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

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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