Ten years ago, Bríndisi was best known as a city you had to pass through on the way to somewhere more desirable. Few visitors wanted to hang around, and most reluctantly killed a few hours here before boarding their onward ferry to Greece or Turkey. Even now, guidebooks and travel websites are generally disparaging about this ancient transport hub on the south-eastern tip of Italy. But they’re misinformed, and woefully out of date. Bríndisi has utterly transformed itself over the last decade, and now this place of passing-through is somewhere you’ll want to linger. Whether you arrive here by train hoping to travel on to Greece, or arrive on a budget flight from the UK hoping to explore Puglia, don’t just get out of Bríndisi as soon as possible. Take the time to experience this proud old city currently enjoying a very bright present and anticipating an even brighter future.
What’s so good about it, you ask. Well, to start with, how about the most exotic cuisine and arguably the liveliest evening passeggiata in all of southern Italy? How about award-winning local wines? There’s the climate, of course, the awesome natural harbour and the nearby beaches. There’s all the excitement of big ships and luxury yachts cruising in and out, the pleasure of wandering the smart waterfront. And how about the booming economy, and the raft of right-minded urban improvements that have massively boosted local pride?
What used to spoil Bríndisi was the location of its mega ferry ports – bang in the heart of town. The city was jammed with backpackers sprawled in piazzas awaiting their boats, and its central shopping street was a long line of shipping agencies – giving the whole place a dispiritingly transitory feel, full of people who wanted to be somewhere else and companies encouraging them to go. Not great for local pride! But a decade ago, enlightened authorities moved the ferry ports a couple of miles out of town, instantly reclaiming the centre for local people.
Then, four years later, the long central street that led to the old ferry port was completely pedestrianized, encouraging the Brindisini to freely wander the centre of their city and regard it as a place of leisure. The crowds of happy families regularly taking over the elegant, palm-lined boulevard had the knock-on effect of practically eradicating street crime. No point trying to pick a pocket here when thousands will witness it, and many will know exactly who you are. Bríndisi has only 90,000 inhabitants – lots of big families with everyone knowing everyone else’s business. A sense of community has always been strong here, but now it’s even stronger. Bríndisi is now a far safer and more contented place than its rival city Bari seventy miles up the coast.
And the improvements are ongoing. Bríndisi’s forward-thinking authorities realize that their increasingly desirable city is likely to draw more visitors, and they’re doing lots of things to welcome them. The city’s old military-airstrip-style airport was prinked up to tourist standard last year. An attractive new marina with cafés and restaurants has recently been built to more comfortably accommodate yachts big and small. And major renovation work is slowly underway on the long-abandoned, iconic Castello Alfonsino (or ‘Castello Rosso’) spectacularly sited at the end of a long harbour wall at the mouth of Bríndisi’s port. They might turn it into a luxury hotel or a casino. No one knows which yet. If they make it a hotel, the building is so impressive that people will come to Bríndisi just to stay here. It will suddenly put the city on the chic-tourism map.
Bríndisi has always been a place of incomers, and it’s accustomed to welcoming the world. More than three thousand years old, this city set beside one of the Mediterranean’s safest natural harbours has long served as a bridge between the Western world and the East. (It seems fitting that Bríndisi’s local-born patron saint, Lawrence, was an accomplished polyglot who spoke all the major European and Semitic languages.) The ancient Greeks sailed their triremes in and out of Bríndisi’s port. The Romans built a 350-mile long road here from Rome (the Via Appia), swelling the local population to 100,000. Gung-ho Christians from all over Europe made their way down to Bríndisi to sail off and fight The Crusades. The port was a fixture on the Silk Route. And when the Edwardian British travelled to and from India during the days of the Raj, their ships usually had a stopover in Bríndisi before going onward to the Suez Canal.
In short, this city is one of the great hubs of the world. And it still has that certain buzz in the air, that excitement of new things constantly arriving from the sea – and it offers the vicarious thrill of witnessed departures to distant lands. You’ll suddenly spot a leaden grey frigate, all guns and radar domes, powering into the harbour on military business, or see a stout white ferry, decked out in white lights like a floating party, slowly creaking off towards Greece. Even the road signs in Bríndisi constantly steer your mind toward the exotic. They do not direct you to a ‘ferry port’, they simply point to ‘Greece’, ‘Turkey’ or ‘Albania’ – destinations like other local towns, in exactly the same lettering as ‘Bari’ or ‘Otranto’. The signs suggest the casual open-mindedness of this old port city, a place thoroughly at ease with the wider world.
All that contact with far-flung places has clearly affected Bríndisi’s cuisine. You’ll sometimes find spices in the dishes here that are fairly unique in Italian cooking, and don’t even crop up a few miles away in the food of other Puglian towns. Curried prawn risotto, anyone? Anchovies with star anise and juniper? Even the traditional Bríndisi way of drinking coffee gives a nod to the Arabic world: they pour it over iced almond milk. As in many eastern countries, Bríndisi excels in its street food too. There are several variations on a pizza-slice theme, sold fresh and very hot for laughably low price at innumerable venues all over town. The quality is excellent.
It’s only right that the street food should be so good when the locals spend so much time enjoying themselves out on Bríndisi’s streets. The evening passeggiata is the city’s great daily social and leisure event – religiously joined by young and old. From about 7pm till midnight, the entire population strolls up and down the central boulevards sporting their finery, with spouses and children and grandparents in tow, all bursting with pride at being amongst their relatives. They stop at cafés, they chat with friends. It utterly cements the community. Sunday is its biggest night. Everyone spends the day with their extended family, and in the evening, after a full day’s eating, the only thing they’re fit for is a long, lazy stagger around town meeting other post-prandial families.
The Brindisini thoroughly deserve this easy, evening leisure, for they’re a hard-working bunch. This has never been an outpost of the ‘domani, domani’ culture often associated with southern Italy (and which is, anyway, now becoming a dated cliché across all of il mezzogiorno). Bustling Brindisi has ships to tend to, and cargoes to unload, and a military base to maintain, and a tourist airport to run. It’s got award-winning wineries to keep in motion, and astonishingly high-quality restaurants to manage. It’s got elaborate festivals and endless public events to organize. The people of Bríndisi are an industrious lot, and their productive busyness is one of the things that keeps them so contented.
Take a boat out into the city’s harbour in the late afternoon and survey the modest industry either side of central Bríndisi. The cranes, funnels, and chimneys bristling through the sun and sea haze are actually rather beautiful. As are the big ships, gantries and aerials you pass close by. They draw the lively modern lines of success and prosperity against the sky. And they underscore the fact that Bríndisi is an invigoratingly real city. An honest, hard-working place that isn’t just a tourist’s bauble. This city is not huge, it’s not snarling, and it has no pretentions. It’s modest and genuinely welcoming. And it’s the right kind of size. A mile or two beyond those cranes lies endless rural peace. Bríndisi is surrounded by pretty countryside, and air fresh from olive groves blows through its streets.
Stay out in the sea breeze and salt air of the harbour until evening starts to fall. Watch the lights come up on the proud pastel buildings lining Bríndisi’s waterfront; shield your eyes against the rhythmically swooping beam of the lighthouse behind you; listen to the distant clanking of ropes blown against sailmasts. Then guide your craft back towards Bríndisi’s central harbourside. And, like any number of grateful sailors from the past three millennia, feel the pleasure of safely arriving in this great little city. Feel the delight of stepping onto its well-maintained streets, joining its throng, and receiving its eternal welcome.
GRANDE ALBERGO INTERNAZIONALE
six recommended hotels in Bríndisi
Viale Regina Margherita, 23
+39 0831 523473
This stately four-star hotel on Bríndisi’s harbourside promenade was built in the nineteenth century to accommodate merchants and aristocrats travelling onward to exotic locales – especially the British en route to India. Its 67 rooms are spacious and traditionally decorated with period furniture. The breakfast buffet is particularly good, and mini-bar prices surprisingly reasonable.
Double room €130 - 180
Via Cavour, 1
+39 0831 560877
Conveniently located just 100m from Bríndisi’s rail station and a stone’s throw from Piazza Cairoli, this comfortable three-star hotel remains remarkably quiet and free from street noise. All rooms have wi-fi, and are decorated in tasteful, understated modern style. Guests can choose to make use of the hotel’s 12-metre yacht with skipper if they like! Some local restaurants offer discounts to Barsotti guests.
Double room €100
Prolungamento Viale Arno, 51
+39 0831 550194
This brand-new four-star hotel sits just across a sliver of harbour-water from Bríndisi’s marine promenade. It’s ideally situated to watch the big ships going to and fro, and see the city lights come up in the evening. Rooms are spacious and comfortable. Staff are very friendly and there’s a good in-house restaurant. The grounds hold an indoor and an outdoor pool, tennis courts, and a spa.
Double room €145
Via R. Moretti, 3+39 0831 574477
In a quiet location five minutes from central Bríndisi, ten minutes from the airport and one kilometre from where the big boats leave for Greece and Turkey, this pleasant and well-organised place offers very flexible accommodation options. Its 22 rooms each have a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and balcony. There’s also a restaurant, so you can go self-catering up to full-board, as you wish.
Double room €40-85
Via Cavour, 5
+39 0831 562001 / 562002
Close to the train station, this doughty old corner building offers 43 pleasant en suite rooms with unfussy modern décor at very reasonable prices. Facilities include free wi-fi in every room, and there’s an in-house laundry service should you need it. The central location is perfect for strolling straight out into Bríndisi’s lively evening passaggiata, or perhaps just watching it from your window.
Double room €55 - 90
Via Salita di Ripalta, 1-3
+39 0831 560605
Recommended by the Slow Food Society and listed in the prestigious Osteria d’Italia guide, this relaxed and comfortable restaurant serves excellent local dishes at very reasonable prices. Choose the house antipasti for a showcase of the exotic foreign influences that streak through the cuisine of this venerable port-city. The wine selection is particularly wide, with hundreds of bottles glittering in various nooks round the room.
Meal for two about €60
RISTORANTE L’ARABA FENICE
Corso Roma, 31
+39 0831 590009
With its high vaulted ceiling of meticulous Puglian stonework, this beautiful restaurant feels like a small cathedral. The atmosphere is refined but welcoming, with muted and tasteful décor. The lavish food is a delight to the eye and mouth, with particular creativity given to the antipasti and dolci – which dazzle with the colours of a dozen fruit and vegetables. Try the ‘taster menu’ of both.
Meal for two about €70
ROSSO E NERO
Via Santi, next to Teatro Verdi
+39 0831 521939
This classic Italian café has rightfully been declared Puglia’s best bar for three years running by the Slow Food Society. Charming old-fashioned artisan Romolo Specchia runs the place, which remains small and inexpensive. His standards are sky-high and his handmade ice cream is likely to be the best you’ve tasted in your life. Sit indoors or outside and savour the supreme quality of everything on offer.
Drinks and snacks for two about €12
Via San Francesco, 5
+39 0831 563013
It’s hard to choose where to sit at this wonderfully comfortable restaurant. Inside, beneath the spectacular, wide-vaulted ceiling picked out in stripes? Or outside on the leafy terrace? This is a classy and relaxing place, owned by a stylish, friendly man who clearly cares about excellence. Absolutely wonderful Bríndisi cuisine, and top-notch local wines. As so often in Puglia, the antipasti are glorious, and shouldn’t be skipped.
Meal for two about €65
Lungomare Regina Margherita, 33-36
+39 0831 590892
Set right in the heart of the youthful bustle on Bríndisi’s seafront, this large and elegant place looks like an exclusive restaurant but is in fact a welcoming pizzeria. Its leafy courtyard links a series of white-balustraded terraces where white tablecloths lie beneath stylish white canvas umbrellas. Enjoy a top-class pizza here for little cost, then wander a few doors down for gelato at the sleek Betty Café, a Bríndisi institution.
Meal for two about €45