Puglia: 'Heel' of Italy is high delight
Northern Italians may look down on Puglia. But they don't know what they're talking about, says Constance Harris.
I have visited Italy many, many times and have often heard northern Italians making disparaging remarks about the southern part of their country. But their attitude couldn't dissuade me from the notion that there was something intriguing about the geographical 'heel' of Italy's boot, a region called Puglia.
On maps it appears rugged and remote, separate from the rest of Italy, which so loudly boasts of its heritage and beauty.
Last month, my curiosity was finally satisfied when, accompanied by local tour organiser, Daniele Napoleoni, I got the chance to visit Puglia.
After spending a week travelling all around the region, experiencing stunning cities and beaches, museums and historic sites, visiting wineries and hotels, meeting locals and enjoying the region's cuisine, I can honestly state that northern Italians don't know what they are talking about.
If, like me, you love Italy and discovering new and different places within it, Puglia will interest and delight you.
Puglia's is a rolling landscape made up of equal parts lush greenery and pale gold rock formations. The Adriatic Sea is its east coast and the Ionian its south, so it has fantastic long, white-sand beaches and fish is a huge part of their cuisine. Everywhere we went, restaurants boasted fabulous fish dishes. The region also produces 80pc of Europe's pasta so unsurprisingly it features strongly on all menus, too.
Throughout history, Puglia has been invaded by many nations: the Mycenaean Greeks, the ancient Romans, the ancient Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Normans, the Spanish and the Turks. Thus, Puglia is steeped in extraordinary ancient history, with especially strong ties to Greece that unfold as you travel around the region.
To my surprise, Puglia was not very touristy, considering the ease of getting there, and our flights were reasonably priced. We flew into Bari directly from Dublin with Ryanair (who fly Mondays and Fridays).
Stone-built Trulli Houses
Ours was a guided trip, with Daniele Napoleoni of Puglia.ie. Daniele, a warm and very helpful man, met us at the airport and then drove us the forty-five minutes or so to our hotel in Ostuni, a great jump off point for the region.
Ostuni is a typical and lovely town of classical Italian architecture perched on a small mountain with big views of the surrounding countryside. It has a large, prominent, town square where we enjoyed coffee and people-watching the morning after we arrived.
We spent our first night in the very friendly Ostuni Palace, which served excellent food. The waiters were great fellows and were happy to share with us their knowledge of the area, as well as the local cuisine.
At the same time as we were dining, there happened to be a locals' bridge club meeting in the hotel. At the end of their game, they came together to play the piano and sing Frank Sinatra songs. It was magical.
We didn't want our happy night to end so, after dinner, we went down the town to a recommended small bar and delicatessen, where we became VBF's with some locals while enjoying their colourful drink of vodka and fresh fruit with crushed ice.
Our holiday had truly begun.
Constance Harris in Puglia
Next day, we headed south to Taranto, the second largest city of the region, with an important and beautiful harbour that reminded me of the stunning 16th century harbour of Valletta in Malta so often used in the filming of historical epics.
We visited the 'Marta' (archaeological museum of Taranto) which has a most impressive and moving collection of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts found in the region over the last 150 years.
From jewellery, toys and statuettes of Gods, to mosaic tiled floors, ancient sinks and baths, at the 'Marta' we got a feel for the life of people long ago. The whole group loved it and felt it was extremely special.
Afterwards, we went to Alberobello, which is known for its extraordinary Trulli (above), a design of houses that are small, stone dwellings with conical roofs, some of which have symbols relating to the earth and the moon, painted on them. The Trulli are believed to originate from pre-historic times, though the ones we saw may have first appeared around the 17th century.
Even though the Trulli houses are now a Unesco World Heritage site, they are very accessible.
We had a nice meander up the quirky Trulli streets as the sun set, munching on luscious, creamy ice cream and enjoying the sight of robust Italian children playing football while Japanese tourists snapped memories. We were welcomed into a little shop that specialises in chilli, using it in everything, from jams to chocolate, pasta and liquor. Amazingly, the combinations were very tasty.
We stayed that night and the next, in the Relais Histo, a five-star hotel in a refurbished 17th century Masseria (a traditional Puglian farm) and monastery, which consisted of large, pale gold stone buildings, house and chapel. The Basilica dates back to the 1st century and there are Roman remains to be seen too.
The Relais Histo is an incredible experience and one I would fly to the region again just to experience. With just forty-eight bedrooms and vast internal and external space, the Relais Histo consists of restored, warm pietra bianca di Trani stone chapels and out-buildings, set in a pale gold rocky landscape with vast space all around.
The rooms are huge. The spa is incredible. The swimming pool and terraces are set in and around an ancient Roman site. We rarely saw staff. It was utterly tranquil. Bird song, the hum of bees busy at work on the Rosemary bushes, little lizards sunning themselves on hot rocks were your only companions. It's a place to unwind in. We spent two days here and in that time, I felt utterly restored.
Giardino Botanico La Cutura, Giuggianello
The next day, which was day three into our trip, we visited Matera, with its extraordinary ancient centre, Sassi di Matera, or La Citta Sotterranea (The Subterranean City) also a Unesco World Heritage site.
Sassi looks as if it has been here for thousands of years, so utterly untouched is it by modernity. Set in a ravine, Sassi is a rambling, dense assembly of streets and homes built into caves, where each house rests on its neighbour's roof. It is extraordinary to see.
So ancient does Sassi look that film makers have used it as old Jerusalem in films such as Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ.
Sassi became known as the Shame of Italy for many years because the poorest of the poor lived there. In the 1980s it was decided to change that and today it is well maintained and even beginning to become trendy. People who live there now do so by choice, not economic necessity.
While in Sassi, we visited the church of Santa Maria de Idris which is also built into small caves, to see the beautiful, ancient frescoes of saints and the Madonna.
The next day, we left the Relais Histo for the beautiful, baroque city of Lecce. A university city, it brims with life, stylish shops and every street you walk down is intriguing and beautiful. We stayed in the Hotel Falli, right in the centre of the city, so exploring and resting were equally accessible.
That evening, we went for a drive to a nearby seaside village, Porto Cesareo, which is right on the beach and felt quite exclusive. We paddled and walked in the sand dunes and watched the sun set before visiting Cosimino, a family-run fish speciality restaurant where the food never stopped coming.
To a man, as a group, the next day we were reluctant to board our flight home. Though it had been just four days, we all felt as if we had been away for weeks.
We met lovely, warm local people, we learnt something of Puglia's region, culture and history, we enjoyed good food and had great times. Above all, we disagreed most definitely with northern Italians - southern Italy, and especially Puglia, is a place we all want to return to.
Constance travelled with Puglia.ie on their escorted five-day tour of the region. Prices start from €400 for the tour (excluding flights) per person with two people sharing, and includes four nights accommodation with half board. The Puglia tour runs in June and September. Other tours can be arranged, as well as times and dates. For more information email email@example.com.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Dublin to Bari, from the 30th of March until the 23rd of October, twice weekly (Mondays and Fridays).
Dream away a few hours in the lush and exotic Giardino Botanico La Cutura, Giuggianello (near Lecce). A secret garden of unique cacti, flowers, birds and even snakes, here you forget time exists and you may never want to leave. For information, see lacutura.it
Puglian wine is known the world over. Visit the family-owned and run Tenute Rubino Winery in Brindisi, or their Jaddico vineyard on the nearby Adriatic coast. Love of wine tasting and a desire to learn and enjoy are the prerequisites. For further information and bookings, see tenuterubino.com
Visit the Grotta Palazzese, a restaurant built inside a natural rock cave on the Adriatic sea. The hotel is perched on a cliff top extending over the water below, and must be one of the most stunningly-beautiful and romantic places in Italy. See grottapalazzese.it
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