes, so I followed them down the stairs.  Normally this would have meant we were going underground, which is where crypts are typically located.  But in Trani the description of a new cathedral built on top of an older one is literal.  The ‘ground’ floor of the new church is 5 metres above the ground.


The walls of the crypt are decorated in Byzantine frescoes. Here the Madonna lifts a veil to reveal the Baby Jesus to the saints beside her.

The custodian took closing hours very seriously so we only had a few minutes in the crypt.  On the upside, if I’d stayed longer I would have missed the newlyweds come out onto the staircase.


The wedding party assembled on the staircase which seemed purpose-built for those all-important photos. Except for one little guy who was having none of it.


As I travelled around the region it became clear that Puglia has had nothing to do with Italy’s exceedingly low birth rate. And it was reassuring to see young fathers so involved with their children. At least in public.

By now I was starving.  I went up and down the quay checking out the eateries.  For such a small village some were surprisingly elegant.  With prices to match.  I was looking for something more in keeping with the overall feel of the harbour.  I walked by one place a couple of times.  The orange fence and the hoarding were a real put-off, but the menu was appealing and as I stood there reading it I heard a lot of Italian coming from the tables.  Always a good sign.


‘Street appeal’ – zero. Food – 10.

I’m not a fan of raw meat or fish and never order it back home, but having seen the fish come right off the boats just a few feet away and looking around at what others were eating, I decided this was the place to go for it.  I ordered Carpaccio di tonno con olio d’oliva e rucola.


Tuna carpaccio with olive oil and arugula.

It was one of the most memorable meals of my trip.  And I had a lot of memorable meals.  My only regret was that my daughter wasn’t there to share with me.


An assortment of local cheeses. Salted ricotta, bocconcini di mozzarella and creamy burrata. I almost managed to eat it all.

No matter how good the food, eating alone can be a challenge.  The trick is to get a table with a view.  Sometimes that means asking for the table in the far corner, but in a place like Trani the best table for the sole diner is next to the road.  As I slowly made my way through the tuna and cheeses – put that way it sounds like a terrible meal! – I watched the fishermen working on their boats, locals buying fish for lunch, tourists strolling up and down the quay, some of them stopping to check the menu at ‘my’ restaurant – I fought the urge to lean over and say, ‘Yes!  Eat at this one. You won’t be disappointed!’

When I had eaten as much as I could – maybe more – I set off for a long, leisurely stroll back along the harbour and over to the Public Garden.  It was May, the season of long days and there were still many hours of daylight before I had to drive back to my hotel.


At one of the bars along the quay I caught sight of another bride! The cathedral is obviously a busy place this time of year.

Many tourists do not go to Trani.  It has few ‘must-see’ sites and it is off the beaten track. A bit north.  But if you have the time and would like to enjoy a few hours away from the crowds – of tourists like yourself, it must be admitted – it is a wonderful place to spend a half day.  Or more.


The surprisingly large public garden stretches along the coast south of the harbour.


Fragrant Star of Jasmine climbs up a statue that elsewhere might be a tad kitschy.


The little girl’s nonno tells her maybe domani (tomorrow) she can go swimming. In the distance, the cathedral.


A stroll with fresh, sea air and a view. There’s nothing like it.






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