“A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority.” – Samuel Johnson
Every September since 2004 our late Summer travelling has been to the Greek Islands and it hadn’t really occurred to me that that we would break that habit and that 2013 would be the tenth year in a row, after all there are roughly one thousand four hundred of them and I have only been to about twenty-five so there are still a lot left to visit.
We were persuaded to make a change to our normal September routine when the Ryanair website offered return flights to Bari in Southern Italy for the bargain price of only £70 each (no hold luggage, no priority boarding, no pre-booked seats obviously) so we snapped them up and started to plot our way around the Italian Region of Puglia one of the least visited by tourists and most traditional areas of the country. We have travelled to Italy several times but mostly to the north and certainly never to this part of the boot.
It was an early evening flight to Palese Airport in Bari so as we weren’t arriving until quite late there was no real option but to stay close by in the city. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been an issue but some of the guidebooks are rather quite unkind about Bari with some less than flattering reviews.
I was also put off by fellow Blogger Richard Field who had this to say:
“But first things first, Bari. Guidebooks describe it as the kind of place you might not want to hang around in – and they’re probably right. To be fair, we only had four hours there, it was raining and we were tired, but it looked the kind of place even the staunchest Italophile would struggle to say anything positive about.”
So taking all of this into consideration at the planning stage we didn’t consider staying for more than one night and planned an early departure the next day.
After passing through immigration control the first issue was how to get into the city because being a natural travel skinflint I really didn’t want a taxi which I had read can cost up to €50 for the fifteen kilometre ride! My alternative idea was to try and find a bus but was then delighted to find directions to a railway station and I was surprised by this because my research had suggested that there was no rail link to the city centre.
It turned out that this railway line was only opened six weeks earlier on 1st August and was so new that there were still staff on hand to help people with the ticket purchase procedure at the automatic machines. The journey took no longer than fifteen minutes and outside the station we emerged into the balmy night air of Bari and being fairly confident of the location of the hotel we strode past the taxi rank, ignoring the various offers of a lift and walked in the direction of the old town.
It was busy at the railway station but the hustle and bustle soon evaporated as we walked towards Corso Cavour into a common feature of railway stations – grime and general untidiness and the unfavourable city reviews started to come back to mind and the fact that not so long ago Bari was identified as the second most dangerous city in Italy, after Naples, for petty crime. There were dark shadows in every doorway and down the narrow alleys that leaked away from the road and I imagined a cut throat or a brigand with a deadly stiletto lurking in each one.
Gradually the pavements became incrementally busier and it began to feel safer but after a while I became concerned that we had walked too far and missed the hotel and yes, as it turned out we had. Directions from the locals and the shopkeepers were generally unhelpful and soon we arrived in the old town where at least there was a tourist information booth where staff knew exactly where the hotel was and sent us back down the road that we had just walked along and then with the mistake rectified we thankfully booked into the four star Hotel Oriente.
After settling down and making ourselves comfortable we walked back to the old town which we found to be unusually busy for a Tuesday night where the pavements were flowing with people like lava spilling from a volcano, the piazzas were packed, the pizzerias overflowing and the gelaterias noisy with babbling chatter. Eventually we found a trattoria with a vacant table and enjoyed a first simple but excellent meal and then walked it off with a stroll around the moody streets of the old town lined with bars and restaurants and late night diners lingering over a final espresso.
In the main square there was a gelateria with an eye popping, mouth watering range of ice creams that we were unable to resist and with a cone stacked high with hazelnut, chocolate and pistachio we walked around the harbour area with moonbeams dancing on the water and into what was obviously a fish market by day but late at night was a massive alfresco youth club with hundreds of noisy young people all of them at least forty years younger than the two of us.
There was no one else of our generation here and I wondered if we would be there at all but no one seemed to mind the intrusion but, out of our comfort zone, with no one else remotely in our age group anywhere in sight and with the last of the ice cream leaking from the bottoms of the biscuit cones we left the busy harbour and returned to the hotel.
Actually, I was beginning to like Bari, I was challenging the guide book descriptions and Richard’s assessment and was already beginning to think about changing our plans and staying there a little longer than originally planned the next morning and then coming back this way later in the fortnight and I was certain that those unfavourable guide book descriptions need to be reviewed.