In the warren of medieval streets known as Bari Vecchia (Old Bari), the big city feels a world away. At sunset, swarms of children and dogs zipping in every direction descend in front of Bari’s medieval castle. Small alleys feel like living rooms with furniture, plants, and radios joining residents outside. Never-empty piazzas range from tranquil to boisterous, without ever quite reaching the frenzied pitch of Naples – Bari’s residents are too mellow for that. Case in point: when it started drizzling in the Piazza Duomo, everyone shrugged and got out umbrellas rather move indoors to finish their drinks.
Whatever seediness Bari once held has largely evaporated in the past few decades. The Old Town features all the attractions of Puglia’s smaller cities without being overwhelmed by crowds of tourists. We chose to spend a week here mainly for access to Puglia’s largest transportation hub – and wound up enjoying Bari more than many of the region’s more celebrated areas.
Bari Vecchia occupies a triangle of land jutting out into the sea. A ferry terminal monopolizes the western side with two levels of seafront promenade on the eastern edge. As with most medieval towns, there’s no pattern to the streets, but the district isn’t big enough to get lost in for long.
The Old Town’s largest squares are the landlocked Piazza Mercantile and waterfront Piazza Ferrarese. A friendly lion statue watches over the former, located in the medieval trading center. The latter occupies a convergence of land and sea next to the harbor.
At the base of Bari Vecchia, a palm-lined pedestrian lane runs along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Below the boulevard, the Murat district offers a tidy grid of modern conveniences and an easy 10-minute walk to the train station. All sights are marked on our Google map.
Old and new Bari merge in the city’s waterfront. Modern sports areas and grassy sections begin at Bari Vecchia’s tip. Behind them, an elevated walkway called the Via Venezia runs along the remains of the old city’s defensive wall. Two of its bastions still exist at either end: the little fort of Santa Scolastica and the Fortino di Sant’Antonio. At the end of the wall, the Via Venezia slopes down to the harbor.
The Piazza del Ferrarese’s white limestone paving connects Bari Vecchia with modern boulevards as well as the sea. Buildings include an exhibition space in the Spazio Murat and a palazzo-turned-tourist-information-office. Nearby, the apses of a medieval church back into the piazza while a small patch of Roman-era stones sits in the middle like a sunken carpet.
Bari’s waterfront promenade – lungomare in Italian – continues from the old harbor, along the new city shoreline to the beaches beyond.
The terracotta Teatro Margherita dominates Bari Vecchia’s harbor. Architecturally the structure is a conservative take on the Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) style, but the building complements one of Bari’s most spectacular sites. The theater’s developers constructed it on the water because the municipality had promised that no venues on city land would compete with the nearby Teatro Petruzelli. Today the Margherita houses exhibitions rather than performances.
Near the theater, a wooden jetty extends into the harbor. Fishermen use it by day to display the day’s catch; in the evening it becomes a hang-out spot as bottles of beer take over the tables. A small park provides a transition zone to the modern city.
Medieval Bari: The City of Many Sackings
Bari’s medieval centuries were tumultuous even by the standards of the time. The old Roman town endured multiple large-scale invasions after the empire’s collapse. Byzantines, Muslims, and Lombards battled over the area for over five hundred years, until the Normans established order at the end of the 11th century. When it wasn’t being attacked by outsiders, Bari’s rebellious streak provoked punitive action from its overlords on a regular basis. By some accounts the tenacious citizens had to rebuild the city almost a dozen times.
Castello Svevo de Bari (Swabian Castle, a.k.a. Hohenstaufen Castle)
In order to stabilize their hard-won territory, Normans and their successors littered southern Italy with castles. Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily and lower Italy, built Bari’s castle in 1132 on the ruins of an older Byzantine structure. 24 years later, his son William I sacked the city after one of its frequent rebellions; Roger II’s grandson Frederick II had the fortress rebuilt in 1232. Frederick II is also responsible for the castle’s somewhat confusing names: his father Frederick Hohenstaufen came from Swabia (Svevo) in modern-day Germany.
Frederick II, nicknamed stupor mundi or “wonder of the world”, became one of the most brilliant and controversial figures of the Middle Ages. After growing up in Sicily, he crossed the Alps to win the title of Holy Roman Emperor before returning to spend as much time as possible studying falcons in his beloved Puglia.
Bari’s castle follows a standard layout, with a massive courtyard surrounded by thick crenelated walls and a now-drained moat. Visitors can walk a full circuit of the battlements with views of the city before descending to explore the museum. Along with a collection of ancient artifacts, the castle holds an extensive set of castings of medieval carvings from all over Puglia.
Since many regional churches feature ornamentation far above the ground, the replicas provide a chance to examine their forms without using binoculars. Intricate details like a row of tiny teeth on a monster contrast with the haunted faces of the saints. Impossible combinations of humans, animals, and plants mingle in a fever of medieval imagination.
Basilica di San Nicola
As a link between east and west, Bari’s San Nicola Basilica became one of Christendom’s most important churches. It was a mandatory stop for Crusaders and anyone traveling between Italy and the Middle East. The basilica provided common ground for the Eastern Orthodox and Latin branches of the Church, hosting meetings in which the two sides attempted to reconcile their differences during the great Schism. The crypt, containing the relics of Saint Nicolas (Santa Claus), remains an important pilgrimage destination today.
Constructed in the 11th century, the San Nicola provided a template for other churches and the style now called Puglian Romanesque. The design features massive arches spanning the nave, topped by an upper-level loggia. Thick walls support a structure tall enough to be seen by distant ships, with the side facing the sea developed as a secondary façade.
A predominantly white palette creates an austere atmosphere, and allows the incredible carvings to stand out. It also sets off the brightly-colored evening gowns which seem to be the dress code for Puglian nuptials.
Cathedral of San Sabino
Although the San Nicola Basilica tends to get more attention, Bari’s official cathedral is actually the San Sabino. Stylistically the two churches are quite similar, since the fifth-century San Sabino was rebuilt just after the San Nicola went up. The main differences between the churches are above and below the primary structures. Only the cathedral is topped by a soaring bell tower while its crypt retains a Baroque makeover. Lower still, San Sabino’s site features Roman and early medieval remnants, including mosaic flooring.
One unusual feature we noticed in Bari’s churches: elephants. They generally come in pairs, bracketing windows much like the typical lion guardians around doorways. Medieval European kings sometimes kept elephants for their symbolic value. Frederick II used one as the focal point of his traveling menagerie.
Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio
On a small piazza near the tip of Bari Vecchia, a set of recycled Roman columns announce the remains of a 10th century church. Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio means Our Lady of Good Counsel, although for a time the church went by Our Lady of Bad Counsel. That’s because it was built shortly after a riot (bad idea) and subsequent truce (good idea).
Not much is known about the church until the 15th century, when a group of Augustinian nuns moved in. Later the structure housed a charity pawnshop and finally an orphanage, before being abandoned in 1824. The derelict building was torn down in 1939. Excavations in the 1980’s revealed the various layers – and evidence of the site’s earlier history. Archaeologists discovered a graveyard under the church and, even deeper, traces of a limestone and clay hut from the 15th or 16th century BCE.
Below Bari Vecchia
The busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II straddles old and new Bari, with the medieval labyrinth on one side and high-street shops on the other. Below the Old Town, the Murat district takes its name from Napoleon’s brother-in-law, who ordered the gridded layout. The pedestrian Via Sparano runs down the middle of the neighborhood, straight to the Bari Centrale train station and bus depot.
Old Puglia: A Cultural Companion to South-Eastern Italy dedicates a chapter to Bari. Desmond Seward & Susan Mountgerret’s anthology mixes local legends with commentary from pre-20th century travelers.