It’s remarkable that Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy, isn’t overridden by tourists. But that’s perhaps why it’s one of my new favourite holiday destinations and why you should go now, or as soon as possible.
Puglia is all about quiet, whitewashed hilltop towns, rich red earth, immense age old olive groves, bright blue skies, and its quirky and characterful Trulli. It’s about charming locals, few foreigners, Puglian wines, and surprisingly stylish bars and restaurants with wonderful value for money. It is completely different to any Italy I know. Some will say it’s also about its small, sandy beaches with clear blue waters like those at Monopoli, Savelletri and close to Lecce, but we focused more on the villages and towns around the Valle D’Itria. Every day we visited a new village or town, each with their own similarities and differences (apart from Matera, which is in a league of its own) and every one of them a joy to discover.
Here is a brief overview of my favourite places, each of which I will write a separate blog on over the next few weeks, but this is just to give you a taster:
Known to many as the ‘gateway to Puglia’, it’s where the airport is and where you can catch the ferry to Greece, Croatia and Montenegro. While it has a slightly gritty reputation, Bari is not without charm. Stick to the Old Town and explore alleyways decorated with washing lines, small market stalls, its lively harbour and the old city walls. Bari has a vibrant nightlife and some great AirBnBs, and prices are low. For breakfast head to Martinucci for a cappuccino and Pasticciotti (pastry from Lecce) with a view of the main square, for pre-dinner drinks and sunset views try Caffe sotto il mare, for dinner opt for Black & White with its great pizzas and charming service, and finish your night at my favourite local bar La Ciclatera, for a late night vino or cocktail.
While beautiful, Lecce is known wrongly as ‘Florence of the South’. It boasts stunning Baroque palazzi and churches, but it is no competition to the grandeur of Florence. Having said that, it certainly has its own charm, which makes it one of Puglia’s most famous towns. Sante Croce’s intricate and slightly crazy facade is unforgettable, while the Duomo has a more gentle beauty and I loved drifting through its labyrinth of honey-coloured sandstone streets. Around every turn we’d find a pretty archway, a frescoed stairway or an enviable rooftop terrace. Lecce is a student town, so during the summer it is so peaceful often you’ll find yourself completely alone. My favourite place was Doppiozero, a Deli and breakfast/lunch hangout (though they do dinner too) where every detail is thought through (and I love their juices). If you’re in search of something more authentic, Trattoria Le Zie is as local as it gets, where they serve ‘peasant food’ to the highest standard, with big, welcoming smiles.
The most glamorous of Puglian towns, ‘la citta bianca’ sits high on a hill with views of both the sea and the countryside. Built by the Greeks in 1 AD, Ostuni has a distinctly Greek feel about it, with white washed houses, colourful shutters, narrow winding streets and lots of staircases. It’s also more popular with tourists (mostly Italian though), and the restaurant & bar scene is more developed here. My favourite bar Controcorrente has unrivalled views of the old town itself (and delicious G&Ts), while the Cafe Riccardo and Mela Bacata are trendy local hangouts with a view of Ostuni’s surroundings.
This was our ‘local’. And how lucky we were to be just a 5 minute drive from this pretty white town in the Valle D’Itria (AKA Trulli country). It seems to have some of the best restaurants in the area (while lacking in bars, but nearby Locorotondo helps out there). There are pots of plants and flowers everywhere: blood red geraniums spilling over windowsills, big green ferns in shady corners and cacti a reminder that you’re in the hot south. We had dinner on the stylish roof terrace of La Capase (which was phenomenal), but Enoteca Il Cucco (we bought some lovely wines here) and Osteria Sant’Anna are both meant to be really good too. Forno Pronto is what we really should have tried: the local favourite where butchers allow you to choose your meat and they BBQ it for you on the spot. An excuse to return, not that I need it.
You can see the beautiful facade of this tiny white washed town from afar, a contrast to Cisternino’s and Martina Franco’s blander ‘new towns’. Locorotondo does bars as well as Cisternino does restaurants, but it’s all on a very modest scale. Walking around you can’t help but notice its subtle poverty, while the houses are pretty, look closely and you’ll see the windows and doors are plastic and its ‘palazzi’ are modest to say the least. But the locals are so friendly, and you don’t need a map as you wander through there quiet, winding streets. You don’t really expect a stylish bar like BBeP (Barfi, Baffi and Pellicce) – which has a serious cocktail list – in a little place like this, nor the even trendier (but less cosy) Dock 101 with its all white and wooden decor, live music and views of the valley (across a road though). The surprise just adds to the pleasure of an evening stroll in Locorotondo.
The Queen of Valle D’Itria, this beautiful town is clearly a lot bigger and wealthier than its neighbouring towns. It being our first outing in Puglia, we were not sure what to expect, and Martina Franca certainly exceeded expectations. On a Sunday it’s a hive of activity, locals going for early evening strolls, eating gelato, attending mass. We watched the sun set and the light turn the sandstone buildings a warm yellow. We found a newly opened wine bar, Cibando, on Piazza Roma and enjoyed trying the various types of Puglian wine (Nero di Troia was our favourite). The staff were exceptionally friendly.
A place like no other. Matera is town built of ‘sassi’ (caves) built into the rock, and which are Italy’s oldest continually inhabited dwellings. Best described in Carlo Levi’s book ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ (a pre-holiday must read), which gives a detailed account of its abject poverty, and of how thousands of peasants (and their livestock) lived in the caves, in terrible conditions. As the Lonely Planet rightly points out, Matera’s lack of development meant that it preserved its original state. It has now gone through a re-birth of kinds, and many Sassi are now elegant places to live (especially in the more developed Sassi Barisana), some of which have become boutique hotels, restaurants and bars. For me, Matera was one of the most fascinating places I have visited in Italy. For lunch with a view try the Tarrazzino (though the views are ten times better than the food). If you’re in need of a gelato for your stroll through the town, go for the I Vizi Degli Angeli.
POLIGNANO A MARE
Puglia’s most picturesque fisherman’s village, complete with pretty houses built into its steep Limestone cliffs, the bluest of seas, and a famous restaurant in a cave (and part of a mediocre 4 star hotel): Grotta Polignano. It certainly leaves an impression and the views of the Adriatic sea and coastline are fabulous (as are the views of the daring cliff divers). The village is bustling with tourists and locals a like, most of whom you’ll find on its tiny beach during the weekend (where I’d recommend making the beach bar Fly your base). If you fancy something quieter, grab a fresh vegetable juice at Luna Coffee Shop (otherwise not hugely interesting) or have a delicious white pizza or seafood pasta at Bella ‘Mbriana, on the main (and rather beautiful) square Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.
More detailed blogs on each place will be posted in the next few weeks on City Turtle, so stay tuned! For more photos of my Puglian discoveries, check my Instagram.