topics: pasta, Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus/San Nicola, architecture, William the Bad, daily life, Normans, Yugoslavia, borders; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: April 6-7, 1998

Food of the Day: pasta "al dente"

Pasta is serious business in Italy and its proper preparation is an essential to the creation of a truly happy bowl of this glorious substance. The ingredients needed are: the freshest, highest quality pasta you can find, boiling water (with a little salt added), and any one of hundreds of different kinds of sauce. There are almost as many different kinds of pasta as there are sauces, but the important thing to remember about cooking pasta is to not overcook it. When the pasta is "al dente" (see the Word of the Day), or slightly crunchy, it should be served immediately.

Person of the Day: William the Bad

Walking around Bari, we could not help but notice the impact that one particularly naughty historical character, William the Bad, had on the area. We wish that we could tell you a little more about him but our guidebook has little information, our reference material is strangely silent, and even Padraic "the General Encyclopedic Educational Knowledge Center "(or as we fondly call him "G.E.E.K.") was a little sketchy on the details. What we can tell you is that he was a Norman, and that he sacked much of Bari (hence the "Bad" part of his name - though the Normans usually just referred to him as William I of Sicily) when the city (along with some others in southern Italy) rebelled against Norman rule. Throughout Bari there are various references to his nefarious deeds (it appears that he destroyed much of the city in his conquest of it) in the explanatory plaques the tourism board had so kindly placed at historical spots.

The Normans (which means "North Man") were Vikings who at the beginning of the 10th century settled in the northwestern section of what is now France (known as Normandy, the site of the Allied invasion during the Second World War). Restless for more territory, the Normans conquered England (in 1066) and later Sicily (which they took from the Saracens in 1127) and southern Italy.

Place of the Day: Basilica di San Nicola (Basilica of Saint Nicholas) click to view a photograph

The Basilica di San Nicola (Basilica of Saint Nicholas) is important for several reasons. If you remember all the way back to Turkey (let's go back, you and I to a Dispatch written a long, long time ago) you will remember the story of Saint Nicholas (who eventually became the red-suited, list-keeping, reindeer-driving, gift-giving Saint Nick, or Santa Claus, of Christmas fame). Upon his death and sainthood, his body was buried in the specially built Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre, Turkey. However, the Basilica di San Nicola in Turkey has diminished in importance ever since 1086 when Italian sailors arrived in Demre and spirited away (i.e. stole) the bones of St. Nicholas and brought them to their hometown of - care to guess? - Bari, Italy.

In order to house these newly acquired relics, the Benedictine Abbot Elia commissioned the construction of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari. When it was finished, Pope Urban II (famous as the inspiration behind the Crusades) arrived for the official placement of the relics in the crypt of the basilica. Over the years, the basilica has been added to and modified many times (having been damaged by such people as today's Person of the Day), but it still stands as an excellent example of Romanesque architecture (for which the region of Italy we are in, Apulia, is famous).

The exterior of the basilica is remarkable only because of the interesting doorways that lead to the interior. Each entrance is beautifully decorated with statuary. click to view a photograph The north entrance is one of the more popular with lion sculptures click to view a photograph holding up the columns of the doorway. click to view a photograph Animals seem to be a popular theme, as the main entrance to the basilica (the west side) click to view a photograph has bulls supporting the columns. click to view a photograph Anthony's favorite though was the elephants click to view a photograph which are used on the east side of the basilica and incorporated into a window. There was even a strange beast at the top of the western door with the body of an animal and the head of a human. click to view a photograph

The interior of the basilica is magnificent with elegantly painted ceilings depicting scenes from the Bible. There is also an amazing throne (the Cattera di Elia) carved out of a single piece of marble. The real prize though lies in the crypt under the transept. Here the miracle working relics of Saint Nicholas are kept. Our reliquary fanatics, Anthony and Padraic, were very impressed to learn that the bones of Saint Nicholas have, in fact, liquefied. This liquid is called manna and is paraded through the streets on the day Saint Nicholas is honored for his sainthood.

Group Dispatch, April 6-7
picture of Anthony

The group woke up bright and early Monday morning with two bright shining goals on their agenda. Number one was to figure out how to get the heck out of Italy. While Italy is a fine place, especially at this time of year, we were supposed to be in YUGOSLAVIA... not sipping espresso in a beautiful square full of flowering trees and artists click to view a photograph, magnificent buildings click to view a photograph, glorious statues click to view a photograph, wonderful fountains click to view a photograph, perfectly dressed children (speaking better Italian that we could hope to) and walking hand-in-hand with their perfectly dressed parents, the scent of fresh mozzarella in the air, a gelato stand opening up for the day's business (two dozen different flavors!) and amazingly beautiful women walking... well you get the idea. You see, we love Italy and we greatly look forward to the time we will spend here. But not now. Now we need to get back to the Balkans and on track. So, after hanging out in the park, looking at some statues click to view a photograph and paintings click to view a photograph, drinking an espresso, staring at some perfectly dressed people and eating a little gelato, our first stop was the information office.

One of the first things we noticed on landing in Italy is that few people speak English. While this might seem logical, keep in mind that ever since we left Tunisia, finding English speakers has not really been a problem. English has been our main language of communication with everyone (which is good because of the 5 languages that the BikeAbouters speak, English is the one we speak best) for the last 5 months. With Ethan bravely leaping into the language void, we soon discovered the addresses of the Yugoslavian consulate (so we could inquire into the status of the borders and whether or not we needed a visa) and of the ferry companies that travel to the city of Bar (the port for entry in Yugoslavia).

We encountered our first obstacle at the Yugoslavian consulate. They informed us that the borders between Montenegro and both Albanian and Croatia were closed and had been closed for some time. (Someone should call the Yugoslavian Embassy in New York and explain this to them because when we called, over the break, they assured us it was open and would be ready and waiting for our visit). While we might have been able to obtain a visa to get into the country (even that was doubtful because of our status as pseudo-journalists), we would have had a hard time getting out without taking another ferry to Italy (go back and read paragraph number one). This did not make us happy.

So we wandered over to the port to check on the status of ferries there before making a decision. Sure enough, just as we had been told in Albania, there was a ferry that night to Bar. But there was still a big problem: with the border between Montenegro and Croatia closed, unless we could find another reasonable alternative (which we couldn't), we would have to ferry back to Bari again to get to Croatia. We did not like that idea or the expense involved. Yet another much more palatable option was taking a Wednesday ferry directly to Dubrovnik, Croatia and skipping Yugoslavia altogether. The advantage to this was that it kept us on schedule. A disadvantage was that we might Have to skip the Wednesday chat 'n' debate, something we are always loathe to do.

It was High Drama for a moment. Well, OK, it lasted for only a millisecond but we actually live moderately sheltered lives that lack most forms of entertainment with the exception of border difficulties... That said, border difficulties cannot technically be called "entertainment" because none of us really enjoy it - see Borders Are a Pain #1, #2 and #3.

Anthony wanted to risk Yugoslavia but he is the most headstrong and foolish member of the group. Padraic, with his years of maturity and decades of experience sticking his head into places where it is not wanted, thought that it was best to go to Croatia. For a brief moment we even considered running the trip backwards, biking up the east coast of Italy first before going through Slovenia and Croatia. However, we realized that if we did this, Elizabeth "Darth Vader" Guffey would be on the next plane to Italy with a really big stick at the ready to punish us for making her life so difficult (changing the itinerary and mixing up the schedule is not something that Web masters appreciate). Suddenly a consensus was therefore reached and we agreed to head to Croatia, skipping Yugoslavia much to everyone's disappointment. [Note from Darth: I would never prevent the team from changing the itinerary. At least not with a really big stick. I would use a light saber, of course. :)]

The rest of the day we spent exploring the old part of the city. This had not actually been the plan, but Anthony had made the seemingly harmless suggestion on the way back from the port and ferry office to take a shortcut through the old city instead of walking around it. For the next several hours, the BikeAbouters wandered aimlessly along the twisted click to view a photograph and curvy streets click to view a photograph stopping to peak inside enchanting courtyards click to view a photograph and to visit the Basilica of Saint Nicolas (see the Place of the Day) and the Cathedral of Bari.

Commissioned by the Archbishop of Byzantium, the Cathedral of Bari click to view a photograph is built on the ruins of an earlier paloechristian cathedral. Like many of the sites in Bari, the Cathedral had to be rebuilt after William the Bad (the Person of the Day) came to town. The reconstruction was undertaken by Archbishop Rainaldo in 1170. The fascinating choice was made to keep all evidence of how the basilica was altered and changed over the years. The west-facing rosette window was particularly interesting in that there are small statues standing on the edge of the window. click to view a photograph

Finally finding their way out of the old town and its maze of narrow streets, the BikeAbouters came upon the town fortress click to view a photograph and spend a few minutes admiring how well it was preserved click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph (especially considering that... you guessed it, William the Bad) sacked the fort in his conquest of the city).

By this point, the group was famished. So, playing the role of hunter-gathers, Corinne, Ethan and Padraic raided a grocery store for lunch provisions while Anthony staked out a prime piece of real estate in one of the city's parks. After the meal, temporarily sated, the team split into two groups, with one off to look for an Internet café and the other to seek cheaper accommodation. Everyone regrouped later for the change hotels and to gather around the new email "inbox" like feverish junkies. The rest of the evening was spent working and eating dinner.

For Anthony at least, the next day was a bit of a blur. Not feeling very well, Anthony made the wise decision to sleep. The entire day and night. Every once in awhile one of his trusty travel companions would come in and check for a pulse; they had never seen him go so long without food and were concerned - though rumor has it that Padraic was a little gleeful. "More food for me," he was heard to shout; though that may have been a fever induced nightmare on Anthony's part.

Meanwhile, his companions worked the entire morning, afternoon, and then late into the evening on the backlog of dispatches while Anthony tried to sleep off whatever bug was ravaging his body.

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