Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy – A day in Puglia – Barletta and Trani

Apr 29, 2016

We are driving over the coastal plain of Puglia towards Barletta. To make the most of just one day in Puglia we set out early but the trip is drawn out as Paola who is following us keeps stopping because her car has some sort of internal combustion engine disease. She is now far behind searching for mechanical assistance. Enzo has driven us through the green rolling hill countryside of Abruzzo, across a gently undulating part of Molise. As we rush down the A14 I am reminded of home. Vast fields of wheat, green at this time of year stretches of vineyards that seem never ending, and a long line of eucalyptus trees bordering the road. Past Foggia, near Barletta we are surrounded by agricultural land but ahead there is the beginning of urbanisation, apartment buildings, and factories. The main product of the city is cement and looking around some of it has not travelled far.

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Paola’s friend Beppe has arranged for us to have lunch at his favourite restaurant. Like the majority of Italians Beppe knows that his region is the best of all possible places. At this restaurant we will have the best fresh seafood and the wine will be indescribably wonderful. Of course the Pugliese landscape is breathtaking and the cities are rich in architectural gems. As he would say: “Nel mondo!” – The best in the world. But our eyes tell us that the approaches to Barletta are not. Still we know we won’t be disappointed either by Barletta’s Centro Storico or lunch. We meet Nicla, Beppe’s wife, by the Romanesque, Gothic cathedral. Opposite it is the coldly military and forbidding castle with its sharply angled bastions surrounded by a park. Nicla is the queen of colour matching. Today she has decided that purple is the theme, so head to toe she is emblazoned with shades of the imperial colour. We sit under umbrellas by the Duomo and refresh ourselves with coffee. Slowly we rise and stroll through the arch beneath the bell tower into Piazzetta del Duomo. To one side there is Santa Maria Maggiore, pale limestone walls reflecting the sunlight and to the other side are medieval houses with an incongruous tangle of television antennas sprouting untidily from the roofs.

Those enterprising Vikings cum Frenchmen, the Normans began building the Duomo. Commenced in Romanesque style it was completed in Gothic. The simple limestone facade has a central baroque doorway, but it’s the earlier decoration that holds my attention. A pair of Norman Lions, one on each side of the building, are placed on a plinth that projects from the facade. They are trying without succeeding to look impressively fierce. Either side of the main door are two arched doorways with fine carvings around the top. Inside it is surprisingly busy. Tourists wandering through and checking off their must see lists, people kneel at chapels lost in prayer, a quiet wedding is underway,    all to a continual movement of people.

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We walk along Via del Duomo. This is the Italy of your imagination. Balconies sprouting colourful geraniums and bougainvillea hang over the narrow streets. “See how people make up for not having gardens.” says Enzo. Old people sitting in doorways washing lines strung across the street and over there a woman leaning out a first story window doing up her top and just ahead sitting on a chair in the street is an elderly woman with one container on her knees and another beside her. Looking closer we see that she is cleaning tiny black mussels. In Australia the land of big these would most likely be relegated to the role of fisherman’s bait but Sandra assures me that these are the sweetest, tastiest type, the same as she gathered with her father when she was a girl. She says that the sweet saltiness is best enjoyed raw – “crudo”. This is the sort of romantic picture post card scenes that are great to photograph to show everyone at home. “Look we saw this adorable nonna preparing tiny mussels for her dinner right in the street!” I’m reluctant to intrude on her life by thrusting a camera toward her. It seems presumptuous to interrupt her meal preparation just for a memento. But we do have a photo of the mussel cleaner of Barletta and she does look a bit put out by the click of the shutter.

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Standing outside San Sepolcro is the Colossus of Bari, a five metre tall bronze statue of a Roman emperor, perhaps Theodosius. Tradition has it that the statue arrived in Barletta during the thirteenth century. It is certainly impressive. With its outstretched arm it appears as though it is making a speech to the residents of Barletta. One foot has been rubbed to a shine. Nicla tells us that rubbing the foot brings good fortune. We are gullible so we give the foot a good polish. And almost immediately we are rewarded. The lunch Beppe has organised is magnificent, so good and so surprising it deserves a blog of its own. Afterwards, following a stroll to aid digestion, we head out to Trani leaving Paola to find a mechanic to treat her unwell car.

The drive from Barletta to Trani is short and returns us to present Italy. The straight flat road takes us by a cement works, car dealers, various show rooms and factories and closer to Trani, stone quarries. The standard evidence of a modern economy at work. We could be in any Western country, but naturally the is always a reminder that this could only be Italy. The road is intermittently lined with umbrella pines. Just here there’s one right on the road, standing lonely by itself. No guard rail. Nothing to stop a Fiat running headlong into it. Incredibly there is no sign of any damage to the trunk, not a scratch or scrape to the bark. So no one has collided with it, why construct a guard or more drastically, remove it?

The outer parts of Trani give no clue to what will be found in the Centro Storico. They are scruffy, look a bit jerry built and decidedly downbeat. In the centre is one of the wonders of Puglia. We drive toward to sea and directly on the water front is the very cubist Swabian castle, all straight lines, squares, rectangles and solid cuboid shapes, the most no nonsense fortress you’ll find. To the right almost dipping its toes in the Adriatic, the Duomo standing like an exclamation mark of Romanesque ecclesiastic architecture, simple, solid form, and sublimely elegant, grey Trani stone highlighted by blue sea. We walk around. Simple forms, arches, circles, cylinders, rectangles, triangles, arranged in harmonious elegance in a dramatic setting. This sounds rather serious but San Nicola Pellegrino whom the cathedral is dedicated to inspired a sense of playfulness among us. Tonie and Franco stand under arches acting as statues of saints or apostles, hands folded in prayer.

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We walk to the harbour, wineglass shaped, sheltering fishing boats among others. The fishermen have set up a small trestle and umbrella shaded market. The catch is set out in plastic tubs or simply tossed out on the stainless steel trestle. For such a small market there is a good variety of seafood. Small shiny silver fish, little orange legged crabs, cuttlefish, wriggling octopuses of various types, large char hey scallops, red mullet, orange and white spiral shellfish that I have never seen before and one huge spectacular powerful looking and streamlined swordfish. We follow a line of palazzi around the harbour. The water is perfectly motionless reflecting the late afternoon sunlight. We are looking for somewhere to relax while we again wait, patiently for Paola who is still having trouble keeping her recalcitrant car moving.

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We are now sitting at a bar on the steps of a palazzo with a fine view of the harbour. My deliciously cold beer is reviving me after a long day. In the harbour there are many small craft, fishing boats and one enormous and gaudy metallic bronze pained motor cruiser, pointy and phallic. The marine equivalent of a dodgy businessman’s over customised Mercedes. Most of the others are talking quietly; Enzo is sitting cross legged reading Il Mezzogiorno to catch up on the news. Leaning close to my ear Hamish says, “Look behind you, don’t make it obvious, there are Australians at that table.” I don’t need to look. I hear the unmistakeable accent and without making myself obvious rotate half a turn in my chair to examine these Turisti Australiani. And what fine specimens we have! Husband and wife I guess, mid-fifties, wife bored, husband irritated. They seem to have a unique view of life in Trani. “Did you see those fishermen sell fish over there? Did you see their stalls? They only had a couple of fish. Why do you think that is? It’s because these Italians are lazy. They are too lazy to stay out until they get a decent catch.” His tone is somewhere between condescension and disgust. This insight into the Italian national character is ignored by her. She is looking for the answer to a far more important aspect of life in Italy. She surveys the harbour. “Where is the boat ramp? How do they get the boats out if there is no ramp?” With his great understanding of all things Italian he knows the answer. And it’s not because they are too lazy to build one. With a smug tone he announces, “Because they all live in flats. They all live in flats and have no backyards they have nowhere to keep boats so they have to leave them in the water.” She is so impressed by this brilliant analysis that she says nothing. He looks well pleased but soon puts on his irritated long suffering expression. “Are we going back to Rome tomorrow?” “Yes.” “l don’t want to go back to Rome. I’m sick of Rome. There’s nothing there.” No doubt thinking, just like here. They leave just as the Tranesi are beginning the fill the waterfront bars and restaurants and life comes to the evening.

Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)

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