My vacation this year was a Mediterranean cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Splendour of the Seas. I had already been to several of the ports on previous cruises, but I was ok with that, since there is always something new to see and do on a return trip. However, Bari, Italy, a small city situated on the Adriatic Sea, was one that I knew little about. It didn’t take me long to discover that one day in port would be hardly enough time to explore this intriguing area.
The city of Bari itself, offers much to see and do. Charming Old Town is walking distant from the port and holds several treasures worth visiting. There is the beautiful, ornate Basilica di San Nicola, located in the heart of the historic city. Its history is full of legends, and the story of St. Nick adds to the visit for those of us who grew up with stories of Santa Claus. Another interesting sight is the Castello Svevo, built in the 13th century and later adapted into a fortified palace in the 16th Century. At the entrance to the castle you can view a short video in English that explains more about its history and past inhabitants. Of course there are those with little interest in the historic sights. For those, Bari boasts a long seafront promenade, perfect for leisurely strolls, which is as popular with the locals as it is with the tourists. For sun and sand, Pane e Pomodoro Beach is just 10 minutes from the town center of Bari. It is well equipped with showers, bars, a place to eat, volleyball areas and soccer fields.
Another option for a day in the port of Bari is an excursion to Alberobello. This small town has been made a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unusual districts of trulli, the fairytale like, whitewashed conical-roofed houses of the area. The story behind Alberobello is that it was designed to purposely fool the authorities. The local feudal lord, Count Acquaviva, moved his peasant workers into the area to clear woodland and cultivate the land. To wiggle around laws, it was important that Alberobello wasn’t considered an inhabited settlement. To do that, the Count had the peasants live in the trulli, because they were built using dry stone masonry, (without any mortar or cement). The stacked stone homes could then be dismantled in a hurry...like when the tax collector came around! It wasn’t until 1797 that Alberobello was finally given “town” status. Today, the trulli of Alberobello are still inhabited (though the buildings have been modernized) and are actually considered expensive real estate. And although many of the streets are now lined with touristy gift shops, it is still an enchanting place to visit.
Matera, a 45-minute drive from Bari, has another interesting type of of abode worth visiting. Spread over one side of a gorge, alongside the modern town, is the sassi. The sassi is an area of extraordinary dwellings, half-carved and half-built from the surrounding tufo rock, in which people have been living since Palaeolithic times. By the early twentieth-century the area was an embodiment for poverty, and until the 1950’s, hundreds of families were still living there in horrendous conditions. The filthy and foul conditions became such a national scandal that finally, the cave residents were moved by law, to modern buildings on the plateau above. Fast forward to the 1980’s, when well-to-do residents moved back into the sassi to clean up the area and renovate the old cave houses. In 1993 the town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site, for being ""the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem"".
I look forward to returning to Bari, as there was too much to do and too little time to do it in! I suppose that’s the case with every port of call on almost every cruise. I’ve always contended that cruising is a perfect way to sample the world. Afterwards, one may choose to revisit an area for longer periods of time, or in the case of us die-hard cruisers like myself, simply return on the next year's Mediterranean cruise!