Dwight Peck's personal website

The heel of the boot

Southern Italy on the trail of Stupor Mundi

It's mid-October 2011 and we've got some time off. We're all great fans of Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, so now's our chance.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Bari in Puglia

We've dragged the luggage down forty-two miles of pedestrian window-shopping boulevards from the train station and promptly got lost in the warren of ancient streets of the peninsula of Old Bari. It's with an expansive sigh that we emerge onto the broad piazza of the St Nicholas church and realize that we're on the wrong side of the peninsula.

Kristin (background) is seeking directions to the B+B Templar and getting some pretty circular advice.

That's unmistakably the Castello Svevo, the "Swabian Castle", i.e., the castle of the German emperors. So we're on the right side of the peninsula now.

And finally, there's our Bed and Breakfast, named the "Bed and Breakfast" (the "breakfast" part is a chit for a local coffee bar). Apparently these two rooms travel under many names, including "Templar", and are sub-institutionally connected to other such small establishments throughout the old city, so that none of them have to say "sorry, we're full up".

Our beautiful room, renovated out of an old cellar as only the Italians can do it.

Back to St Nicholas for a proper look-in, without the luggage. The old city of Bari was long considered a No-Go Zone, infested with petty and not-so-petty criminals and criminal clans, until (we were told) about twenty years ago the authorities cleaned it up, laid on some serious street-lighting and sewer systems, and turned the place into a Family Friendly late-night disco spot.

The ceiling of San Nicola, the basilica built during the Normans' turn to run the region of Apulia in the early 12th century.

In the crypt, St Nicholas resides contentedly. One day the old Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, now in southern Turkey, was walking along towards Rome, saw Bari, and decided that he wanted eventually to be buried here. He died in 343 and got a fairly nice tomb at home in Myra, but then events took their course.

In 1071 the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV got seriously wiped at the Battle of Manzikert and the Seljuk Turks took over the region of Lycia, but some sailors from Bari felt strongly that St Nicholas would be happier amongst fellow Christians, so they liberated his mortal bits and pieces and brought them home in 1087, and the basilica was built to accommodate him. One legend insists that he appeared to the sailors and begged them to take him home with them. As in the old days, he still exudes a miraculous fluid from time to time. In 2009 the Turkish government announced that it wants him back.

Kristin at San Nicolas' basilica, striding purposefully over to demonstrate to me that the figures on the front of it are medieval hippopotami. I think they are cows. Saint Nicholas was known as the Wonder Worker in Greek, the Miracle Worker in Russian, and Santa Claus in English. He's the patron saint of sailors and thieves.

The Adriatic from the shore of the Old Town.

Bari's a bustling, industrial new town of 650,000 in the metropolitan area, stretching up and down the coast and inland for a long way. Throughout the early Middle Ages, Bari continued to be governed and inhabited by Byzantine Greeks, with a few Saracen interludes, and thrived as a major shipping depot for slaves (mostly Slav slaves) sold off to Muslim states around the Mediterranean.

The Castello Svevo, or Swabian Castle, at a strategic point covering the old harbor and the old city. Robert Guiscard, the most impressive of the early Norman mercenaries-turned-kingly-warlords in southern Italy and Sicily, captured Bari in 1071 after a long siege, and the Norman castle was built here by Guiscard's nephew, Roger II, King of Sicily, around 1131.

I love these European city tourist buses -- they're all exactly the same (they're Dotto Trains!) except for the paint job. Except that this is definitely not a Dotto Train. In fact, it looks homemade.

And hard upon that one, here comes another. Similarly homemade, different paint job.

The Castello Svevo was destroyed in 1156 by the Norman King of Sicily, William the Bad (father of William the Good), along with the Bari cathedral, in taking the city back from another bunch of Byzantine Greeks, but the present castle was built on the site by the Holy Roman Emperor of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (i.e, the Swabians), Frederick II, called the Wonder of the World -- the Stupor Mundi -- during his castle-building frenzy throughout Apulia in the 1230s.

The Castello Svevo hosts modern exhibitions, and this one by Adele Samarelli (called "Dada Samarelli", no surprises there) is hilarious. Called "Faux" (false, or fake), it's got photographic recreations of a number of well-known paintings, with something False (like the Christ child, for example).

The Castello Svevo is also called the Norman-Hohenstaufen Castle and has palm trees in it. Bari escaped major Allied bombing damage during World War II, but in December 1943 German planes bombed the harbor and got a US ship with a cargo of illegal poison gas, with major casualties among the seamen and citizens. Since no one could admit that it was poison gas, the doctors never knew what they were dealing with.

An irreverent modern addition to the stonework

One of the last refuges of one of the last of the Hohenstaufens

The cathedral of Bari is pretty remarkable -- the first cathedral is documented from the 500s, and some of that's still to be seen in the basement, but that one was destroyed in about the 10th century. Next came the archbishop's new Byzantine digs in the middle of the 11th century, but that was wrecked in 1156, along with the rest of the city except the Basilica of St Nicholas, by William the Bad (father of William the Good).

The present edifice was consecrated in 1292, built in the style of St Nicholas a few blocks over the way. Some of it, especially the façade, was later baroquized, but the interior was blessedly re-Romanesquized in the 1950s, many thanks for that.

Here in the crypt we find St Sabinus, bishop of Canosa, patron saint of the cathedral and presumably well known in his day -- all his pieces were rescued from the Saracen destruction of Canosa in 844 and tastefully installed here. (Oh, those Saracens!)

Eeuuchh, another horrible saint. This is meant to be Saint Columba di Sens, a "virgin martyr" beheaded at Meaux near Paris in 273. Some legends say she was also a witch who met Jesus on the road in northwestern Spain, and after he informed her that witches don't get into heaven, she converted, and then got beheaded. She's got some beautiful beach sandals on, but otherwise doesn't look comfortable. How she got on down here to southern Italy is not fully explained on the information plaque. Nor is how she got her head back.

A street scene in the old town -- sewers in, criminals out.

Here's the Bangladeshi wine bar under whose sidewalk awning we were permitted to sip relaxing beverages and connect to the WiFi, unexpectedly absent in our B+B. We're awaiting messages from everybody, but especially from Cousin Rob and Elke, who are meant to be meeting us here. (The Salumeria next door, the following day, evidently swindled us very badly on some luncheon picnic delicacies.)

Rob's here, with an orange Wooden Boat T-shirt on, and so is Kristin, of course, and so is Elke, and we're going back to the cathedral to see the best stuff.

That's some of the good stuff, but it's not the best stuff.

Here's the best stuff -- the early Christian mosaics under the cathedral. Called "Timoteo's mosaics", these were part of the early medieval church built from the 5th century onward and demolished in 1034 to make way for the new Romanesque cathedral.

The subterranean cathedral, rehabilitated and displayed as only the Italians can do it.

Cousin Rob in his orange Wooden Boat shirt getting the macro views.

The old Roman road down the Adriatic coast, the Via Trajani, ran right down through these pre-church basements, and that's part of it.

More pre-church Bari leftovers, brilliantly excavated, strengthened, and displayed.

Now it's time for lunch.

The local farmers' market

The cathedral of Bari

Kristin hanging out in the Bari alleys again

Castello Svevo, on migration day; we're off for the hinterlands.

We're searching out Rob and Elke's room in the old city, ready for our next adventures.

That's Rob and Elke's room, and my 1940s retro suitcase in front of it.

That's the Roman view from Rob and Elke's room.

That's meant to be the way to the carpark a few blocks off, but at the moment we're lost.

The Masseria Pilapalucci. The masserie are the old fortified farmhouses of the great estates of southern Italy and Sicily, this one near Toritto, 30km southwest of Bari, then (and now) the estate of the D'Urso family, which since the sixteenth century has kept an eye out for Saracen raiders and local bandits. Kristin's looking round for our hosts, but we're early.

The Masseria Pilapalucci now cultivates about 5,000 olive trees and a thousand almond trees, along with various other agricultural odds and ends, and operates as an agritourism hotel in a very peaceful setting as well. Our hosts were hospitable, entertaining, and eager to talk about their agricultural innovations and about the "Slow Food" movement. The husband is a professor of agricultural economics and teaches courses frequently round the world, regularly at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, as well.

Kristin preparing to get settled in

A very peaceful milieu at the crossroads of the ancient sheepways up to the mountains

The estate has recently been thoroughly restored and has three guest rooms in addition to the family's home, as well as the original tower, a horse yard, pigeon tower, and farm buildings round the back, half of one of which was recently stolen.

Elke, Kristin, and Rob lunching on southern Italian specialties of the terroir, before we adjourn to Matera for the afternoon, and come back for the evening meal of products of Masseria Pilapalucci prepared by "slow food" methods.

(Photo by Elke)

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 7 November 2011, updated 11 July 2021.

Italy, 2011