You either love it or hate it, but southern Italy lives to the beat of its own, very slow and chaotic drum, where everything somehow always works out exactly as it should.
I recently presented my research at the ECOTRIB 2023 conference in Italy and for once this blog will truly be up to date, because that was last week. 🙂 The conference took place in Bari, a typical southern Italian town with beige apartment complexes, chaotic roads, friendly people and a nice historical city centre.
If you have ever been to southern Italy, you’ll know that it has a very specific vibe. The weather is hot for most of the year, so life moves very slowly and the people tend to be more laid back, open and friendlier than in the industrial, cosmopolitan and work-oriented north. You’ll see them hanging around playing chess in the parks or having the time of their lives sharing a drink in cheap foldable plastic chairs at the beach in the evenings. Local grannies in patterned black dresses are just as likely to smile at you and wish you a nice day as they are to shout at the passersby in random Italian. The police absolutely can’t be bothered with the deadly, chaotic traffic system where everyone is always honking at each other, talking on the phone, smoking or shouting out the window, obviously without their seatbelts on or any concept of safety distance. Taking a taxi is an adrenaline ride, but still better than trying to drive by yourself in this mess, and public transport is semi-reliable – the trains were surprisingly on time, while the bus was apparently less so, but I didn’t try it out myself.
Everything feels as if they got stuck in time about 30 years ago – their public phone booths are still operational, their gas stations are positively vintage, all the cars are old and a bit wrecked, their tablecloths are paper with tacky prints and they still sell those squishy plastic foam bathroom mats in rolls that were everywhere in the 90s. For bonus points, they barely speak English and even if you speak Italian, their dialect is unintelligible and they find it hilarious to mess with foreigners, but will always help you out in the end.
Compared to northern Italy, the prices in the south are a lot cheaper as well and it is very easy to find affordable food and accommodation, but you won’t find that many opportunities for high end fashion shopping. The whole region primarily relies on tourism and agriculture (olive oil!), so the food is simpler, more traditionally Mediterranean and absolutely delicious. Think of bread in various forms such as pizza and focaccia, different pasta and of course, seafood. It is very easy to make magic with few ingredients when you have perfectly ripe, sweet tomatoes, fresh fish and extra virgin olive oil…
Luckily I was visiting Bari with the right group of coworkers, so we made a food list and tried very hard to eat our way through it (the fancy conference dinner in club Trampolino helped a lot). My personal favourite was pasta all’ assassina, which is essentially spaghetti cooked in tomato sauce as if you were making risotto, resulting in a very rich, slightly burnt pasta feast. We first tried it in Ghiotto Panzerotto, a simple rustic restaurant, and all of their food was so good that we went back a second time. The grilled octopus was another favourite and you can get it in a typical panini sandwich or served as the main dish with sides (we ate it here). Other traditional Bari food includes focaccia Barese with cherry tomatoes and olives, fave e cicoria (basically a puree made of fave beans and chicory, often served with some sauteed greens on top), sgagliozze polenta fritters and orecchiette ear-shaped pasta, as well as all the other Italian food classics and a lot of wine. We also had an amazing star-shaped pizza with cheese-filled corners in Pizzeria Desideria, tiramisu in Caffetteria Simone and some very nice gelato in Gelateria Gentile. Since we were staying in a huge apartment, we bought a lot of local food in the supermarket and our breakfasts were top notch.
Typical Barese food
As I mentioned, you won’t need to bring a jacket for your trip to Bari and our trip was no exception – in fact, we were there during a heatwave, so there was no other way to go but slow. On Friday the heat was like walking into a wall, which is why we went straight to the beach which is called Pane e pomodoro (bread and tomato). The Puglia or Apulia region where Bari is located is somewhat less popular than the Amalfi coast south of Naples, but it also has some beautiful beaches. It is a shame that we didn’t have time to also visit Polignano a Mare, which is famous for its spectacular beach, but we did manage to go to Matera and Alberobello and those posts are coming soon.
Besides the beach, Bari’s historical city centre with the imposing Castello del Svevo fortress near the port and the cathedral of Saint Nicholas is the main highlight of the city. The patron saint of Bari is Saint Nicholas, who became their saint after his remains were “fetched” from the Byzantine territories by a group of pilgrim sailors in the 11th century and the cathedral was built around them. Southern Italy is amongst the more religious parts of Europe and their Christianity is quite performative and expressive, so there are icons with all sorts of decoration and for some reason even LED lights everywhere.
Impressions of Bari
Although Bari was destroyed and ransacked several times during its turbulent history, it had always bounced back and the city centre is now a mix of different styles and influences. It is full of pretty, ancient sun-bleached buildings, restaurants with shabby tables out in the street that serve amazing food, fancy gelato parlours, cheap souvenir shops and a lot of plants and kitschy details above all. It is one of those places that you just need to breathe in and experience, slowly.
However, if you do want to move a bit faster, Bari also has a vibrant nightlife scene and there were all sorts of concerts and organised events in the city every day. Just be careful and make sure that you have a plan for getting there and back if you are going beyond walking distance – two of us went to a party and ended up having to ask the security guys to drive us back to our apartment and it was a huge mess. At 4 am there were no taxis or options other than walking on the highway for 1.5 hours or waiting until 6.30 am, even though we double checked and they told us the taxis would be available at all times during the night. The taxi ride on the way there was the stuff of nightmares as well, because our taxi driver was so high he went the wrong way into the roundabout and drove half-off the road once, exclaiming “mamma mia!” in a very confused voice every time. I never thought I’d pay 25€ to almost die in the back of an Italian taxi during a work conference, but we are still alive, the party was great and it makes for a funny story I guess. 🙂
P.S.: If you negotiate the price in advance, the taxis in Bari are actually not horribly expensive for multiple people and we used them to get around several times. On the way to the party we were just way too shell-shocked to argue with the guy when he claimed that our party was in another country and that means it is a fixed price, so we paid and got out as quickly as possible.