The real Santa

Andrew Bain

It is a Christmas paradox that St Nicholas, the spirited giver, should be entombed in Bari, an Italian city more famous for the spirit of taking. Known to many as either a ferry port or a den of thieves, it is in this uncelebrated city on Italy's Adriatic coast that the remains of the Santa Claus prototype are interred. Appropriately for a city with Bari's reputation, it took a theft to put them there.

Born in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the third century to wealthy parents, the future St Nicholas dispensed of his inheritance by using it to help the needy and the suffering.

One story tells of the young Nicholas assisting a poor man with three daughters. With no money for dowries, the man was on the brink of selling one daughter into prostitution or slavery. On three separate occasions Nicholas threw bags of gold through an open window of the man's house - the gold was said to have landed in stockings hung before the fire to dry.

A variety of other selfless acts earned St Nicholas his standing as patron saint of, among others, children, sailors, students, paupers and - prophetically - thieves. But it is with Christmas that St Nicholas is indelibly associated, his image having morphed into that of the white-bearded, red-suited Santa Claus.

When St Nicholas died in about AD345, his remains were interred in the Turkish town of Myra, but in 1087 they were stolen by Bari sailors, whisked away

to their home town and installed in a crypt. A basilica was built over the top.

The Basilica of St Nicholas is considered one of the world's finest examples of Romanesque architecture and sits at one edge of the maze that is Bari's old town, the lanes and streets designed to confuse and lose potential invaders. Inside this labyrinth there are said to be about 40 churches, though none attract such attention as the gleaming white Basilica of St Nicholas, which fills and almost overflows from its eponymous square.

Outside stands a bronze statue of the saint, holding in one hand three gold balls, each representing a bag of the dowry gold that helped create the legend of the Christmas stocking.

Inside, down a flight of stairs, is the darkened chapel that holds St Nicholas' remains. Since 1966, an Orthodox chapel has also filled one side of the area, a concession to the many pilgrims from countries such as Russia and Greece who also hold St Nicholas in great reverence.

The crypt has the simplest of signs - Tomba del Santo - and is protected by an iron grille, as though Bari, the Grinch that did indeed steal Christmas, is still worried about a reciprocal raid.

If you're arriving in your own helicopter, consider staying at the central Grand Hotel Ambasciatori, complete with helipad, rooftop swimming pool, shopping centre and theatre.

To dine within the labyrinthine old town, seek out La Credenze for Puglian fare or try the seafood at Ristorante Al Pescatore.