Puglia’s location can be easily visualized; it is the heel of Italy’s long boot. With the Adriatic Sea on one side and the Ionian Sea on the other, Puglians are spoilt for coastline choice and in the summer, depending on the forecasted behaviour of the winds and waves, they pack their beach gear and drive the short distance to either coast.
Compared to the famed cities of the north, this agrarian, relatively underdeveloped and unsung part of Italy sees fewer cohorts of foreign visitors, who are only just beginning to discover its allure. With its liberal scattering of architectural gems, ample fresh produce, rich sea haul and the recent conversion of its masserias (farmhouses) into hotels, not least of all the opening of a world class resort, Borgo Egnazia, Puglia is beginning to enjoy runaway success as a holiday and wedding destination.
Olive groves and hilltop villages
Puglia (pool-ya) is defined by sprawling groves of gnarled olive trees, enclosed by low walls of stone. “Making those walls without cement is an old technique that’s dying out now. Matching the shapes reminds me of playing Tetris,” said Mimmo, a retired basketball player turned driver. He comes from Ostuni, a charming hilltop town of blindingly white houses that reminded me of the Greek Islands. Not surprising, as the Greeks were here even before the Romans.
Puglians have seen an onslaught of invaders over time such as the Carthagin-ians, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards and Turks and all of them have left some mark or the other, whether its in the recipes, language or structures. While the small towns such as Locorotundo and Cisternino hold charm enough for a visit, Martina Franca is far more vibrant and Lecce is most renowned for its exuberant rococo and baroque architecture, of cherubs in ballet-flight and other three-dimensional figurines popping out from the over-wrought churches and overhanging balconies of homes.
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In dramatic contrast to Lecce’s all-singing and all-dancing streets, the sleepy groves, vineyards and farms in central Puglia around Valle d’ Istria area are sprinkled with curious structures known as Trulli that might belong to a troll in a fairy tale. These battered, round rooms with peaked roofs and miniscule windows are made entirely of piled stones. They first made an appearance around the second century and were likely used to store farm produce and tools.They’re no architectural feat, yet they utterly captured my imagination and led to a Trulli-spotting expedition as we crisscrossed the gently rolling countryside. Trullis are now protected monuments, and the best place to see them, and even stay in them is Alberobello, the only town that came to have an outbreak of Trulli several centuries ago.
Showing up early in the morning, while the locals still outnumbered the tourists, I walked uphill amidst the residential hobbit-huts and marvelled at the their stone roofs that melded seamlessly. The orange and pink of the geraniums were welcome splashes of colour against the white painted walls. Maria, who owns a shop of terracotta whistles, pointed the way up to her panoramic terrace, and I found myself at eye-level with a sea of arresting, undulating stone roofs. It was an ethereal space, unlike any other I’ve known, and the rustic farmers’ handiwork tugged strongly at the heartstrings, making me want to linger.
How to get there : Fly to Bari or Brindisi airports via Rome, London, Frankfurt and other cities.
Best time to go : March to September
Explore : The villages and towns most worthy of exploration, roughly from north to south, are Locorotundo, Cisternino, Alberobello, Matera, Martina Franca, Ostuni and Lecce.
Stay at : Borgo Egnazia, a stylish, contemporary, high-end resort in Fasano, between Bari and Brindisi. Masseria San Dominico, an elegant traditional farmhouse in an olive grove.
Affordable Style : Masseria Torre Coccaro, a former farm and watchtower.Agriturisimo Masseria Madonna.
Stay in a trulli : at the Hotel di Trulli or Majestic in Alberobello.
Golf : Borgo Egnazia resort
Shop : Ceramics in Village Grottaglie, extra virgin olive oil and confetti, the local sugar-coated almonds.
Driver : Mimmo+39 3341644409
Alberobello : Walk uphill along Via Monte San Michelle and the surrounding residential streets, weaving past the local homes. Although the shops are touristy, some of them have excellent panoramic views from their rooftops.
Puglian cuisine : Grilled seafood and lamb, Orrecchiette (little-ears) pasta, ricotta, mozzarella and burrata cheese.