The commercial and administrative capital of Puglia, a university town and southern Italy’s second city, BARI is an economically vibrant place, with few pretensions to being a major tourist attraction. People come here primarily for work or to leave for Greece, Croatia and Albania on its many ferries, though the regenerated old city is well worth exploring – in recent years it’s made considerable strides to shake off its image as a den of thieves rife with bag-snatchers (though it’s best to keep your wits about you in the narrow old alleyways).
Bari was already a thriving centre when the Romans arrived. Later, the city was the seat of the Byzantine governor of southern Italy, while, under the Normans, it rivalled Venice both as a maritime centre and, following the seizure of the remains of St Nicholas, as a place of pilgrimage. Since those heady days, Bari has declined considerably. Its fortunes revived briefly in 1813 when the king of Naples foisted a planned expansion on the city – giving the centre its contemporary gridded street pattern, wide avenues and piazzas. And Mussolini instituted a university and left a legacy of strident Fascist architecture. However, the city was heavily bombed during the last war, and today its compact and dynamic centre is a symbol of the south’s zeal for commercial growth. Fortunately, heavy investment in redeveloping the old centre has given Bari a new lease of life.