Maybe it's true that everything's better if you have no expectations. Or maybe we were so stressed out by Rome that the return to the charm of a less built up part of Italy was especially keenly felt. In any case, the 15 or so hours spent in the Adriatic port town of Bari -- our transit point between an overnight train from Rome and an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik -- were quite delightful.
Not that I could claim to know it beforehand, but Bari is the capital of the Puglia region and is the 2nd largest city after Naples in Southern Italy. In addition to fishing and trade, the city seems to thrive on a large grid of swank shopping boulevards.
Historically known as the exit doors of Italy where locals and visitors board boats for Greece and Croatia (as we did), the local government has been working hard to promote Bari as a destination in itself. Each September, for example, the city hosts the massive Fiera del Levante trade and industry fair. My ever-hip friend Goz also sent an alert about the avant garde Fame street art festival in Grottaglie -- an hour southeast of Bari -- opening in mid September this year (2009).
With much less ambition and agenda, we had breakfast at 8am at a cafe near the train station, and watched with bleary eyes the locals coming and going as they grabbed coffee and pastries on their way to work.
After, we decided to walk along the coastline in a bid to recce the port. Others also soaking in the morning light included clumps of heroically pot-bellied old men (talking and gesticulating at each other in that classically dramatic Italian fashion), and locals hunting among the sea-wall rocks for little fish and crabs. The man on the right proudly showed me his catch.
Babs joins in on some crab-hunting action with his camera.
I'm not a morning person, but if there's one thing I do like about having time to kill in the early hours of the day, it's checking out and dawdling at local markets, like the one at the entrance of Bari Vecchia, Bari's medieval old town.
Above: A vendor shelling mussels at the fish market in Bari Vecchia
Right across from the market we chanced upon Osteria Con Cucina, a subterranean dining room where we had a scrumptious 4-course lunch and coffee. There was no menu -- the owner just listed a few options for the primi and secondi courses. And there was no option to have only 1 course, as some tourists a few tables away tried to do. Each meal, no matter what you picked, came to €20 per person. This is more like the Italy I know and love!
Even more entertaining was sneaking glances at the big black suited Italian dude at the table next to us, reading the sports pages of the local paper. He scarfed down a platter of raw mussels, then a large plate of seafood linguine. Evidently he had access to a special menu, perhaps one reserved for non-tourists, or regulars, or members of the family, or members of the other family.
After Mr Big Black Suit was done he strode into the kitchen to chat with the chef, then to the bar to chat with the owner (I craned my neck to try in vain to see if he paid like everyone else) before leaving.
Ah well. Back to lunch.
Antipasti: Toasted bread rubbed with olive oil and tomato, with rocket and new potatoes; Bits of ham, olives and 2 types of cheese.
Primi: Bari's most famous dish (and rightly so), riso, patate e cozze (rice, potatoes and mussels) with everything cooked (baked?) in a briny stock. I'll need to try and make this sometime. Below: A very well made pasta with seafood, with clams, mussels, shrimp and squid.
Secondi: Roasted octopus, entirely intact. The waiter chuckled at how gleeful I was looking.
Dolci: Chilled watermelon -- a godsend for a scorching summer day.
The rest of the day was spent reading on park benches, walking around the town's old castles and churches (Wikipedia provides a good list with descriptions in its "Main Sights" section), searching in vain for an internet cafe, and even setting off on an eventually unsuccessful expedition to use the showers at the municipal swimming pool.
Eventually it came time to board our overnight ferry to Dubrovnik, where we again bought deck seats instead of bunks.
We settled in for the night on a couple of wooden benches on the outdoor deck under the stars, using our daypacks as pillows. We were sweaty and sticky, on the 2nd night in a row sleeping on the move. Usually I'd be in a slightly psychotic state by now, but I was still floating on the memory of a very delicious lunch.
It would seem that a little well-cooked pulpo can go a bari long way.
Osteria con Cucina
Strada Vallisa, 23