A TRIP TO PUGLIA
An Italian region that has long remained a bit of a secret, reserved for those in the know. Arguably Italy is overflowing with spectacular cities, sublime landscapes and magnificent beaches, so Puglia, this end of the world stuck in the heel of the boot, has been able to develop far from the frenzy, a little forgotten. Over the last twenty years or so though, Puglia has taken its revenge and become a mecca for Italian tourism, a refuge for those looking for something different. It has managed to retain its charm and authenticity, its rugged, wild side, and between villages, culture, gastronomy, architecture and landscapes, it has it all! So much so that its wealth can be dizzy, and it’s sometimes hard to know where to go. That’s why we’ve put together this roadmap, to give you a few pointers and tell you what we like about the region, to help you build an itinerary that’s just right for you. Enjoy the trip!
THE ROADS OF PULIA
First things first: you need a car to get around Puglia. The towns that can be reached directly from Europe (Bari, Brindisi) are by no means our favourites in Italy, and don’t convey the full power and magnificence of this region. The best way to discover the region is by taking the “chemin des écoliers” (schoolchildren’s path), small roads through the countryside and the olive trees that carpet the red earth (the region is Italy’s biggest olive oil producer!).
In the beautiful springtime, the almond trees blossom and the poppies bloom under the olive trees, giving the landscape striking contrasts. Summer in Puglia is said to last more than 6 months, so from the beginning of April to the end of October, you can enjoy it and swim in the sea. July and August are of course, as everywhere else in Italy, very busy, very hot, and accommodation is booked up (especially around Ferragosto, on 15 August) months in advance, so it’s best to plan ahead. There are no particular difficulties in getting around the region by car, as life here is much quieter than elsewhere, and distances are not enormous. You can even hire a car in Rome or Naples, or drive directly from Bari or Brindisi.
There are 2 main areas to concentrate on: the inland villages and seaside resorts around Bari (with a trip to the Gargano National Park and Matera if you have time), and the Salento, to the south and with the town of Lecce as your gateway. Between Bari and Lecce in one go, it’s only a 2-hour drive, so planning a stay of between a week and 10 days and taking your time is perfectly realistic, but allow more time to do what Italians do best, especially in summer: the dolce far niente.
FROM VILLAGE TO VILLAGE
As in Tuscany, the concentration of villages worth visiting south of Bari, and particularly in the Itrià Valley, is simply staggering. Puglia has always been a region of multiple influences, at the heart of powerful Roman, Greek, Norman and Byzantine empires, and has been coveted throughout history. As a result, the region retains a remarkable wealth of history, which can be seen in the smallest village, where palaces and sumptuous churches can be found.
In this beautiful region, which is almost enough to make you happy (but there are also wonders to be found to the south!), you’ll love the little seaside villages, Polignano al mare, and especially Monopoli, nestling around tiny ports (Monopoli’s ‘porto antico’ is a marvel!).
But let’s face it, what we particularly like to do here is to drive through the extremely gentle countryside, discovering the trulli, those strange houses with their pointed roofs, some of which have been skillfully restored, set in clusters in the middle of olive groves (particularly around Locorotondo, a magnificent hilltop village surrounded by vineyards, which shouldn’t be missed). For a maximum concentration of trulli, head for Alberobello, “the capital of trulli”, a little too touristy for our taste, but where the sight of these fairytale huts will enchant even the most jaded. You can hire one, it’s pretty spartan, but the youngsters love it! The best ones are much bigger (several trulli together) and in the countryside. You can find some great ones on Airbnb .
Our 2 favourite villages in this region are Martina Franca and Ostuni, white towns, almost Greek towns, with marvelous Baroque architecture of palaces, churches and basilicas. And because we’re in Italy, there are plenty of piazzas in which to have lunch or sip a coffee or a local wine (the region has a wealth of excellent AOC wines!). You can try orecchiette (pulian pasta) and real buratta. Every summer, Martina Franca hosts the very fine Festival of Istrià Valley, which gives pride of place to opera.
SALENTO, AT THE END OF IT ALL
At the very tip of the heel of the Italian boot is a region that for many, including us, is the quintessence of Puglia: Salento. The town of Lecce is the heart of it, the one that has been called, in the vein of tourist slogans that we must always be wary of, the “Firenze of the south”. In fact, it’s a city with a personality of its own, with a cultural heritage that is simply breathtaking in its beauty, thanks in particular to the richness of its Baroque architecture. Palaces, churches, with an excess of details, sculptures and stone lacework. It could be too dense, but in fact it’s incredibly moving, because where other Italian cities have used colour, in Lecce the stone is soft, in delicate shades of beige, incredibly gentle. Take the time to wander around with your nose to the wind, to stop in its squares, to enter its palaces and its 40 churches, to visit the cloisters in convents where you feel as if you’ve been transported back to the 17th century.
From Lecce, head south to Scorrano if you’re lucky enough to be in the region early July (July 6 in 2023) for the festival of Santa Domenica, when the town is decked out in luminarie, ancestral crafts, wooden lace structures covered in tiny coloured bulbs that transform the town into an absolutely magical place as soon as night falls. It’s magical!
Salento also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in Puglia, from long stretches of fine sand to small, steep hidden coves, there’s something for everyone. Our favourites:
East coast, Adriatic Sea:
Baia Torre dell’Orso
Porto Badisco between Otranto and Santa Cesare Terme
Baia dei Turchi north of Otranto
West coast, Ionian Sea:
Punta Prosciutto north of Gallipoli, long beach and gently sloping crystalline sea ideal with children
Porto Selvaggio, between Gallipoli and Porto Vesareo, a beautiful nature reserve.
Punta della Suina, one of Italy’s 5 most beautiful beaches, south of Gallipoli
Pescoluse, the ‘Maldives’ of Salento, above Santa Maria di Leuca
Leporano (south of Taranto)
And finally, you can spend some time in 3 delightful villages rich in history and cultural wealth: Otranto on the east coast on the Adriatic Sea, Gallipoli on the west coast, a sublime port facing the Ionian Sea with its famous fish market, and Nardò in the countryside. This is a region of historic masseria, vast farmhouses dating back to the 16th century for some, many of which have been transformed into sublime guest houses and hotels. The ideal place to stay? Choose one to spend a few days in, around Otranto for example, as a base for a leisurely tour of Salento. We really liked the Masseria Montelauro with its lovely pool and warm welcome.
WITH A LITTLE EXTRA TIME
The Gargano National Park lies to the north of Bari and is well worth a visit for its wild nature, hiking and magnificent beaches (especially Pizzomunno and the Tremiti Islands).
The town of Matera (technically in Basilicata rather than Puglia) is the marvel of all marvels, and can be easily reached from the Bari region via a pretty country road. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Matera is breathtaking with its troglodyte caves (the sassi), inhabited until the 1950s, carved into the rock surrounded by a mineral landscape. A town that leaves an unforgettable impression!
The biomasseria Lama Di Luna is an excellent base for visiting this part of Puglia. It is a charming working farmhouse surrounded by fields of olive and almond trees, with walls dating back to the 17th century. Other accommodation options in Puglia include rural gites, which can be found on the Italian agri-tourism website.
And to really get into the Puglia mood, you can read Laurent Gaudé’s magnificent book, “Le Soleil des Scorta”, winner of the 2004 French Goncourt Prize.