Puglia, Italy – Down at the heel…but far from well-trodden
By Mike Pedley
Whitewashed medieval towns, beautiful beaches, Romanesque churches and sublime food and wine. There’s a whole load of reasons to head south to Italy’s new frontier. Unlike the well-beaten paths of Tuscany and Umbria, you won’t find a guidebook dedicated to Puglia. Italy’s heel has only appeared on many people’s holiday radar in the last few years, opened up by low-cost flights to Bari and Brindisi. So you certainly won’t be surrounded by other Brits as you explore this sun-bleached strip of the Adriatic. Puglia is no secret to the Italians, however. In July and August, they flock to the rugged coastline of the Gargano peninsula and the villages of beehive trulli houses in the Itria Valley. They also know a thing or two about wonderful Pugliese food and wine: most of Italy’s olive oil and pasta is produced in Puglia as well as sun-dried tomatoes, capers, figs, melons and fennel, while the daily comings and goings of fishing boats deliver top-notch fish and seafood.
Puglia is Italy’s closest point to Greece and Turkey so invasions by these neighbours – not to mention Normans and Arabs – have left an amazingly diverse legacy. Norman cathedrals blend with Bourbon Baroque, Moorish-flavoured buildings merge with the Pugliese traditional trulli in a region that feels removed from the rest of Italy. Rent a car and you could see it all easily in a fortnight’s touring – with time spare to flake out on the beach. For a lazier time, choose an appealing base from the places mentioned in this report and cherry-pick the region’s highlights.
For all its charm and scenic beauty, Puglia doesn’t have anything to rival Florence, the Renaissance didn’t flower here, so leave your cultural hat at home – you don’t need to trudge reverently, guide book in hand, round galleries and sites from antiquity. A holiday in Puglia is best spent basking in the sun, pottering around ancient towns, taking long lazy lunches, siestas in the shade and joining in the languid ritual of the evening passeggiata. Above all, let your senses take over and connect with Puglia’s magic.
TOP 10 things to see and do in Puglia
Drive scenic coastline, laze on the beach and mooch around the white towns of Vieste and Péschici on the Gargano Peninsula
Join the pilgrims and follow in the footsteps of angels in the 5th-century cave chapel of Monte Sant’Angelo
Join the day-trippers for some downtime on the idyllic Tremiti Islands off the coast of the Gargano Peninsula
Overload on flouncy Baroque frivolity in Lecce, the stand-out sight in all of Puglia
Admire the Norman cathedral and join the bustle of the passeggiata on Trani’s waterfront
Explore trulli unique towns of whitewashed conical houses around Alberobello in the Itria Valley
Admire the amazing medieval mosaic pavement of Ótranto’s cathedral
Visit the genuine Santa Claus in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari
Puzzle over the enigmatic octagonal fortress of Castel del Monte
Pull a cork or three and get to know Puglia’s excellent food and wine
THE GARGANO PENINSULA
The best beaches in Puglia necklace the coastline on the spur of Italy’s boot. Take your pick from the Gargano Peninsula’s main resorts, Vieste and Péschici: both are a dramatic sight – dazzling whitewashed towns that seem transposed from North Africa or Greece perched on rugged clifftops. The corniche coast route offers the best scenic drive of the Adriatic coast, with secret beaches hidden in pine-scented coves – though mile after mile of campsites and tourist villagie don’t make for an attractive sight and sometimes hog access to the sand. Switchback roads climb into the thickly-forested interior to the pilgrimage town of Monte Sant’Angelo. Inland, you can winkle out ancient cathedrals in towns dotted around chequered plains of vineyards, olive groves and agriculture – aptly known as the Tavoliere, or chessboard.
The old centre of Vieste is pure delight. A muddle of traffic-free alleys lined with dinky boutiques and hole-in-the-wall restaurants crowds onto a spur of white cliffs jutting into the deep blue Adriatic. Washing flaps from balconies beneath the Norman castle and cathedral along Via Duomo – look for the chianca amara – the ‘bitter stone’ where 7000 citizens were beheaded by the Turkish pirate Dragut when he sacked the town in 1554. You’ll find a few simple small hotels and pensions in the old quarter, but if it’s a modern resort hotel you’re after, these face the strips of fine sand beaches that stretch for kilometres on each side of town. Péschici too is a charming village with a tightly-knit old quarter on headland above a sandy bay. Its cobbled streets are a hive of sugar cube houses where sturdy old ladies chat on wooden chairs in their doorways. During the evening passeggiata a lazy browse of shell jewellery and wood carvings in tiny craft shops will keep you busy until it’s time to keep waistlines inflated in excellent pizzerias and gelaterie – what more could you ask to help you wind down?
The 5th-century cave chapel dedicated to St Michael the Archangel at Monte Sant’Angelo is the star turn of the Gargano sights. You enter through amazing bronze doors cast in 1076 in Constantinople, and descend steps polished shiny by the feet of innumerable pilgrims to the grotto where – the story goes – the archangel appeared to a bishop of Sipontum in the fifth century. Nearby, among the tangled alleys of the old town are more fascinating relics: the ruined baptistry of San Pietro has a bizarre relief of a lady suckling a dragon, and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore has well-preserved medieval frescoes. Don’t leave without spending a day on the idyllic Tremiti Islands. Idyllic, that is, except for crowds of exuberant Italians who flock here for their hols and on day trips, so expect displays of big hair, big shades and big noise. Boats leave from Vieste or Péschici and dock on San Domino, where a short uphill walk brings you to a cluster of bars, restaurants, and small pensions. There’s nothing to do except imitate the irridescent lizards: find a flat rock in one of the coves above the clear azure sea and bake in the sun.
When you’re ready for a bit of sightseeing, small boats shuttle over to the more intriguing neighbour San Nicola, where a monastery fortified against roving Turkish pirates squats atop crumbling cliffs. The site is reputed to contain the tomb of Diomedes, Ulysses’ mythological companion. At its heart is a tiny church dating from the 11th century with a Renaissance portal and superb mosaic floor. Foggia has been steamrollered repeatedly by war and earthquakes, but a small old quarter with a Romanesque and Baroque cathedral has survived. Troia’s romanesque cathedral has a magnificent façade with ornate bronze doors, while further south lies the site of the Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal and his elephants annihilated a Roman army twice its size in 216BC.
THE GARGANO TO BARI – LE MURGE
The central area of Puglia has loads of interesting sights to see. Trani is the best base, or you could explore on day trips from the Gargano or trulli region. There’s always something going on along the waterfront of Trani to entertain you: the pink blush of dawn sees grubby old trawlers unloading the night’s catch next to glitzy white cruisers; at night it is ringed with a tangle of amorous teenagers perched precariously on the harbour wall above boats see-sawing at their moorings.
The creamy limestone cathedral sits in the wings on an open seafront piazza. It is actually a layer-cake of several churches piled on top of each other: the main Romanesque structure is stunning in its stark Norman simplicity – the original bronze doors have been moved inside to preserve their magnificent filigree of ornate panels. Descending past avenues of marble columns, you emerge in a more ancient Byzantine church, then, lower still the journey back through time ends in the 6th-century in the Ipogeo San Leucio, a primitive early christian chamber. After admiring the harbour’s Renaissance palazzi over a coffee at one of the waterfront cafes, it’s great to plunge into the maze of backstreets and browse the classy shops. Barletta rings with evocative names from history – names that are far more romantic than the workaday modern port. Crusaders once set sail for the Holy Land from here, and Richard the Lionheart helped build the 12th-century cathedral that was the Bishop of Nazareth’s seat for the next 600 years.
Look for the 5-metre high bronze titan looming outside the Chiesa del San Sepolcro – the 5th-century statue washed ashore from a shipwreck after Venetians looted it from the sack of Constantinople in 1203. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II certainly had a thing about the number 8 when he built Castel del Monte in the rolling hinterland of the murge. The most enigmatic of Frederick II’s 13th-century castles is octagonal and has an octagonal tower at each corner, surveying the Puglian plains like a stone crown. But it wasn’t a fortress: it has no moat or battlements and no useable arrow slits. With almost no natural light entering, it must have been hell to live in too. Plenty of scope, then, to keep centuries of scholars and nutty theorists seeking mystical meanings, astrological symbols and even wilder notions in its perfect symmetry.
A couple of Romanesque cathedrals nearby are worth seeking out: in Ruvo di Puglia there’s a superbly-carved portal flanked by griffins; another griffin holds a flower in its beak in a gorgeous mosaic in Bitonto’s Romanesque cathedral – glass floor panels reveal more mosaics from the early Christian basilica beneath.
Bari has gone down in history as the city that stole Father Christmas. In 1087, when stealing holy relics was considered a Good Thing, a fleet of merchants from Bari raided the saint’s tomb in Lycia (in modern Turkey). Ever since, the bones of Santa Claus – otherwise known as St Nicholas, a 4th-century Bishop of Myra – have lain in the Norman Basilica di San Nicola, which was specially built to house the saintly swag. In the grotto-like crypt, you can join the pilgrims and ask the saint to grant your wishes. Afterwards, get lost on an atmospheric wander through the bustling alleyways of Bari’s old town to the 12th-century San Sabino cathedral – but stay aware of the city’s reputation for street crime.
THE LAND OF TRULLI
Crisscrossed by dry stone walls enclosing olive groves and almond orchards, the Valle d’Itria is idyllic countryside. And unique, thanks to its trulli – fairy-tale grey stone houses with conical roofs that stud the landscape. Legend has it that trulli were originally the great Italian tax dodge – easy and quick to dismantle when tax collectors were doing their rounds. If you want the complete trulli experience, you can rent one or stay in a trulli hotel. Some of Puglia’s plushest rural accommodation can be found in this area, in sybaritically converted farming estates known as masseria. If you prefer to stay on the coast, consider basing yourself in Polignano a Mare, a delightful seaside town that teeters above limestone cliffs honeycombed with caves scooped out by waves. The mellow medieval centre of tiny streets dotted with craft shops, enoteca wine bars and restaurants is just the sort of place you look forward to returning to at the end of a day spent exploring the area. Otherwise, the endearingly dog-eared and somnolent little fishing port of Savelletri has popular fish restaurants and several posh 5-star Masseria hotels nearby.
Alberobello has an entire quarter of trulli at the heart of town. Of course, it’s all unashamedly touristy: trulli shops stacked high with silly souvenirs and lurid liqueurs flavoured with myrtle, lemon or herbs. On the opposite hill in the new town, the Trullo Sovrano is a two-storey trullo mansion turned into a UNESCO museum. Aptly known as the ‘citta bianca’, Ostuni drapes like a snow-white shroud over three hilltops. The cobbled streets of the maze-like centro storico have the feel of a Moroccan medina twisted around a 15th-century cathedral. At night it’s a romantic place simply to wander through and have a drink at one of the trendy little bars and cafes that have sprung up to serve the growing tourist trade. Lovely Cisternino is a good place to turn up for lunch at a local speciality, known as fornello pronto – a cross between a butcher and restaurant, where you choose a cut of meat to be cooked as you like while you wait. Locorotondo – literally ‘round place’ is named for the coiling streets of the old white town; at the top, a pretty garden gives great views over the trulli- speckled countryside. Track down the Cantina Sociale to buy crisp local white wines and fizzy spumante.
In contrast to the cosy hobbity huts of trulli country, Baroque and Rococo grandeur is the order of the day in Martina Franca. Enter the old town through the regal Porta di San Stefano and cross Piazza Roma to the 17th-century Ducal Palace; inside are frescoes showing how the city’s feudal lords lived in fine style. Baroque townhouses vie for attention with snazzy designer shops along Corso Vittorio Emanuele until you reach the colonnaded crescent of Piazza Plebiscito – a fine place to sip a coffee as you boggle at the curlicued façade of the Basilica di San Martino.
Budding speleologists can go underground to check out fantastic formations of stalagmites and stalactites in the cave systems of Grotte di Castellana. Guides play the usual games of spot the owl, snake, Madonna and so on.
THE SALENTINE PENINSULA
The tip of Italy’s heel feels remote and cut off from the ‘mainland’. Vast olive groves scorching in the sun give the area the flavour of Greek island, echoing the area’s history when ancient Greeks lived here in the colonies of Magna Graecia, the remotest outposts of the Hellenic civilisation. Two of Puglia’s highlights are here: the Baroque splendour of Lecce, and the amazing mosaic pavement in Ótranto’s cathedral.
You could easily spend a couple of days in Lecce wandering around dozens of wildly ornate churches and palazzi. No matter how tired your legs are after walking round all day, you’ll want to savour the Baroque exuberance of the old centre all over again after dark when floodlights bring out the carvings in more detail. The Basilica di Santa Croce wins the prize for berserk Baroque splendour, its façade a riot of honey-hued dragons and eagles, knights-in-armour and tubby cherubs cavorting around wreaths and garlands of wedding-cake extravagance. Piazza del Duomo offers another feast of stonework sculpted like caramel ice cream – the cathedral itself even has two facades to cram in more carvings. Make sure to join the locals with a latte di mandorla – coffee with almond syrup – at one of the cafes in Piazza Sant’Oronzo, the hub of Lecce life.
The chap towering above the Roman amphitheatre is Saint Oronzo, a bishop of Lecce who the Romans threw to the lions; his soaring perch is a column pilfered from Brindisi’s waterfront, one of a pair that once marked the end of the Appian Way – its twin is still in place. Ótranto’s bastion walls enclose a maze-like old town of tiny streets. The main corso, lined with cafes, shops and restaurants, is great to amble around during the evening passeggiata, then continue along the marina and palm lined promenade of the modern resort. There’s even a decent sandy beach for daytime lounging. Better still, Otranto’s cathedral is one of Puglia’s treasures. Built in the 11th century by Norman invaders, the floor is a lavish medieval mosaic tapestry of biblical and mythical figures around a central Tree of Life. In a side chapel, the skulls of 800 citizens of Otranto who were beheaded by Turks in 1480 stare from alcoves; the stone that served as the executioner’s block is preserved inside the altar.
South of Ótranto, the trip south to Italy’s Land’s End at the tip of the heel is worth making. Stop on the way for a coffee and to admire the Moorish dome of the old bath house in the quirky spa town of Santa Cesarea Terme. The twisting road south opens out to views of an azure sea crashing against craggy cliffs, and then you’re there, at the meeting point of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, marked by the church of Santa Maria Finibus Terrae.
Gallipoli makes a delightful low-key base for exploring the Salentine Peninsula. It is an authentic fishing town where the catch is sold noisily and timeless scenes of fishermen mending their nets are played out on the quayside. The old town is actually an island, connected by a causeway to the mainland new town. In the centre, tortuous alleyways are tied in an atmospheric knot of peeling paint and flaking stucco, hiding a 17th-century Baroque church built of spongy golden sandstone that wouldn’t look out of place in Lecce. A strip of restaurant terraces runs along the sea walls above a scruffy but serviceable town beach.
In Galatina, the church of Santa Caterina is frescoed from top to toe with richly-coloured tumultuous biblical scenes. Painted in the 14th-century, and influenced by revolutionary Tuscan artists such as Giotto, the most striking images include the Garden of Eden and an amazing bestiary of scaly, winged multi-headed fiends in the Apocalypse. Another church worth a visit sits in an unfortunate spot near the runway of Brindisi airport. Inside the lovely 14th-century church of Santa Maria del Casale is a stunning Last Judgement fresco, with hallucinatory scenes of fish carrying people to their judgement and a torrent of fire sweeping the damned to a boar-tusked demon.
Turn a blind eye to the oil refineries and industry around Táranto, and push on into the old quarter near the Aragonese fort. In its scruffy down-at-heel streets you’ll find an 11th-century cathedral with recycled Roman columns propping up a gaudy gilt Baroque coffered ceiling, patches of ancient floor mosaics and an eye-popping chapel inlaid with a kaleidoscope of pietra dura – hugely expensive semi-precious stones. Wine tasting in Puglia
Puglia has recently reinvented itself as a hotbed of excellent wine production, using Primitivo and Negro Amaro grapes to produce the wines that are its star turn. Wine tasting in Puglia, however, is in its infancy compared to the clearly-marked and well-trodden wine trails you may have explored elsewhere in Italy and France. Individual producers aren’t generally geared up to inviting in the public to sample their wares, but a bit of detective work and persistence pay dividends. The regional cooperatives are easy enough to track down. If you’re into beefy reds, the Cantina Cooperativa in Salice Salentino has a phenomenal value top-of-the-range oaky riserva for around €5, and the Consorzio Produttori Vini in Manduria offers solid jammy reds made from the Primitivo grape ranging from €4.50 to €11. For lighter fare, the Cantina Sociale in Locorotondo offers crisp whites and an excellent value fizzy Spumante – at around €4 a bottle it’s well worth the trip.
ESSENTIAL PUGLIA FACTS
TIME DIFFERENCE UK: + 1 hour
INTERNATIONAL DIALLING CODE: 0039
WHEN TO GO: Avoid the scorching hot summer months when beaches are packed and hotels and restaurants at bursting point. June and September are more pleasant
WHERE TO FLY TO: Bari and Brindisi are Puglia’s main airports, but Naples is under 2 hours away by car. Direct scheduled and charter flights to Naples are available from airports around the UK
GETTING AROUND: Hiring a car is easy and convenient, but driving in cities will frazzle your nerves; main towns – Lecce, Brindisi, Bari, Taranto and Foggia – are connected by rail. If you’re not in a hurry, bus services cover the region.
RECOMMENDED MAP: Touring Club Italiano Puglia ISBN 88-365-2827-9
FURTHER INFORMATION Italian Tourism Board