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Into the heel of Italy

After the frenetic summer crowds have departed, Apulia relaxes and basks in the autumn sun. Diana Constance explores a private paradise of Baroque cities and natural wonders
"Andiamo in Puglia, ciao!" With that my Roman friends would depart each autumn, like migrating swallows, for the slim heel of Italy, to the region we call Apulia.

This year my memories drew me back there for a last indulgent fling before winter. I had decided to spend a week in the beautiful Itria valley, about 20 minutes' drive from the sea. Here white-tipped trulli, conical limestone farmhouses unique to the area, stand alongside shimmering olives and golden grapes. The first of these houses is thought to have been built here by Saracen raiders, but their origins probably go further back to the Bronze Age.

I arrived in the small town of Cisternino amid the chaos of the farmers' "pricing" day. The reason for the fair is long past; the prices are now determined by computers, but the celebrations continue. There are bands, decorated horse-drawn carts and basketfuls of sun-dried tomatoes, capers and olive and pizza breads - which have been the staple diet of southern Italy for centuries.

The historic centre, with its labyrinthe lanes, reminded me of the Greek islands, the cool, white walls of the houses broken by flashes of colour from green shutters and all manner of pot plants. In fact, Apulia was part of Magna Graeca from the sixth to the third century BC. Many of the old people still speak Greek patois and attend churches that were once Greek Orthodox.

One of the great pleasures is touring at this time of year. After the frenetic months of July and August the roads are quiet and the cities cool, while the beaches and sea temperature still retain some of the warmth of summer.

You enter a world of Baroque elegance at Martina Franca. This is not a tourist city but a self-contained one where the fortunate residents enjoy summer arts festivals that reflect the affluence of an area which produces much of Italy's wine and olive oil. I bought the superb wine directly from a big barrel. It cost 80p a litre.

Then I headed south to Lecce, deep into the heel. If Baroque is music in sculpture, then Martina Franca is a string quartet while Lecce swells into full orchestral voice; the lofty pediments of its central square, the Piazza Duomo, capped with statues of cardinals and patron saints, waving their croziers proprietorially over this extravaganza of stone. The sounds of chisels can still be heard in the nearby workshops, where today's masons continue the tradition.

The historic centre of the town was created by the Spanish viceroys and their bishops between 1660 and 1720, the years when Sir Christopher Wren was creating St Paul's. Clergy almost outnumbered laity and no expense was spared on the soaring church facades, created in the soft local limestone, the Pietra di Lecce, by the eccentric architect Antonio Zimbalo. His designs are the epitome of opulence, generously curvaceous women, dimpled putti and great swags of tropical fruit and flowers.

One should try to stay overnight in Lecce, despite the cost of the hotels, to see the buildings illuminated and to dine at the Gambero Rosso, favourite of the local gourmets. The dismissive patron will take notice if you persist, and the food is worth waiting for. Try the self-service antipasto, and ask for the vino rosato, a strong, full-bodied dry rose to while away the time.

On Friday and Saturday mornings there are free guided tours of the city. A small kiosk beside the Roman amphitheatre provides information in English.

Replete with cities, I repaired to the natural wonders of the Salentine peninsula below Lecce where the Adriatic merges with the blue Ionic Sea. The finest beaches are here, vast stretches of soft sand set back behind dense pine woods. The coast road leads after a few kilometres to the small port of Otranto, a delight, and a far cry from the Gothic fantasy of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto.

In fact, I did visit the illuminated castle on a magical evening after a concert of Bach and Haydn in the Norman cathedral, famed for its Tree of Life mosaic floor created by the monk Pantaleone between 1163 and 1166.

After a terrifying drive home to my hotel along a spectacular corniche, I managed the next morning to visit the grotto of Zinzalusa, its white stalactites lit up by the bright morning sun. The water was warm and sparkling, the temperature 29C. The guardian asked the same question that had been in my mind for the past two weeks: Why are there no people? A few weeks ago I would have been queuing; now Apulia seemed like a private paradise

Apulian essentials

On schedule: the closest airport with direct scheduled flights from Britain is Naples, served from London by British Airways (0345 222111) and Alitalia (0171-602 7111) with flights from pounds 280 return (including tax) . The road or rail journey to Cisternino takes about three hours. Alitalia offers connecting flights to the nearby airport of Brindisi if you connect in Milan or Rome.

Charters direct: flights from Gatwick direct to Brindisi are available from May to September 1996 through companies such as Citalia (0181-686 5533). Citalia is selling one-week holidays based in Ostuni and San Cataldo for between pounds 699 and pounds 1,269.

Hotel hint: Piccolo Mundo hotel, Salentine coast above the Grotto of Zinzalusa, booked through Magic of Italy (0181-748 7575).

Trulli tip: book a traditional trulli or a villa through Long Travel (01694 722193).

Moving on: Apulia is the natural gateway to Corfu and the rest of Greece. There are several ferries each day to Corfu, with others serving Patras (for Athens).

Official advice: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254).