Change of Place and Perception in Bari, Italy
People gave me weird looks when I said I was going to Bari. “Alone?” they kept asking. When I assented, they’d wordlessly scribble their phone numbers on napkins or backs of cappuccino receipts and press them into my hand. “Let me know if you need anything, OK?”
It got to be disconcerting. Evidently I hadn't done enough research into this little town on the Southeastern coast of Italy where I had decided to spend a few days after wrapping up my modeling gig in nearby Bernalda. The photographer, the producer, the stylist...everyone on the set seemed concerned about my choice of Bari as vacation-getaway meets writing-retreat: everyone, that is, but me.
The city of Bari dates back to Byzantine rule, when it acted as a prominent trade port and cultural intersection where merchants rubbed shoulders with the likes of Peter the Hermit and Pope Urban II. It played a vital role as loading and departure-point of the first Crusade in 1095. Four hours by train from Rome and an eight hour ferry ride from Greece, the city is best known nowadays as the theological capital of the world for devotees of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and travelers.
The relics of this saint were stolen away from their original resting place in Myra (in modern-day Turkey) by Italian clerics during the year 1087, and enshrined in the basement of the broad, white Basilica di San Nicola that spans the central piazza of Bari. By virtue of this theft (regarded by Barians rather as the fulfillment of the Saint’s dying wish), Bari has become the destination of pilgrims who come from all quarters of the globe to pay homage to St. Nicholas.
This is the only thing I bothered to notice when I googled Bari upon receiving word I would be flying in and out of the city for my job with a Bridal company shooting on the Mediterranean coast during the last week in October. What I didn’t know prior to booking an AirBnb in the heart of Bari was that it has a reputation in the region for being a rather unsafe city. In the last decade, it seems, an influx of African refugees has pooled within the newer, industrial neighborhoods appending Bari, which are characterized by bland housing projects, squalid kebab joints, and faded public parks that are used, in the broken English of my Italian host, for “drugs, selling lots of drugs, and bad things like this.”
I quickly realized upon entering the city that this may not have reflected the quintessential Italian lifestyle I had been craving. My taxi driver locked the car doors when we idled at a traffic light. As a conspicuous foreigner—and a tolerably attractive teenage girl—I worried that I had made a great blunder in neglecting to thoroughly investigate a place that I had chosen to inhabit, if only for three days, entirely alone. After my years of traveling solo for modeling jobs, could I still prove so foolish? And…what was the fee for changing an Alitalia booking on day-of notice?
But my spirits rose when we reached my address: fortunately for me, the part of the city in which I had by some stroke of luck selected an apartment was the Old City, the very section of Bari that dates back to the first Crusade and is filled with crumbling stone archways, low, ruddy turrets, and a mesh of steep alleys wide enough only for motorbikes and pedestrians and nonnas selling crockery. In fact, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas itself was a mere four minute walk from my door!
The reassuring circumstances of my location did not of course guarantee that I was entirely safe. But I believe I was as safe alone in that Airbnb as I likely would be anywhere else in this struggling post-globalization world of ours. Over the next few days I sought out things that make me comfortable—cappuccinos, churches, artwork. Naturally, I spent a few hours exploring—practically absorbing—the Basilica di San Nicola, and even dropped in on the saint’s remains, which, according to the saleswoman in the Cathedral giftshop, secrete myrrh in their sarcophagus. The myrrh, I was told, is gathered in beakers lowered down there on the saint’s Feast Day in December. Apparently it works miracles.
And my days in Bari did indeed prove miraculous. Outside the Cathedral, the streets were teeming with pigeons underfoot and crisscrossed overhead with laundry so dense you couldn’t always see the sky. Beneath fluttering sheets and nightgowns I discovered makeshift religious altars built into the very walls of the alleyways and bearing candles in jars, plastic flowers and postcards of saints. Whether you are religious or not, such things can’t help but make you feel secure.
And whether you are adventurous or not, Bari is a wealthy city when it comes to opportunity for adventure. If you wander down the last unassuming side street at the Western end of the piazza, you find a pinched stone stairway hewn into the wall. It ascends steeply out the warren of alleys and onto a bright, broad promenade atop the rampart surrounding the Old City which sheltered it from hostile neighboring city-states in days of yore. From here you can glimpse the Adriatic Sea beyond a stand of indigenous palm trees and order a coffee at a nameless espresso bar with standing tables only.
I learned that you don’t sit on the granite benches overlooking the sea because they act as community ash trays. I learned that not a sole in Bari speaks English, and that even their Italian differs hugely from the standard strain of Italian spoken in Rome. I learned that the best food in a place isn’t always the regional food—I happened on a sequestered Greek bistro called Gyrosteria Yannis where seven euros got you a killer mezze platter that was large enough to supply you with your next few meals.
At the Cathedral store I picked up an icon of Saint Nicholas. Painted by hand on a square wood panel with egg tempera and genuine gold leaf, it was no small investment, but being an amateur iconographer myself it stole my heart much in the way Barians stole St. Nicholas from the Turks: audaciously but with professedly noble intentions.
This icon now hangs on my wall at home to remind me of what a delightful discovery Bari was, and what a bizarre alignment of fortune, too. Had I known more about the city in advance I would likely never have booked a place there. But after being compelled to probe this rather unlikely destination, I wouldn’t exchange my days in Bari for a month anywhere else in the world. Though my experience here may not have been quintessential, it was inarguably authentic: in Bari I needed to guard my suitcase on the sidewalk and double lock my door at night. In Bari I needed to communicate entirely through hand gestures. In Bari I needed to prove I was not so foolish after all. But in Bari I never once needed the phone numbers my photoshoot friends gave me. I never once encountered a reason I’d have been better off somewhere else.