Whilst Puglia is not new news to those in the know, its crystalline seas, varied landscape, wonderful food and fantastic wine is placing it firmly on the independent traveller’s map. Head a little off the beaten track or simply go in the shoulder months and you’ll find the prices incredibly reasonable and the place more peaceful still. Here we share the low-down on how to best explore the heel of Italy’s boot…
Most people land in Bari and ship straight out but the region’s capital has its own somewhat surprising charm – the mostly residential old town is nigh on devoid of tourists and there’s a buzz to the place that’s worth a wander if you have time. There are churches aplenty and, time your trip right, and you’ll find women expertly making orrechiette – the region’s traditional ear-shaped pasta.
The docks are vibrant with the sound of fishermen selling their wares, the slap of octopus being tenderised on the harbour walls ready for sale and those clocking off for the day, enjoying a Peroni or two at El Chiringuito.
If you’re here of an evening, La Ciclatera is a nice spot for a drink and for dinner, we’d recommend Ristorante Biancofiore where we enjoyed a very reasonably priced tasting menu of freshly caught seafood accompanied by our first taste of the delicious local wines.
Hitting the road out of town to head south, we had booked to stop for lunch at Terra Jovia. Around a half an hour drive out of Bari, we were a little nervous at our choice as we drove the industrial roads faithfully following Google maps and hoping for the best. We needn’t have worried – having entered down the overgrown drive, the winery’s owner Rina warmly welcomed us and she and her brother took us on a tour before settling us down to the most delicious lunch. Burrata fresh that day, the sweetest tomatoes, salty cured meats and simple and delicious orrechiette – all washed down with a bottle of Primitivo made right there on site.
Heading further south, we made an afternoon stop off at the town of Grottaglie. Renowned for its ceramics – there are craftsmen aplenty here producing beautiful pieces for shops the world over. Be sure to check on opening times before heading here, however, we found many of the shops to be closed for siesta though managed to get our fill (luggage allowing).
The area southeast of Taranto has some of the best beaches in the region and we spent a happy couple of days enjoying the delights of Punta Prosciutto with its crystalline seas and white sands. Other great beaches along this stretch include Torre Lapillo and Torre Colimena and you can either opt to buy yourself a sunbed or just find an empty stretch of sand (not hard, considering how much beach there is).
Picking and choosing, we sadly only stopped for lunch in Gallipoli – enjoying a plate of tuna tartare and a glass of something chilled at Il Bastione before stopping in at Vecchio Ingrosso for one of the islands pastry specials – pasticciotto.
With the old town set on its own little island – this is a picturesque spot indeed and is definitely worth a night or two if you’ve time. Relais Corte Palmieri and Palazzo Mosco Inn are both on the island itself and offer elegant and traditional rooms along with unfailingly charming service. Our top tips for a return visit include drinks at Blanc followed by dinner at Osteria Del Vico.
Whilst you’re spoilt for choice on beaches in Gallipoli’s surrounding area – the island’s Spiaggia della Purità is not a bad spot to while away an afternoon – perfect for sun-worshippers or those looking for a cooling dip.
Heading further south, we arrived into the open arms of the lovely Palazzo Guglielmo. Tucked away off the pretty square in the unassuming village of Vignacastrisi, this is a place to just kick back and unwind – with the most charming staff, sun-drenched terraces and wonderful restaurant serving plenty of seafood and delicious local wines.
It’s also a great jump off point to explore the nearby coastline and we spent a happy morning perched (somewhat uncomfortably) on the rocks surrounding the natural swimming pool at Marina Serra before heading along the coast for lunch at Cala dell’Acquaviva and an afternoon spent dozing to the lull of Italian, punctuated by cool dips in the crystalline sea (particularly cool here due to the natural springs beneath). On a future trip, we’d like to hire a boat from nearby Castro and explore some of the caves only accessible by water – likst Zinzulusa grotto with its colourful stalactites and stalagmites.
There are plenty of charming towns to explore in this area – including Specchia set atop a hill its picturesque old town is recognised as one of the prettiest in Salento with its winding streets and views out over the surrounding countryside. Tricase is also well worth a stop and the rather cool Farmacia Balboa is a great pick for a glass or two (part-owned by Helen Mirren no less!). There’s also a wonderful ceramics spot here if you’ve not had your fill – Branca Ceramiche, a workshop and store on the outskirts of the old town.
We continued on our merry way, heading back inland a little further north to Lecce – one of Puglia’s best-known attractions. UNESCO listed and nicknamed the ‘Florence of the South’ – the city boasts stunning Baroque architecture with seemingly endless and unfailingly impressive churches, pretty winding streets and not one but two sunken Roman amphitheatres.
Whilst you can stay in the old town proper – we preferred the peace and quiet of the surrounding streets and never slept better than in our gorgeous room at Santa Marta Suites & Apartments. With beautiful tiled floors, stone-vaulted ceilings and a simple chic style – thanks to the sister-owners Adriana and Manuela – it was a perfect base for our city sojourn.
We spent happy mornings wandering the picturesque streets and merry evenings enjoying a balmy passeggiata (evening stroll) before dining at some of the city’s wonderful restaurants. Trattoria Le Zie was a particular highlight – hidden away on the outskirts of the old town and run by just women a meal here is a little akin to what dinner at your sweet nonna’s would be like, with a charmingly simple and old-fashioned décor and hearty traditional menu (the antipasti misti della casa is a must, as is the cicero e tria). Wine is served by the jugful and booking is essential.
For a slightly more refined setting – we’d highly recommend Corte dei Pandolfi with its outdoor tables set on a pretty square or if its nippy, venture inside the sleek and stylish interior. There’s a mix of seafood and meat on offer here and the daily specials are also good. Head onto Quanto Basta for a nightcap after – the cocktails are something else.
Like most of Puglia, the city is still a great jump off point for days spent by the sea and as the heat of the day intensified, we drove the 20-minutes out of town to the amazing Grotta della Poesia – another natural swimming pool cut into the rocky coastline. The water was the best kind, clear and deep – perfect for thrilling jumps off the surrounding rocky ledge – before settling on the rocks to dry off in the warm evening sun.
Heading further north, we stopped in for a sunset wander round Ostuni. Whilst touristy, we enjoyed getting lost down the maze-like streets of this pretty whitewashed town – stopping to admire the views out over the surrounding countryside from its high-up vantage point. Gipas 111 with its comfy beanbags, jazz music and peaceful setting was the perfect pit stop for aperitivo before hitting the road again.
As we entered the Valle d’Itria, the landscape changed again – with the evening light painting the rolling olive groves and vineyards golden and the oddly elegant traditional trulli dotted along the way. Our final base for the trip was the lovely Leonardo Trulli Resort and fittingly our home was our own little trullo – the bed set beneath the conical roof, the interior deliciously cool and dark.
This is a special spot – the charming owner Rosalba, Silvana and the team offering the warmest of welcomes. Dinner was a 4-course tasting menu using plenty of ingredients from the hotels own gardens and more delicious local wine and the lovely saltwater pool was the perfect spot to retreat to in the heat of the day.
The coastline here offers more delights – with clear seas and sandy beaches and we spent a happy day lounging at Lido Bosco Verde before heading along the coast for a late lunch at Il Principe del Mare. Well worth a stop off, this is one of those plastic chair delights – the freshest seafood, ice-cold beer and a seafront setting. The stuff holiday dreams are made of.
There are some lovely towns to explore in the Valle d’Itria, the most obvious being the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Alberobello and it’s street upon street of trulli. Accordingly it is pretty touristy and we’d recommend heading here early to avoid the worst of the crowds.
Elsewhere – the nearest town to Leonardo Trulli Resort, Locorotondo, is well worth a visit and often referred to as one of the region’s prettiest with its whitewashed pitched-roof houses – cummerse. Nearby Cisternino is another unassumingly picturesque spot – the gorgeous old town has remained virtually intact for centuries and its hilltop setting offers wonderful views. The town is also renowned for its butcher shops – with people selecting their cut of meat to be barbecued there for them before being enjoyed out in the cobbled street with a caraf of local wine. Its worth trying the bombetta – the local speciality consisting of pork wrapped around cheese and grilled.
Polignano a Mare
With a day to kill before our late-afternoon flight, we made one final stop off at the coastal town of Polignano a Mare. Set just a 40-minute drive south of Bari and an hour or so north of Brindisi – this is a popular spot and accordingly was somewhat overrun with tourists. We wondered the pretty streets and enjoyed watching the swimmers bobbing in the sea below lamenting the end of our own lovely trip.
With a little over a week to play with, we were keen to explore as much of Puglia as possible – though it’s the kind of place you could just hole up somewhere lovely and stay put for 10 days. Suffice to say, we’re already planning a return visit…
A charming spot just off the square in the pretty town of Vignacastrisi – rooms are simple but elegantly executed, making the most of the buildings’ origninal quirks like stone vaulted ceilings or sweet little terraces. The restaurant is fantastic and the lovely waiters will have you tasting some of the regions finest wines – which are delicious and surprisingly well priced. There are some wonderful swimming spots to explore nearby and some sandier beaches further up the coast towards Otranto which Mauro and his brilliant team will be happy to point you in the direction of.
Run by two lovely sisters – these stylish apartments are a great value pick, just outside Lecce’s picturesque old town. Entering through the rather grand doors, most rooms are set around a pretty internal courtyard – offering a very peaceful night’s sleep. Rooms are generously spacious and offer a lovely blend of old and new – with many of the original tile floors intact and antiques abound whilst light fittings are contemporary and designer-looking.
Enjoy a night in your own little trullo at this special spot. The staff here are wonderful and will go out of their way to ensure you have a good stay – with cookery classes, wine tasting and tours all available. Dine in for a 4-course tasting menu served on some of the region’s finest ceramics and spend a day lounging beside the hotel’s expansive saltwater pool. Before heading out to explore the picturesque surroundings, of course.
How to get to Puglia and around
There are two airports in Puglia – Bari International further north and Brindisi to the south. Whilst train travel around the region is possible, we would highly recommend hiring a car to get around with many of the best boutique hotels and beaches quite remote.