Well, you could say I was well-heeled in Italy. Okay, not rolling in money (read Euros) but definitely rich in experience. Yes, I was in Puglia, the southeastern-most region of Italy that forms a high heel on the ‘boot’ of the country.
It was a fabulous four days in the pleasant Puglia (Apulia in English) that borders the Adriatic Sea in the east, the Ionian Sea to the southeast and the Strait of Òtranto and Gulf of Taranto in the south with neighbours of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece and Montenegro.
After a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul and another one to Naples, it was time for a little over four-hour coach drive to Lecce, the start of my incredible journey of discovery. It was late evening when I reached the Hotel Leone di Messapia, time to freshen up and walk a short distance to the rambling Ristorante Bella ’Mbriana for a wholesome dinner that included the tasty and wholesome orecchiette pasta with turnips.
The next day, in the company of the smiling tour guide Francesca Milano from About Apulia, it was time to soak in the sights of Lecce (known as the Florence of the south) that looked lovely with its baroque beauty, with each corner, balcony or façade making its unique baroque mark with such smooth shapes.
It was a moving monumental moment taking time out to feel the fervour at the church of Chiesa Santa Maria della Grazia, the Church of the Jesuits and the Basilica of the Holy Cross with its façade that looked like a cake with whipped cream crafted in a renaissance style. The Roman amphitheatre and Piazza del Duomo also beckoned. As did the lunch in the old town at Restaurant Arcu te Pratu.
Perhaps a siesta would have been good after all this, but it was time to carry on, to go off to Galantina, considered the birthplace of the pisticciotto, a typical Salento pastry. Here, I discovered the baroque old town and glimpsed the famous frescoes inside the Basilica of Saint Catherina d’Alessandria.
The food had settled after this and it was the ideal time for a glass of wine! In fact, I sipped and savoured many wines at the wine-tasting session at the agricultural company of Valle dell’Asso that was started by Donato Vallone nearly two centuries ago. Special mention must be made of the garnet red Negramaro and the fresh and spicy Primitivo wine. And on the label was a little owl that is a symbol of Galantina, derived from an ancient coin of Taranto, testifying to the Greek origins of the town.
After one more dinner at Ristorante Bella ’Mbriana, this time trying out the wood-fired pizza instead of the pasta, it was time to call it a night in Lecce, to rest and proceed the next morning to Otranto, the easternmost city of Italy, known as the ‘bridge’ that connected the country with the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. A panoramic view along the Adriatic coast washed over me from Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. Lunch was at Hotel Montecallini located over the San Gregorio bay in the very heart of Salento, the land of the two seas and cheerful people with a sunny side up disposition. It was a lovely lunch laid out al fresco by the poolside with finger-foods of calamari, baby octopus, cuttlefish and much more, complemented by sparkling and other fine wines.
The delightful day continued with a visit to a masseria, a typical farmhouse in the middle of cultivated fields. It was the sprawling Masseria il Frantoio with its old-world charm that included a 1949 Fiat, whitewashed house with charming guest rooms, amidst a rambling estate of vineyards, olive trees, an Italian garden with pine and cypress trees and flowering plants and aromatic herbs.
Where best to undertake an olive-tasting session than in a masseria? Yes, the genial and theatrical owner Armando took me on an olive discovery with four different olive oils, from sweet to strong, poured over bread pieces, with slices of apple eaten in between the different olive oils. And besides the olive oil on the table, I learnt of the olive oil cosmetics, organic jams and liqueurs made of the leaves of the olive.
Then it was time to retire to Ostuni, known as the ‘white city’ since its old town is entirely whitewashed with white houses, narrow alleys and winding stairways leading to the cathedral overlooking the city from the highest point of the hill.
It was a nice up-and-down walkabout from my residence Albergo la Terra with quaint shops, bars and cafés all nearby. The morning after saw me at the village of Alberobello, the UNESCO site, with the stone-stacked dwellings with a conical roof known as trulli. It was like a scene straight out of a pretty picture postcard. Yes, you can say I was truly, madly, deeply in love. The homely lunch at Ristorante L’Aratro completed the satiated story.
The last leg of my pleasant Puglia experience was the city of Bari, part of the Trojan way during the Roman Empire and seat of the Katepano (Byzantine senior officer) and transformed with the arrival of the Normans. Many of the sights of Bari, the castle, the cathedral and palaces, date back to the 11th and 12th century. The old town tour took me to the majestic Castle of Bari, the Cathedral of San Sabino, one of the greatest examples of Romanesque style in Puglia, built on the ruins of the former Byzantine church, with its exterior enriched by a gigantic rose window decorated with grotesque creatures and fantastical figures, and the Basilica of San Nicola with the human remains of Saint Nicholas (patron saint of sailors) preserved and treasured and attracting Christian tourists from throughout the world. Besides the historic sights, the human ones filled my heart with warmth. Like the sight of the jolly old ladies sitting on the front door down a street, kneading pasta and leaving the orecchiette (local pasta) to dry on the frames. As they say, there’s nothing like homemade, as opposed to machine-created, pasta for a homely and hearty Italian meal.
We stayed at the historic Oriente Hotel, originally built in 1928 and now totally restored and refurbished. It has been home to celebrities and the greatest opera tenors and theatre artistes who performed at the next-door world-famous Teatro Petruzzelli. Situated in the very heart of Bari’s city centre, it opens its door to the splendid shopping district of Via Sparano, Corso Cavour and Corso Vittorio Emanuele and is round the corner from the waterfront called Lungomare with the promenade attracting walkers and joggers who want to catch the shades of the sunrise or the sunset.
And my last delightful dinner in Puglia was at the hotel’s restaurant called Bistrot Oriente with a starter of Capocollo from Martina Franca and Burratina cheese from Andria, followed by a main course of risotto with salmon and fillet of sea bass, topped with seasoned fruits, complemented by Fiano di Altemura white wine and Negramaro di Alemura red wine. After that I discovered the panoramic roof garden called Porta d’Oriente located on the sixth floor, overlooking the city of Bari, the dome of Teatro Petruzzelli and the deep blue sea on the horizon.
Summing up, you should pack in Puglia on your next Italian sojourn. For there’s nothing like embarking on an out-of-the-ordinary journey lush with fine vineyards and thousands of olive groves, history and culture, Greek and Roman ruins, a sunny string of lively fishing villages, one of Europe’s largest forests, magnificent medieval hill towns, some of the finest Mediterranean beaches, ornate architectural designs, castles and cathedrals and much more.
Not to forget the espresso and gelato and fabulous food that is totally Mediterranean with the very best of extra-virgin olive oil used in every dish including desserts, eggless pasta made of durum wheat, sweet and juicy tomatoes in salads and sauces, legumes like fava beans, lentils and chickpeas, wood-fired pizzas and a lot more.
And, yes, the wine with popular grape varieties of Negramaro, Primitivo and Fiano. Simply divine!
Puglia (Apulia in English) is the southeastern-most region, the 'heel in the boot' of Italy, bordering the Adriatic Sea in the east, the Ionian Sean in the southeast, the Strait of Otranto and the Gulf of Toranto in the south. Its neighbouring countries include Albania, Bosnia-Hazegorvia, Croatia, Greece and Montenegro.
A flight to Naples is the best option. From there you can take a coach, car or train to Leece. Tour companies can plan your journey inside Puglia with overnight stays in Leece, Ostuni and Bari.
When to go
The best time to visit Puglia is from April to October, when it enjoys pleasant weather, not too hot and not too cold. Layered clothing is recommended for it may turn chilly in the evening. A windcheater or folding umbrella may come in useful in case of short and light rains.