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…
“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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.