Saint Nick’s Crypt

Originally published in VLife, December 2010
• Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis

Saint Nicholas rests eternally in Southern Italy. Santa’s admirable qualities are based on a 4th century saint who is entombed and revered in an Italian seaside town.

When most tourists visit Italy, they rarely include the narrow region of Puglia that borders the Adriatic Sea. And those who do venture south along the “heel” of Italy’s boot often skip the seaport city of Bari, an important trade center that has flourished since the Middle Ages.

Some European cruise ships stop in Bari, and many travelers use the city as a jumping off point to the Greek Isles. Few American tourists, however, make it a destination and that is a shame because the area has many historical and cultural highlights.

The city’s most precious monument—the Basilica of San Nicola—was reason enough for me to spend a day in Bari’s Old Town. The Romanesque-style basilica houses the remains of Saint Nicholas, who lived around the 4th century in what is now southern Turkey. Nicholas, who became the Bishop of Myra, was known for his kindness and charity. He protected the weak and became the patron saint of children and young maidens who could not afford dowries. He was even credited with miracles hundreds of years after his death.

Statute of San Nicola

Statute of San Nicola

By the 11th century, Myra had become predominantly Muslim and had lost interest in the esteemed saint. His legend, however, was growing in Europe and especially in southern Italy. Every major Italian city seemed to be acquiring the relics of saints: Andrew in Amalfi, Mark in Venice, Bartholomew in Benevento. The residents of Bari wanted their own saint and proposed an unseemly plan to steal the bones of Saint Nicholas. In 1087, on a return voyage from Syria, 62 Bari sailors made a quick stop in Myra and smuggled the saint’s remains aboard their ship.

Today, those sailors’ names are carved in a stone archway just outside the church, which was built in the 12th century. Mass is held daily inside St. Nicholas’s crypt, and people from all over the world pray at the altar for the saint’s intercessions, especially when they are in need.

The interior of the Basilica of San Nicola

The interior of the Basilica of San Nicola

I was surprised at the austere exterior of the basilica, compared to Italy’s more ornate cathedrals. Once inside, however, I was awed by the magnificent altar and the priceless artwork, including classical paintings completed by Carlo Rosaduring the 1660s. I was impressed that souvenir hawkers were not allowed on the church grounds as they are in other cities. A small, tasteful gift shop is located in a separate building.

Before leaving Bari, I took a short walk to the center of town to stroll through the 12th century Norman-Swabian Castle, which was restored by Frederik II of Swabia in the 13th century. The imposing fortress links the historic Old Town to Bari’s modern district and houses a museum of architectural and historical artifacts.

While Bari is rich in history and bustles with energy (not to mention traffic), the surrounding countryside and smaller towns are where visitors experience Italy’s authentic “rustica” way of life. Northern Europeans have vacationed in Puglia for years, but Americans are just beginning to discover its charms.

“We loved the total immersion into the culture,” said Jim and Ruth Jenkins of The Villages, who visited Puglia in September. “We didn’t want to go to a touristy area. This region is still very rustic and while that’s not for everyone, it was perfect for us.”

The cone-shaped “trulli” houses of Alberobello

The cone-shaped “trulli” houses of Alberobello

A week in Puglia is hardly enough time to see everything it offers. A visit should include the Castel de Monte with its spectacular views as well as the unique town of Alberobello with its cone-shaped “trulli” houses. One of my favorite places included Polignano a Mare, a seaside cliff town with a panoramic view of the Adriatic. Farther down the Salento Peninsula, the artistic city of Lecce is known as the “Firenze—or Florence— of the South.”

In fact, Puglia has been described as “the new Toscana” because of its exquisite wines, delicious olive oils, and Baroque architecture. Unlike Tuscany, the area has not been overrun with tourists or seen inflated prices. Visitors must be prepared, though, because many businesses do not take credit cards and language can be a barrier. Dialect is still spoken in some areas, and English is not as prevalent as it is in other Italian destinations.

“You have to make a real effort to communicate,” said the Jenkins. “But the people are passionate about their culture and history and will go out of their way to share that with you.”


Transportation: Alitalia Airlines has daily flights from Rome to Bari. Frecciargento trains offer a comfortable 4-hour ride from Rome.

Lodging: Hotel dei Nobili in Bitetto, 25 minutes from downtown Bari, will pick up guests from the airport and train station. Proprietor Toma Albanese also will arrange guided day trips into Puglia’s countryside.

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