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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.
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 Locorontondo, 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.