I arrive in Bari, a busy modern port and the largest city in Puglia, tired. The many hours on the road navigating the 1,200 km between my home in South Germany and Italy’s heel seem endless. Though most of it is an interesting drive. Traversing the Alps and Northern Italy to land at the edge of Europe feels like moving through different worlds. As we drive south, the change in scenery is extreme. Puglia is like a different continent, a place apart. Caught between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas, it’s the end of something and the beginning of something else.
Yet I must confess I’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s mid-August in Italy when the entire country seems to be in the same destination over the holiday season. It’s high summer, hence hot. Insanely hot. The south coast has clear seas with beautiful swimming opportunities along the rocks. But Puglia, despite its 500 miles of coastline (most of it taken by heavily packed lidos), is not where I find my favorite beaches in the Mediterranean. Puglia is grittier, less pretty, and less considered than Northern Italy. On some occasions, giving the feeling of a forgotten corner.
There is a lot to see around here, so, over two weeks, I try to be strategic by splitting my stay between South and North. While making my way up, down, and around the heel of Italy, I take back roads that lead me down dirt paths to ghost towns and tiny villages where I have unforgettable meals in the most unlikely places. At first sight, Puglia is not an easy sell. It’s surely not Tuscany. There are international tourists (in some towns more than in others), but it’s utterly authentic. It’s here where tons of ordinary Italians come for summer.
To beat the crowds and the heat, I wake up every morning at the first light. Each day driving to a different town celebrated by its extraordinary architecture. The Norman heritage has left Puglia with some of Italy’s most beautiful Romanesque constructions, such as Bari, Puglia’s biggest town. But it’s the baroque that holds sway in the region’s shining star and a baroque masterpiece, Lecce, where streets are full of honey-stoned facades, intricately carved balconies, and richly adorned palaces, and yet, with a contemporary vibe of great restaurants, galleries, and modern design. Lecce is extraordinary. I realize that it’s the irony of Puglia that makes it so compelling – its relative underdevelopment contrasting with such magnificent and sophisticated structures. The memories of grander days linger in towns of echoing palaces – a heritage from a faraway time when Tuscany was a backwater, and Puglia, the center of the world and one of the key intersections of the Mediterranean.
I love to stroll through unbelievably pretty streets and eventually come across a landscape armored with ancient olive trees and white-washed houses starking against a superb medley of art, architecture, and historic towns. Between Bari, towards the north, and Lecce lies a swathe of pastoral hills and sometimes rather touristy towns. Alberobello (with the largest concentration of trulli and a Unesco World Heritage site), Martina Franca, one of the prettiest built on a hill overlooking vineyards and olive trees, and Locorotondo – scattered with charming conical dwellings that are almost unique to this part of Puglia. There is also Polignano a Mare, a quaint seaside town famous for its white-pebble beach that’s framed by cliffs, although unbearably crowded. Then, Monopoli, Fasano, Ostuni. Each town with its unique character.
The masserie, or fortified farmhouses, that stand alone in ancient olive groves, all over the region, are the real icons of Puglia. Dating back to the 16th century, they used to be associated with trade, pilgrimage, and conquest. Many of them have been turned into hotels or luxury properties. Walled, gated, and whitewashed, they feel as if they belong to Greece, not Italy.
I trip to South of Lecce, on the Salento peninsula, towards the tip of the heel, where the attractions are fishing villages such as Gallipoli and Otranto, both full of charm and appealing waterfronts. Gallipoli is enclosed on three sides by the sea and is halfway to Africa. For me, though, the best of Salento is the string of towns and bays along its east coast. At Santa Maria di Leuca, the last town in Italy and Europe’s Land’s End, the sea floods the horizons. It is a place where groves of contorted olive trees retreat into green shadow and pomegranates ornamented with fruit peep over dry-stone walls. An abrupt change in landscape. The deep cobalt-blue Mediterranean water at its best. I find my way across the jam-packed rocks, swim among Italians, and have the best meal of the trip. That’s the allure of Puglian summers, I conclude: La dolce vita as the order of the day.
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