Mussels and the click of Manolos

In the far Italian south lies a land that time forgot; a dramatic vista of dusty vineyards and olive groves, peppered with quirky, beehive buildings. Ian Birrell discovers Puglia's hidden delights

The mussels arrived, plump and glistening in their shells. I counted 21 of them, together with a handful of sea urchins, sliced in half to expose the golden stars of their flesh. The waiter looked on expectantly as I stared at these creatures, wondering why I hadn't learned the Italian words for "raw" and "sea urchin".

The mussels arrived, plump and glistening in their shells. I counted 21 of them, together with a handful of sea urchins, sliced in half to expose the golden stars of their flesh. The waiter looked on expectantly as I stared at these creatures, wondering why I hadn't learned the Italian words for "raw" and "sea urchin".

Eventually, he picked up a mussel and showed me how to shuck it. I squeezed on some lemon, a sprinkle of salt, and swallowed. Surprisingly tasty. As I grappled with the next one, while wondering if the nearby cat fancied some urchin, the waiter and his colleagues laughed at my inability to separate the flesh from the shell. After much hilarity, one leaned over my shoulder, shucked another one, and popped it in his own mouth.

There aren't many places in Europe where, in a fish restaurant of some local renown, the waiters steal the food off your plate. But then, that is part of the charm of Puglia, the heel of Italy, where the tourist industry remains in a wonderfully primitive stage of evolution.

The rather hopeful hype proclaims this the new Tuscany, no doubt buoyed by a recent influx of wealthy northern Italians, who are renovating or building holiday homes. In truth, it is the new Greece; or rather the old Greece, for it is closer to those mainland areas of its near-neighbour that are still ignored by tourists. Little wonder the Puglians are sometimes called the Western Greeks. And whereas it is hard to spend seven minutes in Siena, San Gimignano or even Skiathos without hearing a Home Counties accent, we went seven days in Puglia with barely a word of English heard.

This is probably about to change. Traditionally, Puglia has been a place of passage. Over the centuries, a steady stream of Spartans, Swabians, Normans, Bourbons, Turks and, more recently, backpackers clutching Inter Rail tickets has passed through, each leaving their imprint in different ways. Now the Puglians are fed up with being a gateway between east and west: they want more people to stop and enjoy their offerings.

And there is much that this little-known and unexplored region has to enjoy. Hundreds of miles of sandy coastline, a landscape that drips with history from Roman times onwards, and an extraordinary array of architecture that allows you to breakfast in a Baroque city, lunch in a town built of caves and enjoy dinner in a cobbled white village on a hilltop. And sitting on that hilltop, you could gaze out over the region's magical red earth, dotted with wizened olive trees, vineyards and vegetables, that produces food and wine of a quantity and quality to satisfy even Bacchus.

The statistics are impressive - the region produces most of Europe's pasta, presses most of Italy's olive oil, catches most of Italy's fish and makes enough wine to rank Puglia, if it were a country, as the sixth-biggest winemaker in the world. The reality is even better; sea urchins excepted, I enjoyed a succession of the best meals I have eaten in Italy.

Typical was a tiny restaurant we stumbled on in Cisternino. Having wandered around the maze-like streets of this lazy little whitewashed town in the midday heat, we were ready for sustenance. A friend had recommended the Taverna della Torre, but when we entered the tiny restaurant, the five tables were empty and the lights were out. We needn't have worried.

Seeing us, the staff swung into action, switched on the lights and we were soon happily munching on foccacia. The antipasto was recommended, so I chose that, orecchiette ("pig's ear" pasta) and veal. When the prosciutto and melon arrived, together with a plate of marinated salmon and capers, plus a curious cucumber, sour cream and pepper dish, I silently hoped I would be able to finish such a generous first course. But as soon as I cleared these three plates, I was presented with a plate of aubergine in mint and olive oil. Then came two cheese dishes, one with slices of ham, served hot and bubbling. Next came three exquisite little meat pies. Finally, some vitello tonnato, slices of raw veal in a creamy tuna mayonnaise. And that was just for starters.

There were similar feasts daily in our hotel, with a huge lunchtime buffet of homespun Italian cooking using the best local ingredients. The Masseria San Domenico, near Fasano, is a stunning new hotel created around a 14th-century watchtower. There are hundreds of these masseria, or fortified farmhouses, scattered around Puglia, legacies of centuries of invasion. Many are being spruced up in anticipation of the tourist boom, of which San Domenico is surely among the most spectacular.

It is little wonder that this five-star, 47-room hotel, which sits whitewashed and glistening above the ancient olive groves that still provide oil for its kitchens, has become such a favoured destination for Sven Goran Eriksson when he seeks shelter from the latest tabloid storm. Like the England football coach, it is an oasis of calmness and serenity, the guests lolling around under trees in the 60-acre grounds or on the private beach, the scorching heat tempered by the gentle winds whispering in over the Adriatic.

With its thalassotherapy spa (where you can be wrapped in crushed seaweed, steamed and hosed down with sea water should you so desire), golf course, tennis courts and huge saltwater swimming pool, the hotel is reminiscent of the paradisaical hotels found on the Indian Ocean islands. But while some of the female guests veered towards the Nancy Dell'Olio style of dress, clicking along beside the pool in their Manolos, Gucci sunglasses perched on perfectly-groomed hair, there was a surprisingly laid-back and relaxed ambience.

At the heart of the hotel is the Masseria, used originally by the Knights of Malta as a watchtower to guard against Saracen attacks, evidenced by the slits in the walls and the cross on the roof. This remains the home of the owners, a lawyer and his wife, who opened the hotel seven years ago. The dining room, with its arched vaults, dates back 300 years, yet the newly built guest rooms, sprawling around courtyards and decorated simply but luxuriously, with Bulgari toiletries and crisp Frette linen, blend in seamlessly.

Showing the scepticism of a northern Italian, Antonio Polesel, the hotel's urbane manager, who transferred from one of Rome's top hotels, told me that he had been doubtful that such a hotel could exist in Puglia until he had been persuaded by the owner to visit. Now he believes, with justification, that the Masseria San Domenico can compete with the finest hotels in Italy.

Indeed, part of the charm of both the hotel and the region is that this is a land in transition: even five years ago, much of the wine remained in barrels until it was drunk, while horsemeat is disappearing from the menus and many of the cafés and trattorias are new. No longer can the Romans and Milanese dismiss this as the mezzogiorno - the place where it is always midday, the land that time forgot.

But, thankfully, much remains as it always has been. Visitors may go into raptures over the pretty medieval ports, but the paintwork needs tarting up and shellfish are still brought off the boats and cleaned beside the harbour. Driving in from the coast, the fields, vineyards and olive groves may appear winsome, but there are farmers labouring away on their own, trying to keep cool under wide-brimmed black hats, just as they and their forebears have done for centuries.

And, of course, there are the famous trulli. These strange, conical creations, layers of limestone slabs in ever-decreasing circles held together without mortar, seem to be everywhere. Some seem to rise from the ground, some appear stranded amid a sea of crops, others are clumped together atop a bigger building or in a village.

No one knows their origins. There are claims that they date back almost to prehistoric times, that they are Cretan, that they were created by medieval fugitives from justice, or cunning tax-evaders. More likely is that they were simple peasant's abodes. What is known is that they have been protected since 1797, they are unique and they are unexpectedly cool inside.

The trulli capital is Alberobello, where the massed ranks of trulli line up on the hillside in their hundreds. Some have spheres on their peaks, others are daubed with weird symbols. It is like visiting a theme park - Smurfland, or Hobbitworld - and I felt like Gulliver as I climbed the cobbled streets with all these cute little round houses on either side. Unlike Lilliput, however, the local entrepreneurs have filled many of their circular homes with trulli-shaped trinkets; it is definitely the best place to go outside the Arctic should you want a bedside lamp that looks like an igloo.

For me, I was happy to leave the coach parties of camera-wielding Italian families behind, and head back in time to Locorotondo, to Martina Franca, to Ostuni, to Polignano, and to Cisternino. To wander blithely around these whitewashed Mediterranean gems, little slices of Greece that somehow got washed up on the shores of a neighbouring land, and wonder at how the heel of Italy avoided being trampled underfoot by modern tourism. And, after such lyrical thoughts, return to studying the menu before another orgy of food and drink.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there: Ian Birrell flew from London Heathrow to Bari via Milan with Alitalia (08705 448259;www.alitalia.co.uk).

Staying there: He stayed at Masseria San Domenico (00 39 080 482 7769; www. masseriasandomenico.com). Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers three nights at the Masseria San Domenico from £735 per person including bed and breakfast accommodation in a Classic Double Room, international flights and car hire. For further information contact the Italian State Tourist Board, 1 Princes Street, London W1B 2AY (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it). For a brochure call 09001 600280 (calls cost 60p per minute).

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