Naples, Capri, Sicily - these holiday destinations evoke a yearning for Italy in tourists. The area around Bari however is still untouched by tourism - something that is bound to change by 2019 at the latest.
"It's best to arrive at midday," our hotel owner informs us. Bari is a perfect starting point to discover the Apulia and Basilicata regions, which are in the "heel" of boot-shaped Italy. Even though over two million people pass through the city's ferry port, Bari remains very much untouched by tourism and still adheres to the southern Italian rhythm of daily life. At midday the city belongs to visitors. Occasionally a cat will languidly gaze out from of a doorway, and once in a while you might spot a tourist or even two.
Mostly though you will be on your own in the winding alleyways, which at first glance look rather more like a northern African Kasbah than a small town in Italy. The Madonna figurines behind colorful curtains in the recesses of the white washed walls however let you know where you are. And the St. Nicolas Basilica which towers over the old town center. San Nicola, holy St. Nicolas, is the patron saint of Bari. Back in 1087 his remains were fairly spectacularly stolen from his grave in Myra, in what today is Turkey, and transferred to the Basilica - an event still marked here every May with a big annual procession through the town known as the "Translation of the relics of St. Nicolas".
A very special way of life
Early evening presents a completely new picture. The shutters, which up to now had been hardly noticeable, open to reveal small shops built deep into the houses. Motorcyclists blowing their horns, nimbly dash through the alleyways and for car drivers the battle for the few legal and less legal parking spots commences. People frantically shop, pushing and shoving one another as if tomorrow might never come. The spell is broken just as quickly as it began.
At 8 pm all shops close and quiet returns. Different shutters now begin to open to reveal restaurants and bars that were hidden behind them and which are getting ready for the impending rush. Chairs, tables and menu-boards now block the way in the narrow alleys. The first guests begin to arrive, usually in big family groups. In Bari, like everywhere else in southern Italy, people eat late in the evening. Anyone walking into a restaurant at 9 pm is not from around here. They do however have a chance to discover a part of Italy that has not been changed by globalization. The question though is, for how much longer?
Hidden, rugged and very beautiful
For a very long time the provinces of Apulia and Basilicata were fairly unknown, even among Italians. South of Bari tourism is tentatively taking hold. At its most narrow point the heel of Italy is not even 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) across and yet it has 784 kilometers of coastline. Every year more and more Italian family groups can be spotted on the remote beaches. Prices here are a lot cheaper compared to the well-known holiday resorts of the northern Adriatic. Large signs advertising boat hire, diving schools and restaurants line the costal road, but once the season is over their driveways are all barricaded shut. Even attractions like the coast town Otranto with its imposing Norman fortifications out of season appears to be a deserted memorial of a forgotten era when ancient Greeks, Byzantines and members of the German House of Hohenstauffen fought for supremacy in the Mediterranean.
The route inland becomes progressively more isolated. Windswept high planes and deeply carved valleys define Italy's impoverished beauty, which has never really given farmers many possibilities to work the land. Today it is a magnet for tourists with its wild landscapes and high density of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The trulli buildings in Alberobello, for example, are unique, these small round houses with stone roves. What today merely looks picturesque was a super saving idea back in the 17th. As soon as the imperial tax collector was spotted in the distance the stone roves were quickly covered. Where there was no roof, there couldn't be a house. And where there was no house no tax could be collected. Many trulli buildings are still lived in and some have even been converted into small holiday homes.
Movie location and culture capital
People in the neighboring province Basilicata over the centuries were even more impoverished. In Matera people lived in caves, without electricity or running water, until the middle of the last century. It's historical center, known as the Sassi, was carved from the calcareous stone and built into the existing environment which included the slope of a rocky ravine. The days of poverty are now over as the inhabitants were transferred to a New Town development in the 1950s. In 1993 Matera was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2004 the Sassi gained world fame. Mel Gibson filmed the "The Passion of the Christ" in Matera and made this the image of the .....Holy Land? No wait - this is not Jerusalem, this is southern Italy!
In 2019 Matera, one of the world's oldest permanently inhabited cities, will be one of the two European Capital of Culture. In preparation the alleyways and building façades are already eagerly being cleaned-up while construction signs announce new hotels that are to be opened soon. Signposts show the shortest route to Mel Gibson's movie locations. Matera is readying itself for a rush of tourists, at which point it will no longer be important what time of the day you arrive here - as day or night you'll probably never again be able to explore the city on your own.