Heart in the heel

Chris Harrison is learning to share his adopted region of Puglia: a land of olives, cheap reds and true eccentrics.

Conversation, a glass of prosecco, artichoke hearts and moonlight – after an idle day by the Adriatic Sea, the olive-grove pizzeria was southern Italy at its finest.

I'd been in Puglia only for a month but realised life had changed forever when my girlfriend's purse was stolen from the outdoor eatery and the local policeman altered the time of the crime because his ancient Olivetti was as capricious as the pizza. "Sorry," he sighed, "but the number three key isn't working. Could we make it 10.40pm rather than 10.30?" To visit Puglia is to be an extra in a Federico Fellini film. To live here is to land a leading role.

The heel of Italy is also its heart – colourful, exuberant, primitive, corrupt. My own heart has been here for almost 10 years, on and off, which seems fitting for a boot. I blew in from Australia with a one-way ticket and theword for wine. A southern signorina with liquorice eyes and satin skin had invited me to her whitewashed village and I'd said "si" before she'd finished the question.

Foreigners in this sun-drenched stretch of the peninsula were as rare as rain. I was alone here for a long time but since Ryanair began flying from London to Brindisi I have reluctantly learnt to share the jewel in Italy's crown.

The region's peasant beauty is as stunning as it is simple. Olive groves slope to the coast, striking gnarled and ghostly poses, strangling stone to survive, accounting for 60 per cent of Italy's olive oil. Whitewashed houses hug the headlands, reflecting the unrelenting sun, each village like a halo along the craggy coast. The Mediterranean sparkles: transparent, crystalline, dotted with fishing boats and summertime swimmers.

Much of Puglia is agricultural land, separated by tumbledown stone walls and farmed by leather-skinned men who resemble their scarecrows. It's another era. A simpler one.

Tractors are old and rusty. A plough is pushed by hand and fails to work unless the farmer operating it has a cigarette between his lips. Broken tools are repaired rather than replaced. Widows in black pull chicory from the earth. Fishing nets are darned by nonna. Road signs point in the wrong direction. Church bells ring incessantly, marking the passing of time where it appears to have stopped.

It's not all country and coast. Bari, Brindisi and Lecce are the main cities, the latter – somehow – the least visited and the most beautiful. Its centro storico (historical centre) is a celebration of baroque architecture. Intricate facades adorn its churches, while beneath the ancient city stands an array of Roman ruins that excavators – between siestas – are unearthing.


The coastal city of Otranto is a mediaeval masterpiece, its historic centre a mix of labyrinthine lanes and bygone buildings. Cannonballs line the cobblestone streets, recalling the Turkish invasion in which those who refused to renounce Catholicism were decapitated. Their skulls "adorn" the Martyrs' Chapel of the town's 11thcentury Norman cathedral, renowned for its mosaic floor that is among the largest in the world. I was supposed to marry there but failed the religious preparation course and had to settle for a 14th-century baroque castle instead.

Though distant from the coast, perhaps the most famous town in Puglia is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Alberobello. The vineyard hills above Brindisi boast this township of trulli – limestone dwellings with conical roofs of stacked stones that could be dismantled in the time it took the property tax inspector to tether his horse. If your house could disappear, so could your taxes. Though tax evasion is still a popular pastime (indeed some might say the national sport), Alberobello's cone-shaped roofs are permanent fixtures, as are the strange signs and symbols adorning them, which, like most things southern Italian, have either religious or superstitious significance.

Not surprisingly, if Alberobello is any guide, the people of Puglia are even more colourful than its landscapes. To describe them as eccentric would be selling them short. In the decade I have called the "heel" my home, I have met – or had run-ins, rather – with the aforementioned policeman who rearranged crimes to suit his malfunctioning typewriter, a driving instructor who sat exams for his pupils, a doctor who prescribed patients his homemade lemon liquor and a fascist vet whose practice was a shrine to Mussolini and with whom I haggled over the price of a hysterectomy for my adopted dog. Unfortunately, abandoned animals are part of the selfish scenery on the heel of the boot, along with fridges, mattresses and other household sundries. In many respects, doing the right thing is yet to catch on here.

Puglia's peccadilloes are atoned for with food, although some local dishes could themselves be considered sinful. When it comes to food – as it often does in Italy – every region has its signature dish: risotto in Milan, pesto in Genoa, steak in Florence , and horse meat in Puglia.

When I first moved to Puglia to join my then girlfriend and now wife, I quickly accounted for the culture shock by learning the language (apart from several howling gaffes, such as asking a man on a beach if I could hire a "paedophile" for an hour rather than a "pedal boat", and a bemused butcher for a "kilometre" of sausages rather than a "kilogram"). But it took quite some time to adopt all the local habits, particularly ignoring stop signs and eating horse meat.

"When in Rome" is the best motto for foreign adventure, unless the locals expect you to eat Phar Lap. I have a rule that prohibits tucking into anything more intelligent than me, which accounts for the fact I am rather slim.

Despite the Italians being insistent hosts, I had managed to turn down Mr Ed for my first few months. But with Daniela, my girlfriend, raving about the meat, which she claimed was leaner than beef and rich in vitamins and minerals that I am supposed to care about, I gave in.

The first time I indulged was in Andrano, Daniela's fishing village, at a party in an olive garden overlooking the Adriatic. As the others filled their faces, I eyed my plate. "Eat quickly," advised the man opposite, "itwas a racehorse." He was a bald, brawny and imposing police chief – the kind of man it is wise to obey. His wife had laboured over the pezzetti di cavallo – horse-meat pieces – so I would have said they were "buoni" (good) even if it was a lie.

It wasn't.

The immoral meat was delicious, stringy yet succulent. A bit like the Italians, tough in parts, tender in others. The odour was appetising and the gravy was superb mopped up with local bread and washed down with a robust primitivo, a grape introduced to the area in the 1700s and known as zinfandel if you drink in English.

When compared with the abundance of other foods at the party – mussels, calamari, marinated aubergines and cured meats – the horse meat, ahem, won by a length.

Now I eat horse meat regularly, simply with bread and rocket or mixed with penne pasta. The most interesting friend to invite for dinner when I do so is a vet in Bari who runs a horse clinic. He cures them. His girlfriend eats them. The conversation is as frisky as the fare.

Now that horse meat is being served in certain Australian restaurants I will probably order it but the southern Italian in me will think it has been cooked incorrectly and declare, while gesticulating wildly: "not like my mother-in-law used to make!"

Talking about food in Puglia is as vital as eating it. Dinner-party conversation concerns what's on the dinner table. Invariably I amasked how we cook spaghetti in Australia, whether we like it al dente or not. And invariably Daniela answers for me.

"They massacre it," she once explained to a group of captivated friends. "They don't realise that it cooks while you taste it and while you drain it, so if you turn it off soft it becomes much too soft." She sipped her wine to refuel. "I've had to educate him. A spaghetti needs a vertebra." "Quite right," they all agreed, regarding me with pity.

I usually drown my shame in the wine on offer. Plonk in Puglia is plentiful and cheap. Whites as dry as the countryside. Reds as smooth as silk. Most of the grapes are cultivated near Brindisi, a city whose name literally means "to raise a toast". It would be the Australian equivalent of living in a city called "Cheers".

Religion and food are the lifeblood of Puglia. If you're planning a visit, do so in August, when almost every town on the heel pays homage to both its spiritual protector and favoured foodstuff. With Daniela as guide, when I first arrived I spent the entire month wandering tiny villages separated only by a road sign, attending the festival of the fig, the festival of the watermelon, the festival of the clam, of the sea anemone, of the snail, of the pig, of the pizza – there's one for all tastes.

Just be sure to pack a Swiss Army knife to add an extra hole to your belt.

Getting there Rome is the nearest international gateway to Puglia. One of the cheapest fares at the moment is with Alitalia for about $2120, to Kuala Lumpur (8hr), to Rome (13hr 20min), then to Bari (1hr). The flights from Australia to Rome use Alitalia flight numbers but are on Malaysia Airlines aircraft. Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.

Staying there To stay in a trullo in Alberobello costs $75-$90 a person a night, including breakfast, see pietradimora.it. In the heart of Lecce, Al Duomo bed and breakfast is $100-150 a night for a double room, see alduomolecce.it. Near Otranto's castle is Via Primaldo Camere where a double room costs $140-180, see viaprimaldo.com. In the village of Andrano stay at La Balaustra, run by the local police chief and his wife, for $30-$50 a person a night, see labalaustra.it. As a general rule in Puglia, the poorer the English translation on the website, the more authentic the Italian experience.

Sightseeing there Wandering the historic centres of Puglia's towns and cities is the preferred pastime of tourist and locals. Buy a gelato and lick your way around Lecce, stopping to admire Piazza Duomo, the 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre at Piazza Sant'Oronzo and the Baroque facade of the Chiesa di Santa Croce. Other historic centres include Bari, Ostuni, Martina Franca, Gallipoli and Castro. Drive along the Adriatic coast and stop for a swim at one of the beautiful beaches, including Porto Badisco, Acquaviva and Ponte Ciolo.

Eating there It's difficult to find a bad restaurant in Puglia. Local specialities include horse meat, orecchiette (little ears) of home-made pasta and almond biscuits. In Alberobello, Il Trullo Antico is the cheaper option, while Il Poeta Contadino ($75-100 a head) has a Michelin star, see ilpoetacontadino.it. In Lecce, there's Pio Bove, which grills horse-meat steaks by (rather than on) an open fire so the meat is more rare; phone + 39 0832 312 579. For seafood, try the Ristorante Antichi Sapori Transatlantico, near Bari, and pay about $50 a head.For a list of Puglia's summer food festivals, known as sagre, see www.sagreinitalia.it/sagre-in-puglia.

Reading Head Over Heel, by Chris Harrison (Murdoch Books) is a tale of love and hate on the heel of the boot. Italian Country Cooking, by Susanna Gelmetti, has regional recipes.