I’ve travelled plenty through Italy and even lived there for a while, but Puglia has remained undiscovered for me, until now. Words like “hidden gem” “untouristed” and “authentic” all spring to mind but they don’t really do justice to the passion of the people I met on this trip, who share a love of their homeland (adopted or by birth) and you will soon, I hope, understand why.
So let’s get the facts out of the way and concentrate on the rapturous descriptions. I recently organised a cycling and food trip with Southern Visions. Antonello Losito and Alison Pike are dynamic, intelligent and passionate about the region, and their network of locals and experiences is second to none. It’s a region where it’s worth seeking out some expert advice as the distances can be deceptive, the history is interesting, and they know all the most beautiful properties (indeed, Antonello has his own cooking school in a stunning restored masseria in the countryside near Alberobello) and can open doors or make arrangements that even the most skillful googlist would never be able to replicate.
I arrived in Bari after a long flight and stopped at the super cute Resort Bufi in Molfetta, a 15 minute drive from Bari airport. I often like to mix up my accommodation on a trip and I loved this minimalist bed and breakfast perched right over the Adriatic. Ivano Bufi’s father renovated a sandstone palazzo and Ivano himself, a charming 20-something Pugliese, studies historical architecture at the University of Bari between looking after guests. A small terrace on the top floor with wide open views looks over the ocean, and you can take an extensive breakfast here including exceptional coffee, and crostata di marmellata from the local pasticceria. The rooms themselves are small but sleek and well designed to maximise space and light, and bisazza mosaic walls add a splash of colour. Downstairs is a dinky hammam and spa, also tiled in lovely bisazza tiles, leading onto a small pebbled beach which is private to hotel guests. The water is crystal clear. The town itself is lively and local, with pretty cobbled streets and sandstone palazzos. Young people flock to the esplanade to chat, and eat, and check each other out. It’s very Italian, and hardly a tourist in sight in the off season.
The next day, I was collected from Bari by Antonello and wandered around Bari Vecchia with the effusive and charming Silvia, through the tiny cobbled alleyways of this important Mediterranean port which had been conquered and re-conquered by so many different civilisations. Memories dredged from my dim backpacking past of a skanky port town were quickly overwritten by glimpsed vignettes through whitewashed arches of local markets, or women sitting outside their doors deftly hand-rolling orrechiette, one of the traditional pasta shapes of the region, whilst chatting to their neighbours.
We then made our way to Borgo Egnazia, a sprawling fantasy of a town recreated in Pugliese style. Borgo Egnazia is a truly beautiful property with exceptional design details but it is a new build (with all the pros and cons that that entails). The spa and the food are worth the trip alone, and it was a good contrast to some of the more rustic masseria-style accommodation in the region.
We later stayed at Masseria Torre Coccaro which I also loved, with its rustic family charm, authentic Italian country-house feel and glorious Mediterranean gardens. There are plenty of other options too in the region, from staying in a tiny stone trulli (beehive house) which would be a fabulously fun experience for children for a night, to more sophisticated masseria like Torre Maizza, to private villas.
Our days in Puglia were short but sweet. A fleet of hi-tech carbon fibre bicycles of all persuasions was at our disposal, and Antonello organised a couple of gentle rides for us which were just lovely. I am not a cyclist but for those who are, there are plenty of more challenging options. The first, through sunlit olive groves in the late afternoon, ending in the beautiful port town of Monopoli, was my favourite. We rode around the ramparts of the ancient whitewashed citadel before dismounting at the harbour where bright blue fishing boats bobbed about, and suddenly, a member of Antonello’s team was there in an apron, offering glasses of chilled prosecco to celebrate our arrival. That’s my style of giro.
The next day we cycled again through the beautiful countryside watching the farmers harvesting their olives in the autumn sun before ending at an olive mill which had an underground press dating back to the bronze age. Some of the olive trees themselves had been carbon dated to in excess of 3,000 years old. It was astonishing. A wonderful picnic lunch had been set up in the olive grove to sample the fresh cheeses of the region, and handmade focaccias made by the owner’s mother in law in a wood oven outside.
It is difficult to explain all the highlights of the trip without writing dozens of pages, but these are the moments which I loved: strolling the stone streets of the clifftop village of Polignano Al Mare at night, listening to the sound of the sea slapping the cliff below and reading doorways overwritten with poetry instead of graffiti. Stopping for a Caffe Speciale, coffee whipped with amaretto and lemon zest, and a hazelnut gelati, dipped in whipped cream and chopped nuts. Spending the afternoon strolling around his home town of Ostuni (one of the prettiest hill towns I’ve seen) with Davide, a shy but hilarious 30-something American Italian who organised our bikes and operations, and weaselling out of him the story of his unrequited love for a beautiful Pizzica dancer (Pizzica is the native dance of Puglia which arose from the belief in the middle ages that dancing was the only cure for a tarantula bite). Cooking with two young Pugliese chefs of prodigious talent and highly engaging personality, chatting about their very distinct wine and food before retiring to a candlelit wintergarden at a local masseria. And when the weather closed in after days of glorious sunshine, we made our own pasta before incorporating it into a raucous lunch in a trulli house in the hill town of Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site for the domed stone houses which line its maze-like streets.
I could go on, and yet there remains so much to see here – on this occasion I didn’t get to Matera with its troglodyte houses….. or Grottaglie to see the beautiful white pottery of Enza Fasano…….. or one of the local beach clubs with a basket of picnic supplies……….and the baroque beauty of Lecce deserves at least a couple of days…..
Allora, there is no choice but to return and I can barely wait.