Published: May 2012
If you’re planning on visiting Italy this year then I’ll hazard a guess that you’re probably considering the Amalfi Coast for its stunning coastline, Tuscany for its countryside, Sicily, for the food or Sardinia for the incredible beaches. Now what if I was to say to you there is a region of Italy that offers all of these things and more, all rolled into one?
Puglia or Apulia as it is known locally is situated in the south east of the country bordering the Adriatic and Ionian seas and the most southern part of the region is located in what looks like the heel of the boot.
Bari is the regions capital city and most flights into Puglia arrive at its modern airport that lies eight kilometres from the city centre. Start your Apulian journey here by hiring a car and heading south towards Brindisi. But not before you’ve spent a day discovering Bari.
This ancient city has been inhabited by Latins, the Italics, the Lombards, the Jews, the Arabs, the Greeks, Orientals, Cypriots, Normans and Swabians probably due to the fact it has always been considered the gateway to the Adriatic as well as a cross road for all civilisations and cultures.
There are two parts to the city divided into old and new by the grand Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The old town is closest to the sea and it’s here you’ll find a labyrinth of winding streets where local women still make hand made orecchiette, the local pasta the region is famous for, sitting outside their homes gossiping with each other while rolling out at lighting speed hundreds of mini pasta shells. It’s a wonderful site and if you stop to chat you’ll probably be invited in to view the family portraits of Mothers and Grand-Mothers before them who were also experts in pasta making.
But to fully appreciate Apulia you need to first understand something about the masseria. These are agro-tourism farmhouses that have been turned into guesthouses serving local home cooked food using ingredients that have either been produced on the premises or sourced locally.
Masseria Alchima near the town of Fasano offers its guests a contemporary masseria experience. It’s all white washed walls and modern furniture and the occasional splash of colour that appeals to its predominately German and Scandinavian clientele. Swiss owner Caroline Groszer has done a remarkable job of blending the old with the new and incorporating small kitchen spaces into all of the units allowing guests to self cater if they wish. The result is a modern and stylish take on the masseria experience without loosing any of buildings original charm.
A short drive away is Polignano a Mare, a small picturesque town famous for its overhanging cliffs and natural caves. Be sure to try a ‘mbrattamuss’ which loosely translates as ‘get your lips dirty’ the perfect name for a cake made with puff pastry filled with custard cream and covered in icing sugar! Be sure to sample the delicious home made ice cream and fresh fruit water ices.
Wherever you go in Apulia you can’t fail to notice small turreted buildings that look something like a giant mushroom. These small round white buildings with their grey tiled roofs are known as Trulli houses and their history can be traced back to the 16th century. They were designed to be used as dwellings for land workers but their unique dry-walling technique meant they could be easily be pulled down when a tax inspector was on his way. He would arrive to find a pile of rubble and after he departed they were easily re-built. Alberobello is a UNESCO world heritage site that has the largest collection of Trulli houses in Italy.
Continue your journey south and you’ll come to Ostuni and where you’ll find one of the more traditional Masseria’s in the area. “A masseria is not a hotel, it is not a restaurant, it’s grandma’s house”, says Amando Balestrazzi who owns Masseria Il Frantoio. From the moment you enter you’re transported back in time to 1940’s Italy. Black and white photos adorn the walls of the stone vaulted rooms. Antique wooden tables sit in the restaurant covered with checked table cloths with water jugs covered with white lace. An upright piano sits against a wall.
The estate is situated in 150 acres of grounds nestled among the old olive groves and carob trees. An ancient underground oil mill acts as part museum, part farm shop and it is here Amando will passionately tell you stories of the estates past. Relaxing on the shady terrace with a glass of rustico wine in one hand and a good book in the other is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Amando’s wife is in charge of the kitchen which serves the most incredible home cooked dishes using only the very best ingredients sourced locally. On the day I visited we lunched on fresh shrimps cooked in butter with marjoram grown in the garden, fava beans with home grown tomatoes, and saffron infused goats cheese with fresh pears and pear jam. Home made whole wheat noodles with fresh garden herbs and artichokes followed served with a salad laced with almonds. It was simple, inspiring and probably the best meal I’d had in a long time.
Ostuni is known as the White City due to the dazzling brightness of its white buildings. It’s a near perfect Mediterranean town built around a series of levels, staircases, small roads, alleys and arches. The area around Ostuni has been inhabited since the stone ages. It was destroyed by Hannibal during the Punic Wars and then re-built by the Greeks. Today it’s the combination of the natural and the manmade that has made Ostuni one of the most attractive cities in the region.
Less than ten minutes drive from the centre of Ostuni lies Masseria Cervarolo. The original farmhouse dates back to the 16th century and in the grounds can be found a small church dating back to 1798 which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Teo and his family spent five years lovingly restoring the property into what it is today. Nineteen guest rooms which are located in either the original building or in trulli houses are furnished with restored, locally hand crafted furniture. Splashes of colour are added in the form of hand made bed covers and cushion covers.
Finally no trip to Puglia would be complete without a trip to Lecce, known as the Florence of the South due to its architectural and artistic heritage. The buildings are made with a unique local stone that’s light in colour and easily workable. This style of architecture is known as Barocco Leccese or Lecce Baroque. Interestingly the city is one of the world’s major producers of paper mache and the town was the setting for the highly successful Italian film ‘Mine Vagantti’.
Jonathan Beaumont is Travel Channelís cruise expert and one of the channelís Executive Producerís. He contributes regularly to the web site writing hotel reviews, cruising ship news and LGBT travel related stories.