Read on to discover more about the treasures of the Italian south...
See Otranto by 'Bee'
is a curious form of traditional Italian transport – a three-wheeled ‘bee’, rather than the waspish Vespa scooters seen the length and breadth of the country. And down here in the historic port of Otranto, perched on a rocky spur overlooking turquoise waters, an ape tour is the ideal way to get about. Putter from the Norman cathedral, with its remarkable, 12th-century ‘tree of life’ mosaic, to the Aragonese Castle, emblematic of a powerful past. Then bumble your way through the Old Town (literally ship-shape, within its imposing fortifications), perhaps alighting for a stroll along the walls, where you might stumble upon a strategically placed café for a refreshing drink and a view of the bay.
You’ll be buzzing!
Masserie are unique to southern Italy. They are large working farms or estates that, unlike their agriturismi cousins, tend to surround a fortified watchtower, with plenty of outlying accommodation to house workers and livestock, as well as guests. They are usually well-situated, too, and often make (and sometimes sell) delicious, home-made food, such as the Salento olive oil we tried from Masseria Panareo near Otranto, and the delectable fig jam made by the owners of Masseria Montenapoleone, close to the sea north of Ostuni.
Kallipolis, the Greeks’ ‘beautiful city’, might be something of a faded beauty (and much less visited than its famous Turkish namesake), but that’s all part of its charm. It sits on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th-century bridge and almost completely surrounded by defensive walls. While you’re here, enjoy an al fresco fish lunch, then wander among the Baroque churches and aristocratic palazzi, testament to its former status as a wealthy trading port, before taking a stroll along the golden sands of La Spiaggia della Purità.
'Florence of the South'
Lecce’s over-the-top Baroque is wildly extravagant. This sumptuous architecture, enhanced by the easily carved, honey-coloured local stone (pietra Leccese) and featuring elaborately sculpted gargoyles and animals, is a feast for the eyes. Not everyone is a fan, of course (the Marchese Grimaldi famously claimed the façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce was like ‘a lunatic having a nightmare’), but for most people, it works. So take a stroll through this harmonious beauty – with its astonishing number of churches – and prepare to be stupito (amazed).
Let Your Hair Down
One of the many ways you can enjoy your time in Lecce is by learning how to dance the pizzica. Meaning ‘pinch’ or ‘sting’, it dates from the time when local women would chant songs on their way back from the wheat fields. Although the dance fell out of favour for a time (and was considered backward and superstitious), it’s now back with a vengeance, and the moves – to a mesmeric, bouncing rhythm – are strangely hypnotic.
Ostuni & the Valle d’Itria
The Valle d’Itria, with green rolling hills criss-crossed by dry-stone walls (parietoni), is one of the most alluring landscapes in Puglia, if not the whole of Italy. Its rustic character is enhanced by quiet country lanes and countless orchards and vineyards, plus the strange trulli houses built by generations of farmers. Visit the exceptionally beautiful (and delightfully named) hill-top village of Locorotondo, perhaps sampling its renowned wines on a tasting tour at the Cantina Sociale; and enjoy exquisite Ostuni, a white beacon draped across three hills with a maze of streets twisting around its dramatic, 15th-century cathedral.
The Gargano Promontory
Characterised by white limestone cliffs, mysterious grottoes, a crystal-clear emerald sea and ancient forests, the Gargano (the rugged ‘spur’ of the Italian boot) offers a majestic contrast to the rest of Puglia. Towering 1,000m above flat tablelands to the west, it points east across the sparkling Adriatic with its curious trabucco fishing contraptions (each of which resembles a giant insect with long, wooden ‘arms’ supporting a huge, low-slung net) ranged around the coast. Home to 2,000 species of plants, including the highest concentration of wild orchid species to be found anywhere in Europe, a visit here is a must during spring.
Alberobello - The Trulli Town
Arguably a victim of its own trulli fame, the extraordinary town of Alberobello is a UNESCO-listed paradise for those wishing to see these hobbit-like, circular houses with their conical black roofs. A top tourist draw it may well be, but an extraordinary sight nonetheless; and it’s fascinating to learn about these intricate and clever constructions – designed to be cool in summer and cosy in winter – and to admire the undoubted expertise of the trullari who made them.
'Cheese on Horseback'
Puglia’s broad plains and low-lying hills make for excellent grazing pasture, and among the dairy output is a wide variety of cheese. The names – Mozzarella, Provolone, Ricotta, Canestrato and Pampanella – trip off the tongue in a mouthwatering cascade, but it’s Caciocavallo (‘cheese on horseback’) that is one of the most interesting – and the oldest, having been mentioned by Hippocrates as far back as 500BC. Its unusual name comes from the manner in which it is tied together in pairs with a rope and dangled over a wooden board to ripen. It is intense, earthy and perfect with a glass of Primitivo red!
Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring spectacle that is Matera, the oldest inhabited settlement in Europe and hewn from the rock itself. History lies in thick layers here (Neolithic and Roman remains abound), but it is the city itself – with its maze of alleyways and ash-grey sassi (cave-and-stone houses from the Paleolithic Age) – that will blow you away. Matera’s collection of ‘rock churches’ is every bit as remarkable as the sassi: again carved from the limestone, and using the natural folds and formations of the rock, they represent an extraordinary architectural achievement and are a heavenly, humbling sight.