We asked our fourteen-year-old son: if you could do another bike tour in Europe, where would you like to go? When he was ten we’d biked the Loire Valley. He excitedly said, “Rome!” He’d spent four years studying Latin. He understood abstractly that nobody in Italy spoke Latin, but surely it would be inscribed on monuments in that ancient city?
Looking for someplace with history but also with quiet country roads and without the maddening crowds, we struck upon Puglia. Known for its Adriatic and Ionian Sea coastlines—longest coastline in Italy—and seafood and olives and cave-dwellings and trulli (domed houses made of stone), this region, tucked way down into the heel of the boot, has basilica aplenty. And forts and castles. And, in a ravine pocked by limestone caves, one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns on earth. And, we would soon discover, due to the lack of invasive industry, Puglia has held onto a languorous, gregarious lifestyle that celebrates its heritage and cuisine and belies its bloody history of warfare with invading Greeks and proto-Germans and Turks.
We booked a week-long self-guided tour in late June with Apulia Bike Tours, a local CycloMundo affiliate. Puglia is a popular summer destination for Italian tourists. By going in June we avoided the onset of the mid-summer beach crush. Though we would pick up our bikes in Matera, the fabled ancient town, we had to fly into Bari and so decided to spend a day there exploring.
Coming into Bari from the airport, you know you are in the south. No forests. Rocky hills. Valleys filled with dusky olive groves and rust-colored mud. The light is bold. Not like in the Pacific Northwest—our home is in Seattle—where Daiga likes to quote me describing the sun, in frustration over the lidded gloom, as “that vague glow that seems to suggest that somewhere something like the sun exists.” After checking into Hotel Adria, we head to the revetment wall along the Lungomare. Of course we marvel at the clear, calm, azure blue Adriatic, surprisingly un-busy with ships considering that this is a port with direct shipping lines to Albania. But our time here is short. We want to see the fabled Basilica di San Nicola, home of a reliquary that holds 60% of St. Nick’s bones.
A quick bit of history first. Modern Bari has a population of 400,000 and hosts one of the few universities in the south of Italy, but its Old Town dates back to pre-Roman times, to the Bronze age, around 300 B.C.E., when the Normans battled the Swabbians (the 13th Century Swabbian Castle commemorates those times). Bari became known in the Middle Ages as home of the bones of Saint Nicholas, stolen and brought here from Turkey by fishermen in 1087. That, and, as a popular departure point, given its strategic location, for launching Crusades.
Following the seawall, imagining we could see Albania beyond the misty horizon, we duck into the Basilica di San Nicola. The tall Romanesque cathedral houses the fabled saint’s bones in a crypt under the main altar. We sit in pews and watch a steady stream of pious believers bend the knee at the crypt and pray. Though the bones are not generally on view, the claim we hear is that they have been seen secreting a liquid manna purported to have healing powers. In an apse near the main entrance is a 17’ tall wooden statue of St. Nick with a very dark face. Each year on May 8, the statue is removed from the basilica and carried in a procession that winds through the narrow, labyrinthine, stone-paved streets of Old Town, exciting the passions of believers following behind. This ritual, which in Seattle would seem a bit fanatical to say the least, here seems in keeping with a place that historically was in the direct path of collisions between human migrations heading north and east, and then the Romans, followed by the incursion of Christianity, spreading south. Looking at photos of that procession with that statue, you get the feeling life in the modern world is a very thin veneer indeed draped over a much deeper, much more enduring human spirit that probably hasn’t changed all that much.
After exploring the market streets in the labyrinth, we pass, and give money to, an accordion player busking, not by the tourist shops but alone in a stone corridor where the sound is hauntingly sonorous. For dinner—we’re starving by the time they start seating at eight—we take an outside table at La Locanda di Federico near the fountain in Piazza Mercantile. Under a massive umbrella, we enjoy an Adriatic dinner that includes, following the obligatory pasta first course, seabass with shrimp, and red octopus stew, and bites of toast served with artichoke butter. By 9:30 it’s full on dark and the piazza comes to life as though a celebration were in progress. This is the onset of the evening passeggiata. We join the strolling families, grandparents to infants in arms, who aren’t patronizing the restaurants or shops that stay open late; they’re just out to gather, to walk, to smoke and enjoy the evening cool and chat with neighbors.
Dain is bothered by the smoke. We want more of the sea breeze, so we climb back up to the revetment wall promenade. Looking down from there into the Bari Vecchia, the medieval labyrinth of tight alleyways, we see in a narrow corridor between five-story apartment buildings, all off-white plaster covering stone, packed shoulder to shoulder, tiny eyebrow balconies with wrought-iron pickets and railings, an array of awnings aglow with warm lights shining down from above, people gathering, eating, strolling, no vehicles in sight, friendly murmurings echoing festively. We see and hear and smell a world that feels warmly richly alive.
Tomorrow, on to Matera, where we will finally pick up our bikes and meet the tour host who will arrange to have our bags transported ahead of us each day to our destination.