A Summer Jaunt through Puglia – Another Side of Italy
You’ve experienced Rome, the domes of Florence, the beauty of Tuscany, the sea spray of Amalfi – where to next? Italy is home to a wealth of incredible regions and hotspots, some far more touristy than others. For a taste of something a little off the beaten track, Puglia has all the goods.
Puglia, aka Apulia, encompasses the ‘heel’ of Italy’s slender boot. Though I’d passed through briefly many years ago, on a backpacker odyssey through the port city Bari, I’d never given much thought to the rest of this remote, un-traipsed southeast region. In a nation of such rich historical drawcards and tourism-hogging hubs, a more modest region like Puglia struggles to draw attention to itself. And, as we found out this past summer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Bound for a wedding proximate to the town, Fasano, we boarded a flight from Berlin to Bari, Puglia’s largest city and thriving University town. We took the line 16 bus from the slick, revamped Bari airport, a short 40min ride into town (the airport train might have been a smoother option, certainly a less rickety one).
With evening sun bearing down on the portside city, we navigated the streets of the cozy Bari grid on foot, from Bari Centrale station to our accommodation at Le Nicchie, a delightful boutique B&B by the labyrinthine Barrivecchia old town.
It was a nourishing first act: young children outside playing football in the square; old men smoking cigarettes; ladies on stoops under hanging laundry; the day husking low over the 10th century Castello Normanno Svevo.
On our host’s recommendation, we wandered into the main square through the maze-like lanes, discovering a hidden gem amidst the tourist traps: La Uascezze, a cloistered alfresco restaurant known for its delicious local Cucina Povera.
Not accustomed to this region’s cuisine, we were treated to, and surprised by, an earthy mix of fresh insalate, cured meats and mozzarella, as well as the house specialty fennel sausage and polenta, and a range of seafood delicacies. Needless to say, the red wine went down a treat.
Come morning, the summer sun roasted our backs as we boarded a bus south, the hour and a half trip taking us to destination Fasano, where we’d be spending the remainder of the week, attending the wedding at nearby Masseria Alchimia.
Forgetting about the strict siesta hours round these parts, we arrived in the small town Fasano in the middle of the daily break, and the main square, and smoothed marble main streets, were as empty as a Wild West town. We had the place to ourselves – the empty central Piazza Ciaia, rustic colored and gorgeous; and thankfully, a place to dine despite the midday pause at Pizzeria Diavola.
Our accommodation at B & B L’alcova was a pleasant surprise: a three-story terrace house with stunning views across the town and nearby hills. It ought to be said that Fasano is not on the tourist map for a reason: there’s not a whole lot going on, except perhaps for after 5 pm, when the town – like all good rural Italian hubs – comes alive in a burst of community and commerce.
The wedding the next night at Masseria Alchemia was fabulous, the full moon shedding ethereal light on what appeared to be an amazing accommodation choice – an oasis of olive groves and lush green amidst the sun-scorched Puglia hinterland (next time, we’d certainly choose here over any other).
Unique to Puglia, Masserias are fortified medieval farms, or country houses, set on country estates, and typically producers of olive oil, wine, or other produce. Spending a few nights in one of the Masserias in Puglia is a great way to experience the culture of the region.
Ostuni Puglia – The White Town
The hilltop town of Ostuni of just over 30,000 people is well worth visiting, thanks to the beautiful scenery on all sides. The view of the city from a distance is breathtaking; the white-washed homes cap the hilltop, juxtaposed with the jagged skyline of domes and towers. Views of the surrounding countryside are astounding, particularly to the east, where the cliffs and beaches of the Adriatic coastline can be clearly seen.
Ostuni is a 40-minute drive north of Brindisi, also reachable by train. If you are driving into the city, I highly recommend taking the coastal route, as the seaside is peppered with stunning sea caves and picturesque beaches.
Further, you’ll get to see the intriguing coastal towers built under the government of Bona Sforzia in the 16th century. The towers were built as a military defense to warn of approaching enemy navies. The towers communicated by signal fires, so you can always see one tower from another, and they stretch along the coast for hundreds of miles.
Leaving the coast, it is a short drive through a countryside dotted with massive, ancient olive trees. Puglia produces two-thirds of all the olive oil in Italy, and some of the trees are nearly 1,000 years old. Surrounded by walls that protect it from the wind, the bustling town is full of restaurants, shops selling local foods and crafts, and cafes. Strolling through the streets and down tiny, twisting alleys is an activity in itself.
Ostuni is known as “the White Town” because all of its buildings are painted white, and there is no end to the beautiful architecture. Pause to take in the stunning view from the top of Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. If the ocean wind is too strong, you can take refuge in the archeological museum or in the duomo.
For dinner, my girlfriend and I ate at a pizzeria that is built right into the side of the hill. The roof of the dining room is made of rock, and the experience made us feel as though we were eating in a cave—a finely decorated cave that flowed with good food and plentiful wine.
Most of the year, its natural beauty makes Ostuni a place to indulge in quiet walks through olive groves or along beaches, and the architectural beauty likewise promotes quiet reflection. During the summer months, however, Ostuni becomes a popular location for Italian and German tourists. Buses run frequently to and from the nearby beaches, and Ostuni transforms from a gentle place of nature and solitude into a thriving town filled with parties and revelry.
Things to Do in Puglia
To be fair, given the sleepy quality of our chosen resting spot, three nights in Fasano was pushing it somewhat. We managed to fill our time post-wedding the Italian way, eating and drinking our way through it, and taking our time.
Nearby Savelletri, reachable by regular bus service, proved a quaint seaside departure from the main town, with the pebbled beach clubs along the SP90 Adriatic coast road offering quiet oasis under the bright Puglian sun (Lido La Macchie, our choice of the bunch).
Word of warning, if you’re planning to tackle Puglia (like Italy in general) by all means make sure you rent a car. Given the purpose of our trip, and the short length of it, we had high hopes to make our way around by way of public transport. A fool’s brag given our lack of regional knowledge and the tendency for bus timetables to act purely as a ‘guide only’.
Thankfully, our friends were able to chaperone us to some of the further hubs, including the idyllic Polignano a Mare. If you happen to pass through, be sure to enjoy a delicious seafood meal at Donna Gina, as well as a night stroll by the uber-Italian statue Monumento a Domenico Modugno by way of the Pietra Piatta observation point.
If you have a rental car, the region is yours. Take in the 16th-century Trulli houses of Alberobello, the Roman ruins of Lecce, and, in the boot heel’s ‘stiletto’, the land of Salento, an area celebrated for its delicious wines and complex history.
All in all, Puglia wasn’t the Italian escapade we’d anticipated. And that was a good thing. It was a taste of something different, something rawer and earthier: an encounter with a much less manicured, less overwhelming snapshot of Italian life. Great food, great wine, endless olive groves and a gorgeous Adriatic coastline makes Puglia a wise, and very affordable, choice for those looking to leap off the well-worn Italian track.