Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Puglia: Like stepping on to a film set

When Brian Viner and his wife went to Puglia for a second honeymoon, they found it to be impressively like a film set – right down to Danny De Vito's doppelgänger

Puglia boasts beautiful coastline, diverse architecture and mouthwatering peasant cuisine
Puglia boasts beautiful coastline, diverse architecture and mouthwatering peasant cuisine

Buying underpants was not the activity Jane and I envisaged for the first morning of our second honeymoon, but then holidays, like marriage, can serve up some unpredictable fare.

Let me first set the scene. Among parents, attitudes vary widely about the propriety or indeed the desirability of taking holidays away from one's children. Our posher friends take weeks or fortnights away from their little darlings, whom they hand over to their own parents, telling us: "Mummy absolutely insists on having Ivo and Camilla for two weeks a year. She says it's crucial for Crispin and I to have time on our own."



We, by contrast, had not spent more than two consecutive nights together away from the children since we first became parents in 1993. I'm not claiming some sort of parental Blue Peter badge here; it's just that the opportunity never arose and nor, particularly, did the inclination.



When eventually both coincided, with Jane's parents kindly offering to look after the kids for three whole days and nights, we excitedly made arrangements to go to the Masseria Torre Maizza, a hotel in Puglia halfway between Bari and Brindisi about which we had heard great things. Aware that it was a decidedly chic establishment, Jane bought a glamorous red halterneck dress, and I bought myself a linen suit – my first – which in concert with a rather swish pair of new brown loafers, and possibly, daringly, no socks, I hoped might dupe the locals into thinking that I hailed from closer to Rome than Rawtenstall.



We made our connecting flight from Milan to Bari, but our luggage didn't. We therefore arrived at the Torre Maizza late one Thursday night with nothing except the clothes we were wearing and an assurance from Alitalia that our delayed bags would be delivered early the following morning. They weren't, so we spent the first full morning of our precious break buying underwear and toiletries in an Italian version of Primark. As Jane's late grandma used to say, worse things happen at sea. But it still felt like a dismal turn of events.



We drowned our glumness over lunch at La Marena, a fine seafood restaurant in the nearby fishing village of Savelletri. "Why is it that we're so gutted about our bags not turning up?" I said to Jane, as we embarked on our second bottle of vino rosato. "I can't remember," she said.



In the afternoon we headed up to the delightful hilltop town of Martina Franca. Had we not needed clothes we would not have gone, and would have missed a treat. Martina Franca sits 400m above sea level overlooking the Valle d'Itria and getting there, in the age of the horse and cart, must have seemed a real achievement. Even in our hired Fiat we felt proud of ourselves.



The town was settled by folk from the coast fleeing Saracen attacks in the 10th century, and it still exudes a reassuring sense of detachment. Few of the shopkeepers spoke even the most basic English, which pleased us no end, even though we therefore had to suffer the indignity of miming a pair of socks. The nicest shops were in the centro storico, a maze of picturesque alleys dominated by vast, incredibly ornate wooden doors; the humbler the building, the more ornate the door. We also found swish boutiques with, ironically, prosaic English names. Over perfect cappuccini in the exquisitely named Piazza Immacolata we sniggered at the Italian conviction that an English name confers a certain stylishness on a retail outlet. Jane had just bought a dress in "Girl Fashion" and a pair of shoes in " Born Free" . But then it occurred to us that we are guilty in England of precisely the same practice in reverse. After all, why would you call a shop "The Sweet Life" when you could call it "La Dolce Vita"?



Anyway, laden with swanky shopping bags (the Italians do terrific shopping bags) we returned to our Fiat, which was being guarded by a traffic warden who was the doppelgänger of the actor Danny De Vito. He very animatedly told us something, which we guessed involved an unpaid parking fee, although my offer of a ¿20 note did not seem to appease him.



We drove away from Martina Franca with Roberto De Vito, as I like to think of him, chasing us down the hill. The road back to Savelletri was lined with trulli, the curious little stone houses with conical roofs that litter the Apulian countryside. Nobody knows exactly why they evolved. The theory I like most is that they were easy to dismantle in times of high taxation on property, for when inspectors were in the neighbourhood.



We dined that night back at the Torre Maizza on a candle-festooned terrace in our new Italian finery. It is an irrepressibly romantic hotel, built around a converted 16th-century watchtower – one of a string along the Apulian coast, designed (clearly with only sporadic success) to keep invaders out. These days, the watchtower exists to tempt foreigners in. There's a decent golf course and an excellent spa. Jane and I both had the same aromatherapy massage in adjacent rooms, only mine began about 30 seconds earlier, so Jane could hear from my every "ooh" and " aah" what was about to happen to her.



The following day, the elusive luggage turned up. Jane was determined to wear the red dress, as I was to wear my cream linen suit, and yet we had already decided to spend our last evening not at the five-star Torre Maizza but in the nearby town of Polignano a Mare, which was how we came to join the passeggiata – the see-and-be-seen twilight promenade that is one of Italy's best customs – looking somewhat overdressed.



Maybe that is why so many of our fellow passeggiati stared at us, or maybe it's that we looked startlingly like Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, at least until I got a blob of pistachio ice-cream on the lapel of my suit. Whatever, the town is a revelation. It hardly gets a mention in the guide books, but it looked to us like a film set, rising spectacularly from a sheer cliff above the Adriatic. We had a pizza in a restaurant at the top of a ravine – Polignano a Mare does not do things by halves – looking across at the old town, which was dramatically floodlit (the Italians are also very good with floodlights). We then meandered through the streets, finding houses that teetered out over the sea. Apparently, more intrepid youths have been known to dive directly from these windows. I might have considered it myself, but that really would have ruined my suit.



On our final morning, we headed off to Bari early, hoping to find somewhere nice for lunch in the old part of the city. At first it looked as if we'd goofed: although there was a promising maze of ancient alleyways, none seemed to house restaurants. Moreover, we kept coming across elderly women in black shawls cooking on rudimentary barbecues on their front steps. Maybe, we concluded, there is no tradition in Bari of eating Sunday lunch anywhere but at home.



Then we turned a corner into another alleyway, and che bella vista! (Which might very well be the name of a shop in Leamington Spa.) Stretched along the alley was a long table, around which were seated about 20 men tucking into vast plates of orrechiette, the ear-shaped local pasta. Serving them was a man in an apron who looked suspiciously like a waiter. Again, we felt as if we'd ambled onto a film set. Scarcely 10ft above our heads were washing-lines festooned with colourful garments, and parked between two of the tables was a Vespa, seemingly waiting for Mario Lanza to climb on to it singing an aria.



We never did discover the name of the restaurant or even whether it was a restaurant, but the man in the apron brought us an astoundingly good lunch, for which he charged only €35 (£25). We then got to the airport, arrived at Heathrow at the same time as our luggage, and several weeks later, after a robust exchange of emails, received a noble undertaking from Alitalia to refund all the money we had spent on clothes, right down to the last pair of underpants.



Traveller's guide



STAYING THERE



Masseria Torre Maizza, Contrada Coccaro, Savelletri di Fasano, Puglia, Italy (00 39 080 482 9310; www.masseriatorremaizza.com ).



MORE INFORMATION



Italian Tourist Board, London: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk

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