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An Italian treasure that’s NOT on the tourist trail: we discover the delights of Taranto – ‘a delightfully forgotten cellar of Italy’

The Rough Guide To Puglia says that ‘tourists give Taranto a wide lead’. Lonely Planet, meanwhile, claims the city is ‘not on the tourist route at all’.

And yet I hear that Taranto is not like that at all. Could it really be so mythical: a glorious, historic Italian city, right on the dazzling blue Mediterranean, almost untouched by global tourism?

To be honest, first impressions aren’t great. I picked up a rental car in Bari (with direct flights from the UK) and drove 80 minutes through Puglia (the heel of Italy) – and now I’m surrounded by ugly steelworks and muscular naval bases.

But then I break through the industrial belt that Taranto defends like a moat and look around the neoclassical boulevards. I am surprised, delighted and in the mood for a mango ice cream by the sea.

And the rumours about a lack of tourists are absolutely true: I am the only non-Italian around.

Through the ages: Sean Thomas travels to Taranto, pictured, a 'wonderfully forgotten cellar of Italy'

Through the ages: Sean Thomas travels to Taranto, pictured as ‘a wondrously forgotten cellar of Italy’

Taranto is home to an Aragonese fortress (pictured) connected to the rest of the city by a bridge

Taranto is home to an Aragonese fortress (pictured) connected to the rest of the city by a bridge

Historically, Taranto – with its linked islands overlooking the lagoons and the sea – dates back to the Spartans in the 8th century BC. At its classical peak, it had a population of 300,000.

The Tarantella dance comes from the city. In fact, many things come from Taranto – and as proof of this I head to the beautifully renovated museum, MARTA, which stands on a stately 19th-century square full of chic cafes, cheerful trattorias and cheerful Tarantinos, who are remarkably friendly, even by Italians standards. The museum features several wonders, including a famous collection of classical jewelry.

Over the next few days I wander around Taranto, feeling like a pioneer. I sip macchiatos on Aragonese water forts. I spend hours on the ‘old city island’, exploring hidden snickets, sleeping churches and listening to men in thong vests arguing contentedly in alleys full of scented laundry.

Sean visits the city's museum, MARTA, which houses 'several wonders' including a famous collection of classic jewelry

Sean visits the city’s museum, MARTA, which houses ‘several wonders’ including a famous collection of classic jewelry

Sean spends hours on the 'old city island' exploring the hidden spots

Sean spends hours on the ‘old town island’ exploring its hidden places

Above, the 'stunning' Castel del Monte, which is a few hours' drive from Taranto

Above the ‘stunning’ Castel del Monte, a few hours drive from Taranto

Then I get caught in a terrible rain shower and duck into the nearest restaurant. I’m all disheveled – a shame really. The head waiter looks at me, smiles and says, ‘You need food. And wine.’ He smiles. “Don’t worry, it’s not expensive.” He is right. My decent bottle of white costs just €6, while the grilled mullet is excellent.

As I grind down my delicious, impromptu dinner, I ponder my next move in this wonderfully forgotten cellar of Italy.

Perhaps I’ll head north to Altamura, a perfectly preserved medieval town reputed to have the world’s best focaccia, a stunning white-stone cathedral, and 600-year-old bakeries in Byzanto-Arab alleys. Or perhaps I’ll head east to Castel del Monte, a stunning octagonal 12th-century castle said to have been built by Emperor Frederick II in an attempt to tap into occult forces.

For now, I’m going to sit here – happily tipsy – because Taranto is brilliant. It’s like Venice without the cruise boats, like Naples with even more ghosts. It’s like the Italy of your dreams, before the tour buses arrived.

TRAVEL FACTS

Ryanair return flights from Stansted to Bari from £210 in October (ryanair.nl). Autovia offers a five seater car for hire from £150 per week (autovia.it).

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