We came out of the Naples airport on a bright and hot day. While the forecast had warnings for heavy rains and wind over the next two days – the weather when we landed didn’t give any indication of this. I was so glad that we were not going to be in either Naples or on the Amalfi Coast those first two days. From locals we heard that rain like this was very unusual for this area in this season. We were happy that we had a plan to drive to Bari in a rental car directly from the airport.
Things that could delay well designed plans in travel had already gone wrong. We were hoping to be in Bari by late afternoon. We got delayed at every step. Finally, we got the rental car and made our way out of the parking lot. We made a couple of circles around the rental car area trying to find our way out to the autostrada. We maneuvered our car a few times around rotaries under the guidance of the car GPS telling us to take which exit from the rotary. At last, we made it to the freeway, or autostrada A16, and made our way to Bari on the Puglia Coast. It was much later than expected.
This was our first time driving in Italy. The roads were well marked with smooth surfaces. Once we left Naples and the exits for Pompeii and Amalfi Coast behind, traffic became sparse. Driving was easy – like driving on a freeway back home. We finally relaxed and started to enjoy the ride and our surroundings. The only thing we had to care about was the constantly changing speed limits. It would go from 130 KM per hour one minute, down to 60KM/ hour the next. Initially we were skirting the mountains. The mountains and valleys were dotted with villages. Everywhere you notice farms on the mountainsides. Most of the farms were bare, with crops already harvested. Some farms were already being seeded by the farmers. There were lots of olive tree orchards. This area near Naples grows the world-famous Campania tomatoes in the fertile soil due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. There were vegetable farms. Slowly we left the mountains behind and entered an area with rolling hills. We were crossing hill after hill, going through 11 tunnels. (We started counting just for the fun of it). As we came out of the tunnels, we started noticing the wind turbines. The countryside and hilltops were dotted with them. As far as the eye could see, there were hundreds of them. When I saw the use of these wind farms, I felt happy that there was so much use of clean energy.
The distance between Naples Airport and Bari is about 260 KM. It took us about 3 hours. We reached Bari in the evening, later than we had hoped for. Once you enter the city limit of Bari, the drive became a drive from one rotary to the next. Sometimes even the GPS got confused and second thought it’s own guidance of which exit out of the rotary it wanted us to take.
Bari is a city of a little over 300,000 residents. It’s a port city on the Adriatic Sea. It’s the government seat and the capital of the Puglia region. The newer parts of Bari are filled with apartment buildings flanking both sides of narrow roads – block after block of buildings built in 1960-70s. Since we had reached in the evening, during rush hour, the city was abuzz. It seemed that after the hot afternoon’s siesta hours, people were out in full force doing their shopping or chatting in groups.
But the biggest surprise was the seacoast. Our hotel was on the seafront. The views were spectacular. Since we had just reached before sunset, we enjoyed the hues from our room. In the evening before dinner, we took a walk on the coastline. It reminded us of Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Since it was a warm evening, many people were walking and trying to stay cool along the coast. The sea breeze made our walk very comfortable. Families, friends, and lovers had taken up seats on the benches facing the Adriatic Sea. The park near there was full of pleasant sounds of children playing – competing with the sounds of the sea. Parents and seniors sat in groups enjoying their social hour amongst their friends. Right on the seafront an exercise class was going on. To us it seemed like no less than a boot camp. We soaked in the whole atmosphere. It was such a pleasure to be part of these routine activities of life. We forgot our tiredness and enjoyed the walk absorbing the city life. While talking to a local we found out that this seafront was completely crime ridden some years ago, but the government worked hard to make it a safe and beautiful area for people to enjoy.
There are two sides to Bari. I have mentioned the newer Bari. But the old town of Bari is beautiful. One early morning, we walked the tiny lanes and alleys of old Bari. It’s enclosed within medieval walls. Right inside the gates of the city walls is Bari’s most iconic Basilica of St. Nicola. Built in the 11th century it has relics of Saint Nicholas Saint of Bari and is a sight of pilgrimage for Italians. The much loved Santa Claus’s story comes from San Nicolas of Bari. Bari Cathedral of San Sabino is also within the walls of old Bari. It was built in the twelfth century in the place of an old Byzantine church that was destroyed. Its Romanesque style followed the architectural style of Saint Nicola. The bell tower rises proudly above the roofs and walls of the Old City and can be seen from a distance. Bari’s old city will charm you. It will take you on a journey to a bygone era and simpler times. Some of the little lanes have arched entryways leading you to homes within. In these entryways there were little memorials built in the walls. A religious painting, a candle or electric light, some fresh or plastic flowers would be encased behind a glass or placed in an alcove. If you look up, you would notice all kinds of laundry flying in the breeze on balconies.
We had fun searching the little lanes for women who make their own orecchiette pasta and sit outside their doors to dry them in the sun. In Puglia the pasta made by tradition is orecchiette. We came across many shops selling this homemade pasta, but no ladies drying their homemade pasta. It had rained throughout the night in Bari, so I guess women were taking a break from pasta making. We did come upon some ladies selling the orecchiette outside their door and having a nice chat with each other. This region of Italy also grows lots of wine grapes. We saw vineyards everywhere. Puglia is famous for its wine. Most of the vineyards we saw were laden with fat bunches of grapes. They seem all ready for harvesting. Food was pretty inexpensive. We had personal pizza for just €5. We enjoyed pizza almost every day. I also have to mention the fresh mozzarella. Our morning began with fresh mozzarella for breakfast almost every day. We fell in love with it and ate it every single day.
Bari is a gateway to the Puglia region of Italy. It’s a transportation hub for this area. The cruise ships dock here. It is connected by air with some of the big cities of the world. In case you want to explore this area, you can fly straight to Bari. Or like we did, fly into Naples and then drive to Bari. There are tour buses who come to some of the towns of Puglia bringing many, many eager explorers. But my choice would be renting a car to explore Puglia. If you are comfortable driving in a foreign country, then it’s much easier to explore when you have a car. City driving sometimes is a little tough because of the roundabouts and narrow streets. One of the discomforts about driving within Bari was the motor scooter. They would zoom by from nowhere and would give our poor hearts a jolt. They had even pillion riders! Those scooter would suddenly merge on the roads from somewhere.
Bari totally seduced us with its charms. But there is much more to Puglia than Bari. I will be writing about the little towns and historic villages we explored. I am sure you will be fascinated by these towns. It will make you want to travel there for your next vacation.