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Puglia: Italy's Southern Gem
When the opportunity came up to visit Puglia, I'll admit, my first reaction was, "Uh, sure... and that's where?" I had traveled to Italy more than half a dozen times, but Puglia? Never heard of it.
So when I searched online and saw Puglia (or Apulia in English) described as the place where Italians go to vacation, with stunning coastlines, olive tree groves, and some of the freshest seafood and produce in the country -- a country where you're already 98% guaranteed to have a pretty darn amazing meal every meal -- I stopped reading. Puglia had me at that proverbial "hello."
And so about 3 weeks after I first heard the word "Puglia," I was there, surrounded by fields of vibrantly colored wildflowers, acres upon acres of olive trees and grapevines, two coastlines of translucent water, and whitewashed walls of quaint fishing villages where time seemed to stand still. It took but a few moments before I decided this region could be the best kept secret in Italy.
Puglia, practically speaking, makes up Italy's "heel" in the southeastern part of the country, sandwiched between the Ionian and Adriatic seas and just a ferry ride away from Greece and Albania. On a map, Puglia appears to be just a relatively small sliver of land, but if I learned anything from my week in Puglia, it's that a week isn't nearly enough time to see, taste and explore all that the area has to offer. There are endless little villages and countryside masserias (or upscale farmhouses) to explore. I feel like I only scratched the surface, so consider this a list of highlights to get you thinking about your own Puglian vacation.
My home base for the week was the charming Baroque city of Lecce - a place I often heard referred to as the "Florence of the South.” During the day, it felt quaint and quiet, almost deserted and entirely mine to explore. But at night, it transformed into a vibrant and cosmopolitan hotspot. It's a must see for its architecture -- its beautiful palazzos, cathedral, Basilica di Santa Croce, and ancient Roman amphitheater. But what I loved most about Lecce was the feeling that this was a dynamic, working Italian city not yet touched by busloads of visitors trying to replicate a photo they'd seen in a travel guide.
In the summer, Otranto is a favorite hub for beach lovers due to its beautiful coastline, but when I visited in April it was a quiet and charming port town. Walk along the water to see what the fisherman are bringing in for the day and then wander up through the hilly, car-free cobblestone streets atop the high stone walls and take in a view of the Adriatic.
While driving through an area called Valle d'Itria, you’ll notice strange conical structures made of white limestone stucco scattered across the landscape. These traditional homes are called “trulli,” and are unique to this region. To get an up close look at a trullo, visit Alberobello, a small town about 90 minutes north of Lecce. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to hundreds of preserved trulli. Alberobello is admittedly one of the more touristy locations in the region, but there's a reason for it. It makes quite an impression, even if it does feel a bit like Disneyland. Be sure to ask a local to tell you the story about why these homes were built this way, and explore the inside of a few, even if it means you have to indulge your inner tourist and get sucked into some gift shops. My favorite shop in the historic center was called Trullo Antichi Sapori, where you'll find a family that's been producing local specialties, like cheeses, meats, wines, and liquors, for generations.
POLIGNANO A MARE
Set dramatically on top of a seaside rock cliff, Polignano a Mare will take your breath away. The limestone buildings in this medieval town hang precariously over stunning cerulean water of the Adriatic and you can't help but think you've walked onto a movie set. Grab a gelato and just wander through the old cobblestone streets or take a walk down to the little beach cove and dip your toes into the sea.
WHEN TO GO
The question of "when to go" may be one of the most important when planning your visit Puglia. The summer months are high season. June, July, and particularly August are, I'm told, when Italians flock to the region. I traveled there in April and found it to be the ideal time. The weather was a perfect 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit, there were people visiting, but nothing was over crowded. I suspect some of the charm would be missing if the place were packed with people. I should also mention that during the off-season, Puglia was surprisingly affordable. There are some beautiful properties to visit and spectacular food to be had for fairly modest prices compared to the rest of Italy.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Bari and Brindisi are the two main airports that service Puglia. They're a little over an hour by plane from Rome. You can also take a train ride to Lecce, which stops in Bari along the way. Once you're there, renting a car is probably your best bet to cover a lot of territory, but there are buses and trains that connect the major centers, and if you want to stay somewhat local, renting a bike and riding around the countryside might end up being a vacation highlight.
Agriculture is king here, so prepare yourself for some of the freshest food you've ever tasted. Among its regional culinary gems: hand rolled and thumb-pressed orecchiette, creamy burrata (by far the best I've ever tasted and I've been trying to find something even remotely close since), endless kinds of seafood, pureed fava with chicory, among other amazingly flavorful vegetables, wine, and olive oil from its 50 million olive trees.
WHO TO CONTACT
My tour guide Dionisio Altamura was terrific, and his family has been in Puglia for several generations. His energy and passion for the region were contagious. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.