…Puglia is the perfect holiday destination, offering not only some of Italy’s loveliest beaches but also a sublime climate, a series of fascinating towns, a number of important archaeological sites and…an excellent culinary tradition bristling with local specialities!
Known as the ‘spur’ of the Italian boot, the beautiful Gargano Promontory is in the north of Apulia, straddling the eastern sea and wide, wheat western plains. It is a place of dark ancient forests, fishing villages, coastal watchtowers, dazzlingly white limestone cliffs, caves and long, sandy beaches. Most of this mountainous land jutting into the Adriatic Sea is a National Park – the Parco Nazionale del Gargano. It is cloaked with coastal forests of pine and ilex and orchards where almonds, oranges and olives grow. The seaside towns Peschici and Vieste have lovely sandy beaches and to the north, the offshore Tremiti Islands have glorious rugged scenery with dozens of coves and exceptional diving in underwater caves and snorkelling over coral reefs.
Inland, white medieval towns such as Ostuni, dazzle against the rich red soil and carpets of silvery green olive groves and vineyards in this, the region that produces much of Italy’s olive oil and full-bodied, lusty wines. Elsewhere standing proud and solitary on the summit of a rock, the 13th century Castel del Monte surveys the vast plains of Apulia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a masterpiece of medieval military architecture built by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. Such is the castle’s fame that it even appears on the obverse side of the Italian euro one cent coin.
But perhaps most famous are the trulli around Alberobello. They stand in rows like little white beehives reaching towards azure skies, with pinnacles or crosses and strange stone markers that are said to have magical significance. The lush Itria Valley, a World Heritage Site, has these unique ‘hobbit’ houses, scattered throughout the countryside. At one time seven or eight people would have lived in these tiny dry stone dwellings, the children upstairs and the horse with his manger and the adults below. Nowadays, many have been restored to make hip holiday homes and others extended to become hotels.
On a grander scale are the centuries-old fortified farmhouses, masserie, many of which have been restored into luxury hotels, which are often set among huge groves of ancient olive trees. As the producer of more than half of Italy’s olive oil, plenty of Puglia’s olive presses offer tours and tastings of the different varieties. And wine buffs will be spoilt for choice in this region once known as ‘the wine cellar of Europe’. Near Alberobello there are good local whites from Martina Franca and Locorotondo while the full-bodied reds from the south such as Malvasia Nera and Negromaro are very popular.
Farther south at the tip of the heel is the ‘Florence of the South’ where Lecce is known for its exuberantly voluptuous architecture, called ‘Lecce Baroque’. The local yellow pinkish-tinged stone carved by skilled craftsmen has etched out this lovely city’s proud boast as one of the most unified urban landscapes in Italy. The most perfect example is the 16th century Basilica della Santa Croce adorned with beauties and beasts – from cherubs, flowers and fruits to grotesque human shapes and fantasy allegorical animals.
As well as beach-hopping, swimming and sightseeing Apulia is also great cycling country as much of the terrain is flat. It is also establishing a reputation as a desirable golfing destination with no less than four gold courses – each one quite different from the other.