Puglia, the magical balcony of the Mediterranean

PUGLIA, THE MAGICAL BALCONY OF THE MEDITERRANEAN

I wanted this to be a travelogue about the people, cultural heritage, poetry, music, hedonism, beauties of South Italy. But Italy always surprises me. This time with an important lesson in history, our Serbian history.

Puglia, located between the two seas

Puglia, located between the two seas, the balcony of the Mediterranean, an unusual and picturesque land of trulli houses. As you move down the heel of Italy’s boot along the Adriatic coast, archaic southern Italian towns-treasuries, as a Christmas stocking, follow one another. A typical set from old Italian movies from the golden era, warm Italy in its nostalgic, retro style.

Our ship arrives in Brindisi, a large industrial port, in the morning. Numerous Roman troops began their conquest of the world from here. The famous poet, a true magician for poetry, Virgil, whose verses Dane Alighieri used in “The Divine Comedy”, died in Brindisi.

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Bari, the magnificent city of Saint Nicholas 

Bari, the capital of Puglia, is beautiful, dynamic, full of life and some extraordinary energy which, like a halo, floats over this city of Saint Nicholas. At the sea entrance to the city, there is a huge statue of the saint who gives blessings with his right hand and holds the Gospel in the left so that believers can see it. A significant number of Russians go on a pilgrimage to Bari. They are the ones who gave this statue as a gift to the city, and in the recent years they have invested a lot of money in the basilica as well as in the furbishing of the surrounding square. A splendid Russian church with a residence is also situated in Bari. Many Russians stayed in this church residence, including, among others, Russian statesmen Putin and Medvedev.

The Serbs used to give presents to this city as well; those were the rulers from the Nemanjić dynasty: Stefan Nemanja, Queen Jelena, Stefan Uroš II Milutin, Stefan Uroš III and others. The charter of Tsar Stefan Dušan is preserved and it he mentions his father and grandfather’s gifts and orders the municipality of Dubrovnik to allocate tax money for the basilica of Saint Nicholas. Until recently there used to be a plaque with an inscription: The Gift of the Serbian Kings, but it is gone now. Nowadays, unfortunately, there is no even Milutin’s chapel, the masterpiece of Byzantine art, which used to be made top to bottom of glam boards, the mixture of silver and gold. In the center of the chapel there used to be the tomb of Saint Nicholas under the altar table, adorned with the biblical reliefs and lit by twenty-odd huge silver-gold cressets and candlesticks.

A marvelous church and a marvelous place

This temple is unique in the world because in its basement, next to the relics of the saint, Orthodox and Catholic Christians pray together. A Catholic service is held at the entrance to the basilica, at the altar, while an Orthodox service is held in the basement, by Saint Nicholas’ tomb and his relics which to this day let out miraculous myrrh.

At the feast of Saints Peter and Paul we found ourselves at the liturgy in the basilica’s crypt. The Russian service is held in the narthex, but father Andreja, the head of the narthex, gave us his blessing to hold the liturgy in the crypt. The magnificent icon “The Miraculous Cheek of Father Nicolai” is above the tomb with Saint Nicolas’ relics. Encrusted with silver, it was a gift from Stefan Dečanski and it was preserved thanks to the people of Bari, who considered this Serbian icon the town’s patron saint. A marvelous church and a marvelous place!

I remember somebody saying:”There is one thing which makes a man, whether he is a believer or not, to stop for a moment and think. If you stop for a moment, sit on a bench and you hear prayers in Latin and Old Slavonic intertwining, your faith in people might be restored.”

Special place in our hearts

The Greeks are to blame for the foundation of Bari as well as almost all other cities along these coasts. The traces of Greek influence are present wherever you go. In some villages people speak some version of Ancient Greek even nowadays, and we also encountered welcome plaques in Greek.

Bari occupies a special place in our hearts. It’s nice to remember that in 1991 Red Star won the title of the European football champion at the Saint Nicholas Stadium!

The city landmarks worth visiting include: the Cathedral of Saint Sabinus, the Norman Zvevo Castle, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Teatro Petruzzelli, one of the three largest in Italy.

The passenger will discover the authentic charm in narrow streets and passages of the old town where he can see the churches, archaic palaces and the edifices of Romanesque Apulian, Baroque, Byzantine and Norman architecture. You will feel the real atmosphere on picturesque Ferrarese Square over espresso or almond mild with rice and cinnamon with the scent of the sea in the air and the melodious sound of a song in an unusual dialect coming from a distance.

Author: Rada Sević

Translation: Marija Đurđević

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