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In Italy's heel: wild, but civilized Add to ...

I came here to see a soccer game. So did thousands of others. In fact, as I write these words, I can hear lilting Irish accents engaged in cordial conversation with the hotel staff about the greatness of an elderly Italian soccer manager named Trapattoni and about an injustice done to a local soccer hero, one Antonio Cassano.

They're talking by the swimming pool and the sun is poking through the clouds to light up the turquoise Adriatic sea, a short walk away to the east.

Farther south, in Bari, where we're all headed, about 10,000 Irish fans are ensconced. They're strolling on the long and ancient seafront, pale faces turned to the warmth of the sun. They're in the cafés eating pizza, and drinking the local wines. Some are indulging in long, four-course lunches of fish, pasta and more fish. Some are in the bars calling for "birra" and more "birra." The younger men are lounging on the church steps and the street benches, flirting with the local women. The purpose is to get a young woman to sit on a guy's knee and have her picture taken there. From what I've seen, they've had a lot of success. There's an awful lot of giggling going on. Bari has thrown a massive welcoming party. Concerts, food and good cheer.

This is Puglia. And boy, is it hospitable. It is the heel of Italy's boot and it is, by growing consensus, the great, undiscovered and authentic Italy. Puglia isn't Tuscany or the chic northern cities. Some say it isn't chic at all - and that is its charm. It's the area to which the chic and the rich of the north escape. It's where actress Helen Mirren bought a home to celebrate winning an Oscar for The Queen . It's where, even in a recession, outsiders are buying the small, whitewashed trulli houses with their distinctive conical roofs, for future use as a vacation getaway.

It is also Italy's garden, where most of the country's pasta, olive oils, tomatoes, soft cheeses, fruits and wines are produced. There are olive groves everywhere, and several olive museums in the region.

There are stretches of strikingly rocky shoreline that give way to small, sandy beaches. There are extraordinary buildings - this is the off-the-beaten-track Italy of small cities and towns of ornate architecture and tiny, narrow streets paved with the honey-coloured stone of the region. Most of all, this is a welcoming Italy, a region where nobody has yet become cynical about hordes of visiting foreign tourists. The friendliness and the pride in the region are remarkable.

On my second day here, I was loitering in the magnificent square in the heart of Bari Vecchia (Old Bari), standing at a corner, figuring out where to go next. A taxi pulled up and the driver honked his horn. Without looking closely, I waved the car away, thinking the driver had thought I was looking for a taxi. He kept honking. I looked and the driver was waving at me, smiling broadly. He rolled down the window and told me he had taken me to my hotel the day before. He was just saying hello because he remembered me. You don't get that treatment in Rome or Milan.

Bari is the region's biggest city, an old port, best known to outsiders as the ferry point for travel to Croatia and Greece. The approach to Bari from the north (where the airport and the little town of Giovinazzo are located) is admittedly disappointing. The city looks like any small city of industry and commerce. But downtown Bari is stunningly beautiful. The area around Piazza del Ferrarese is an exquisitely preserved oasis of old streets - mostly pedestrian-only - and filled with bars, coffee houses and restaurants. The side streets are where the shops are, and prices are a good 20 per cent lower than in Rome or Milan.

While the Piazza is clearly where la movida (the action) is, it is also the place where it becomes clear that since Roman times Bari has been a vital place, a city of traders and sailors, a place that people reach in order to cross the Adriatic to the world beyond. There's an exotic feel to it, a sense that this has long been a wild place, used to comings and goings, but rooted in its own treasures - the people, the food, wine and hospitality. Respect and courtesy to visitors are a long and solid tradition here.

Wander around Bari Vecchia and you'll find evidence of the city's age. There is the Basilica of San Nicola and the Cathedral of San Sabino, both churches dating back almost a thousand years to the Byzantine era. And then there is the stunning façade of the legendary Teatro Petruzzelli, a gorgeous art nouveau opera house. The theatre has been closed since a fire in 1991 and, according to the locals, it remains only partly restored because of a murky legal dispute between the owners and the city. The story requires a four-course, four-hour lunch for explanation.

Just north of Bari, there's Castel del Monte, an astonishing structure: It's octagonal, built in the 13th century and looms over the endless olive groves around it. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has eight connecting circular rooms surrounded by eight towers. Built as a mansion in 1240 for Emperor Frederick II, it has a lurid history and an air of dark mystery. Also nearby and also a UNESCO World Heritage site is Alberobello, a small town that appears to have been dreamed up in a fairy tale. There are hundreds of the trulli, spread among tiny streets. It's as magical as Castel del Monte is mysterious.

To the south of Bari and deeper into Puglia, there are the cities of Brindisi and Lecce. Brindisi has been an important port city since Roman times, much storied in song and poetry. Though some of its beauty has worn away, there are traces of its former glory side by side with its contemporary status as a ferry point for travel to Greece, Albania and Turkey.

Brindisi was once a major stop on the Silk Road, the Crusaders left from here, and all manner of scoundrels have found refuge here. It feels like the end of Western Europe with an open door leading to somewhere else. Farther south again, there is the more appealing, and beguiling, city of Lecce. Sometimes called "small Florence" because it is tiny, gorgeous, imbued with fabulous light and filled with Baroque architecture, it's the only part of Puglia that has an international reputation among discerning travellers. That's for three reasons: an opera season with performances by top international talent; the beautiful Roman amphitheatre discovered and excavated in the 1930s; and the excellent restaurants and bars.

But Bari is where I spent most of my time here. All the while I had in my mind a sentence about Puglia I had read in a British newspaper: "It is very much its own place, a wild, rural region with small pockets of cool and corners that haven't changed for centuries." And I found it to be true.

I ate one of the finest meals of my life here. One day, after long hours of walking, writing and working, I returned to the hotel restaurant just before it closed. (I was at the Hotel President in Giovinazzo, the little port village just down the road, as there wasn't a room to be found in central Bari.) I had a meal of pasta and local seafood in a white wine sauce. Local bread, local wine. Sounds simple, and it was, but glorious. I immediately decided I was returning as soon as possible.

The next morning, my elderly waiter from the night before shook hands with me and canvassed my opinion on what I had eaten. This was done with a wink. He knew I had been well pleased. Next, I fell into conversation with one of the Irish soccer fans. He recommended a bar in Giovinazzo. As he extolled its virtues, he said, "Oh, we're well known there." Another Irish fan in our small group on the hotel patio said, "How can ya be well-known? You just got here yesterday." It was then explained that, in search of a bite to eat and "birra," the man had just walked into a bar with his friends, ordered food and got into conversation with the owner and the locals. Before the night ended, a dusty bottle of Irish whisky was produced and complimentary drinks were poured. "Jayzus, you'd come here just for the atmosphere," the man said. "Never mind the match."

Oh yes, the "match" - the soccer game. It was eventful, majestic and the subject of wild, passionate debate. Italy played a 1-1 draw with Ireland. Nobody faced defeat, which was good. The party lasted long into the night in old Bari.

I came here to see a soccer game, but there are a dozen other reasons to come to Bari. As the wise man said, you can come here just for the atmosphere. Never mind the match.



Getting there



Alitalia flies from Rome and Milan; Ryanair from London Stansted.



Where to Stay



Domina Hotel and Conference Bari Palace Via Lombardi 13; 39 (080) 521-6551; http://www.dominahotels.com; $200. Hotel President Giovinazzo SS 16 Km 796-950; 39-080-394-1797; http://www.presidentgiovinazzo.it. About 20 minutes from Bari. About $170.



Where To Eat



Ristorante Bacco Corso; Vittorio Emanuele 126, Bari.Taverna Verde Largo Adua 19, Bari; 39 (080) 554-0870.



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