From unique architecture to authentic food, Melissa Hoyer delves into what makes this Italian region on the Mediterranean coast so worth visiting.
Italy’s Puglia is a region like nothing I have ever encountered. And that’s saying something. Basically, it has everything — it’s an exotic but relaxed, understatedly chic region featuring dreamy bays, cathedrals, castles, whitewashed houses, flower-strewn balconies, stone villages, and re-invigorated farmhouses turned into glam, but not garish, masserias (farmhouses), surrounded by exquisite olive groves. It’s not showy. It’s quietly elegant, having not succumbed to the glitz and glamour, just yet . . .
There is a fascinating wilderness feel to Puglia — unlike other Italian regions, like Tuscany, Lombardy, and Lazio — and some of the architecture is so extraordinary, that its traditional trulli houses in Alberobello are rated as UNESCO sites.
I must admit, Puglia and its six provinces have become a travel ‘thing’ — so much so, that it has been awarded the title of Most Beautiful Region in the World by National Geographic.
The region is divided into six provinces: Bari (which is the regional capital), Brindisi, Foggia, Lecce, Taranto, and the recently constituted province of Barletta-Andria-Trani. The area around Lecce and the southernmost tip of the ‘heel’ is called the Salento. Puglia borders Campania, Molise, and Basilicata. Basilicata’s most famous site, the cave town of Matera, is close to the Puglia border and makes a good addition to a tour in that region.
I concentrated my time In Lecce, which is in the south, and I can totally understand its entire charm. I was fortunate to have spent time with a woman who has that innate knack for making a home, a quintessential Italian home: no matter what finds at the local market, or from her favoured interior places. Jayne Henderson (@hendersonjayne) is the most understated, dynamic, innately stylish, rustic, real woman, and her properties — an apartment in Lecce and private rental, Villa Castelluccio (@villacastellucio) in the region of Salento — oozes a ‘new’ kind of ‘old’ Italian charm.
When you look at the topography of Italy, its ‘stiletto heel’ is where Puglia thrives. Apart from being a sucker for a heel, I think anyone could easily be convinced to spend much more time here. Puglia is one of those places where everyone is beyond happy and friendly, and the cost of living hasn’t gone too crazy. Yet.
Vacations in Salento make a trip to Puglia simply excellent. It’s the real Puglia, where the sun always seems to be out, and the sea is a crystal hue most months of the year.
And the food? Wow, the food. From real-tasting tomatoes to basil, handmade pastas, burrata (heaven!), and capers, the people of Salento, like all Pugliese, are proud of their simple and enticing flavours. As soon as you arrive, you feel that authentic vibe that has often been lost by over-capitalising in incredibly popular travel destinations.
To go to Lecce in Salento is an absolute must. In this spectacular Baroque city, the old town is pedestrianised, allowing visitors to wander about, especially in the early evening, during summer. Have lunch at Doppiozero after shopping across the street for Italian linens in Society Limonata.
In the evening, dine on the terraces at Vico dei Sotterranei, in the garden at La Scarpetta or La Zie, a charming trattoria owned and operated by women.
Meanwhile, Australian-born hotel marketing boss of Firmdale Hotels in London, Craig Markham, is in the throes of creating his Puglia oasis not far from Jayne Henderson, and also a stone’s throw from style queen Collette Dinnigan, who has also created a home and Airbnb space in the region.
Where to stay
Masseria Trapana, Lecce
I have never stayed at a hotel like this. Ever. It is a beautifully restored ancient masseria, founded by Sydneysider, Rob Potter Sanders. It’s a 10-minute drive from the spectacular Baroque city of Lecce and has spacious bedrooms and suites, stunning citrus trees in a series of walled gardens, and the most beautiful swimming pool. Everything about it is total perfection and a definite must-stay. As far as hotels go it is a 10 out of 10.
Masseria Moroseta, Ostuni
This gleaming white, architecturally designed, modern masseria has just six rooms and excellent food from young chef, Giorgia Goggi. They have regular dinner parties called Moroseta Nights, which are open to the public. Book early to avoid disappointment. They also rent luxury villas.
Palazzo Daniele, Gagliano del Capo, Southern Salento
This is a stunning restoration of a 19th-century palazzo in the small town of Gagliano del Capo situated in southern Salento. It features original details including frescoed ceilings, weathered stucco walls, and a modern art collection. It’s well worth the journey south.
Masseria Cimino, Savelletri
This is a charming, authentic, and rustically stylish masseria from the same owners at nearby Borgo Egnazia and Masseria San Domenico. If you don’t stay, go for dinner. Don’t be frightened off by the idea of a buffet, as it is excellent and lovely dining on the terrace.
Masseria Potenti, Maduria
White-on-white with beautiful styling and vast open spaces. Go for lunch and make sure you meet mother-and-daughter owners, Maria and Chiara, who are very welcoming. It’s in Manduria, so visit the beautiful Fasano tableware shops in Grottaglie on the way.
Borgo Egnazia, Savaletri
This is a spectacular new build: touted as Puglia’s magnificent, top five-star luxury hotel. It’s been built from scratch to resemble an original Italian borgo (village) and it really does. It’s quite impressive with its own golf course. Go to the beach club for lunch.
La Fiermontina, Lecce
Located inside the walls of the old town of Lecce. It has beautiful rooms and grounds with a pool and is perfectly situated for exploring the city.
Il Convento di Santo Maria di Costantinopoli, Marittima, Salento
This is a unique experience. It was created by the famous style arbiter and collector, Alastair McAlpine, and his wife, Athena, who still runs it. It’s a treasure trove of art, antiques, and objects and is situated in the small town of Marittima in southern Salento.
This is a group of ancient trulli that have been beautifully restored. There is a lovely pool with gentle views overlooking the Itria Valley.
A recently restored palazzo in Ostuni with individually designed rooms featuring original frescoes and spectacular gardens.
Towns and Restaurants
Ostuni in the Itria Valley is the famous white town on the hill. Dine at Osteria del Tempo Perso, which is cave-like. Also, Piazzetta Cathedrale at the top of the hill near the cathedral, and Al Solito Posto, a fun family restaurant with great pizza. Visit La Mercanteria for a treasure trove of local antiques.
Also, see five other charming towns in the Itria Valley:
MARTINA FRANCA: Dine at Garibaldi Bistro.
CISTERNINO: Dine at Osteria Bell’italia or Giardini 36.
LOCOROTONDO: Dine at U’Curdunn.
CEGLIE MESSAPICA: Dine at Cibus.
ALBARABELLO is ‘trulli land.’ The must-visit seaside towns of Monopoli, Polignano Mare, and Savelletri are lovely for wandering around. In Polignano Mare, make sure you snap a picture from the iconic Ponte Lama Monachile.
FIVE DON’T-MISS STOPS:
- Moroseta Nights Dinner at Masseria Moroseta
- Lecce, the most stunning Baroque city in Puglia
- Grottaglie for beautiful Antonio and Nicola Fasano tableware
- Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo and the surrounding towns in southern Salento
- Ostuni: the white city on the hill.
Don’t forget, Puglia is a very large region, at more than 400 kilometres long. Exploring the whole region in a week or so isn’t advised, but a car will make travelling much easier. While driving through Puglia isn’t, well, easy — they go FAST — renting a car rather than attempting to traverse the region by train or bus is the way to go.
Puglia? It’s absolutely definite for me!