There is so much to see in Italy. We are all drawn to the legendary cities of Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples and Milan. There is so much history, art, architecture, scenery and that incredible food and wine. Plus, with limited vacation time, there is not much time to venture to other locales, although we all dream of that rented villa where we can stay for weeks on end and experience life like a true Italian.
As you are planning your next trip to Italy, consider spending some time in Puglia. Never heard of it? Neither have many other tourists—which makes the destination so compelling. Puglia is a region in southern Italy forming the heel of the “boot.” The region borders the blue waters of both the Adriatic Sea (to the east) and the Ionian Sea (to the west). What makes the area so interesting is the ability to visit a number of beautiful small towns—each with its own unique architecture and history and some with beautiful beaches and an incredible coastline. Plus, there are incredible restaurants, great hotels and wines that are worthy of late night soirees.
You might start your trip by flying into Brindisi from Rome (just a 1.5 hour flight) and renting a car. Flights are frequent and relatively inexpensive. Stop in Brindisi for lunch. Brindisi is a UNESCO world heritage site and has a beautiful port and waterfront. Then head to Lecce with its incredible Baroque architecture and Roman ruins (which you can make a home base for a couple of days). Lecce is often called the Florence of the south. The town is friendly, the restaurants are numerous and the gelato is great. Try a great Primitivo wine from Puglia with dinner (made from the same grape as a California Zinfandel). If you like whites, try a Vermintino. You will love it. Take a cooking class, a bike tour, or just walk the city.
One day, travel down the coast to the fortified town of Otranto where you’ll find sandy beaches and a Norman Cathedral consecrated in 1088 with an incredible mosaic floor from the 1100s. Continue to Santa Maria di Leuca with its lighthouse and more sandy beaches. If you head up the coast you will end up in Gallipoli, seeing more coastline on the way and beautiful beaches.
Don’t forget to spend some time in beautiful Ostuni—the medieval white town perched on a hill where you can get lost in its web of white buildings. Make sure you stop in the Gothic-style Ostuni Cathedral which is easy to find because it is at the top of the hill. There is also a great archaeological museum in Ostuni if you have time.
At some point, you might want to relocate closer to Bari. Here is where it would be fun to stay at a traditional masseria. These are restored country houses that are generally “rustic chic” or, as some would say, “quaint.” They are bed and breakfast accommodations located on large farms that were fortified to protect against the Turks. Most have spas, golf courses and pools and most are located on the coast between Brindisi and Bari.
If you are staying in this area, you will want to venture out to Alberobello one day to see the trulli—the unique conical houses that dominate the city. Spend at least a morning there and walk the streets. The city has gotten a little touristy, but it is still a great place to walk, shop, and have an espresso and experience “la dolce vita.” You might also go to Monopoli, Altamura and Locorotondo—all are interesting small Italian towns. There is a wine tour at Cardone Winery in Locorotondo that is fun to take.
If you have time, travel to Matera. Matera is north of Puglia in the region of Basilicata. Some say it is the most spectacular city in Italy. It may be the third-longest continuously inhabited human settlement in the world. Here, in great poverty, people lived in one room caves until the 1950s. It is a step back into history, with its stone dwellings and stone churches.
But, in the end, your love for Puglia will come from not what you see but what you feel when you are there (isn’t this true of all of Italy?). The olive trees are gnarled, old, and abundant and each seems to have a different story to tell. The people laugh and smile in a way that makes you forget all the worries and stresses that dominate your everyday life. And the food and wine draw you in and provide a sense of comfort and contentment. The food in Puglia is very simple—lots of vegetables (eggplant lovers will be in heaven), beans, pasta and seafood. Yet, you sense so much more than simplicity. It is truly unforgettable.