THE PALACE HOTEL
Bari is a city with an extraordinary history. It was important in Roman times, in early Christian times and in Mediaeval times. And, of course, it is important now – not least because it is home to the relics of St Nicholas, whose shrine continues to draw pilgrims from every part of Christendom. It is the capital of the region of Puglia (what we non-Italians tend to call the ‘heel’ of Italy) and it has its own dialect, which sounds rather startling when first encountered. (Upon hearing a group of young men speaking it, I simply could not decide whether they were conversing in Italian or Greek.) Bari does not, however, have a surfeit of grand places in which to lay one’s head. I am therefore very pleased indeed to be able to recommend to you the best place in town: The Palace Hotel.
I must confess that The Palace is bit of an ugly duckling from the outside, which is why, dear reader, I am not going to upset you with a picture of the façade. It was built in 1956 in a drab version of the prevailing Modernism. (If it were in London, it would probably be hailed by the architectural establishment as a masterpiece. Yes, it is that drab.) But do not be put off. For the interior is entirely different. Indeed, it is so resolutely traditional and charmingly comfortable that it must have been designed purposefully to overcome the effect of the exterior. As soon as I walked into the spacious entrance lobby I felt reassured by the abundance of fine fabrics, mirrors and marble. And my spirits were further lifted by the courtesy of the ladies at the Reception desk, who were to prove unfailingly helpful throughout my visit. They are a credit to the Director, Antonio Barbieri (pictured) – one of those excellent general managers who is very much in evidence in his hotel. (Indeed, if my experience is typical of the way in which visitors to the city are treated by the locals, we might need to begin calling Bari the Friendly City.)
I was soon up on the sixth floor in my billet. I suggest that, like me, of The Palace’s 195 rooms you opt for a junior suite. You should check the prices on the hotel website for specific dates, but I can tell you that the maximum price which is charged for Room 619 is 335€ a night, bed and breakfast for two. A proper hallway had doors into the bedroom and into the bathroom. From the picture you can see that pale blue was the prevailing colour and Louis XVI the prevailing style. (You see what I mean about the traditional interior?) I liked this quiet apartment, situated well away from the busy road at the other end of the building. The marquetry, ormolu and marble of the furniture and the gilt chandelier of six lights were entirely to my taste, and it was pleasing to find that a large vase of white roses had been installed for my arrival.
The air conditioning was quiet and effective and I had the option of going out onto my own little corner balcony if I needed some fresh air. On the walls were pictures of putti playing jolly games. In the bathroom was much stone of a golden colour and two wash basins, a tub of a proper size, a loo and a bidet.
One of the best assets of The Palace is its location. Even for me – surely the least enthusiastic walker on the planet – it was delightfully easy to stroll into the Old Town (to visit the Shrine of St Nicholas and the cathedral), to meander over to the 19th Century shopping district (with all the fasionable names on offer) or to amble along the promenade and admire the Art Deco villas along the seafront (designed, I was told, in the Mussolini era but built after the War). Among these last is the charming art gallery, the Pinacoteca Provinciale, where I viewed St Peter Martyr, a remarkable masterpiece by one of the Venetian masters, Giovanni Bellini.
Another famous fellow, Joachim Murat, provides the name for the hotel’s main dining room. Murat was Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother-in-law and, when he was the Napoleonic King of Naples, he had that part of Bari which now contains all the grand shops laid out on a grid plan. That area, too, has adopted his name. The Murat Restaurant (on the top floor of the building) continues the traditional decorative theme of the rest of the hotel, with antique twisted columns, carved statues and a large portrait of the eponymous gentleman himself. A good pianist plays pleasant tunes, and the atmosphere is entirely welcoming.
As is the fine Maitre d’ Roberto Giuliani (pictured). He deserved a gold star for the manner in which he looked after me during my stay. Usually, with the weather clement, I dined outside on the terrace and enjoyed the captivating view over the rooftops to the floodlit façade of the St Nicholas shrine and the lofty tower of the cathedral. (Table number two has the best vantage point.) The napery was off-white linen, the glassware was by Bormioli, the music was Cole Porter… all was set for the enjoyment of some splendid cooking.
And that is precisely what came from the kitchen of Chef Vito Paradiso (pictured). Mr Paradiso is 37 years old, but looks much younger. His cuisine is based on taking ingredients of high quality and handling them with intelligence and skill. The result is thoroughly enjoyable food entirely appropriate to the context. He offers two tasting menus at 79€. I chose four course meals from the carte (for which you should expect to pay 55-65€). The highlights of my meals were a succulent cardoncelli mushroom strudel with cream cheese and herbs, wonderfully rich burratina cheese with roasted peppers and herbs, tasty vegetable soup, simple pannette with tomatoes and fresh basil, top class prosciutto, delicious roasted fillet of veal brilliantly served with mint (a combination new to me), tender rump of lamb in a bread crust, lovely bavarese with white chocolate and a truly scrumptious version of crunchy almonds with vanilla cream.
The wine list has 225 offerings – all Italian, apart from the champagnes. Prices are friendly and run from 20€ for a local primitivo to 290€ for 1988 Ruinart champagne. Many bottles are in the 30€-50€ range. From my own drinking, I really must recommend to you a spectacularly good red from the north of Puglia, which was selected for me by Mr Giuliani. Many reds from this region are ‘hot’ and very heavily laden with ripe fruit, which can sometimes turn to caramel in the glass. But this one, made from the Negro di Troia grape (which used to be called Uva di Troia), was an altogether more sophisticated lady. The nose had hints of boiled cabbage, and in the mouth it was immediately apparent that a wonderful structure had been achieved, with the brambles and plums held in check by carefully delineated tannins. This was a super bottle for only 40€ (Vigna Grande, Zagaria, 2007).
I must make a special mention of breakfast at the Palace. It is served in the San Nicola Restaurant on the ground floor. This is a very large room of blue and gold. It has a certain theatrical charm. And so does the Breakfast Supervisor, Patrizia Matera (pictured). This splendid lady has been at the hotel for 23 years. Somehow, she lights up the whole room, and when she is absent for a few minutes it is as if the lights begin to dim. I will quote her recipe for a good breakfast, given to a reporter who wrote about her in a magazine. “A warm welcome, top-notch organization and remembering the way regular guests like things is what makes all the difference.” It certainly made all the difference to me, as I started my mornings with freshly-squeezed orange juice, dishes of melon, pineapple and kiwi fruit, superb ricotta cheese, onion omelettes, pots of coffee and bowls of ice cubes – all of them top-notch. The buffet was extensive, and extra items were brought directly from the kitchen. These breakfasts were happy occasions.
Indeed, my whole time in the capital of Puglia was happy. For Bari is a city with an extraordinary history. It is well worth a visit. If you do go, you now know where to stay: at The Palace.