Puglia – Italy’s unknown paradise

I worked just outside Bari for a few months back in…. 2004 I think.

Bari is the capitol of the Puglia region. Its quite poor, rough around the edges and much maligned, with the vast majority of Tourists heading up north to see Rome, Venice, Florence and then Tuscany.
I liked that it was off the beaten track. It was real and you knew it was real as soon as you walked outside your front door when wind blown litter and plastic bags whizzed by your head and the local pack of hounds swaggered over hoping for a tit bit.
I was put up by my employers in a block of flats just outside the old port of Torre A Mare.
Torre A Mare is a beautiful and thriving little fishing port where suntanned, bare footed old men would play dice, smoke pipes and tell tales all day while buxom, mustached women squabbled, laundered and heckled from overlooking balconies as they beat the dust out of threadbare mats.

The food was wonderful. I remember with fat tears rolling down my cheeks the delight of making my daily trip to the local bakery for lunch. Foccacia that was mind blowing. Simple Gorgonzola on a freshly baked bun…mmmm.
Other stuff too. Cant remember.
I do remember having a day off work and making my way into the town market place to feast my eyes and belly. I didn’t have the hire car so had to walk and as ever my eyes were too big for my belly and I ended up loading up with a large box laden with all sorts.
Sweet, dark, red vine tomatoes, pungent wild mushrooms, crisp leafy greens, hard and heavy root veggies, fine peppery olive oil, stinky goats cheese, the worlds strongest garlic and enough of those wonderful Italian sausages to sink a battle ship.
But when one of the local market traders spied me struggling down the street on the long walk back to my apartment, he took action.
Within minutes a car pulled up next to me. My heavy box was whipped away from me, stowed in the boot and we were off. Upon arrival at my base I made a show to go for my wallet.
Although my good Samaritan knew not a word of English, it was made perfectly clear to me that my money would not be accepted and my thanks were not required.
I liked and respected these people.

I could go on and on about the food. Perhaps I should.
My by then dear friend Beppe took me out for Pizza. I struggle for words here but let me just say that I haven’t been to Pizza Express ever since.
My Torre A Mare pizza was very simple. It was sparsely covered with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce made on the premises and sprinkled with a small fist full of peppery rocket (that was probably grown out back).
It took my breath away and I will travel back to the Puglia region just to eat Pizza.
I recommend you do too.

Try and go during the sea urchin season. An icy cold sea urchin, minutes out of its salty sea, cracked open by a practised hand and the eggs sucked into your mouth noisily while the Adriatic breeze ruffles your hair….it doesn’t get much better for me.
It was an experience to rival my finest oyster.

Watch your step down in this area. The Mafia rules.
When a set of keys to a shipping container full of expensive diving equipment was lost or stolen, our local boat skipper called in the heavies.
The keys were returned within hours but before they were presented to me, I had to sit down with a circle of puffing village elders who firmly admonished my carelessness for leaving them lying about. Thick, gnarled fingers were wagged. Their steely gaze was direct and full of meaning.
I don’t know what happened to the individual who took the keys.

Don’t get me wrong I felt completely safe. The Mafia ran this area well and everyone knew their place. Just don’t get drunk in the local bar and go around pinching ladies bottoms is my advice.

Ross Waters