the heart of puglia

We drove the highway and a street along the shoreline from Palese to reach the city center of Bari. The only other major city I have been in is Florence, and this place had a very different feeling.  Just approaching Bari it seemed a lot more like a metropolis. There were busier streets, more densely packed and taller buildings as well as a faster, more frantic pace. After we parked the car and got out, this fish market was appropriately the first thing I saw.

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First and foremost, Puglia’s capital of Bari is most well known for the sea. During the summer, the beaches and shorelines are flooded with people trying to both relax and escape the heat. So, November was not the ideal time to fully experience the city. The temperatures were mild and the sky was usually quite clear. For a Michigander, this was very nice. The natives were walking around clad in what appears to me as full winter mode – layers of sweaters, long coats, and boots.

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While no one was rushing to jump from rocks into the crystalline waters, the sea was still coming to them. The fresh seafood is a basically the crux of Barese cuisine. Peppe explained that the fisherman was shaking a tub of octopus in icy water because it helps the tentacles retract. Jumbo shrimp, squid, muscles and sea urchins are among the common choice foods, some of them eaten raw.

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The fishermen paint their boats blue with brown bottoms to confuse the fish by blending with the water.

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After passing through a main piazza near the big roads, we made our way inward through the tiny winding streets and everything felt much quieter.

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This street was void of any people in the afternoon, but Peppe said it would come alive at night as young people flock to the clubs and bars. The small town where my boyfriend is from is just a few miles outside of Bari. Since not much happens in Palese, this is where Peppe and his friends would come to socialize.

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The South of Italy is particularly religious. There are lots of festivals and processions in the name of Saints and faith. The Patron saint of Bari is Saint Nicholas. His statue and church stood on the edge of the city’s historical center.

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We entered the church and in the basement witnessed the resting place of the actual Saint Nicholas’ bones. I’m not a religious person, but I know the affect these encounters have on those who are. I felt close to something powerful, I was quiet and humbled.

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The streets tucked within the historical center were quite empty, save for a few wandering souls. I felt transported to a totally different time where everything slowed down. Walls seemed taller here than in Florence, more closed off.

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Despite the placidity, evidence of life was everywhere – in the clothes hanging from all the lines, open doors, and distantly audible conversations.

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An open door displayed a tray of freshly made orrecchiette pasta, another classic food from the Puglia region. The “little ears” get their shape from fingertips.

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The setting sun bounced my favorite light reflections across the buildings and shadows formed their own architecture.

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After our exploration, we snacked on panzerotti and foccacia, which is yet another Puglia classic – a pizza dough like flat bread with vegetables and toppings baked in. If you’re familiar with the beer Peroni, that’s another proud feat from Puglia.

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Experiencing a city with a totally different vibe from Florence was definitely a treat. Florence has something magical and incomparable, it doesn’t fully reflect what life is like in other places in Italy.  I soaked in the salty smells of the sea and eased into a change of pace. It has a beat, a pulse, a livelihood of work and routine. This wasn’t a tourist city. It was different for Peppe too, to see his stomping grounds in a new way through my eyes.  There is an excitement in uncovering a new place, where you can’t expect whatever may come around the next corner.

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