Italy: Head For The Heel

Forget Tuscany. The new 'in' region is Puglia. Jeremy Atiyah finds out if it's hip or hype

Puglia? The Next Big Thing? The new Chiantishire? That's what I keep hearing. The heel of Italy, I learn, has suddenly become fashionable. Tourists are discovering that its olive oil, wine, landscape, art and culture exist in proportions previously thought to exist only in Tuscany.

Puglia? The Next Big Thing? The new Chiantishire? That's what I keep hearing. The heel of Italy, I learn, has suddenly become fashionable. Tourists are discovering that its olive oil, wine, landscape, art and culture exist in proportions previously thought to exist only in Tuscany.

But unlike Tuscany, with its British veneer, Puglia is being seen as more authentic. Or so people want to believe. Well, all right, Puglia didn't give us the Renaissance. It didn't change the world. It doesn't have Florence or Siena. It doesn't have Dante, Michelangelo, Raphael, the Medici family or the Borgias. But it does have funny little rustic cottages with conical roofs called trulli. And since the beginning of 2004, it also has three new direct air connections to the UK, where previously there were none.

And I confess that this is bothering me. Let me declare my interests: I love Puglia, and its gentle hills, its Baroque towns, and its funny rustic cottages. I don't want to share it with the hordes of Brtis from Tuscany. I pride myself on having found Puglia before Ryanair did. I already feel nostalgic for the days when you had to fly to Rome, and catch the overnight train to Lecce, arriving shortly after dawn in a strange southern land, dotted with olive trees and little white villages that looked as if they might be in Greece.

Back then, you never met any British tourists during your holiday. The trulli were allowed to crumble in peace. The azure sea was the preserve of effortlessly brown and beautiful locals. The only industry of the scuffed fishing ports was fishing. The only sounds from the interior were those of peasants fermenting their wine and pressing their olives and killing their pigs.

But now what? I'm back, having just arrived on the new Ryanair flight to Bari (very convenient it was, too). What I want to know is: how long will it take for Puglia's lovely old towns to fill to the brim with tourists? When will the overflow from San Gimignano and Siena arrive? How long will it take before those picturesque hillsides with their ruinous trulli resound to the sounds of stonemasons laughing their way to the bank? How long until every bewildered Pugliese peasant has his very own English neighbour?

The omens are not promising. Puglia's southern climate invites year-round tourism, and as a long thin peninsula, it offers an inordinately large amount of coastline, just waiting to be developed. I've already heard rumours that several golf courses and marinas are planned.

Anyway, I'll be staying in the Valle d'Itria, a region famous for its gentle hills, fertile land, historic towns and trulli. This is by no means the only attractive part of Puglia: the heel of Italy stretches for another hundred miles to the south of here, while to the north lies the wild and beautiful Gargano peninsula. But I am sticking to the rural delights of Trulloland. And the first thing I do on arrival is call the owners of Long Travel, one of the very few UK tour operators who have specialised in Puglia since long before the advent of Ryanair. Ray and Annie Long promptly take me on a tour of the trulli that they are letting out to tourists. We are soon on tiny lanes, amid meadows and orchards blooming with poppies and other wild flowers.

In case anyone still doesn't know, a trullo is a stone cottage topped by one or (usually) several conical stone roofs. Some are tiny cottages; others verge on the palatial. Driving around the Valle d'Itria, trulli roofs can be seen peeping up on all sides. If you drive off the main roads and on to the country lanes, trulli are sometimes all you'll see. Many comprise little more than quaint piles of rubble amid the almond, walnut and olive trees. The Longs' own trulli are gorgeous little cottages in perfect rustic locations of the sort that any self-respecting Englishman would die for. I, too, covet their natural stone floors, their terraces, their courtyards and their trees. It is hard to imagine that Ryanair customers will not soon be clamouring for them.

But strangely enough the Longs themselves seem ambivalent about the growing tide of tourists. In the short term, they concede that their business may profit. But in the long term? "We aren't sure," they murmur, "whether the local authorities can be trusted not to go mad." And conversation turns to golf courses, giant hotels, marinas ...

As for foreigners coming in and buying up all the trulli - it's already happening. The masons who are qualified to restore those conical roofs are indeed prospering, as are some who are not. Naturally, I am bitter about this, as should any Englishman be who has always wanted to buy a palace in Puglia for next to nothing, and live there safe in the knowledge that his nearest English neighbour is in Tuscany.

Swallowing my envy, I accompany the Longs to meet their own neighbour, whom I can certify to be a peasant of the most authentic variety. He shows us his pig, his cow, his sheep, his rabbits. We see the place where his wife prepares her homemade pasta and bakes her own homemade bread. We sample his cheeses and sausages over a glass of rough wine, and I worry that on present trends, these humble Pugliese pleasures may be extinct within a few years.

In the evening I head back to my lodgings in Martina Franca, one of several exquisite towns in the valley. Through a local agency, I've rented a flat in the old town: I've got my very own vaulted ceilings, stone floors, antique furniture and a roof terrace. All around me is a warren of whitewashed lanes, staircases, arches and terraces and tunnels. It echoes to the sounds not of traffic, but of eating and cooking. Turn any corner and you'll walk face-first into a pair of pants, where someone's laundry line has sagged.

There are more foreign tourists wondering round Martina Franca than in the past, but right now I can report that the locals outnumber them by about a thousand to one. My visit coincides with Easter and the streets are thronged with immaculately dressed families heading for church. By 11pm they will have transferred, small kids and all, to the restaurants.

Over dinner, I notice with approval that increased tourism has not yet inflated the price of wine: a litre of house red in my restaurant of choice costs €2.50 (£1.70). And when I order the dirt-cheap "starter of the house" I am brought a vast tray of delicacies, including pickled mushrooms, succulent mozzarella, crunchy fennel, spicy meatballs, tender octopus, fizzy cheese, stuffed zucchini and cured meats (and afterwards the waiter looks troubled when I decline the offer of a main dish).

By the time that's finished it's nearly midnight, and in the streets an Easter procession has begun, overlooked by the ancient Baroque façades of the central piazza. Dumpy ladies in black carrying Roman candles come followed by men in strange capes and headdresses, and emergency workers with "Misericordia" written on their jackets. At the sight of the effigies of Jesus and Mary, the silent crowd breaks spontaneously into a reverent prayer. In the background a band of trumpeters and trombonists is playing an emotional and, indeed, epic dirge that seems to owe as much to Hollywood as to the Catholic church. Given the almost complete absence of foreigners, I attribute this to TV, rather than to the corrupting influence of tourism.

As I already know, historic and traditional towns such as Martina Franca are plentiful in this region of Puglia. Nearby is Ostuni, piled on a hill overlooking the sea. Cisternino and Locorotondo are equally charming. Only Alberobello, self-appointed capital of Trulloland, strikes me as avoidable. It boasts entire streets lined with trulli. It has a trullo church. It has something called the Supreme Trullo, which claims to be the grandest trullo in existence, and the mother of all trulli. My hope is that Alberobello will suck in the new surfeit of tourists and detain them for as long as possible, perhaps in a dungeon of the Supreme Trullo.

For my last couple of days I decide to get out into the countryside, to sample another kind of accommodation unique to Puglia. A masseria is the local version of a country house, or chateau. Traditionally, these grand old buildings are flat-roofed, block-shaped structures, with floors and ceilings of native Leccese stone. If you have half a million quid to spend on your Pugliese holiday home, you buy one of these instead of a trullo. Some of them, in the meantime, have been restored and converted into country hotels.

I try a couple. One is the Masseria San Domenico, which offers probably the most luxurious accommodation in the whole of Puglia, with its private beach, giant swimming pool and golf course. The masseria itself is in beautiful white stone, with little Baroque flourishes; its rooms give out on to ancient olive groves full of flowers. The atmosphere is expensive and classy, though I am somewhat intimidated by the presence of security guards attending the VIP guests. The other masseria I get to try is the Melograno, which has the faint air of an Andalusian (or Mexican) hacienda about it. Its courtyards are dotted with some of the most gnarled and ancient olive trees I have ever seen in my life. With its pool and its shady gardens, this will place will succeed, I suspect, in absorbing a few Ryanair customers.

But the general problem of staying in a masseria-hotel becomes apparent at dinner time. The attached restaurant will no doubt be classy. Except the problem is this: who wants to eat in a classy restaurant in Puglia? Who wants to sit at a table next to a besuited Milanese banker and his wife, in a region where the humblest, cheapest trattoria is unfailingly excellent?

From the Melograno, after dark, I escape by car a few miles down the road to the seaport of Monopoli, one of several similar ports along this coast. At ten o'clock at night its piazzas are packed with perambulating townsfolk. Waves are beating on its massive stone walls. Fishing boats are pulled up in its ancient harbour. In tiny restaurants people are ordering fishy delicacies, while old women are mourning for their sons lost at sea in winter storms of long ago, and giant old churches of weather-beaten stone are looming over the hearts and minds of all of us.

It is atmospheric rather than beautiful, but that's all right by me. None but the most dedicated aficionados of Puglia, I suspect, will ever find time for towns such as this one.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Return flights to Bari with Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) cost from £98 return in August.

A week's car hire through National Car Rental (0870 400 4560; www.nationalcar.com) costs around £202.

Where to stay

Long Travel (01694 722193; www.long-travel.co.uk) specialises in tailor-made holidays in Puglia, with trulli of different sizes available for rent. Prices start at around £635 per trullo per week in August, including car hire.

Long Travel also organises hotel accommodation. Bed and breakfast at the five-star Il Melograno, near Monopoli, costs from £125 per person per night through Long Travel.

I Paesi della Luce (00 39 080 430 1588; www.ipaesidellaluce.it) offers quaint old apartments inside the old town of Martina Franca from about £35 per night. Double rooms at the Masseria San Domenico, near Savelletri, cost from £160 per night booked through Great Hotels of the World (0800-032 4254; www.ghotw.com).

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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