Everywhere in the world, Saint Nicholas shows up on 6 December. Not so in Bari, a city in the south of Italy. Here, he comes in May and he stays for a whole week.
7:40 pm. Wednesday, 7 May 2014. The port of Bari. Small fishing vessels in different colors have called it a day already. Sailing yachts are waiting for summer. As the evening progresses, it becomes windy and cools down a bit, but the otherwise sunny, almost hot, day still hangs in the air. The light of the setting sun is mirrored on the opposing mole for a few minutes.
Impersonators of historical figures with drums and halberds stand next to a wooden landing stage, erected for this purpose and covered by a thick red carpet. On their capes there is a big golden N, for tonight’s star. Next to them are sailors, police officers, carabinieri, the environmental police. Some of the current uniforms look more historical than those of the faux medieval knights. Two female police officers with white uniforms carry swords. One of the knights talks on his mobile phone.
From afar, flashing blue lights are pushing into the twilight. From the sea, five police boats and a navy ship are approaching at a speed which is inconsistent with the light signals and the howling sirens. Slowly the swarm of ships is approaching, almost carefully, as if they had to protect a valuable freight. And indeed: in the center of this armada, the largest boat stands out. There is a platform on the ship which is adorned with festoons, flowers and flags. The colorful ribbons are flying in the wind, as do the Italian and the EU flags. A siren howls from time to time.
The ship at the center of this procession turns when it is about 10 meters from the quay wall, so that it can dock its stern on the landing stage. This reveals the name of the boat: Nicolaus. On board there is a painting on an easel. The icon of Saint Nicholas which will be ceremoniously taken ashore here in Bari.
Why Bari, of all the places in the world? Because 927 years ago, merchants from the south of Italy pilfered the mortal remains of Saint Nicholas from his grave in Myra in today’s Turkey and abducted them to Bari, where San Nicola Basicila was built for the explicit purpose of storing the loot. The bones are still there today.
Two men firmly take the icon in their midst and get on their way between the waterfront and the city walls. Ahead of them are the two uniformed ladies who have now pulled out their swords, holding the weapons in front of them, both to signal their willingness to defend the painting which had just been carried on land, and to blaze a trail. About 10 meters ahead of them is a delegation of drummers in medieval clothes announcing the procession and leading the way. To the side of the two men carrying the icon, there are a number of navy and police officers, followed by anyone who is fast enough to keep up. Because this procession does not walk, it almost runs.
Through a gate in the city walls, through narrow alleys, always the thundering drums in front. Because I take photos and videos, I sometimes fall back, cannot get past the procession and have to sprint through side and parallel alleys to get in front of it again. The drummers are my guides. Some Baresi manage to briefly touch the icon when it is being carried past them. They kiss their hands and are exuberant. Past the white-washed cathedral we proceed to the Swabian Castle, named this way because of Emperor Frederick II. Here the Nicholas painting is heaved onto an enormous wooden ship which this time is not moored in the harbor but rests on a long hay wagon. Badathea is the name of the boat. The abducted Nicholas can get some rest and catch his breath. Underneath the palm trees and in the oriental maze of the narrow alleys of the old city of Bari he must feel at home.
But a ship which stays in one place doesn’t make sense. Two thick ropes are attached to the hay wagon, eight strong men are positioning themselves on either side. There is still time for a cigarette or two, because they are the end of the kilometer-long procession. In front of them of course drummers and then actors depicting historical figures, from peasants to priests, standard bearers, acrobats, singers, a trombone choir and between them drummers, drummers, drummers. The whole evening, the city will tremble in the rhythm of the thuds and beats.
I position myself on Victor Emanuel Boulevard, the wide avenue of Bari, to wait for the procession. I am now about 250 meters away from my home, but I couldn’t get there if I wanted, that’s how dense the city is packed with Nicholas’ fans. So I’ll have to hang around for a few hours. Where I stand, the participants of the procession already have been moving for two hours when they come past. Some of them can’t hide their exhaustion. Only a choir of elementary school children is as fit as they were for their first song. With their full-throated and joyful singing, they enthuse the crowds. Only at the very end of the procession, after four hours, the wooden ship with the icon of the saint comes around the corner, pulled by grown-up men who would benefit from the energy of the children’s choir.
I run back towards the harbor to get a glimpse of the spectacular from a different perspective, but the procession hasn’t gotten that far yet. It makes another detour to get the most out of the night.
It’s 11 pm, I finally have to grab a bite. The road along the coast is lined with stalls on both sides for several kilometers that offer fried, sweet, barbecued, ice-cold, deep-fried, salty, sticky, colorful, tasty, rich but not too much healthy food. The different smells go along well with each other, the bass lines and songs bursting from the loudspeakers of the food stalls less so. Thanks to this festival, the people of Bari will put on an estimated additional 1 million kilograms in weight. As someone who recently moved to Bari but is willing to get fully integrated, I am happy to do my part in this joint effort. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of many (e.g. sailors, lawyers, pharmacists, bakers) but certainly not of those undergoing a diet. Eating dinner, I can still hear the beating of the drums from the streets in the distance.
Tomorrow morning at 6:45 there will be the next procession. The basilica will open its gates at 4:30 am and there will be a service every hour beginning at 5 am. There will be so many religious services this week that Christians can fulfill their annual quota even easier than at Easter or Christmas.
9:45 am. Thursday, 8 May 2014. Sant’Antonio mole. In 15 minutes there will be a church service on the opposing San Nicola mole (naturally, a part of the harbor is named after the patron saint, as is the football stadium, schools and most of the male citizens of Bari). But my day begins with fireworks. For a full ten minutes, it thunders without pause and without remorse, until the light sky above the harbor turns grey with smoke. Older inhabitants of Bari might feel remembered of 2 December 1943, when the German Air Force bombed the port and the city. That night bestowed upon Bari the questionable honor to be the only city in Europe to experience the results of chemical warfare during World War II.
10 am. San Nicola mole. Regardless of what is being celebrated, it is also a normal Thursday morning. The fishermen are working on and with their boats. To the sound of hymns and trumpets, fresh mussels, calamari, star and other fish are being offered. The clerics try to counter the smell with as much incense as possible.
Another solemn procession at night. The several hours of drumming the night before seem to have alerted even the last of the Baresi of the ongoing festival. The crowds are twice as packed as the day before. Instead of Nicholas’ icon, today a life-size statue of the saint with a golden gown and halo is carried from the port through the town. Believers make the sign of the cross when the statue is carried past them.
Two hours to go until the fireworks at night. In light of the crowds and their expected increase during the evening, I have to start looking for a good vantage point already. A clear line of view is more important than being close, so I squeeze my way towards the next mole to explore how well I can overlook the harbor from there. What do I have to hear? At the tip of the mole there is another religious service, next to the statue of Saint Nicholas, the gold glowing in the light. How did this get here so fast? Or are there several of these Santa Clauses? The bishop, wearing the type of hat made fashionable by the bishop of Myra who is the reason for today’s festival, talks about Saint Nicholas being a possible link between East and West (in Italian, one uses the wonderfully old-fashioned terms Orient and Occident). He doesn’t mention that some in Turkey demand the return of the relics. He keeps referring to the raid as “traslazione”, which means conveyance. This is not the way to get a meaningful dialogue between East and West started.
Below the mole, where I want to seek a comfortable spot for watching the fireworks, is unfortunately the place used all evening long by teenagers to pee after having consumed beer from the harbor bar. Hectoliters of Peroni beer will flow into the sea tonight. Note to myself: don’t buy and fresh fish tomorrow. The stench of marijuana competes with the scent of incense. So I move further south along the promenade until the crowds get smaller and I find, completely by accident, the most perfect place to admire the fireworks. They are mirrored in the harbor, doubling the effect. Any fireworks without water will only be half a fireworks from now on.
15 minutes of fireworks, that should be the perfect closing for a festival. But this isn’t over by far. Tomorrow there will be several religious services, processions and another fireworks show at night. Just in case somebody couldn’t make it tonight. There will be two more processions on the upcoming two Saturdays, and there is an exhibition about the “beers of Saint Nicholas” until 13 May. Compared with that, putting a shoe in front of the door or hanging an empty stocking by the fireplace seem rather paltry.