And this time too, once through the tunnel into Italy, the sun comes out and the only snow is on distant high peaks.
The small towns that line Italy’s east coast all blur into each other in the driving rain
All day it rains, and turns into sleet after dark. Warnings of snow on the motorway signs.
In the morning, a cold wind blows around the port of Bari.
Bari has always been a place of transit for me, a place to pass through, on my way to somewhere else. The first time I arrived there, I’d travelled by ferry from Durres, Albania, where I was living at the time, on my way to Rome, for a few days R & R as it was called, by the organisation I worked for.
It was high summer and very hot. In those days there was no large modern terminal building and I had to walk a long way just to get out of the port area. Or perhaps there was an easier exit and I’d just been misdirected. It was mid-afternoon, siesta time, the streets were deserted, the shops closed. The modern part of Bari is not especially beautiful but still, it looked that way to me, for I was in Italy! (I’d been hoping for months to go there) It also looked like a picture of order with clear, clean lines of architecture, after living in the chaotic jumble of ‘transitional’ Albania. It is one of those vivid memories of astonished well being, walking through the empty streets of Bari for the first time, in the gorgeous hot sunlight. Subsequent experiences of Bari have also been to or from ferry terminal and train station, going to Durres or arriving from there. I’d always had luggage, there was always a schedule and I’d never really had time to explore the old town.
But this time, heading to Patras, there was time before the ferry left, to explore. I found Bari’s old town, with its narrow streets, to be similar to Corfu town, if not as spectacularly lovely as Corfu’s Venetian alleyways.
In my wandering, I came across the Basilica of Saint Nicolas.
After walking around inside, I followed a sign leading downstairs to the crypt. The sign said this was the resting place of the saint. Surely this could not be Saint Nicolas himself who was entombed here? Yet that’s exactly what it appeared to be. A dimly-lit hushed space, with the tomb behind an iron grille. I did not like to disturb the faithful in prayer in front of the tomb, so did not take a photograph, but I did manage one of the marble colonna miracolosa which was at the back, surrounded by a metal grille.
The story of the re-interment of the saint’s relics is that sailors brought his remains from Myra in Turkey, for safekeeping in Puglia, after the Muslim Turks conquered what we now know as Turkey. Legends abound, but one of them says that St Nicolas passed through Bari on his way to Rome and chose it as his resting place. Another says that ever since he was first interred at Myra, his tomb gave off a sweetsmelling liquid. And that this continued in his new tomb in Bari. And at this point, it is no longer legend, for the liquid, it is said, continues to flow and is collected every year, on 9th May, the anniversary of the arrival of the relics in Bari. Apparently small bottles of it can be bought. I hadn’t realised this when I was there, otherwise I might well have been tempted.
It also tells the story of attempts by modern scientific researchers to find an explanation for this occurrence, but so far they’ve not managed to come up with a satisfactory explanation for the continuous moisture that comes from the bones. It’s wonderful I think, that there are still some mysteries that cannot be explained, for explanation all too often becomes ‘explaining away’ sweeping away the sense of wonder, and replacing it with the dull inevitability of cause and effect.
As for the colonna, the website of the basilica says
Inside the crypt, in the right hand corner behind the iron grating, stands the miraculous column (first mentioned in 1359) believed to have been erected by St. Nicholas himself when his relics were lain there by Pope Urban II on September 30th, 1089.
I’m not too sure exactly how the saint performed this miracle, but the account of the bringing of the relics and the positioning and the building of the basilica is full of visions and dreams of guidance. And throughout the centuries, many miraculous healings have been recounted, and still are today, just as the manna mysteriously continues to flow.
A couple of white oxen also figure in a legend, where they pulled the cart bearing the remains, and the place where they stopped became the site of the huge basilica we see today. These oxen are immortalised in stone, standing outside the basilica entrance, supporting the pillars. I felt a little sad that the oxen had no horns, but apparently the medieval masons deliberately left them off, because of possible associations of horns with the devil!
I head back to the port through the honeycomb of small streets, washing flapping in the wind.
In a snack bar just across the main street by the port entrance, I’m waiting for my order and look around me. First I notice a Mussolini calender on the wall. Then a picture of him. Then another. A clock with the face of Il Duce on it. Everything in fact on the walls are photos or images of him. I find this astonishing. I remember reading something recently about Berlusconi praising many of the things done by Il Duce. It seems that he is not alone. Or are all these images not so much iconic as ironic? I don’t know. The wind has a bitter edge to it as I cross the road and walk back into the port.