The Complete Guide To: Puglia

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Breathtaking coastlines, diverse architecture and Italy's most famous road all await you in the heel of Italy. James Hill reports

WHERE IS IT?

Puglia is the stiletto at the heel of Italy. It is a long, thin region that jabs out into the Mediterranean at the far south-east of mainland Italy, and shares land borders with Basilicata and Molise. Medieval watchtowers still dot the coastline, reminding Puglians of the near-constant threat of invasion over the centuries. The Greeks had settled here long before the Romans ventured south but most of Ancient Rome's successors have either been on their way to Rome or on their way to Greece and the Mediterranean using Puglia as a stop-over. Crusaders and traders alike were no exception. But, like Sicily, it became a crossroads of cultures. It's now worth crusading from Puglian spur to Puglian heel.

HOT, HOT, HOT?

Depending on where you draw the boundary, Puglia is arguably Western Europe's most easterly region, but because of the angle at which Italy is tilted it is not as far south as you may think, sitting along the same latitude as Naples. There's a very stiff wind coming up the Adriatic most of the year but June, July and September make for fairly reliable weather. On a clear day from the seaside town of Otranto you can even see Albania across the Adriatic.

WHERE DO I START?

Most people begin with a flight to either Bari or Brindisi. Both cities are linked with Stansted by Ryanair; Bari is also linked with Gatwick by British Airways.

To make the whole journey by rail, the usual approach is via Paris, Milan and Rome. This can be achieved in a little over 24 hours (including a night in the train between France and Italy) but it would be more fun to stop along the way. Brindisi is a working port with frequent ferry links to Greece. Bari, the regional capital, is a lot more fun. It has a deliciously difficult-to-navigate old town with a fine church, the Basilica di San Nicola. It was built by the Normans, who took this part of Puglia shortly after conquering England. Here, the relics are revered both by the citizens – and by the Russians, whose patron saint he is.

After the Venetians brought the relics of St Mark to Venice, they had their eyes on a saint born in present-day Turkey. But sailors from Bari got there first and brought St Nicholas's relics to their home port, where a great church was created for their adopted saint.

Calming storms and saving children from being sold by pirates to foreign kings was all in a day's work for a man who became known as the protector of children. Soon enough the image of a white-bearded old man, with a red bishop's mantle, was adopted by mostly northern cultures as the bearer of gifts to children on his saint's day in December – now better known as Santa Claus.

MORE NORMAN WISDOM?

The Norman imprint continues at nearby Trani, a coastal town north-west of Bari. whose imposing cathedral church and tall campanile dominate. Tantalising sea views appear through the low arches below the refined beauty of immaculately carved reliefs and geometric patterns – all contending for space over the cool limestone.

Another reason for stopping in Trani is for an al fresco fish lunch at the Corte in Fiore at Via Ognisanti 18 (00 39 0883 508402; www. corteinfiore.it). You could stay in a converted convent, the four-star Hotel San Paolo al Convento at Via Statuti Marittimi 111, which overlooks the old port (00 39 0883 482949; www.sanpaolo-alconvento.traniweb.it). Double port-facing rooms cost €150 (£125) including breakfast.

The Knights Templar also erected a church in Trani in the old port whose restoration is nearly complete. Indeed, many "pay-as-you-go" ships would take Crusaders from Trani eastwards to save their souls and expunge the Turk for the glory of God.

The effects of the glittering court of the Normans can be seen all over Puglia through their churches and castles. The most celebrated of their monuments is the mysterious Castel Del Monte south-west of Trani (00 39 0883 569 997; www.castello delmonte.it). The precise purpose of this octagonal castle, perched on a hill with Romanesque and Gothic detailing, is uncertain.

The design was too impractical to be lived in, though it may have been used as a hunting lodge. The absence of a moat (the Norman norm) suggests it had no real defensive progress. We do know that Frederick II had it built in about 1240; very much a Da Vinci of his day, Frederick installed loos. At the time this was the norm in the Arab world but rarer in the West.

At the very least the castle was a symbol of Norman power, and also has the interesting property of being exactly midway between the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt and the Cathedral at Chartres in France – offering the prospect of a Da Vinci Code-style novel.

A COASTAL DRIVE?

A heavy air pervades fortified Otranto. In 1480 the Turks got to Puglia and slaughtered the town's inhabitants. The 800 who survived would not renounce their faith and they too were slaughtered. An imposing castle was built thereafter whose courtyard and walls can be visited.

A 12th-century mosaic covers the entire nave floor at the town's cathedral and is the largest Norman mosaic of its kind.

Stay at Palazzo de Mori (00 39 0836 801088; www.palazzodemori.it). It is a bed and breakfast built into the bastions of the town itself, brushed down with completely white-washed interiors and once the home of a local nobleman who fell at the hands of the invading Turks in 1480. Doubles from €75 (£65), or €150 (£130) for superior double room in July and August, including breakfast.

Take the drive south along the Adriatic coastal road, noting with relief that local motorists tend to be better behaved than on the near-death driving experience of the Amalfi coast on the opposite shore of Italy. Meander through prickly-pear covered rocky crags which hang over dozens of deep grottos at the water line. Continue south, passing through chirpy Santa Cesarea Terme with its faux Saracenic architecture and tired spas but handy for that ice-cream pit stop.

Further south is the Grotta Zinzulusa (Open daily 9am-5.30pm; call 00 39 08 36 94312 for a guide), a marine cavern clustered with stalactites and stalagmites which careful study has suggested that the Balkans were once joined to Puglia.

Soon enough you will end up at Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy's "Land's End" – where the heel reaches its tip. There's decent bathing here on either side of the little port.

Driving back north, unassuming Galatina contains a frescoed treasure chest – or at least gives the sense of what one might look like from the inside. The Basilica of Santa Caterina D'Alessandria, erected in the 14th century, has an interior completely frescoed with over 150 scenes painted in the style of Giotto, with more than a nod to the more famous frescoes in Assisi in Umbria.

TAKE ME TO THE BEACH

Two-thirds of the region is coastal, but most of the best beaches are in the south: in the Salento peninsula and on the eastern Ionian coast.

Torre Lapillo, near Porto Cesareo – due south of Brindisi – has clear-as-a-bell water and soft, flat sandy beaches. Further south is the busy summer resort of Gallipoli, which shares with its better-known Turkish namesake a name derived from the Greek for "Beautiful City". Gallipoli has plenty of sandy beaches. Beyond the beach, you could head out to the three fauna-covered Tremiti Islands replete with requisite white-washed fishing villages.

Take the 45-minute journey on a catamaran from Rodi Garganico (daily from June to September; www.navlib.it for schedules) north some 22km for around €12 (£10).

The smaller San Nicola Island is known for its rock caves with excellent coastal diving available from the largest island, San Domino (00 39 337 648917; www.tremitidivingcenter.com); without equipment the first dive of the day costs €60 (£50), and thereafter it is €35 (£23).

CAN I GET DEEPLY INTO PUGLIA?

The ultimate day out with the children is at Italy's greatest underground cavern: at Castellana, south of Bari on the edge of the Valle D'Itria. The 1.5km walk to the end of the cavern complex at Grotta Bianca is rewarded with some of the most beautiful crystalline and coloured stone formations in the world. In addition there are spectral views of alabaster, stalagmite and stalactite natural rock sculptures. Admission is €15 (£12.40). An English-language two-hour guided tour covering 3km through to the Grotta Bianca starts on the hour between 11am and 4pm.

CITY LIFE?

You may have heard Lecce described as the "Florence of the south". Now, the Renaissance just about passed Puglia by but the region has an urban gem in the form of Lecce: honey-toned baroque magnificence. The city seems locked in the 17th century with baroque Rome very much influencing the spatial plan of this immaculately clean little town.

Richly carved busy church façades such as Santa Croce, Sant'Irene and the Gesu confront you at nearly every square or corner.

Where there isn't a richly carved church there's a richly carved colour co-ordinated house draped in warm local sandstone.

Syrbar at via Libertini 67 (00 39 0832 2471 65, www.syrbar.it) is the right place for after-dinner cocktails to gaze at the beautifully lit Piazza del Duomo completely surrounded by grand buildings and the city's cathedral.

After all the baroque splendour, stay somewhere with minimalist décor: the new five-star design Risorgimento Resort, Via Augusto Imperatore, 19 (00 39 08 32 24 6311; www.vestas-hotels-lecce.com). It is well located, too, in Piazza Sant'Oronzo – right opposite Lecce's very own Roman amphitheatre. Superior double rooms start at €145 (£123), including breakfast.

The one place to dine is Picton at Via Idomeneo 14 (00 39 0832 332383), where the local great and good sign their linen napkins. It is closed on Mondays.

WHERE IS THE HEART OF PUGLIA?

Arguably the Valle D'Itria, slightly inland and equidistant between Bari and Brindisi. In what looks like a Greek version of Tolkien's "Middle Earth", low dry-stone walls look jagged but nonetheless beautifully proportioned as they cut a patchwork of smallholdings smothered over ruby-red iron-rich soil.

Single-tiered vines and Greek or Arab cubic houses sit comfortably in the middle of each smallholding bolted on to or detached from the trulli houses.

These are strange circular dwellings with conical roofs. They are built from dry stone with little or no mortar, and resolutely white-washed sometimes twice a year.

Some of the cones are painted with bizarre ancient symbols. The windows, if any, are very small. Many have been restored to a comfortable level.

Alberobello is to trulli what New York is to skyscrapers. There more than 1,000 in this protected national monument and Unesco site. They crawl up a gentle hill looking like an oncoming army of Persians in large Phrygian caps.

This is also the only town in Puglia where you'll actually see a constant flow of tour buses and there is an impressive array of tourist trinkets on show.

One guidebook sniffily says "Most trulli are souvenir shops", but you can even stay in one: Valle dei Trulli (00 39 080 431 0098; www.valledeitrulli.it) has a number on offer, sleeping up to 12 people. A typical weekly rental costs around €200 (£167) per person, depending on the season.

A more conventional base from which to explore the Valle D'Itria is the five-star Hotel Masseria del Cardinale (00 39 080 489 0335; www.relaisdelcardinale.com).

It's a large converted olive farm with soldier-like olive trees as wide as an average family car filling the large estate at the foot of the Murge near Fasano. A double classic room with terrace costs between €250-€350 per night (£200-£300) including breakfast; you can also help yourself to the contents of the minibar.

The hotel has the largest swimming pool in Puglia, a stable, beauty centre and bikes for exploring the estate.

CAN I ESCAPE THE CROWDS?

Yes. Nearby Locorotondo stands proud on a hill and is a completely white-washed circular town with impressive views over the trulli-filled valley as far as Martina Franca. Grab a window table at L'Affresco at Via Nardelli 24 (00 39 080 431 6848). This is a small family-run restaurant with a fine frescoed ceiling and some of the best Puglian cuisine around. There is a jaw-dropping valley view to boot.

On the west side of valley, the baroque grabs hold of Martina Franca. There is a decent baroque town hall attributed to Bernini. The Valle D'Itria Music Festival has always been held in Bernini's Palazzo Ducale in Martina Franca. This year's festival runs from 17 July to 6 August; see www.festivaldellavalleditria.it. An antiques fair fills the town's piazzas on the third Sunday of each month.

Ostuni is known as the "White City". Its Spanish-inspired cathedral stands proud in the old part of the town. But on your way out, make a quick stop at the church of the Annunziata to peek at The Deposition by the 16th-century painter Paolo Veronese. With the many trade links between Puglia and Venice it's no wonder there are a few Venetian paintings dotted around Puglia. This one was stolen 30 years but found soon after; unsurprisingly it's well and truly locked up now behind a thick glass frame. A quiet word with the church custodian will reward the curious with a special viewing.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

The rail network (www.trenitalia.it) is fine for travelling between the main towns of Foggia, Bari, Brindisi and Lecce, with extensions from Bari and Brindisi to Taranto.

Buses (00 39 04 362 280 481; www.sitabus.it) fill in some of the gaps.

Most visitors, though, will rent a car. Puglia has a very significant road running across it: the consular "mother road" – the Appian Way. This was where the young Ottavian, later to become Emperor, landed at Brindisi after the murder of his great uncle Julius Caesar, and began the march towards Rome. This ancient superhighway has now been supplanted by fast roads linking the main towns and cities, with lovely lanes extending into the country.



WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

As with other parts of Italy, the tourist information provision is fragmented. The main regional website is www.viaggiareinpuglia.it, but for specific provincial information you can also call the local tourist offices. Bari: 00 39 080 524 2244; Brindisi 00 39 083 156 2126; Lecce 00 39 0832 314 117.

Additional research by Laura Jones

****

Park life

Puglia has one of Italy's newest national parks. The Gargano peninsula has its own mountain, Monte Calvo at 1,055m, with the plateau-like spread densely covered in valuable oak.

The nearby town of Monte Sant'Angelo (pictured) offers amazing views over the bay below and has a fine sanctuary dedicated to the archangel Michael, with 11th-century bronze doors cast in Constantinople. In addition, there is an unfinished Norman castle. You can skip through the olive groves in fine scenery at the Rifugio Foresta Umbra.

The Gargano area happens to be awash with cash: one of the largest-ever Italian state lottery wins kissed the twee fishing village of Peschici a few years ago. Better known, however, is one of the biggest pilgrim cash-machines in Christendom: San Giovanni Rotondo. The pious, controversial and recently canonised Capuchin San Padre Pio da Pietrelcina spent most of his life in the city. A one-man miracle factory, he was censored a dozen times by the Vatican, received the stigmata, was seen in two places at once and spent some time in the back of a fighter plane cockpit during the Second World War, even though he never left his monastic cell in San Giovanni Rotondo during his adult life.

Some 40 years after his death, the saint still knows how to pull in the crowds and all during this summer he's on public view (covered with a wax effigy) in front of the great new church built by superstar architect Renzo Piano.

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