For the weekend: Bari, tourist-free land of dolce vita
Thoman Breathnach explores the delights opened up by new flight to Bari in Italy's Puglia region
Located on the boot heel fringes of the sun-scorched Mezzogiorno, the Italian region of Puglia is probably more familiar to the Irish ear from Leaving Cert geography classes rather than as a tourist hotspot. Today however, Puglia is being billed as the country's most authentic Dolce Vita destination and a new Ryanair route to its capital, Bari, has just made Italian deep south living all the closer.
Puglia's scenery might not be as breathtaking as Tuscany's, nor its culture as intriguing as Sicily's, but its tourist-free acreage is the region's ultimate draw. Swathes of olive farms fold down to twinkling Ionian and Adriatic seas, and conical trulli farmhouses dot the countryside, lending the Puglia landscape the curious air of a Stone Age Noddyland.
Capital city and main portal to Puglia, Bari isn't all a tale of planes, trains and ferry crossings to Dubrovnik. The city's old town, (Bari Vecchia), is a labyrinthine melting pot of medieval architecture, where every alleyway seems fit for a Roberto Benigni film shoot. Buzzing Vespas and Fiat Bambinos are outnumbered here only by the abundance of candlelit effigies to the city's most famous name: St. Nicholas. As the patron saint of both fishermen and unmarried women, midnight vigils are still held in San Nicola's Basilica for the latter. Blessed, in Bari, are all the single ladies.
Beyond Bari's bustle, Puglia's vast farmland offers visitors a true rusticana getaway. Keep an eye out for traditional fortressed masserias; grandiose farming estates, now emerging as popular rural retreats. Masseria Salamina, one hour south of the capital, is one such turreted manor. The family-run affair offers everything from accommodation and lunches to weddings and cooking classes.
The Italian kitchen
La cucina Pugliese bases itself on the "Mamma's special recipe" ethos of traditional peasant fare. Staple here is orecchiette pasta which can still be seen being handmade on the side streets of Bari, by local dames known as the 'Pasta Divas'. Other specialities include, Burrito cheese (Mozzarella stuffed with cream), sea urchins (best served with crusty bread) and, given its farm to fork bounty, delicious artichoke and aubergine dishes also make Puglia a Dante's Paradise for vegetarians.
With the longest coastline on mainland Italy, Puglia blankets 800 rugged kms of azure seascapes, from secluded poppy flower coves to bustling fishing villages. The town of Gallipoli makes a worthy detour for its island old town while further north, Trani, with its yacht-bobbing marina, makes perfect lazy-lunch territory. The region's prettiest spot is Polignano Al Mare, where a crumbling village quarter clings upon an equally crumbling cliff-face. A local hot-tip? Visit Mario Campanella's for gelato.
While the evening stroll remains a ritual across Italy, in Puglia, the streets make way for la Movida, which is best described as a mass movement rather than an idle wander. Lecce is the best town to join the spectacle, where on Sundays, thousands of locals stroll between the amphitheatres and piazzas, people watching, pizza chowing and posing in designer clobber. The vibe marks a kicked-back way to unwind a weekend – just don't forget to pack your D&G.
Ryanair (Ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Bari from €130 return on Fridays and Mondays. For a central base, check into Hotel Palace in Bari (palacehotelbari.com; €52pps) or the Santa Chiara in Lecce (santachiaralecce.it; €62pps, which offers dreamy city vistas. For further details, visit weareinpuglia.it