The promise of Puglia lies not just in its glittering coastline, fairy-tale-like infrastructure and relative anonymity, but more importantly in taking it slow. In essence, all you need is time and the understanding that tightly packed schedules don’t lend themselves to la dolce vita, or the region’s many sensual pleasures.
However, with Puglia’s attractions spread far and wide and only ten days to explore, it’s easy to fall into an itinerary that leaves little to the imagination and even less room for spontaneity.
On reflection, the fate of our trip was sealed the moment we decided to try and see it all. Our time consisted of pockets of respite followed by the jingle of car keys and our sat nav’s steadfast direction as we set our next destination. The autostrada felt like home. Perfected playlists, endless litres of gas guzzled and hectares of dry scape, inhabited by a populous community of olive trees and cacti the further south we went. Desperate to pack it all in, 140 km an hour soon became our rhythm.
While Puglia is known for its bucolic charm, each town has its own distinct personality, and we wanted to visit them all. Read any blog and you’ll see that a trip to Puglia would be amiss without visiting Lecce, a charming, historic city known for its Baroque architecture and often referred to as the “Florence of the South”. Although comparing them does it an injustice. A little further north and you come to Ostuni, where sweeping views and white architecture pour over the hills onto the surrounding countryside. It’s easy to lose both track of time and sense of direction in the town’s labyrinthine streets. Occasionally, if our satellite navigation permitted, we’d take back roads that led down dirt tracks to ghost villages and hidden coves, populated by in-the-know locals.
Back on the beaten track, Alberobello, a UNESCO heritage site, also made it onto our list for a morning. Here tightly woven vias are enveloped by trulli, hobbit-like houses dating back to the Middle Ages, and now suitable for the smallest and most quintessential forms of transport known to Italy: the Vespa and Fiat. Naturally our BMW wagon suffered trying to squeeze through.
When it came to deciding on a base we were stuck. Lists from friends both local and foreign confused us even further and left us spoilt for choice. Keen to stay in the north, we opted for the quieter and lesser-known coastal town of Monopoli over the overcrowded promise of the postcard view from Polignano a Mare. There, rainbow-colored umbrellas and towels crowd a small, pebbled stretch famously framed by the town’s dramatic crags — the perfect platform for catapulting oneself into the sea. Cliff diving seems as ubiquitous here as the local burrata, a regional speciality.
Like many of the towns in the region, Monopoli itself is divided between the old and new, the former of which, known as centro storico, seems magically bound to its past. White-washed houses populated by sage green shutters, a main piazza that fills after well-earned siestas, balconies boasting the day’s laundry, brightly-coloured fishing boats line the old port, while locals fill the beaches and overlooking rocks. The town’s pace or lack of was our refuge and as our trip came to a close, the more time we spent there. Lazy mornings consisted of waking up to the song of the cathedral bells and the incessant chatter of our neighbours taking coffee on the terrace below, afternoons spent sunning on the rocks by the promenade, and evenings losing ourselves on passeggiatas in our quest for the perfect plate of pasta. For true home cooking, however, one needn’t look much further than the region’s set of beautifully restored masserias, whose menus promise the very best seasonal produce Puglia has to offer.
As our time drew to an end so did our desire to drive further away. It became clear: ten days was far too little to fully digest the region’s expansive coastline and countryside. Puglia requires repeat visits, and the necessary patience to master the art, like a true local, of taking it slow.