The sun was shining when we woke early on our first full day in Italy so we dressed quickly and made our way onto the streets of Bari where the city was beginning to stir into life especially along the Corso Cavour where the roads on either side were like deep shaded ravines and uniformly straight as though cut with the precision of a cheese wire.
We swiftly bypassed the modern streets of the new town and made our way back to the old town, Bari Vecchia, home to many of the city’s churches and historic buildings but an area which until recently had a somewhat dubious reputation among the locals and was even considered a no-go area due to high levels of street robberies and petty crime. However, a concerted effort by the city to attract tourism has led to a clean up and improvement and we didn’t feel threatened at all.
Early morning was a good time to be visiting Bari Vecchia where the residents of the crooked streets were preparing for the day ahead. Washing lines were being loaded and cranked into position high up across the alleys and lanes and strung outside windows like bunting as though in anticipation of a parade or a carnival, stretching across the streets, smelling sweetly of soap powder, dripping indiscriminately and swaying gently backwards and forwards above the secret doorways and back alleys.
If there was a crime problem here then it didn’t seem to concern the locals who clearly live by an open door code of neighbourliness. Elsewhere there were steps and pavements to be swept, food to be prepared and shopkeepers were arranging their pavement displays, women were shopping to be sure of the freshest produce and old men were selecting shady corners in which to pitch a chair for the remainder of the day and everywhere motor scooters zipped past, engines cracking like machine gun fire, making deliveries regardless of any pedestrian right of way.
At the harbour someone had done a lot of clearing up and all of the debris from the previous night had been removed and now in place of the beer vendors there were marble slabs alive with fresh fish pulled only recently out of the sea and on the quayside a man pulverising an octopus to break down the skeleton and to tenderise it.
Unfortunately we didn’t have a map and Bari old town has a reputation of being a place where it is easy to get disorientated and very soon we lost our bearings and we groping our way around the back streets, which was a bit of a concern because I didn’t really wasn’t to miss breakfast. We stumbled along and peered down untidy narrow streets searching for an exit, all of them care worn but with brightly colour-washed buildings with ancient coats of paint which have blotched and been blurred by successive harsh summers resulting in a glorious wash resembling water colours in the rain, everything running, leaking and fusing together.
Puglia only manages 2% of total annual tourism in Italy and Bari was clearly not a tourist city but instead a traditional Italian living and working city with shabby narrow streets, brightly colour washed buildings with little shops and small bars.
Eventually, with probably more luck than we were entitled to, we found our way out of the labyrinth of narrow streets and on to a main street that we thought we recognised and shortly we were back at the hotel for late breakfast and then for checkout.
Leaving the hotel we walked to the central station which seemed much closer now that we were absolutely certain where we were but when we got there was a ninety minute wait and Kim reminded me that I should have checked the timetable in advance and there was no arguing with that so we walked back into the parks and fountains of the university district, found a bar and just waited.
After a couple of beers it was time to go back to the station and after the inevitable uncertainty of platform location and eventual reassurance that we were catching the right train we boarded the green and cream Trenitalia carriage with worn out and tired blue plastic seats and began our journey south and east.
Puglia one of the most fertile regions of Italy produces more olive oil than the rest of the country combined, most of its fish, 80% of Europe’s pasta and more wine than the whole of Germany. It is an agricultural region and once out of the sprawling environs of Bari we were soon passing through fields of grape vines all sweating away under swathes of plastic sheeting that was rippling gently with the slight breeze and the thermals. But more than grapes there were olive trees, hectares and hectares of olive trees, which shouldn’t have been surprising because after Spain, Italy is the World’s largest producer of the olive and accounts for 16% of global production (just for the record – Spain provides 40% and Greece is third with 10%).
Because of this fertility and associated wealth the region has historically attracted attention from a host of envious invaders throughout history, all of them leaving indelible footprints in the soil and it is this which shapes modern Puglia and makes it delightfully different from the rest of Italy. Colonised by the ancient Greeks in the eighth century BC, then came the Romans and then the Byzantines swiftly followed by the Saracens, the Normans, the Spanish and the Bourbons until it finally became part of modern Italy as recently as 1861.
After twenty-five minutes or so we arrived in Polignano a Mare just after midday and we took the short walk from the station to our booked accommodation only to find the door locked, reception closed and a sign saying that it would open again at four o’clock. That was three hours away and we really didn’t want to be wandering about with our bags all of that time so ignoring the code of the siesta I phoned the hotel number and made contact with the owner who was slightly (well, very actually) grumpy about being disturbed from their afternoon rest but eventually reluctantly agreed to come back, open up and book us in and we were grateful for that.
After we had approved of and settled into our top floor room with a large balcony in the blistering afternoon sun we left the hotel and walked in the direction of the sea. This turned out to be a mistake because we had gone in completely the wrong direction and fairly soon we were in the middle of the residential area where everything was eerily quiet as the people of Polignano had locked themselves away behind closed doors for the afternoon.
I had read about this but wasn’t sure that I believed it until now; everywhere was closed and bolted down. From behind the doors and shutters we could hear the clatter of cutlery and the popping of corks as families sat down together for their midday meals but on the streets there was not a soul to be seen.
Eventually we found a pavilion bar in a park where the owners were enjoying a family meal but broke off to serve us a beer and give us directions and eventually by an energy sapping circuitous route we found our way back to the hotel and to the old town only a short distance from our accommodation but in exactly the opposite direction to that which we had taken an hour or so earlier.