Monday, November 29, 2010

New Italian Notes

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Monday, October 25, 2010

The beauty of Bari

Like many other south Italian cities, Bari represents at least a two-in-one discovery. There is the commercial centre, Murattiano, which Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat laid out with a ruler, and where the Mussolini era has left its mark with a series of sinister, pretentious buildings; and there’s Bari Vecchia - the small white historic town on a peninsula with more than 120 mysterious shrines, lively piazzas and old, erratic, get-lost alleyways that protect the inhabitants from the wind and the sun.

All time tourist favourites are the two Medieval castles, Romanesque churches and the holy relics, but the Puglian capital also stands out as a hot spot for shopping, music and being.

Castello Svevo, dating back to the 10th century and reconstructed by Frederick II 200 years later, is one of the first things you’ll notice when entering Bari from the north. Around 1220 the trapezoid defensive structure with moat and corner towers housed the Holy Roman Emperor’s court including Saracens, scientists, astrologers, hawks, leopards and the famous elephant. According to an inscription on a wall within the castle, this was where beggar monk San Francesco was severely tempted by a sensual young girl, whom he frightened off with a piece of burning coal. Today Medieval monks and knights in shining armour have been replaced by two old-age-pensioners selling tickets to the rather boring Gipsoteca within.

Fortino di Sant’Antonio Abate guards the eastern corner of Bari Vecchia against pirates from the sea. The building dates back to the 15th century and it was named after the saint of domestic animals, who has a chapel in the hallway that can only be visited on January 17th.

Cattedrale di San Sabino is one of 40 churches crammed into the relative small area of Bari Vecchia, and it is a prominent and admired example of the Romanesque style in Puglia. The unembellished, white exterior is simple and elegant and inside several tiers of columns, colonnades and galleries emphasize the solemn atmosphere. Remember to go downstairs to visit the crypt which contains the relic of San Sabino and a nice Madonna Odegitria icon.

Basilica di San Nicola is Bari’s main attraction. A massive church that contains the relics of San Nicola, better known as Father Christmas. The saint is celebrated with a big festival every year during the first weekend in May, when they tap manna – a liquid said to have miraculous powers – from his tomb.

The provincial gallery Pinacoteca Provinciale presents Italian baroque and impressionistic paintings especially by the local painter Francesco Netti. And in Museo Archelogico there is an impressive collection of red- and black-figure pottery from Attica.

Piazza del Ferrarese provides a lively entrance to the old town as market place in the morning and communal living room at night. Here you will find numerous caf├ęs, bars, and gelateria in addition to excavated patches of via Appia-Traiana, the Sala Murat which holds minor exhibitions of contemporary art, the old indoor fish market, and occasional public events like fashion shows and food festivals, etc.

Piazza Mercantile merges imperceptibly into Piazza del Ferrarese. Historically this was the political centre of town, where Bari’s Council of Nobles met at the Palazzo del Sedile, and where debtors were flogged and punished at the Colonna della Giustizia that can still be seen in a corner of the square. A great number and variety of pizzeria and restaurants can be found in alleys surrounding Piazza Mercantile.

Lungomare Imperatore Augusto fill with people promenading back and forth every evening in the typical Italian fashion. The promenade in Bari Vecchia is raised over the sea and appears to lie on an old city wall, while the less crowded Lungomare Nazario Sauro in the new part of town runs along the harbor.

Corso Cavour means shopping - especially clothes - of all the popular brands and chain stores.

Piazza Garibaldi is the place to relax in the shade of tall tree. The public garden offers authentic Italian park life, where men crowd around obscure betting games, while women chat and children play.

Food & Events
For authentic puglian cooking try Ristorante Bacco, Osteria delle Travi "Il Buco" in largo Chiurlia 12 or Ai 2 Ghiottoni, where you can find orecchiette with horse meat stew, cavatelli pasta with clams and beans, tiella or tiedda with rice, potatoes and mussels, “braciola” rolls of horse meat filled with cheese, parsley and garlic and fried and grilled fish.

In summer Bari hosts a number of free open air concerts like Radio Norba’s Battiti Live with popular Italian bands and musicians.

Another annually recurring festival is Times Zones in November staging international performers with a repertoire of progressive and independent jazz, rock and electronica. The venue for most of these concerts is Teatro Kursaal.

And then there is the opera scene in the newly renovated Teatro Petruzelli. One of the great opera houses of Italy alongside La Scala in Milan, Teatro Massimmo in Palermo and Teatro San Carlo in Naples. The gorgeous Art Noveau building with a frescoed cupola, red velvet seats and gilded wood carvings burned down to the ground in 1991, but reopened in December 2009 after a reconstruction costing 20 billion euro.

Monday, October 18, 2010

More to Avetrana than misery

Over the past weeks the main square in Avetrana has developed into an absurd version of Times Square on New Year’s eve attracting endless numbers of locals, tourists and journalists ready to discuss and report the latest developments and rumours in a tragic, ongoing murder mystery.

Corriere della Sera writes about ‘La folla di curiosi’ and international newspapers are appalled by this blatant example of Italian videocracy (cf. The Guardian ‘Mother told live on Italian TV of daughter’s murder’). One family’s private tragedy in relation to the disappearance and murder of a 15-year old girl has developed into a scary primetime docu soap with archetypal puglian peasants in all the villainous, bad guy roles.

You tend to forget that Avetrana is a real town with 7 000 bravi, ordinary, law-abiding people, where old men used to rule over the piazza every evening around sunset. There they discussed the weather and the wine harvest while their wives attended mass in the Chiesa Madre that can be dated back to the 15th century, and the younger generation played football and drove around on scooters. In the spring, the city organizes an authentic carnival, and in summer, the local stadium stages rock concerts with great Salento bands like Negramaro and Sud Sound System and then everybody flicks a lighter and sings along on popular radio hits like ‘mentre tutto scorre’. Avetrana is a very nice and very typical town right in the middle of the three Salento provinces Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce.

Various theories account for the name of the town. Avetrana could be a derivation of latin ‘habet ranas’ meaning a place with many frogs due to the nearby swamps, or it could be an abbreviation ‘terra veterana’, that is the land that has not been cultivated. Both theories reflect that Avetrana has been inhabited thousands of years before Christ.

The town is separated from the sea by marshes, and sometimes a sad crying like the bellow of a dying ox can be heard from the southeast. Local legend offers various explanations of this phenomenon. There are those who claim that the sound is a cry of help from a Saracen in full armour with weapons and gold trimmings who disappeared in the swamp when riding his magnificent black horse. Others say that the noise is the crying of martyrs that has been audible since a monk desperately in love with a young woman drowned himself in the water. And then there are those who maintain that the sound is made by a ogre that looked like an ox only 10-20 times larger. One day long ago this monster washed up on the seashore and got helplessly trapped in the marshes.

Occasionally, the sad, heart breaking cries can still be heard in Avetrana, especially when Sirocco wind beats up a storm in the Ionian Sea making the waves reverberate in the underground grottoes and caves that run between the sea and the wetlands. And this crying will remain long after the present hype and televised lamentation subside.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lost in transit between Linate and Malpensa

Trapped in a highway spaghetti during a slow moving Milano rush hour you have plenty of time to regret the decision to use the Lombardian metrolpol as a hub to southern Italy. Milano offers a great choice of intercontinental, international and domestic flights, but 64.7 km and a city of 1,3 million people separate the connections and there are no metros or high speed trains to facilitate transit. ‘Shuttle’ buses operate roughly on a 90 minute schedule, the duration of the tour is 1 h 10 and suddenly you need a miracle to make a 2 hour transit.

I speak from the experience of going from Copenhagen via Milano to Bari and back, and it qualifies as a regular nightmare. Outbound we caught the shuttle bus from Malpensa and arrived at Linate just in time only to find that our domestic flight had been cancelled. The next connection involved a 5 hour wait and a total transport time of 15 hours. Yawn.

Homebound another cancellation paired with wind turbulence delays made it necessary to take a taxi to 125 euros, and we only caught our connection flight thanks to the driver’s willingness to disregard speed limits, sweet talking a security guard into letting us through Malpensa’s VIP scanner, mobile phone check in, cabin baggage only and serious jogging to the departure gate.

The transit challenges could of course have been figured out beforehand, but a naive belief in European infrastructure led me to assume that there had to be a well functioning transport system between Milano’s airport for international and domestic flights. Nothing could be more wrong. So now I fly to Puglia via London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris or Rome, or better still drive 4-600 km through Italy to and from the nearest airport offering a direct connection.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Corn in the desert

The Foggia province in Northern Puglia separates into two distinctly different landscapes: There is the Tavoliere plain, also known as Magna Capitana, and the Gargano spur with its green hills, white cliffs and Forest Umbra. Considering the charms of Gargano with breathtaking views, eminent beaches, ample tourist facilities and two of the most popular European pilgrim sites, most visitors skip the Tavoliere. Yet beneath the endless monotony of wheat fields there are interesting sights layers of history.

Take for instance the village Ordona on the Via Traiana route, where you can see beautiful and virtually undiscovered remains of a Roman temple, shops, market, amfitheater and thermal baths. In ancient times the place was known as Herdonia, where Hannibal fought the Second Punic War (219-202 BC) that destroyed the town and left the area to sheep.

The Roman poet Horace, who was born in the area in 65 BC, described the Tavoliere as a dry, thirsty, desert landscape. An arid flatland that couldn’t be cultivated until 1939, when the Apulian aqueduct was inaugurated. As one of the largest construction projects undertaken in the early 20th century in Italy, l'Acquedotto Pugliese taps water from the Sele River in the mountains near Avellino in Campania and reroutes it to the riverless Puglia region. Twenty thousand workers contributed to the ambitious project that started in 1906 and brought freshwater to Bari in 1915. Today the entire length of the aqueduct, including primary and secondary lines is 2189 km, serving the more than 4 million inhabitants in 258 cities, towns and villages along with the corn and tomatoes that grow in the former wasteland on the Tavoliere.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Italian hours

When traveling through Italy, you can’t help noticing how the south operates by a different time zone than the north of the country. In my part of Puglia, you never go out to dine before nine pm, and families with grandmothers and small children are still dropping in for their evening meal at half past ten in the evening. Appetite comes slowly in a warm climate. In consequence, we are always running late for dinners in northern Italy, where all tables are full at eight o’clock and where some restaurant kitchens stop serving after ten.

Now time - to me at least - was part of the order of things, and therefore above questioning, until I happened to read the introduction to Henry James’ Italian hours. Here Professor John Auchard interprets the title in a historical context, quoting guidebooks from the early 19th century for saying that the “manner of reckoning time in some parts of Italy is peculiar to themselves." Apparently, time in Italy was considered a local phenomenon, varying approximately four minutes for every degree of longitude, so that noon arrived at different moments in Florence, Milan and Rome. This should explain why trains, for instance, operated on different schedules in different towns, and why they sometimes happened to depart earlier than announced!

Synchronization improved with the unification of Italy in 1870, but it took years before standard Greenwich mean time, proposed in 1884, was widely adopted. And perhaps the local protests against time tyranny and regimentation are still manifest at dinner time.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Caught up in the attractions of Puglia

My first visit to Puglia took place as an act of escapism. A few days of peltering rain in a leaking tent with two young children in Emilia-Romagna stirred the urge to go south, and with a trunk full of muddy washing we kept going till the sun broke through. It happened shortly after Vasto, and while we crossed the Tavoliere temperatures climbed.

The Tavoliere ranges as the largest plain in Italy after the Po Valley, and plains can be pretty boring from a touristy point of view. Especially in Puglia, where farm workers live in towns leaving the countryside to vast fields and roaring emptiness. Not knowing if or when the wheat fields would ever end, we turned left around Manfredonia, went out on the spur of the Gargano Promontory and ended up in Vieste. Since then Puglia has been the undisputed holiday favourite.

Precisely what makes south-eastern Italy so attractive eludes words, but an important element is the easy-going friendliness. People we met went out of their way to guide strangers; they smiled and talked uninhibited; organised play groups for the children and came running after us, if we forgot our change at the cafe. The relaxed atmosphere seemed so pervasive it infected holiday-makers from all over Italy, and soon you had open invitations to stop by people in Milano, Mantova, Bologna or L’Aquila.

Another Puglian characteristic is the natural and cultural diversity. Over the past 2000 years Puglia has been under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Swabian, Saracen, Angevin and Spanish rule and the historical heritage can be traced through every town. An endless number of churches, castles, city walls, palaces, watchtowers, acquaducts, harbours, magic stones and religious sanctuaries complement the two official world heritage sites (ie. the trulli in Alberobello and Castel del Monte). The landscape changes from hills and forest to plains, heathland, caves, ravines and gorges with an understated kind of beauty; charming white villages with labyrinthine narrow alleys compete with high-end shopping districts in big city grids; medieval traditions and customs mingle with modern living; industry and agriculture keep the wheels turning and behind the ancient stone walls there’s a rich production of olives, wine, wheat oranges, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash and other vegetables.
Puglia has got is all - along with free sandy beaches, a warm, dry climate and an amazing light that immediately cures minor depressive tendencies after a Scandinavian winter.

No wonder I got so caught up during my first Puglian escape that I still hang around. In coming blogs I’ll try to describe the main attractions of each province.


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