One evening some weeks ago we met some Italians on the number 1 bus. They were examining a map of Bordeaux and the route displayed on the wall of the bus and discussing options. They seemed to be heading in completely the wrong direction. They spoke no French. We speak no Italian. We asked where they were heading and gave them a much shorter route. We asked where they were from. "Bari", they said.
I looked up Bari. Pat had a decimal birthday approaching. I had a weekend off. Ryanair flies at convenient times and their lowest prices. Reasonably-priced accommodation was available. When someone told us Bari had nothing to commend it we were convinced.
Ryanair. Well we'd bought cheap tickets but when it came to add any kind of bag whatsoever we could either choose to pay individually for each bag we took or to add priority boarding with two bags each included. It doubled the price of our tickets but was still next to nothing.
Then came time to check-in. You could pay to choose your seat or be assigned seats at random free of charge. Humph. I was assigned a seat near the front of the plane and Pat was placed by the emergency exit over the wings. To choose either seat cost more than the flight. So we flew like that. Others did, too.
We flew in on Friday evening and caught the train to the centre of the town. Bari has an old town set on a promontory with a warren of alleys, a castle, myriad churches and lots of little shrines on the walls. To reach it you had to cross the grid system of the new town with its chain-stores galore.
We found our accommodation. The owners were delightful. We went to explore and forgot to take our cash. On the walls of Bari we found a bar that accepted cards and planned our weekend. Saturday would be bright and sunny. We'd do the seafront. Sunday would be wet and blustery. We'd do churches and maybe museums. (We'd looked fruitlessly for a church to attend.) Monday we'd do whatever we wanted before flying home.
Nobody spoke French. Everyone spoke a little English. By the time we left people had taught us some Italian, as well as the basics of Italian etiquette. They'd also plied us with all sorts of food and drink "To try, to try!" In a cafe the waiter brought us some little panzerotti "for you, from us". "It's local?" "No, it's cheese and tomato". At a restaurant two little glasses of limoncello. In a bar, a little disappointed that we were drinking a light fruity wine called Anarkos, "to try, some primitivo". We felt so welcome we actually tried to go back and say goodbye before we left, but places close on Monday.
Bari cooking is probably best described as hearty. We ate some of the local specialities. The lady in the tourist office said, "don't eat lasagne or spaghettis here. It's not good. Don't use that bakery, it's too greasy, go to the other one. Here are the dishes to try".
So I had orechiette con cime di rapa, which is local pasta with turnip greens. Elderly ladies sit around their tables making the orechiette while listening to music on their TVs. We know, we saw them. Pat had patate, riso e cozze - potatoes, rice and mussels - served in a casserole. I felt too sorry for the octopuses to try the sandwiches, but we had three different kinds of panzerotti, which is a local variant of a calzone, sometimes baked, sometimes friend, sometimes enormous, sometimes bite-sized, but always a gorgeous cheese-bomb waiting to dump gloopy goo on the unwary.
Two cappucinos and four small biscuits cost under 5 euros. One gut-busting meal for the two of us cost 9€. By Monday we could eat no more, but we had one last thing to try, a focaccia di Bari. It's a round bread covered with tomatoes, olives and herbs. 2,40€ and it fed us both for lunch.
We visited the best-rated coffee shop. It was a traditional Italian one. You stand in designated areas along the counter. The waiters scuttle back and forth taking orders. Under the counter are pastries, cakes and biscuits. While waiting for your coffee you drink your free still or fizzy water. When your coffee comes you down it quick. You leave and pay by the door. Due cappucini. Tre euro. One café on the walls charged 1,50€ for a panzerotto. They were about the size of a cornish pasty. We had one each and wondered if we'd ever move again. Someone had complained that the panzerotti were too filling - they'd wanted to try them all.
On Saturday we walked miles along the beautiful seafront, constructed in the 1930s, watching the sailors, the wind-surfers, the snorkelers and the octopus-whackers. (You have to wallop them on the rocks to tenderise them.) In the evening we wandered out to the main shopping street and found it crowded with all ages yelling happily at each other. French football supporters make less noise.
Sunday found us visiting churches, including the church where Saint Nicolas' relics are housed. Some Bari fishermen went and got them in 1087 and he became the patron saint. We enjoyed getting hopelessly lost in the old town.
We didn't do the museums. Maybe next time.
Monday we mopped up what we felt we hadn't seen before flying home in a plane filled with Italian families. Boy, are they going to have a shock the first time they try to buy a meal in Bordeaux! Still, they didn't pay much for their flights.