Italy's Puglia is trulli beautiful

Tired of Tuscany? Well-heeled travellers looking to dodge the drizzle are hot-footing it down to Puglia. DAD.info visits Italy’s best-kept secret...

When Juliet said she had the plasterers in, she wasn't speaking metaphorically | Image: James Draven

“Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel got married here?!” I’m forced to feign surprise again about the worst-kept secret in Puglia. The local restauranteurs, hoteliers and tour guides pride themselves on being tight-lipped about the recent influx of celebrities to the region and they make quite a show of playing dumb about their notable guests, but JT’s name still keeps cropping up.

It’s not just the A-list who have discovered the charms of beautiful Puglia though: tourists are starting to take note of this unique region that offers sights, food and wine to rival dependable Tuscany.

More reliable still is the weather: the etymological root of the word Puglia, or Apulia by its Latin name, is considered to mean ‘land without rain’, and while this may be something of an exaggeration on the part of the Ancient Romans, it’s pretty balmy for much of the year.

Mario's Swimming & Social Club had not been a huge success | Image: James Draven

Puglia boasts 450 miles of coastline from the crystalline blue waters of the dramatic Adriatic coastline, pocked with picturesque grottos and rocky coves, to the golden beaches and Ionian Sea down on the Salento peninsula. As the area that produces 23% of all of Europe’s extra virgin olive oil, the countryside’s rich, fertile soil is dominated by 60 million olive trees, increasingly vying for space with the vineyards of the area’s burgeoning winemaking industry.

These agricultural landscapes are studded with three Unesco World Heritage sites and, from the absurdly intricate baroque architecture of the city of Lecce to the humble, conical, dry-stone Smurf village-type dwellings of Alberobello, there are plenty more sights to rival the best Italy has to offer.

James had been so badly behaved he was both sent to the naughty step and made to write lines | Image: James Draven

What to see:

The area around Bari airport isn’t immediately redolent of la dolce vita you may have signed up for. At first glance the area seems a scrubby, unremarkable place. Likewise, you may have seen the name Bari cropping up on Easyjet’s destination list (around £85 return), but perhaps not heard anything to distinguish it from any other commercial or transport hub. It’s for this reason the city is such a pleasant surprise.

Tidied up in 1995, Bari consists of an old town and a new one; the former area plays host to the Murat district, which is the biggest shopping area in Puglia, while the old town gives us a genuine glimpse at traditional Italian life you can rarely see in the country’s more heavily touristed parts.

Santa's house was surprisingly tinsel-free | Image: James Draven

Firstly, the old town has the big ticket sights like the Basilica of St Nicholas, where the remains of the famous saint who inspired Santa Claus (stolen from Turkey in the 11th century) are now interred. A visit here reveals that, contrary to what the Coca-Cola Company would have us believe, the real Father Christmas was actually adorned in green robes rather than the trademark red… oh, and he was black too.

Enjoy breaking the news that Santa is dead to your kids. Fear not though, true believers: his bones are purported to exude a manna which is liberally watered-down and sold for exorbitant fees in the gift shop, so you can take a little bit of Christmas home with you.

Perhaps more remarkable is the crypt in which they rest: sacred to both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, devotees pray side-by-side here with pilgrims flying in from Moscow just to see the place where his bones are laid to rest. Indeed, Vladimir Putin donated the statue of Saint Nick that overlooks the adjacent piazza (though we still think he'll be getting coal in his stocking this year).

Pictured: the ladies who work the streets of Bari | Image: James Draven

For me though, the old town’s charm lies in its labyrinthine backstreets, diminutive courtyards and quintessentially Italian scenes, such as the ladies who sit outside their houses lining the street of La Via Delle Orecchiette, as it’s colloquially known, named after Puglia’s signature pasta that they make by hand to sell to passers-by and the restaurant trade alike.

Head a short distance down the coast to the breath-taking Polignano a Mare to get a good look at a shoreline that easily rivals the drama of the Amalfi Coast. The old town perches atop cliffs that jut out into the sea, and the higgledy-piggledy houses that cling to the rock-face trail steps that lead to craggy precipices serving as vertical backyards or at least places to hang laundry.

The estate agent had said there was a garden, just not mentioned its angle | Image: James Draven

During the warmer months, locals and touring maniacs leap from the edge of town into the dazzling blue sea below, while more sensible swimmers set out from the pebble beach to bask in the serenity of the many grottos that lie semi-submerged at the foot of the cliffs.

One of these caves, thankfully mostly above sea level, houses one of Puglia’s most celebrated restaurants, Grotta Palazzese. Its balcony, carved by Mother Nature herself, offers views across the sea from one side and down to a picturesque cave-lagoon on the other, so it’s certainly a place to take someone you’re looking to impress.

Here's a tongue twister: limp lamp limp lamp limp lamp | Image: James Draven

The baroque architecture of Lecce is so remarkably ostentatious, even for such an ornamental style, that it has a sub-genre named after it, Lecce Barocco. The limestone down here, right on the heel of the Salento peninsula, is so soft and compliant under a stonemason’s chisel that they clearly couldn’t help themselves but to create some of the most casually ornate facades in all of Italy. While it may not boast the wealth of art galleries of its northern counterpart, its nickname of ‘the Florence of the south’ is something of an understatement.

Although the city of Lecce is a sight in itself and should be viewed as a whole, there are a few unmissable attractions in town like the Basilica di Santa Croce, which is perhaps Lecce’s most extravagant building. Meanwhile, in Piazza del Duomo, you can see how the baroque aesthetic evolved over time: still visually dazzling, this later style was a little smarter and more conscious of where an observer’s eye may fall, forsaking lesser-viewed corners.

The 'living statue' street performers' props where getting bigger and better | Image: James Draven

Visit the main square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and you can see another side to the city’s architecture. Partially exposed, like a cross-section cut into an onion, an ancient Roman town sits a few feet below the surface of the streets and here you can see half of a 25,000-seat Roman amphitheatre. It remains only partly excavated because later notable monuments have since been built on top of it, meaning here you get a view that is a literal slice through history.

No itinerary around the heel of Italy would be complete without a visit to the small town of Alberobello and its unique dwellings. Though you’ll see the odd trullo dotted among the olive groves, vineyards and masserias of the Itria Valley, Alberobello with its 1,500 trulli within a small urban area is the Unesco-recognised capital of these peculiar round buildings, capped with conical roofs that hang together without any mortar.

Tony was rubbish at hide 'n' seek | Image: James Draven

The mother of the invention of the trullo is apparently the art of tax evasion. When tax inspectors would pass by the area the locals would pull out the buildings’ keystones and they’d collapse to the ground, leaving nothing to inspect but a pile of rubble. The reason the buildings are white is equally as interesting: during the time of the Black Death, homes were painted white if there was plague in the house. The town’s residents soon noticed that the lime in the white paint repelled mosquitos and biting insects, so they all redecorated in a similar fashion.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the images daubed on the roofs of some of the trulli are not the ancient mystical symbols many locals will claim, but mere decorations first painted to welcome the fascist dictator Mussolini when he visited the town… and now maintained to intrigue tourists.

What to eat and drink:

Gina had got a bit obsessed with collecting Tesco Clubcard points | Image: James Draven

Puglia really is the larder of Italy; with so many of the key staples of Italian cuisine being farmed and produced in the region, fresh ingredients are never hard to come by and accordingly the local food is fantastic and portions are generous. As a rule of thumb, order half as much antipasti as you think you’re going to want.

Specialities of the Puglia region include taralli – savoury biscuits that look like tiny crunchy bagels and are similarly made from boiled then baked bread dough, often flavoured with fennel, onions or tomato – and burrata – an unashamedly indulgent antipasti simply made of pockets of mozzarella filled with stracciatella, which itself is shredded mozzarella and fresh cream… and that’s just for starters.

"Toss your own salad," the waiter growled at me | Image: James Draven

Orichiette, meaning ‘little ears’, is the area’s signature pasta. The water is naturally rich in calcium carbonate in Puglia, which locals claim imparts a particular texture and consistency to their orichiette so it never tastes or hangs together in quite the same way if it’s produced outside the region.

A unique twist on the dish peculiar to the region is their burnt wheat (grano arso) variety. Thought to have originated in Foggiano, this delicious peasants’ pasta comes from the days when farmers would have to give all their best produce to the landowners. After the wheat harvest, the remaining stubble in the fields was set on fire and then peasants would be allowed to collect up any leftover burned grain seeds from the ground and grind them into flour. Today, ordinary flour is simply lightly toasted to produce the requisite slightly smoky flavour before it is – most frequently – made into trofie or orichiette pasta shapes, both perfect when served with a simple tomato and garlic sauce lightly crumbed with ricotta.

Burnt wheat – or grano arso – orichiette pasta. Insert your own childish jokes | Image: James Draven

For pudding, the trademark dessert of the Salento area of Puglia is the pasticciotto, which is a kind of short-crust pastry custard pie. You’re unlikely to find it elsewhere in Italy so this is the place to try it with a good espresso.

Talking of which, coffee lovers – though perhaps not purists – will be delighted to find speciality coffees in town that put even Starbucks’ syrupy concoctions in the shade. In Lecce, the locals enjoy caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla in summer – basically, iced coffee with almond milk – while in Polignano a Mare, if you order a caffè special you’ll get a coffee served with cream, mandarin liqueur and lemon. If that all sounds a bit much then, hey, there’s always that espresso.

Where to stay:

A tucked-away courtyard at Masseria Montenapoleone | Image: James Draven

While all the towns and cities offer everything from the usual selection of chain hotels right through to the boutique and B&B end of the market, when staying in the countryside of the Itria Valley one has to experience lodging in a traditional Puglian masseria. Essentially fortified farmhouses, many of these gorgeous provincial estates have been converted into boutique hotels to accommodate the tourists who are now discovering the area.

I stayed at Masseria Montenapoleone in Pezze di Greco just a few miles outside Fasano and only three miles from the area’s Blue Flag beaches. This is a friendly, family-owned working masseria with 17 idiosyncratic guest rooms – including a luxurious grotto (cave) room – sitting among 50 acres of its own farmland. Here they make their own flour, jam, mozzarella, wine and grow their own vegetables on site, so the delicious communal dinners held each week consist of some of the most locally sourced produce you’re ever likely to eat. Not two minutes after leaving the dinner table I strolled past the cacti that grew the prickly pears I had for dessert! You can even learn to cook with these fresh ingredients with Montenapoleone’s own Italian cookery classes.

If all of that sounds delightful but you’re absolutely too A-list to live without mixer taps, bizarre spa treatments and an army of waiting staff then you could always try the nearby Borgo Egnazia, a sprawling purpose built Puglian-village-style resort complex with room for 600 guests that opened in 2010.

Not a centuries-old Puglian town, but the brand new hotel complex Borgo Egnazia | Image: James Draven

Kind of like a five-star Italian theme park for grown-ups, the whole place is a meticulously crafted, beautifully recreated, high-end take on a traditional rustic lifestyle from the outside. On the inside, however, each of the rooms, townhouses and villas is a gleaming-white paragon of luxurious minimalism. Oh, and – shh, whisper it – apparently for €1,500 you can sleep in the same bed in which a certain Justin and Jessica consummated their vows.

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Guest Sunday, 18 August 2019

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