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Wild, but civilized

Drawn to Bari for soccer, John Doyle discovers why Italy's elites escape to Puglia: for the seafood and birra, down-home friendliness and un-chic charm

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

BARI, PUGLIA — 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.

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