Puglia. The land of sun-baked hilltop villages, endless beaches and long lunches. The Italian way of life at its most charming, where days roll into one another at a leisurely pace and life’s simple pleasures are what really matter. The vibrant colours of Puglia are part of its intoxicating charm – a tangle of white-washed villages set against vast cerulean skies and interspersed with flashes of fuchsia bougainvillea, the terracotta soil of olive groves and the vivid turquoise sea. Even the light in Puglia is particularly magical. A camera simply cannot do justice to the light of heady summer evenings that bathes everything in warm hues of amber, gold and coral; it really does have to be seen to be believed. Italy’s heel brims with ancient culture, bringing together a variety of relics from the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Saracens, Aragonese and the Byzantine Empire as they traversed the Puglian peninsula. The region’s storied history as a melting pot of foreign civilisations and the site of many hard-fought battles thanks to its strategic position has thus transformed it into a patchwork of international influences, most notable in its architecture.
The Baroque jewel in the sparkling Puglian crown is the southern city of Lecce, filled with more than 40 intricately carved limestone churches, contrasting with the minimalist, dazzling white houses lining the narrow, cobbled streets. Then there are, of course, the curiously conical trulli which are dotted across the region, most notably in Alberobello, built with dry stone masonry into beehive-shaped domed hobbit houses. Add to that a handful of Norman castles and Moorish palaces lining the Salento coast, and you’ll find that Puglia is a true fusion of architectural styles. This cultural eclecticism further manifests in the local dialect, traditions and, of course, the food. Perhaps Puglia’s main attraction is its excellent cuisine; the fertile soil and year-round sunshine provide bountiful local produce while centuries of culinary expertise passed down through generations and a simple respect for la cucina povera has put Puglia firmly on the map as a region of gastronomic excellence.
It’s no secret that the heel of Italy is home to one of the loveliest regions in the country, and there is a well-beaten tourist trail winding through the picture-perfect village of Ostuni and between the UNESCO-protected Alberobello. You’ll have to queue up to get The Shot of the beach in the clifftop town of Polignano a Mare and you could auction off a parking space in the città bianca on a balmy summer night, but in low season these normally heaving destinations return to their magical, unspoilt state. Yet not far from these well-known areas, there are many hidden corners of Puglia that are well worth exploring. Once a rather overlooked area of Italy compared to the popular areas of Amalfi or Tuscany, Puglia still remains one of the country’s best kept secrets with entire areas largely undiscovered by the tourist crowds. You just need to know where to look…
WHAT TO VISIT:
Castel del Monte – An architectural masterpiece built by Norman Emperor Frederick II between 1229-1249 which the king used as a hunting lodge. Around 50km north of Bari, the castle is an ode to King Frederick’s love of astrology: the castle is perfectly geometric, formed of eight identical octagon towers. Top tip: stop off to buy some local olives from one of the market stalls lining the footpath leading to the castle and thank me later.
The Orecchiette Ladies of Bari – wander through Bari’s old town and you will almost certainly come across cobbled alleys lined with ladies sitting on their doorsteps, gossiping away with their neighbours while furiously rolling out fresh pasta.
Otranto – a real gioellino, the town of Otranto near the tip of Puglia’s heel is not to be missed. Once the site of many fiercely fought battles, the city carries many reminders of its ancient history, most notably the imposing Castello Aragonese, set right on the waterfront. Otranto cathedral boasts a spectacular original 12th-century mosaic floor depicting the tree of life, which is in remarkably good condition almost a century on.
Capo d’Otranto – visitors to Salento must make the trip to the lighthouse at Punta Palascia, Italy’s easternmost point which marks the point where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, and the perfect spot for a romantic picnic.
Trani – Another beautiful and underrated seaside town on Puglia’s Adriatic coast, Trani is steeped in medieval history and is home to one of the best-preserved cathedrals in the region.
Valle d’Itria – If you’re looking for trulli, avoid the crowds of Alberobello and instead drive through the olive groves of Valle d’Itria along the smaller rural roads in land which criss-cross their way along the peninsula. Martina Franca, Locorotondo, Fasano and Cisternino are, in my opinion, the loveliest of the iconic white-washed villages, but with fewer tourists and far more character than their coach-riddled counterparts.
Lecce – A true feast for the eyes, the city of Lecce is crammed full of ornate palaces, Baroque basilicas and even a Roman amphitheatre.
Teatro Paisello, Lecce – A glorious historic theatre complete with pistachio walls and cherry red velvet seats.
Abbazia San Vito – just up the coast from Polignano a Mare lies a 10th century abbey positioned right on the waterfront with colourful fishing boats lined up right outside.
Grottaglie – head in the direction of the Ionian to the town of Grottaglie, made famous for its traditional handmade ceramics. Take an empty suitcase and stock up!
Salt pans of Margherita di Savoia – Take a trip to the pink-hued natural salt marshes of Margherita di Savoia, home to Italy’s largest colony of flamingos.
Basilica Santa Caterina di Alessandria, Gallatina – The seemingly unadorned exterior of this Romanesque church reveals nothing of its astonishing interior, but step inside and marvel at the extraordinary frescoes.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK:
Puglia is home to arguably some of the finest food in the country. Puglia’s ancient olive groves produce fabulous grassy green olive oil along with juicy olives the size of gobstoppers. Once you’ve tried fresh olives bought from a Puglian street market I’m afraid you’ll never quite enjoy the supermarket variety as much again.
Fish and seafood – Puglia’s double coastline means it is unsurprisingly renowned for its fresh fish. Sea bass, red mullet and anchovies are all popular catches, while mussels, red prawns, octopus and sea urchins are all local delicacies.
Local wine – Negroamaro, Primitivo di Manduria and Salice Salentino are all Puglian specialities and well worth trying.
Tiella Barese – a staple dish of the cucuina povera that never fails to disappoint: a simple paella-style dish of rice, potatoes and fresh mussels.
Orecchiete con cime di rapa – little pasta shells in the shape of ‘small ears’ usually served with garlicky cime di rapa, a kind of broccoli.
Caffè Leccese – a shot of espresso served over ice and sweetened with almond milk. Unbelievably refreshing and a symbol of the city of Lecce.
Olives and olive oil
Taralli – fiendishly moreish circular breadsticks, often studded with peppercorns, onion or fennel.
Tette delle monache – rather crudely known as ‘nun’s breasts’, these traditional round sweet pastries filled with Chantilly cream are an absolute must for any visitors to Puglia.
Lamb – Visit a rosticceria butcher in one of Puglia’s little villages – I recommend Cisternino! – and more often than not, the butcher will offer to cook the meat on a grill and serve it right there in front of you.
Burrata – The creamiest burrata cheese originates from Puglia and is renowned for its meltingly soft centre.
Nodini – Little balls of mozzarella tied into neat knot shapes are another typical cheese from the region.
Bombette – traditional Puglian meat rolls stuffed with cheese and pancetta.
Figs – if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Puglia in late summer or early September, raid one of Puglia’s many ancient fig trees and fill your boots with delectably syrupy black figs.
WHERE TO EAT:
The simplicity of Puglian cuisine is reflected in its eateries, with hundreds of rustic trattorias and charming beachfront restaurants to choose from. This is not the place for a quick bite to eat on the go; Puglia is very much the home of long, leisurely lunches and evenings spent tucking into freshly caught fish as the sun goes down. Some restaurants are so popular that queues of hungry locals stretch around the block – a convincing sign that it’s worth the wait. While the majority of the below favourites subscribe to a more traditional style of Southern Italian fare, there are a couple of exceptions boasting more a more contemporary take that are not to be missed.
Pescaria, Polignano a Mare – if you’re prepared to queue, it’s worth the wait for an octopus sandwich from the famous Pescaria.
Masseria Moroseta – The very talented Giorgia Eugenia Goggi swapped a career in fashion to become a chef and is now at the helm of Masseria Moroseta, where visitors travel the length of Italy to taste her exceptional dishes.
Il Cortiletto, Speziale – A charming restaurant in Speziale serving up the best of local fare. If you’re in the mood for feasting, order the excellent antipasto della casa, which comes with 18 different dishes!
Osteria del Tempo Perso, Ostuni – one of the more well-known restaurants in Puglia but certainly worth a visit in low season for the excellent pasta and meat dishes.
Dentromare, Specchiolla – situated right on the beach, this fantastic little restaurant in Specchiolla serves some of the freshest seafood around, plus the view’s not bad!
Caseificio Crovace, Speziale – For the very best local cheeses, cured meats and other local delicacies, head to this little food market in Speziale. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but the quality of the food is unrivalled.
Osteria Del Caroseno, Castellana — an excellent family run osteria in Castellana Grotte that offers innovative interpretations of typical recipes, celebrating Pulian traditional raw materials.
WHERE TO SWIM:
Puglia’s double coastline provides ample space for infinite wild beaches, secluded coves and rocky cliffs. The beaches along the Adriatic coast are refreshingly free from sun-loungers and beach clubs, instead stretching largely untamed along the length of the peninsula. Here are some of the loveliest swimming spots – just don’t forget your snorkel! A particular favourite is Porto Badisco – a horseshoe-shaped cove near Otranto where, according to Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas supposedly landed following his escape from Troy.
Baia dei Turchi
Santa Maria Al Bagno
Grotta della Poesia
Piri Piri Beach
WHERE TO STAY:
Live like a real Puglian and stay in a wonderfully characterful traditional trulli houses, many of which are available for rent. Venturing further into more rural parts of the region, other charming accommodation options come in the form of massereie – traditional farmhouses nestled between the olive groves, some dating back to as early as the 15th century. Most masserie are still bear traces of ancient fortified ramparts from the days of foreign invasions when the locals needed to defend their homes from unwanted visitors.
Masseria Caretti Grande – a historic masseria in the heart of Salento with charming bedrooms, a fabulous pool and one of the best breakfast spreads I’ve come across.
Palazzo Penelope – easily the loveliest Airbnb property I’ve stayed at, Palazzo Penelope is my best Puglia secret. Perched right on the famous cliffs of Polignano a Mare in north-eastern Puglia, Palazzo Penelope is a private house with four bedrooms and two splendid terraces offering serious views.
The Thinking Traveller – run by the delightful Rossella and Huw, The Thinking Traveller offers a series of uber luxurious private villas dotted across Puglia, each exceptionally appointed and thoughtfully designed to provide the ultimate Italian escape.
Masseria Camarda – Experience the very best of farm-to-table produce at the 27-hectare farm estate of Masseria Camarda before spending the night in one of the property’s handful of beautiful suites.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Puglia is perfect road-trip territory as the sprawling olive groves and endless charming villages are best seen by car. Rentals can be easily picked up from Bari airports, just try not to be put off by the sprawling concrete mass of motorways which is likely to be most visitors’ first glimpse of the region. While a car is essential to see the real Puglia, avoiding motorways in favour of the winding back roads will guarantee a slower but far more charming way to see the region. Beware, however, of the rather less scrupulous driving in Puglia, where when it comes to the rules of the road, it seems anything goes…
WHEN TO GO:
Much like the rest of Italy, Puglia in August is bedlam. Instead, visit in June or September when the heat is bearable, the sea is warm and the crowds are either yet to descend or petering out, allowing one of the most beautiful corners of Italy to be enjoyed in all its glory.