TRAVEL the Culture Club of the Deep South; the Remote Apulia Region of Southern Italy Is a Worthwhile Discovery. Carol Howland Enjoyed Peeling off the Layers of History

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Afisherman sat in his small boat, patiently picking crabs from his net. Another stands on the beach, rocking a plastic basin to wash away the sand from his overnight catch of octopuses.

I was staying in a summer seaside town, Torre Canne, just north of Brindisi on the heel of Italy, the ferry port for Greece - and Albania. In the crisp, salty morning air under a blue dome, it is difficult to believe that there is a war just across the Adriatic.

Apulia has not been inundated by Kosovan refugees as it was by Albanians in 1995. Under NATO orders, nightly coastguard patrols turn back boats of mostly opportunist Albanians. Those few who get through are quietly looked after or sent to relatives, usually in Milan or Germany.

But even if Milosevic cannot sling missiles across the Adriatic, Apulia's tourism industry is suffering, bookings down by sixty per cent (from a low base). Apulia has remained relatively undiscovered, thanks to slight inaccessibility.

Although Alitalia lies daily to Bari and Brindisi via Rome or Milan, there is only one direct charter flight a week from England.

The cheaper, more languorous route is to fly Ryanair to Rimini, then dawdle by car down the coast.

Although southern Italy is poor compared to the north, these undramatic fertile plains produce 20 per cent of Italy's olive oil, tobacco and almonds.

There are so many good wines - look out Chianti-shire - that a restaurateur confessed that he could not begin to name them all.

This land between the Adriatic and the Med, the Ionian Sea beneath the 'boot', covers layers and layers of civilisation. Several towns in Apulia - Otranto, Gallipoli and Taranto - counted themselves in the league of Magna Graecia.

The Appian Way from Rome ended in Brindisi. The Arabs and Byzantines dominated the Dark Ages. In the 11th century, the Normans came, next the Swabians (read 'southern Germans').

In 1480, the Turks massacred the entire population of Otranto and in turn were defeated by the Normans. Then the Spanish arrived to add their flourish to the French Baroque and earlier Romanesque architecture.

Apulia has so much that you could easily plan tours of just castles, cathedrals, ducal palaces, watch towers, caves, vineyards, beaches, or a gourmet tour - the seafood of Apulia is excellent - not forgetting hill-towns and summer festivals.

So short are the distances that locals follow the summer festivals - jazz, wine, classical music and opera - from one town to another on a daily basis. You can stay in simple or grand beach or town hotels, or in a manor farm villa fit for a Medici.

One such via-hotel among olive trees, that compares sweetly with anything Tuscany can offer, is the Masseria Spagnola, pounds 28 a night now, pounds 285 per week in August all-in.

If you take a gluttonous cultural approach, any not-to-be-missed list would have to include Bari for its Romanesque basilica of St Nicholas.

Egnazia, a little further south, has a fine small museum of mosaics beside excavated Roman ruins and tombs. In Rindisi, the Marco Aurelio in Via Masaniello is one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in, anywhere.

A few 'clicks' inland, the hill-town of Ostuni looks like a white-layered wedding cake. One of its cathedral's three patron saints is St Thomas a Beckett, courtesy of the crusaders. In summer, a young folk group dances in costume for visitors. …