Imagine Italy. On the map, it resemble a shoe. Right above its heel lies Apulia and it it, Bari – the largest city in the region.

Let’s play a quick guessing game. What is primitivo? Probably every adult, who has been to and fro, is well acquainted with the red wine from the Apulia region – the so-called Primitivo di Manduria is very popular in Poland. However, you should get to know Bari not only because of the wine. Apulia is located far from Milan, Venice or even the ever-popular Tuscany, and thus lies off the most beaten paths. On the one hand it is its advantage, as even in summer it is a bit calmer here. On the other, it is a pity, since the history of this city is also closely related to… Poland, as Queen Bona is buried in the underground of one of the local churches. Staring in elementary school, students learn that she introduced into our cuisine… pasta and spices typical of Italy.

Southern flavours

Apulia is one of the poorest parts of Italy, but nobody (especially tourists) goes hungry here. You can always eat a fried, corn polenta – sgagliose, crunchy bread with olives and dill “friselle” (panini – hot sandwiches) with raw octopus or other, equally common in the Adriatic “frutti di mare”, as a snack. Ragu, orecchiette pasta, sea urchins eaten like oysters, i.e. with finely chopped shallots and tabasco, aromatic wine – what more could you want? The weather is more than certain here, although in the colder seasons the turquoise sea turns steel gravy. However, the strong wind in the city is not dangerous. Just plunge into the quiet labyrinth of the alleys of Barivecchia, the old town of Bari.  
The narrow streets of the historic centre are separated from the sea by a busy street. Two, actually, with one running into the other. Looking from the west, you will first see Corso Vittorio Veneto, which a little bit further on is called Lungomare Imperatore Augusto and takes on the character of an urban boulevard. In the port, one of the largest in this part of Italy, there “park” ferries to Croatia (Dubrovnik is situated exactly at the same altitude, but on the other side of the sea) and Montenegro. There is also a huge marina right next to it, so if only there were mountains in the background, Bari would be “almost like Monte Carlo”.
The city has approx. 320 000 inhabitants, its own university and a history dating back to ancient times. Settled by Greek, it later came under the rule of Byzantium. For 20 years, it was a Muslim emirate and the centre of Slavic slave trade, and later – when Bari was “retaken from the unfaithful” – the city became one of the starting points of the crusade knights in the Levant. The castle of Norman conquerors from the 11th century (the so-called Castello Normanno – Svevo di Bari), but also the cathedral – Cathedrale di San Sabino – or the Romanesque church of St. Nicholas still bear witness to those times. Both churches are noteworthy – in San Sabino you can see frescoes from the 13th century and paintings by such masters as Tintoretto, Veronese and Bordone. The other church – more simple and austere in character – holds, among others, the relics of St. Nichola.

Festa di San Nicola

This is the Italian name of Saint Nicholas’ festival, which lasts three days and always takes place in May. All citizens of Bari take time off during that time (excluding the time of the pandemic, when the event was organized online), because Saint Nicholas – the same one we associate with Christmas presents – is the patron saint of the city. The bearded saint, known for his mercy and charity, enjoys a good reputation all over the world (he is patron of numerous churches, from Berlin to Bydgoszcz or Głogów) and is also revered by the Orthodox. Confectioners, seamen and sailors, perfume sellers, unmarried maids and… prostitutes also pray to him. The variety of professions gives the image of the saint as an extremely “hardworking” person. During the Festa di San Nicola, his earthly relics and a figure in golden, ornate robes, cover a long “journey”. First, the procession goes through the streets (also surrounded by torches), and then the saint sails the boat on the nearby bay. Finally, the crowd of believers returns to the church that remembers the times when Bari was a principality and when the Neapolitan Sforza family ruled here.

Polish trace

The Polonika Institute deals with Polish cultural heritage abroad and polonicas, i.e. material remnants of Poland, Poles or what is related to our country. Its director, Dorota Janiszewska-Jakubiak, argues that polonicas need to be secured, protected, preserved and popularized, from Ukraine to the USA. In Bari, she recommends the church of St. Nicola. Why? “The interior is austere, but the most important thing is hidden behind the main altar, on a recessed wall, the so-called apse. A monument of white and black marble crowned with the figure of a kneeling woman has been standing there for over 460 years. It is the tomb of the wife of Sigismund I the Old – Queen Bona, who, after a conflict with her son Sigismund II Augustus, returned to the country of her childhood. She died poisoned. After her death, she wanted to rest in Naples, but her will was not respected. She ended up in Bari and was buried in the cathedral. A few years later, her remains were transferred and placed in the Church of San Nicola.

Bona Sforza was killed by a courtier and medic, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda, who forged her will, acting on the order of the Habsburgs, seeking to redeem the debt owed by Bona. It must have been a lot of money. One must remember that in Europe at that time, our queen was one of the richest women on the continent.
The tombstone in Bari was commissioned by Anna Jagiellon, daughter of Bona.Its design was created by Tomasz Treter, who came from a poor bourgeois family from Chwaliszewo in Poznań, and was also the secretary of Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius and a canon of the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.He wrote poetry, drew and painted for pleasure (!).The monument was carved according to his design by the sculptors Andrea Sarti, Francesco Bernucci and Francesco Zagarella.In an elaborate architectural setting, kneeling Bona is accompanied by figures of two saints: Nicholas, the patron saint of Bari, and Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland, each standing at one of her sides.Below there are also reclining female figures holding coats of arms – allegories of the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Bari.

New times

You can see history in Apulia everywhere. Also the most recent one – during the Second World War, in 1943, Bari was destroyed by the Germans. Some Western historians even use the term “small Pearl Harbor” to commemorate those events, as in the port bombing (similar to the one in the USA – hence the name) there sank 28 ships. One of them was carrying a cargo of chemical weapons. The Allies secretly transported them to Europe in case Hitler wanted to use chemical weapons himself. There was an explosion of the deadly ammunition and an accidental “gas attack”, the only one during the Second World War. Estimates vary, but it is assumed that about 80 soldiers died (although other sources say that even 2 000 lost their lives). The English tried to cover it up, a secret which was discovered by the American Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander. Interestingly, his report, and especially the doctors’ information on the effect of the gas on cell division, was used in the first attempts to treat cancer by the so-called chemotherapy.

From Bari do Matera, Arebelobello and Brindisi

It is easy to walk or drive by scooter in Bari. You can also see the city using a Segway or a rickshaw, and then go to Apulia, but you’ll need a car for the latter. It is worth risking such a trip not only in search of wine, Adriatic flavours or empty beaches. On the way, you can visit the underground cave houses in Matera (the city is included in the UNESCO list; it is one of the oldest known human settlements), Alberobello with equally old houses with conical roofs, which are partly carved in the rocks, or Altamura, where the skeleton of a 130-170 thousand-year-old prehistoric man was found. If you want to follow in Polish footsteps during your trip only, then the charming Brindisi, which is just 100 km from Bari, can be added to the list of interesting places in Apulia. During the war, it was here that the air base was located, from where airdrops for insurgents in Warszawa were brought. Did you know about it? All in all, you should remember that Italy is not only Rome and Milan, and it is worth being explored more.