Appealing Apulia

By Helen Harper
This item appears on page 12 of the November 2020 issue.
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Fishermen displaying their catch at the harbor in Trani. Photos by Helen Harper

Years ago, a colleague in an Italian-language class highly recommended travel in the south of Italy. I finally made the trip, Jan. 1-8, 2020, because I’d found a $2,700 round-trip business-class flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt to Bari in Puglia (Apulia), in Italy’s southeast.

The flight was pleasant, especially the leg from Frankfurt, Germany, when the skies cleared and we had gorgeous views of the snow-covered Alps and numerous Croatian islands surrounded by a bright blue Adriatic. Even crew members were snapping photos like mad.

Upon my arriving at Bari International Airport, the No. 16 bus was waiting right outside the terminal. After paying the driver €1.50 (near $1.64) and riding for 45 minutes through uninspiring scenery, I arrived at Piazza Aldo Moro.

I stayed at the Travel B&B (Piazza Aldo Moro, 8, Bari; www.travelbaribandb.it/en), which I had read about on TripAdvisor.com, for six nights. Its location, right across from the station, was handy for the airport bus and train trips to other locations.

My room was small but clean and well designed. The bed was firm, which I liked, and the shower, hot and strong. The charge of €50 per night included a breakfast of coffee or tea plus pastries, fresh fruit, yogurt, toast, cheese, ham and cereal — a bargain. The apricot torte and whole-wheat croissants were especially delicious.

A festive air enhanced my wanderings through Bari. People there exchange gifts on Epiphany, Jan. 6, so the town was full of lights, nativity scenes, evergreen trees, children visiting Santas and other seasonal delights. I did find it odd that the piped Christmas carols were in English, the same ones heard on the radio back home.

The Old Town’s winding alleys, festooned with laundry hanging out of most windows, provided a bit of a challenge. The alleys were laid out in a pattern designed to block the strong winds off the Adriatic and to confuse invaders. The invaders who become confused today are tourists.

Angela Lastella making orecchiette in her kitchen in Bari, Italy.

On my wanderings, I happened upon Strada Arco Basso, which had been featured in a New York Times travel section a few weeks before my trip. That street houses the grandmothers who make the orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) for which the town is famous, along with other goodies. During my visit, they were forming the little ears in their kitchens rather than out on the street.

The home I happened to enter was the one featured in the travel section. Angela Lastella was delightful and, indeed, despite being 15 years younger than me, grandmotherly. She wished me a good trip home and made sure I closed and put away my change purse before entering the street.

I sampled orecchiette con le cime di rapa (orecchiette with ripini) at La Locanda di Federico (www.lalocandadifederico.com [in Italian only]) in Piazza Mercantile. The same restaurant featured a fabulous local delicacy, burrata (mozzarella ball filled with cream), which came on a skillet of baked maritati pasta, tomatoes and mushrooms — not to be missed!

Bari’s two major Romanesque churches are the Basilica di San Nicola (built 1087-1197) and the Cattedrale di San Sabino, built in the 12th-13th centuries. Both house crypts that are filled with short columns. Those in the basilica are topped by capitals depicting charming animals, birds and plants. In the cathedral, they’re painted and colorful.

The museum in the cathedral, Museo del Succorpo delle Cattedrale (€3), contains Roman ruins as well as those of an ancient basilica. The mosaic pavement and shards of pottery are especially interesting.

I visited Museo Archeologico di Santa Scolastica (€3), on Piazzale Cristoforo Colombo, after much searching. It was not really worth the effort but did have some interesting excavations and pottery (and I enjoyed the search).

Overwhelmed with possibilities for possible day trips, from my B&B I traipsed across Piazza Aldo Moro to the kiosk outside the station ticket office. The very helpful young women there consulted their cell phones and gave me times and prices for trains to various locations.

After making my choices, I went across the hall to the ticket office and bought my round-trip tickets to Trani (€6.60) and Lecce (€24.40).

TRANI is a lovely town with a long, palm-lined promenade along the Adriatic. Because a near gale was blowing that day, the sea was filled with whitecaps, with waves crashing against the embankment. I came close to being blown off my feet! Breakwaters protecting the charming harbor kept it calm, but I wondered how the fishermen who were displaying their catches had managed on that open sea.

I passed the Ognissanti Church, where the Knights Templar are said to have blessed the Crusaders, but missed the 12th-century synagogue.

The 11th- to 13th-century Duomo was, like many others, built in three layers. The lowest was filled with ancient ruins and many columns. The second contained remains of lovely frescoes. The top layer was white, elegant and simple. The church’s impressive 12th-century bronze doors were made by sculptor Barisano da Trani.

Although I don’t really like castles much, I was searching for a WC and decided the one in the Swabian Castle would be worth the €5 price of admission. It was my lucky day! Admission was free, and the castle was very enjoyable.

Inside, I watched a film depicting the years 1832-1974, when the castle was used as a prison. The highlight for me, however, was my chat with the charming man in the ticket office/bookstore who complimented my Italian, which always makes a trip for me.

Strada Arco Basso in Bari, with laundry above and stands for selling pasta below.

My second excursion was to LECCE, even though I knew I wouldn’t like their churches, which are Baroque. I did, however, enjoy an hour and a half of wandering among the pale-butterscotch limestone buildings along the alleys and lanes.

The piazza of the Duomo was filled with an extensive nativity, a whole miniature village (waist-high), including an orchard of small citrus trees and a woman working on her porch.

The highlight of this trip was the 2-hour train ride through the countryside filled with cacti, various crops and many olive orchards, which must be ancient, judging by the girth of many of the trees.

In Bari Torre Quetta, the tracks go right along the stony beach. Later, in Le Murge, a low limestone plateau ran along to the west. As we traveled along the coast, I could see towns in the distance that I’d read about, including Monopoli and Ostuni.

In addition to being an enjoyable destination, Apulia turned out to be a bargain. Excluding the cost of my flight, my expenses were $337 for lodging, $122 for meals, $35 for transportation, $7 for museums and $20 for gifts — around $90 per day over six days.

I had previously read Carlo Levi’s classic “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (1945) and three of Ann Cornelisen’s books about her work in the south of Italy from 1954 on, which had given me a slight introduction to the region.

In preparation for this trip, in addition to guidebooks, I read “Through the Heel of Italy” (written by Katherine Hooker in 1927), “A Traveler in Southern Italy” (by H.V. Morton in 1969) and John Julius Norwich’s “The Normans in the South, 1016-1130” (1967).

Morton wrote, “The coastline of Apulia is one of the most romantic that I have ever seen. The local limestone has been bleached by centuries of sunlight to the whiteness of chalk. For 50 miles upon each side of Bari lies a succession of small seaports and fishing towns, each with its massive castle, Norman in origin, a cathedral also Norman, and a warren of streets — some of them so oriental in appearance that one might be in Morocco.”

He claims that you can see more Norman churches in Apulia than anywhere else in the world other than towns and villages in England, where they are some of my favorites.

Despite my expectations from all the glowing recommendations, I wasn’t disappointed. Like my friend in Italian class, I recommend the south of Italy.

HELEN HARPER
Mill Valley, CA


Basilica crypt capital in the Basilica di San Nicola — Bari, Italy.
Carved elephants holding up columns in the Cathedral of San Sabino — Bari, Italy.
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Fishermen displaying their catch at the harbor in Trani. Photos by Helen Harper

Years ago, a colleague in an Italian-language class highly recommended travel in the south of Italy. I finally made the trip, Jan. 1-8, 2020, because I’d found a $2,700 round-trip business-class flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt to Bari in Puglia (Apulia), in Italy’s southeast.

The flight was pleasant, especially the leg from Frankfurt, Germany, when the skies cleared and we had gorgeous views of the snow-covered Alps and numerous Croatian islands surrounded by a bright blue Adriatic. Even crew members were snapping photos like mad.

Upon my arriving at Bari International Airport, the No. 16 bus was waiting right outside the terminal. After paying the driver €1.50 (near $1.64) and riding for 45 minutes through uninspiring scenery, I arrived at Piazza Aldo Moro.

I stayed at the Travel B&B (Piazza Aldo Moro, 8, Bari; www.travelbaribandb.it/en), which I had read about on TripAdvisor.com, for six nights. Its location, right across from the station, was handy for the airport bus and train trips to other locations.

My room was small but clean and well designed. The bed was firm, which I liked, and the shower, hot and strong. The charge of €50 per night included a breakfast of coffee or tea plus pastries, fresh fruit, yogurt, toast, cheese, ham and cereal — a bargain. The apricot torte and whole-wheat croissants were especially delicious.

A festive air enhanced my wanderings through Bari. People there exchange gifts on Epiphany, Jan. 6, so the town was full of lights, nativity scenes, evergreen trees, children visiting Santas and other seasonal delights. I did find it odd that the piped Christmas carols were in English, the same ones heard on the radio back home.

The Old Town’s winding alleys, festooned with laundry hanging out of most windows, provided a bit of a challenge. The alleys were laid out in a pattern designed to block the strong winds off the Adriatic and to confuse invaders. The invaders who become confused today are tourists.

Angela Lastella making orecchiette in her kitchen in Bari, Italy.

On my wanderings, I happened upon Strada Arco Basso, which had been featured in a New York Times travel section a few weeks before my trip. That street houses the grandmothers who make the orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) for which the town is famous, along with other goodies. During my visit, they were forming the little ears in their kitchens rather than out on the street.

The home I happened to enter was the one featured in the travel section. Angela Lastella was delightful and, indeed, despite being 15 years younger than me, grandmotherly. She wished me a good trip home and made sure I closed and put away my change purse before entering the street.

I sampled orecchiette con le cime di rapa (orecchiette with ripini) at La Locanda di Federico (www.lalocandadifederico.com [in Italian only]) in Piazza Mercantile. The same restaurant featured a fabulous local delicacy, burrata (mozzarella ball filled with cream), which came on a skillet of baked maritati pasta, tomatoes and mushrooms — not to be missed!

Bari’s two major Romanesque churches are the Basilica di San Nicola (built 1087-1197) and the Cattedrale di San Sabino, built in the 12th-13th centuries. Both house crypts that are filled with short columns. Those in the basilica are topped by capitals depicting charming animals, birds and plants. In the cathedral, they’re painted and colorful.

The museum in the cathedral, Museo del Succorpo delle Cattedrale (€3), contains Roman ruins as well as those of an ancient basilica. The mosaic pavement and shards of pottery are especially interesting.

I visited Museo Archeologico di Santa Scolastica (€3), on Piazzale Cristoforo Colombo, after much searching. It was not really worth the effort but did have some interesting excavations and pottery (and I enjoyed the search).

Overwhelmed with possibilities for possible day trips, from my B&B I traipsed across Piazza Aldo Moro to the kiosk outside the station ticket office. The very helpful young women there consulted their cell phones and gave me times and prices for trains to various locations.

After making my choices, I went across the hall to the ticket office and bought my round-trip tickets to Trani (€6.60) and Lecce (€24.40).

TRANI is a lovely town with a long, palm-lined promenade along the Adriatic. Because a near gale was blowing that day, the sea was filled with whitecaps, with waves crashing against the embankment. I came close to being blown off my feet! Breakwaters protecting the charming harbor kept it calm, but I wondered how the fishermen who were displaying their catches had managed on that open sea.

I passed the Ognissanti Church, where the Knights Templar are said to have blessed the Crusaders, but missed the 12th-century synagogue.

The 11th- to 13th-century Duomo was, like many others, built in three layers. The lowest was filled with ancient ruins and many columns. The second contained remains of lovely frescoes. The top layer was white, elegant and simple. The church’s impressive 12th-century bronze doors were made by sculptor Barisano da Trani.

Although I don’t really like castles much, I was searching for a WC and decided the one in the Swabian Castle would be worth the €5 price of admission. It was my lucky day! Admission was free, and the castle was very enjoyable.

Inside, I watched a film depicting the years 1832-1974, when the castle was used as a prison. The highlight for me, however, was my chat with the charming man in the ticket office/bookstore who complimented my Italian, which always makes a trip for me.

Strada Arco Basso in Bari, with laundry above and stands for selling pasta below.

My second excursion was to LECCE, even though I knew I wouldn’t like their churches, which are Baroque. I did, however, enjoy an hour and a half of wandering among the pale-butterscotch limestone buildings along the alleys and lanes.

The piazza of the Duomo was filled with an extensive nativity, a whole miniature village (waist-high), including an orchard of small citrus trees and a woman working on her porch.

The highlight of this trip was the 2-hour train ride through the countryside filled with cacti, various crops and many olive orchards, which must be ancient, judging by the girth of many of the trees.

In Bari Torre Quetta, the tracks go right along the stony beach. Later, in Le Murge, a low limestone plateau ran along to the west. As we traveled along the coast, I could see towns in the distance that I’d read about, including Monopoli and Ostuni.

In addition to being an enjoyable destination, Apulia turned out to be a bargain. Excluding the cost of my flight, my expenses were $337 for lodging, $122 for meals, $35 for transportation, $7 for museums and $20 for gifts — around $90 per day over six days.

I had previously read Carlo Levi’s classic “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (1945) and three of Ann Cornelisen’s books about her work in the south of Italy from 1954 on, which had given me a slight introduction to the region.

In preparation for this trip, in addition to guidebooks, I read “Through the Heel of Italy” (written by Katherine Hooker in 1927), “A Traveler in Southern Italy” (by H.V. Morton in 1969) and John Julius Norwich’s “The Normans in the South, 1016-1130” (1967).

Morton wrote, “The coastline of Apulia is one of the most romantic that I have ever seen. The local limestone has been bleached by centuries of sunlight to the whiteness of chalk. For 50 miles upon each side of Bari lies a succession of small seaports and fishing towns, each with its massive castle, Norman in origin, a cathedral also Norman, and a warren of streets — some of them so oriental in appearance that one might be in Morocco.”

He claims that you can see more Norman churches in Apulia than anywhere else in the world other than towns and villages in England, where they are some of my favorites.

Despite my expectations from all the glowing recommendations, I wasn’t disappointed. Like my friend in Italian class, I recommend the south of Italy.

HELEN HARPER
Mill Valley, CA


Basilica crypt capital in the Basilica di San Nicola — Bari, Italy.
Carved elephants holding up columns in the Cathedral of San Sabino — Bari, Italy.