Puglia continues to be an in-demand destination but as Stylist’s deputy editor Susan Riley discovers, you can still have a wonderfully un-touristy time
It’s a land where orecchiette seem to fall from the sky; where you breakfast beneath lemon trees and swing in hammocks among olive groves. Where whitewashed villages clash vividly with azure waters and blue skies, and the landscape is dotted with masserie (farmhouses on steroids, if you’ve not come across them), all ready to welcome you in and make you never want to leave.
Tucked away in Italy’s most gracious of heels, Puglia – or Apulia – is 400 kilometres of loveliness from top to tip. And it’s extremely navigable. Which means you can dip your toe, or entire foot for that matter, into the region for as long or short a time as you fancy; simply fly into either Bari or Brindisi airport (both are served well by budget airlines) and plot your route.
While northern Puglia holds many treats (the Gargano peninsula is proper David Attenborough country: lagoons, pebbly coves, grottos and forests), most tourists operate in the bottom half. Namely the Valle d’Itria, with its picturesque towns and vineyards, and Salento – a sprawling beach-happy region in the very bottom of the heel. Split your stay between the two and you’ve pretty much got all bases covered.
For locals, Salento – everything to the right of Ostuni and Taranto on the map – is like Devon or Cornwall: everyone knows it’s really pretty, and that you’re guaranteed great food and a high happiness quotient. Tourists, too, are catching on, enjoying its more rugged appeal (Savelletri, for example, with six luxury masserie and swanky beach clubs is lovely but way more polished) and revelling in its authenticity.
To explore, we’re staying in a newbie masseria 10 minutes outside of Lecce: Masseria Trapanà. It’s a classy place. Grand and impressive to check in to, (fortress-like, it’s been gloriously restored. Two more summers and it would have collapsed), but with a non-stuffy, easy-going charm at its core. The grounds are dreamy. Gardens have been carved off into little walled pockets: one with a swimming pool, one with a croquet lawn, another with a sunken firepit. Hammocks drape from trees. Freshly made mandarincello is served up as an aperitivo. Meals are served outside under lemon trees, which makes for deeply romantic eating, be it a buffet breakfast or dinners of chicken cucina casserole, freshly rolled pasta with aubergine and ricotta, or homemade pizza – adorned by you before overseeing its delivery to a piping clay oven.
I love how old and new hit heads here. Glass doors and outdoor Jacuzzi baths sitting alongside centuries-old murals in the chapel, and an original olive oil press dating back 700 years under the courtyard (the workers lived down there with their donkeys for months on end). And I love the little things – like how every style of hat known to man is left out for guests to borrow, and how your suite is named after you for the duration of your stay.
From Trapanà, baroque-laden Lecce is the perfect distance for a nighttime dinner and stroll (head to Corte dei Pandolfi for cod soufflé and baked prawns), leaving the days to explore the coastline. For day trips, Otranto and Gallipoli are both 30-minute drives if you take the direct inland roads, but the coastal roads are much more rewarding. We followed the Adriatic south from San Cataldo – refuelling at cool little beach clubs (beach clubs and lidos are HUGE here) and passing the sandy beaches of Torre dell’Orso before stopping in the port town of Otranto for lunch (the water is so, so clear, right off the harbour wall). The stretch of coastline after that – down to the southernmost tip of Santa Maria di Leuca; Italy’s Land’s End, if you will – is the most rugged and picturesque. Stopping off at Guardiola for ice cream, I had the most scenic Magnum (with almonds) of my life.
The west coast is also beach-tastic, this time hugging the Ionian Sea. We saved a full day to lie flat on our backs at Pescoluse (described as ‘the Maldives of Salento’), at another of the many beach clubs on offer. But you could literally pull over anywhere for a patch of premium sand all the way up to Taranto, and while Puglia’s best beaches are widely listed (I was gutted I never made it to Punta Prosciutto in Porto Cesareo), simply stumbling across coves and sleepy towns is part of the pleasure.
The walled island city of Gallipoli (the old town sits charmingly disconnected from the mainland) deserves more than a day trip, so we stayed two nights before moving on to the Valle d’Itria and its quaint hilltop towns. We swung by Ostuni for lunch (a maze-like white city that’s a little Lord Of The Rings-y), peeked in briefly at the towns of Locorotondo and Martina Franca, before winding up in the most touristy of them all: Alberobello. It’s a Unesco-protected town made up of trulli (dinky cone-roofed dwellings that look like they house Samwise Gamgee), and is quite a sight. You can stay in one for novelty (trulli.eu). I did. And one night is plenty.
What I would happily do again though is eat at Trattoria Terra Madre (trattoriaterramadre.it), a quaint organic café restaurant that looks straight out onto its vegetable and herb garden. The food and atmosphere is rustic and honest. Which, despite its ever-increasing popularity, Puglia remains for now.
Room rates at Masseria Trapanà start from £314 per night for a Garden Room; trapana.com
If you do one more thing while you’re in Puglia…
…then head to the cave dwellings of Matera
Strictly speaking, it’s not in Puglia (it’s actually in Basilicata) but you can’t not visit Puglia without making the trip to Matera. A two-hour drive from Lecce, Matera’s big draw is its cavedwelling district called ‘Sassi’, which – much like Turkey’s Cappadocia – has been given a huge renaissance as hotels carve out (quite literally) quirky and memorable abodes.
L’Hotel in Pietra is one such place – a nine-room boutique residence burrowed into the rock at the site of a former 13th century church. All stone and low lighting, the effect is very underground-chic, with our crevice-like bathroom and sunken bathtub feeling all very Tatooine; an exciting prospect, especially for Star Wars fans.
With the area shaking off the shackles of its past (in the Thirties, the region’s poor were crammed in here with livestock and disease until being rehoused in 1952), its peasant cuisine is also finally being celebrated. At Ristorante Francesca, we sampled radish and pistachio cake, and a mind-blowing ricotta and chocolate cake; then at Osteria Pico, barley with fava beans and pine nuts with chicory, and spinach with almonds and vinegar. Humble but interesting, much like its home.
Doubles at L’Hotel in Pietra from £51 per night B&B; i-escape.com