WE arrived in the port city of Bari, the capital of the region, and parked in the shadow of the Castello Svevo (Swabian Castle). Originally built by Roger II of Sicily around 1131, it was destroyed in 1156, and rebuilt by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.
While some of it has now been gentrified through a regional government scheme to encourage young entrepreneurs to open shops and bars, the narrow streets of Bari Vecchia still provide stark evidence of the poverty that still afflicts much of the south of Italy. But while the buildings looked shabby, the streets and courtyards were busy with the bustling life of the city.
The shops and bars were noisy with passionate debate. It was atmospheric and evocative – very different from the pedestrianised shopping boulevards of the neighbouring 19th Century Murat district.
In the heart of the old city is the Cathedral of San Sabino, dedicated to St Sabinus of Camosa. Started in 1034, it was destroyed in the sack of the city in 1156, and rebuilt between 1170 and 1178. The Romanesque interior was elegant and simple, unlike the baroque splendours of the grand cathedrals of the north.
The boys playing football outside the cathedral were a reminder that there is more than just spiritual religion in Italy.
Leaving the cathedral, we continue through Bari Vecchia to the Basilica di San Nicola. It was founded in 1087 to receive the relics of the saint, which now lie beneath the altar in the crypt. Millions of children, of course, know St Nicholas as Santa Claus.