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Bari, which lies in the Puglia, or Apulia, region of southern Italy (around the heel of the country's "boot" shape) is the kind of port cruise passengers dream about. It boasts a delightfully sunny, palm-lined promenade and broad boulevards with designer shops and top-quality restaurants. And, its lovely medieval Old Town is so atmospheric it could be the set for a particularly romantic version of "Romeo and Juliet" with its balconied houses, pretty courtyards, Baroque and Romanesque churches, chapels, shops and courtyards.
Beyond the city itself lies beautiful Puglia, which is endowed with a sandy coastline, 60 million olive trees, Roman ruins, vast golden wheat fields and the distinctive whitewashed, grey, conical-roofed houses known as the Trulli.
Bari is growing in popularity as a cruise port. Big-ship lines -- including P&O, Costa, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises -- are now visiting there, in addition to the small, upmarket ships of Seabourn, Silversea, Azamara and Oceania Cruises.
This is one port guaranteed to deliver a memorable day ashore -- and even have you planning to come back for a longer visit.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
Puglia is famous for its handmade pasta, which you'll find in many unusual shapes, like tiny leaves, Mexican sombreros or minuscule, hand-rolled cigarillos.
Indeed, these pastas -- in shades of palest ochre, pistachio, cafe creme and sun-washed terracotta -- are so pretty that I'd rather decorate my kitchen with jars of them than cook them. That said, the local pasta dishes taste as good as they look (see Lunching section).
Italian is the official language. Don't assume you'll find English-speakers, so take a phrasebook along, or at least memorize a few basic phrases like hello (buon giorno), thank you (per favore), how much (quante'e) and I don't understand (non capisco).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the euro; see www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for the latest conversion rates. You'll find an ATM machine right in the port where you dock. Look for the Banco Populaire di Bari, a squat cream building that lies about a two-minute walk to the left of the port entrance, within the perimeter fence.
Where You're Docked
Bari has three separate docks for ferries, container / freight vessels and cruise ships. We were greeted on arrival at the cruise dock by a small blue terminal with a big, friendly "Welcome" sign on the outside and passport control desks inside.
Behind the terminal area was an open seating area, somewhere quiet to sit and wait for tour buses. And, behind that was a much larger, two-story terminal with check-in desks on the lower floor and a souvenir shop, lavatories, drink machines and a newsstand on the upper level. There's no ATM, though; that's in the bank inside the docks.
Bari has the longest seafront in Italy. It's also one of the prettiest, dotted with elaborately styled, elegant, black wrought-iron street lamps and planted with palm trees.
Head left along the promenade from the dock gates, and across the road you'll see a grassed-over dry moat surrounding the old city walls, with a few restaurant and cafe tables laid out, should you need a quick drink or snack.
Bari's Old and New Towns are easily walkable from the port. To reach the Old Town, head left along the promenade, and after about 10 minutes, you'll see a broad archway set into the old walls; this is the entrance to Bari's Old Town.
Some cruise lines provide free shuttle buses from the dock gates down to Avenue Corso Cavour, one of the main shopping streets in the "new" part of Bari. It's easy to walk from there back to the cruise terminal via the Old Town by strolling east along Corso Cavour to Piazza 4th Novembre and then walking left along the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which divides the Old Town from the new.
If you don't want to walk or take the shuttle bus around town, you'll find mini-train tours on offer right at the dock entrance. Trenino-Tour offers 1.5-hour Bari City Tour drives around Bari's harbour, Old Town and main sights. Eventieturismo offers one-hour tours.
Taxis are also based at the dock gates. They are metered, but roundtrips to local places of interest can be negotiated separately with waiting time.
Watch Out For
Italian traffic can be very daunting, particularly in the narrow streets of the Old Town, where you'll need to keep your wits about you if you don't want to collide with a speeding Vespa (or, as in my case, have a near miss with a cyclist).
You'll also need to be brave in barging across zebra crossings. Italian drivers are a law unto themselves and won't stop unless you make them. (Don't walk right out in front of them, though -- do give a bit of warning for your own safety!)
As with most big cities, Bari can be a hunting ground for pickpockets, so keep bags and pockets well-buttoned, and don't carry too much cash or expensive jewelry.
Much of Bari's New Town actually dates from the early 19th century, but it's laid out on a grid system, so it's easier to find your way around there than in the jumble of narrow streets and alleyways you'll find in the Old Town. The New Town is also the best place to find sophisticated shops and department stores selling good-quality clothes, ceramics and giftware. The broad and beautiful Corso Vittorio Emanuele -- which divides the Old Town from the New -- is well worth strolling along. It's lined with offices on one side, but on the other you'll find charming, early 19th-century buildings in shades of pale cream, chocolate brown and burnt orange, their black wrought-iron balconies vivid with tumbling scarlet geraniums and lavish purple bougainvillea.
A walk around the Old Town is simply magical, for this is a real old town, and the working people of Bari still live there and give it all the charm of an authentic community. While there's not a lot of cash about, there is an old-fashioned feeling of friendliness and mutual cooperation, with children playing on the streets as the women watch and talk.
Take a look around the Old Town food market, fragrant, colorful and bursting with local goodies. It's just off the square on the left of the cathedral. You'll find some fabulous food shops -- like the Panicceria Animaria bakery, which sells delicate, pastel-tinted macaroons, pancerotto (diced ham tarts) and zhuccacio (savory pastries), and heart-shaped apricot and almond biscotti -- in the same area. The Antica Salumeria, a lovely old grocery shop a few doors down from the bakery, is fragrant as only Italian shops can be, with scents of freshly baked panini, herbs, pungently spiced sausages and local cheeses and hams. Be warned, though: As you walk through the door, a hog's head hanging on the wall may startle you!
Two of Bari's most notable churches -- the 11th-century Basilica of St. Nicola (which has a magnificent painted ceiling and a gold-encrusted crypt containing the Saint's remains) and the 12th-century Cathedral of San Sabino -- are both based in the Old Town. The same area is home to tiny convents, chapels and shrines founded by ancient communities in Bari; they include the Church of San Marco, founded by the Venetians, and the Chieso del Santa Maria del Carmine, founded by the Carmelites in 1542. The latter is worth seeing for its elegant Wedgewood, blue Baroque-style, gold and gilt interior; inlaid marble altar and glittering crystal chandelier.
The Norman-Swabian Castle lies on Piazza Federico II di Svevia, just outside the Old City walls, facing the sea. Built between 1233 and 1240 by Frederick II, it has angular towers that were added in the 16th century. Nowadays, it's occupied by a government department, but tourists can go inside for a small fee and visit its plaster-cast gallery, which features ornamental casts of Italian buildings, created between the 11th and 17th centuries. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
Been There, Done That
The pretty beach resort of Trani is located about 30 km from Bari. (A taxi will cost approximately 80 euros, roundtrip.) It's a sleepy place with an attractive waterfront and oodles of old-fashioned charm; one fan described it as looking like a 1950's film set. It's a great place to come to relax and watch the boats in the harbor. The only other attraction would be a visit to its 12th-century Cattedrale di San Nicola Pellegrino.
Explore the atmospheric ruins of an ancient Roman city at Canosa di Puglia, 50 km from Bari. (A taxi, plus waiting time, will cost between 100 and 120 euros.) Canosa is considered the archaeological capital of Puglia and is one of Italy's oldest continually inhabited cities, believed to date from the 7th century B.C. Worth seeing are ancient catacombs dating from the 4th to the 2nd century B.C. Editor's note: Canosa is a fair distance from the port, so consider a visit only if you have a long time ashore.
Monopoli, a picturesque former Venetian trading post 40 km away, is endowed with a spectacular central piazza that's surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants. It's perfect for enjoying a lazy lunch and watching the world go by. A cab ride will cost about 100 euros.
Alberobello, the Trulli capital of Puglia, lies halfway between Bari and Brindisi and is well worth visiting, as its fairytale looks have won it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The conical Trulli houses are now mainly hotels, holiday apartments or souvenir shops, but you can see an example of how one would have looked -- complete with traditional Trulli furniture -- in the Trulli Museum, near Alberobello's cathedral. A taxi ride there costs about 200 euros, roundtrip.
Bari's cuisine is one of the most traditional and delicious in Italy, and it's based on the three main agricultural products of the Puglia region -- wheat, olive oil and wine -- supplemented by locally produced fruit, vegetables and meat.
It's a foodie's paradise; look out for that glorious traditional pasta (particularly the hat-shaped orecchiette), and tuck into pungent baked calzone, made from local flour and filled with onions, anchovies, capers and olives. Dip focaccia alla Barese into thick minestrone soup, or enjoy a ragu of lamb, pork or (if you're feeling brave) horsemeat.
And, if you're feeling even braver, try the catch of the day served tartare. (Yes, that means raw.) Or, enjoy a traditional, oven-baked Riso -- composed of rice, potatoes and mussels -- washed down with some of the delicious local wines, such as Primitivo.
You'll find good places to eat in both the Old Town and the new. Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the broad main street that divides Bari's Old Town from its 19th-century area, is the best place to head if you fancy a traditional Italian lunch ashore. The central, pedestrian area is shaded by palm trees, and it's a good place to browse for a nice lunch venue, as you'll find plenty of enticing restaurants with pretty, glass conservatory-style frontages.
Best for Local Dishes: Terranima Ristoro Pugliese (213 Via Putignani) comes highly recommended. Filled with antiques and old street signs and designed to resemble a market square surrounded by local shops, it offers a range of locally sourced food and fragrant Puglian wine. Specialities of the house include homemade fusilli pasta with courgettes (zucchini), a gut-busting antipasti platter that features local ham and three types of cheese, tasty frittata (thick omelets) and cheesy fried potato puffs.
Best for a Sophisticated Meal: Ristorante Alberosole (in Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, near Piazza Ferrarese) is noted for its sophisticated twist on traditional Bari dishes. With its monastery-style vaulted roof and stone-flagged floor, it's also an atmospheric place in which to dine. House specialities include a crescent-shaped pasta dish, spiced up with mint, anchovies and pine nuts; orrechietti (ear-shaped) pasta with bacon; and locally caught squid, stewed in red wine.
Best for an Inexpensive Lunch: Caffe' Borghese (130 Corso Vittorio Emanuele) is a good bet for an affordable meal. Order a drink, and you'll get a few nibbles thrown in for free, while the filled panini and bruschetta -- substantial hunks of bread topped with tomatoes and garlic -- come highly recommended. And, you can either eat in the elegant brasserie-style interior, or sit outside and watch the world go by.
Staying in Touch
There's an Internet cafe across the road from the dock gates; just look across the road and down to the right, and you'll see a small sign for it. It costs about 2 euros an hour.
Best for Foodies: The Ancient Tradition of Olive Oil tour (4.5 hours) takes you on a 90-minute drive through the verdant Valle D'Itria to view some of the 60 million olive trees -- many centuries old and protected by law -- of the Puglia region. The tour visits a traditional masseria (farmhouse) to see how the golden oil is extracted by stone press and to taste the finished product with some locally made Friselle bread.
Best for First Timers: The Bari Walking Tour (2.5 hours) begins with a drive around the town to see main sights like the Swabian castle and continues with a walk through the Old Town and a visit to the St. Nicholas Basilica before allowing some free time to explore.
Best for Stunning Views: The Enchanting Alberobello (five hours) tour takes you to the fairytale village of Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Puglia's greatest attraction, with its distinctive, conical, 17th-century Trulli houses. You'll begin with an hour's drive past spectacular olive groves and golden wheat fields, followed by some free time in Alberobello and a stop at a Trulli-style farmhouse to sample Apulian wine, foccaccia bread and other local specialities.
For More Information
On the Web: Puglia Tourism or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bari Tourism Board
Italian Government Tourist Board
Tourist Office: Piazza Moro, 33/a, Tel. (+39) 080 5242244
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor