Not so long ago Puglia, at the tip of Italy’s boot, was down at heel, poor, neglected and far flung. No more. Flanked by two seas the thin peninsula is often described as ‘Italy’s best kept secret’.
Of late, the jet set and mere mortals like ourselves are discovering this once forgotten thin peninsula packed tight with all the qualities that have been drawing us to Italy since the birth of tourism.
Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel swopped palm fringed Caribbean lagoons for Puglia’s sublime rugged coastline to wed. Lavish Borgo Egnazia resort in Savelletri di Fasano where the Timberlake- Biel glitzy nuptials were staged has been enjoying red carpet attention ever since. Mainstream tourism is also waking up to Puglia’s many charms, from long sandy beaches and secret coves to hillside medieval villages, baroque cities and towns with their hypnotically laid back pace of life.
Look forward to some of Italy’s best pasta, inexpensive local seafood – how about raw sea urchins at a beachfront ricci di mare stall in the Salento? – plus excellent wines, a steal when you compare them with top end restaurant wine lists abroad.
Walking on Sunshine, the sun splashed movie musical starring Leona Lewis among others was shot in Puglia and a roll call of celebrities have bought up secluded holiday properties here. Actress Helen Mirren can be found in the wine bar(a converted pharmacy) in remote Tricase which she co-owns and runs with family and friends.
At a prestigious winery, historic Masseria L’Astore near Tricase our arms are twisted (easily!) to engage in some mid morning wine tasting. Photos of Mirren, a regular customer and her family hang in the tasting room. Other celeb customers include Mick Jagger, a big fan of Puglia produced wines. “He takes a mix of everything on a couple of pallets every year” Leanne Holmes who oversees marketing and tastings at L’Astore, famed for its organic ‘slow’ wines, reveals.
Italy’s largest producer of olive oil and wine Puglia (Apulia in English) is often likened to Tuscany before it was over run by foreigners.
Translated from the Latin Apulia means ‘land without water’. Temperatures can be swelteringly hot in summer but Puglia’s dry climate is usually a pleasant mid twenties in spring and autumn, the best times to visit. A short downpour caught us unawares in Troia, a interesting hilltop town possessing more church spires than umbrellas.
Puglia covers nearly five hundred miles of scenic Adriatic and Ionian sea coastline and countryside whose olive groves and vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see. While public transport is reasonably frequent between bigger centres in summer a car is essential for a proper exploration of the region.
Look forward to meeting tiny remote beaches, villages with cheap and cheerful pizza cafes and fine dining as well as historically interesting towns and small cities.
Lecce is a jewel, known as the Florence of the South because of its splendid Baroque architecture, hidden piazzas and elaborately carved churches and palaces. It is also renowned for southern Italian cooking at its rustic best. We dined in style at a restored Tower that once protected the city, Torre del Parco whose romantic rooms with exquisite furnishings and four posters are a steal at €100 for two including breakfast in low season.
The port of Bari is divided into contrasting rather ugly new and authentic crumbling old parts. Be sure to stop off if only to visit award winning (and inexpensive)Taverna Terranima on Via Putignani 213. The place bursts with atmosphere and you will savour some of the best food, not just in Puglia but according to slow food connoisseurs in all of Italy.
I loved Bari’s Old Town, its laneways hung with washing, squares full of life and colour. Wandering through the labyrinth of back streets young boys scraped past me riding spluttering auto cycles. Large ladies in flowery aprons are famous on La Via Delle Orecchiette for the Puglia signature pasta which they make outside their homes and sell to passers-by and the restaurant trade.
Then there are the towns that amount to open air museums like the beautiful white city of Ostuni high above the Adriatic Coast built on three hills and Alberobello famous for its ancient conical Smurf style dwellings called Trulli. The countryside of the Itria valley is dotted with them. In Fasano close to the sea some big farmhouses are converted into resorts with golf courses and spas. Al Mirador resort in the heart of Selva di Fasano commands superb views over the valley and is next to a couple of Trulli holiday homes.
At Conti Zecca one of the largest wineries in Leverano, tractors and trucks loaded with grapes were causing traffic jams with the wine harvest in full blast. Here and at the wine co operative Vini Manduria you can enjoy generous tastings and benefit from great prices compared with the usual retail outlets memorabilia.
During this Puglia discovery we naturally tried our hand at making little ears (Orecchiette) pasta. The lesson was held at Masseria Salinola on the outskirts of Ostuni. This welcoming guest house amid lemon and olive trees is one of the ‘gems’ that Discovery Puglia a company specializing in food and wine tours, family friendly, escorted and tailor made trips has uncovered for travellers to the region.
Another day we drove around the Ionic coast to enjoy the sand hills (‘dune’in Italian)crafted by sea and wind taking a late evening swim in the crystal clear sea opposite 4 star Le Dune Suite Hotel a great place to hang out in Porto Cesareo.
A romantic rural manor house Tenuta Monacelli was our base for a couple of nights, furnished with antiques in stunning grounds that included a large swimming pool and olive groves. I slept in a former coach house next to a restored castle. Each morning we would plough through plates of delicious fresh pastries and mini croissants smothered with homemade jam. Italy likes to eat sweet for breakfast and drink Cappuccino. Remember if you ask for one instead of Espresso after dinner eyebrows are raised and waiters may snigger….unless of course you happen to be the Timberlake-Biel duo.
All images other than the main image (c) Isabel Conway.