The Complete Guide To Puglia

The region that forms the heel of Italy is famous for its golden beaches, ancient architecture, mysterious monuments and some of the best food around. Fought over for centuries, it is now starting to draw the crowds. Aoife O'Riordain explores


WHERE IS IT?

WHERE IS IT?

Roughly speaking, the heel of Italy. The region of Puglia, also known as Apulia, occupies the extreme south-eastern tip of the country. Bordered on two sides by the Ionian and Adriatic seas, Puglia is a long sliver of land that stretches from the border with Molise in the north to Capo Santa Maria di Leuca in the south. In between you'll find some of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Italy, fascinating cities steeped in history, mysterious caves and monuments and a landscape dotted with ancient Greek and Neolithic archaeological sites. You will also find conical-roofed trulli houses and miles of sandy beaches.

NOT EXACTLY UNDISCOVERED THEN?

Puglia has been pulling in the visitors for centuries. It occupies a strategic corner of Italy and has seen many colonisers in both modern and ancient times. Some of Puglia's first residents were the Messapians, who established settlements in Brindisi, Ugento and Ceglie Messapico in the Val d'Itria. One of their more mysterious legacies are the conical stone towers or specchie, which can still be seen scattered throughout the countryside. Puglia was the stepping stone to the eastern Mediterranean and Byzantium, and down the centuries Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Aragons and Swabians have staked their claim to its soil. These day in summer, thousands of holidaying Italians also descend on Puglia's beaches. The best time to go is June or September when the heat is at its more bearable and the crowds have gone home.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Lecce is often billed as the Florence of the south, thanks to an abundance of buildings constructed in a very florid style of Mediterranean Baroque. Antonio and Giuseppe Zimbalo were two of the main proponents of the Leccese Baroque, and the most celebrated of the city's buildings, which they had a hand in the Basilica di Santa Croce. Construction started in 1549, and the final touches were not completed until 1695. The basilica is best viewed at night when its painstakingly carved exterior is floodlit. Also adjacent to Lecce's main square, the Piazza Oronzo, is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. The Patria Palace Hotel (00 39 0832 245 111; www.starwood.com) in the centre of town a few steps from the basilica offers double rooms from €156 (£110) per night with breakfast.

WHAT ELSE CAN I SEE?

Nobody really understands King Frederick II of Swabia's motives for ordering the construction of the dramatic Castel del Monte. This is unquestionably one of Puglia's most important and mysterious buidlings, which commands panoramic views from the top of a hill, 18km outside the town of Andria near Bari. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the Castel del Monte has been at the centre of much debate since its construction in the 13th century. Its polygon structure, topped with eight octagonal towers, was built along strict mathematical and astronomical principals and is one of Europe's finest examples of medieval military architecture. It opens daily from 10am-7.30pm and admission is by donation.

ANY MORE ANCIENT HISTORY?

One of Puglia's most important archaeological sites, the Museo Nazionale de Egnazia (00 30 080 729 056), is on the coast near Savelletri. The park and its adjoining museum display artefacts from the Bronze Age as well as remnants from the Roman port of Gnathia, which also flourished on the site. It opens daily from 8.30am-6.30pm and admission to both costs €3 (£2). Stop for lunch at the Ristorante de Renzina (00 39 080 482 9075) in Savelletri, a large restaurant by the water's edge that serves fresh fish, including deep fried calamari, and large plates of fruit. A meal costs around €15 (£11) per person.

On Puglia's western coast is the uninspiring town of Taranto, surrounded by a tangle of motorways and some of Italy's largest steel works. However, it wasn't always like this. Taranto was first colonised by the Taras, Spartan Greeks who arrived in Puglia around 700 BC. Tarentum as it was then called quickly grew to become one of the most opulent cities and important ports of ancient Greece. Many objects recovered from the sites and tombs in the region can been seen at Taranto's Museo Archeaologico Nazionale (00 39 099 453 2112). It opens Monday-Saturday, 9am-2pm and Sundays 9am-1.30pm. Admission is €2 (£1.40).

YOU MENTIONED CAVES?

On January 23 1930, Franco Anelli discovered the Grotte di Castellana, (00 39 080 499 8211; www.grottedicastellana.it) 50km from Bari. This is a spectacular network of caves carved out by an underground stream and stretching several kilometres underground. There are two different tours to see the soaring stalactites and stalagmites. The longer of the two, which lasts around two hours, takes visitors into the depths of the White Cave, which is lined with glittering alabaster rock formations. The caves are open daily from 8.30am in the summer with the last admission at 7pm. Admission is €8 (£6) per person.

WHERE CAN I GET BACK TO NATURE?

The Gargano promontory is a different proposition to the rest of Puglia; a rugged spur jutting out from the coast covered in forests. Now a 15,000 hectare nature reserve, the Parco Nazionale di Gargano (00 39 088 2992 727; www.parcogargano.it) is home to thousands of different species of flora and fauna, including deer and wildcats.

Also in the park you can visit the Foresta Umbra or "Forest of Shadows", a beautiful blanket of Aleppo pine, oak and beech. Its visitor centre is in Lesina and opens every day between 9am-1.30pm and 4-8pm.

I'D LIKE A DAY AT THE BEACH

There is plenty of choice but you need to search out the best spots. Between Monopoli and Brindisi on the eastern coast alone there are over 60km of dunes and beaches. But be warned, the coastal roads on both the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, particularly between Bari and Brindisi and around Taranto, are lined with hastily-built lidos. Further south the coast becomes more indented and is dotted with some fabulous white sand as well as picturesque rocky bathing spots such as Porto Miggiano south of Otranto.

The Gargano is also home to some of Puglia's best beaches. Its capital, Vieste, is a pretty medieval town that gets incredibly busy in the summer but also boasts one of the region's most spectacular beaches, which looks out onto the towering Scoglio di Pizzomunno, an enormous monolith of rock in front of the beach. One of the best ways to visit the bathing spots of the Gargano is by train. Built in 1931, the Gargano railway links many beach resorts between San Severo and Peschici. For information and departure times contact Ferrovie del Gargano (00 39 088 222 1415; www.ferroviedelgargano.com).

ANY ISLANDS TO EXPLORE?

Make the short hop across the limpid waters of the Adriatic to the Tremiti islands off the coast of the Gargano peninsula, one of Italy's lesser-known archipelagos. The islands form part of the Parco Nazionale di Gargano and some of their best beaches include Cala Tonda, a small lagoon boasting crystal clear waters that is accessible through a narrow channel, and the Cala delle Arene. The neighbouring island of San Nicola is the administrative, cultural and religious centre for the islands and was once a popular stopping-off point for pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem. Visit the dramatically situated abbey of San Nicola, which perches precariously on a promontory. Adriatica (00 39 081 317 2999; www.adriatica.it) operates regular motorboat and hydrofoil services to the islands from Termoli, Vieste, Ortono and Manfredonia. Single fares cost from around €7.40 (£5).

WHAT ELSE CAN I SEE ON THE COAST?

The transport hub of Bari has an old town with a tightly packed warren of streets and buzzing, if slightly seedy, atmosphere. Between Bari and Brindisi is Polignano al Mare, a town that clings to the rocks high above the sea. Pay a visit to the Grotta Palazzese (00 39 080 424 0677), a restaurant housed in a natural cave by the sea, which predictably specialises in seafood. A little further down the coast is the charming town of Monopoli. It is worth a detour if only for a stroll around its pier, old fishing port and atmospheric streets. Brindisi was another important gateway to the east. In the centre of town you can see a column marking the end of the Appian Way.

Another of Puglia's highlights lies a little further inland. On first impressions you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Greece. The white city of Ostuni perches on the southern extremity of the Murge plateau and spills across three hills. With its panoramic views overlooking the Ionian coast, Ostuni's origins date back to Messapian times, but the city's walls were actually built by the Aragons in the 15th century. Its old town or terra is an enchanting tangle of whitewashed streets that twist around a dramatic cathedral occupying a commanding position on the summit of a hill and dating from 1495. The Baroque church of San Vito dates from 1750 and is adjacent to the Museo di Civitta Preclassiche della Murgia, which is housed in a Carmelite monastery and displays artefacts from the region's ancient past. It opens daily from 10am-1pm and 5-8pm and admission is €1.50 (£1).

Ostuni's patron saint, Oronzo, is reputed to have saved the city from an epidemic in the mid-17th century. Every year the city's inhabitants celebrate in extravagant style on the saint's feast day, 26 August. La Calvalcata is a lavish event featuring large processions of horsemen dressed in uniforms of red and white. On the second Sunday of every month you can also wander the city walls and search for bargains at the antiques market around the San Demetrio gate. After a morning's rummaging, have lunch in the atmospheric Osteria del Tempo Perso (00 39 083 130 3320; www.osteriadeltempoperso.com), which offers mouthwatering antipasto. If you have room afterwards, the roast lamb will be some of the most succulent you have ever tasted. If it's good enough for the chef Antonio Carluccio...

YOU MENTIONED FOOD?

Many regions in Italy lay claim to the best food, but Puglia could comfortably assume the title. Pugliese cuisine is cucina povera (literally "poor cuisine") and fish, offal and vegetables feature strongly. The bread is the best in Italy (there are over 100 types of bread in the Salentine alone) and includes the regional speciality taralli (a kind of Italian pretzel), traditionally softened with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped tomatoes. Other Pugliese specialities include gnumerieddi (lamb's intestines) and orecchiette con la rape, small ear-shaped pasta with green turnip tops. If rumours are to be believed, the Shah of Iran was so addicted to the region's divine burrata cheese that he had it flown over on a regular basis.

Puglia has produced wine since Greek times, although until recently it was quantity not quality that mattered. Now that's beginning to change and one of the labels to look out for is a Manduria produced by the Cosimo Taurino vineyard. It also makes Patriglione, one of Puglia's most highly regarded and expensive reds.

For a fabulous introduction to Pugliese cuisine, place yourself in the capable hands of Anna Carmela Perrone, the lady of the house at Trattoria Cucina Casereccia, via Col Costadura 19, Lecce (00 39 0832 245 178). A procession of small dishes from the Salentine peninsula will follow, including the ubiquitous but delicious pure di fave con cicoria e pane fritto, a purée of fava beans with green turnip tops and fried bread. According to Anna, tradition dictates that the before you eat the dish you must turn your fork in the ingredients, which you mash with some olive oil, and then make a wish. Meals cost around €20 (£14) per person.

WHERE CAN I STAY?

Puglia is not short of places to stay, but some of the most atmospheric are the masserie (fortified farmhouses), which have been turned into hotels and B&Bs. Some of the most interesting are on the eastern coast near Ostuni and Monopoli. The most luxurious is the Masseria San Domenico (00 39 080 482 7769; www.masseriasandomenico.com) on the coast near Fasano. This huge 15th-century building, once used by the Knights of Malta, is surrounded by beautifully manicured olive groves and has a huge seawater swimming pool and its own beach. Double rooms start from €240 (£170) per night with breakfast.

Masseria Marzalossa, also near Fasano, (00 39 080 441 3780; www.marzalossa.it) dates from the 17th century and is surrounded by vineyards. Double rooms cost from €69 (£49) per night. Azienda Agrituristica Narducci (00 39 080 481 0049; www.agriturismonarducci.it) is an agritourism-style masseria with double rooms starting from €35 (£25) per night. Close to Ostuni is Il Frantoio (00 39 083 133 0276; www.trecolline.it), another masseria set in 72 hectares of land dedicated to organic produce. A night in one of its eight double rooms starts at €88 (£63) per person per night.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Puglia is now more easily accessible from the UK. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has introduced flights to both Bari and Brindisi, with return fares from Stansted starting from around £150. return. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) also flies between London Gatwick and Bari with fares from around £150 return.

Several UK based tour operators offer hotel and self-catering holidays in Puglia. Long Travel (01694 722 367; www.long-travel.co.uk) offers one of the widest selections. Other companies include Simply Travel (020-8541 2200; www.simplytravel.com), Discovery Travel (01785 214239; www.discovery-travel.co.uk) and Kirker Holidays (020- 7231 3333).

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

There are relatively good bus and train connections between Puglia's cities and towns. One of these, the historic train of the south-east links several towns and villages such as Lecce and Martina Franca as well as serving the most southerly station of the Salento, Gagliano del Capo. For timetables contact Ferrovie del Sud Est (00 39 080 546 2111). Otherwise, to really see Puglia you'll need to rent a car. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers one week's rental from £173 from Brindisi or Bari.

WHAT IS A TRULLO?

Driving through the rolling hills and olive groves of the Val d'Itria in Le Murg you soon become aware of the presence of hundreds of conical-roofed dwellings spread across the countryside. Welcome to trulli land. Much like the dammusi of the island of Pantelleria, the origins of the trullo are shrouded in mystery. Trulli are constructed from thick limestone blocks in a conical shape, and often their roofs are decorated with symbols, believed to have pagan and Christian significance. With walls often measuring up to two metres thick, they stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Alberobello is the undisputed trulli capital of the world and is one of the only places in the region where the trullo structure, normally confined to the countryside, has entered the vernacular architecture of a town. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the sloping streets of Alberobello's south eastern quarter are lined with over 400 trulli, including a trullo-church, which, predictably enough, draw the tourists in their droves. Alberobello contains the only example of a two-storey trullo, the Trullo Sovrano or "superb trullo". It opens daily from 10am-6pm and admission costs €1.50 (£1) per adult. Visit the tourist office (00 39 080 432 6030) where you can also pick up brochures and tour itineraries.

But by far the best way to get a taste of what life is really like in a trullo is to stay in one - preferably in the peaceful countryside surrounding one of the towns of the Val d'Itria such as Martina Franca, Cisternino or Ceglie Messapico. Long Travel is one of a handful of companies in the UK that offers a selection of trulli houses for rent.

The Trullo Noce is one of its most recently restored. Tucked down a lane about 2km from the charming town of Cisternino, it is surrounded by idyllic fields of wild flowers and olive trees and offers a luxurious take on trullo-living. A week's rental starts from £595, including car hire, based on two sharing.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

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

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