By Lucia Adams
We were tourists not travelers in Apulia (I prefer the older word), setting out to see as much as possible with a guided tour. It was a trade-off to be sure, more a quantitative than qualitative experience, but that was fine, the purpose was served. For 50 years, I longed to see Bari, which my grandmother left in 1911. My DNA is half Apulian; I had expected to see half Italian when I sent the sample to AncestryDNA, which determined the other 50% originated in the British Isles. Instead it revealed 29% Greco-Italian, with 21% an assortment of Balkan, European Jewish, Caucasian, and Middle Eastern with a touch of the Iberian Peninsula, like a history of the easternmost region of Italy. At one point in time, it was the colony of Magna Graecia, where Pythagoras, Archimedes and Aeschylus lived and where Western civilization started to flourish.
I could scarcely believe how congested, chaotic and graffiti-strewn Naples was on the drive from the airport to the Renaissance Medteaneo Hotel, a few minutes from the Bay and overlooking Vesuvio. We spent the next day at the National Archaeological Museum, one of the true wonders of the Western cultural world, housing the Farnese collection and artifacts and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
At the Herculaneum excavation site later that day a few miles south, we walked down into the ruins of luxury villas in what had been a seaside resort for the wealthy, Ercolani, before Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. It rained lava here, not volcanic ash as in Pompeii, which preserved the organic life in the bustling commercial center. Here, only a few skeletons remained, in basements near the river bank, and scholars are still debating what happened to the people.
The next day we were off to the northeast of Campania, stopping for lunch in the stunning mountain town lying on a ridge between two rivers, Benevento, on the Via Appia between Rome and Brindisi. Founded by Diomedes after the Trojan War it became a Roman colony then a Lombard city and has numerous Longobardian churches where a young Padre Pio worshipped. Trajan’s Arch still stands and from a later moment in time Santa Sofia where the locals congregated after mass then strolled in a colorful passeggiata on the Corso Garibaldi.
Later in the day we arrived at Apulia’s most prominent landmark, the 13th century Castel del Monte, one of the 92 castles built in the region by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Hohenstaufen. The dark moody day was perfect for visiting this massive Gothic castle sitting atop a 4,000 foot mountain overlooking the coast from the Gargano to Monopoli and the foothills of the Murge plateau. Equidistant between Chartres and Cheops it has an obsession with the number eight (as in the emperor’s crown!), with eight rooms, all perfect octagons, on both floors, and eight octagonal towers, one of which we ascended on impossibly tiny steps.
Passing Cerignola, the storm center of revolt in the early 20th century when peasant farm workers struck against the brutal conditions imposed on them by the owners of the vast latifundi. The green and golden fields of wheat, the endless olive orchards and vineyards of the Tavoliere here in Foggia rolled by the window, once the land of extreme poverty and inhumanity imposed on Apulians by men from the north who came south after the Risorgimento like carpetbaggers. Latifundism was another reason why millions emigrated from Apulia.
Then Bari, Italy. Finally. We stayed in the new town on the Corso Cavour next to the opera house where Pavarotti once sang, with its grid plan spaghetti-thin streets a few minutes’ walk from Bari Vecchia, which reminded me of a medina in Tangier with narrow streets winding around and around the port within the fortified castle walls.
It is authentico, with a vigorous street, little old men sitting and smoking on plastic chairs, laundry hanging from each balcony, nonnas, their daughters and granddaughters making the daily orrecchiette and taralli, drying them on screens in the sun.
The 11th century Basilica Pontificia San Nicola, the vast Romanesque cathedral, was my true destination, the church which my grandmother sent money to from America, $2 at a time, for stained glass windows. It was startlingly half Roman Catholic, half Orthodox, housing the bones of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus of legend), a Turkish bishop adopted by the Barese when 62 local sailors stole his relics from Myra in 1087. In the lower crypt, babushkaed Russian women and Orthodox priests prayed before his bones at the silver altar behind a silver screen. Every May, the 17th century statue, right there still in the basilica, is carried through the streets of Bari down to the sea by sailors.
At dinner in a trattoria on the Piazza del Ferrarese, overflowing with Barese on a warm Sunday night, we had the best meal of the trip, with the main ingredients the mellow, fruity Apulian olive oil and dark red wine from the Primitivo grape. It was virtually vegetarian, true cucina povera, rapini with orrecchiette, fava bean puree, wild mushroom ragu, stacked eggplant sliced paper thin, ceci. Mussels and some veal made an appearance as almost always in Apulia, where I never saw chicken or beef because it is too expensive to raise cattle to maturity. The brown grainy durum wheat bread was a revelation.
Bari has a long, gracefully curved harbour and busy port, which was in October with the blinding sun still too hot to tarry on for long. One can only imagine the 100- to 120-degree temperatures in the summer, which justifies these long siesta hours when everything is chiusa from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Everything still was this October, much to this tourist’s annoyance. The port was a point of departure for the Crusades and the entry point for a dizzying array of conquerors, including the Lombardian Dukes of Benevento and Muslim Saracens and the Byzantine emperors of the Levant. From the Neolithic, to the Peutians, the Messapians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swabians, the Normans, expecially the Normans, the Longobards, the Angevins and Aragons, and the Turks. It seems everyone who had a fleet raided this part of the Adriatic Coast.
We checked out of the Hotel Oriente and boarded the bus to Lecce at the beginning of the humble Salento peninsula, the southermost part of the heel. Deemed the “Florence of the South,” the “Athens of Apulia,” the “Florence of Baroque,” all meaningless terms because it is perfect as it is, remote Lecce has now been discovered by Helen Mirren, Gérard Depardieu and countless Englishmen. After the great commercial successes of the 17th and 18th centuries the city’s architects embraced Baroque and Rococo decoration carving on to classical facades, golden bouquets of stone putti, angels, saints, fruits and flowers, as in the gay and exuberant Cathedral of Santa Croce. Though loved by most over the centuries, 18th century Marchese Grialdi said the facade made him think of a lunatic who was having a nightmare.
Classic Chicago will feature Part Two of Lucia Adams’ Touring Ancient Apulia next week.