Published by The Style Line
Puglia (poo-lia) is the region in the heel of Italy’s boot. We arrived in April, and immediately noticed how quiet everywhere was – the pretty villages charmingly so; the modern holiday resorts eerily so. We had arrived at the tail end of the off-season, so until May it was just us in short sleeves and sunglasses and one or two disapproving locals in wool coats and big scarves. Italians dress for the seasons not the weather, and it wasn’t summer yet.
If I had written postcards from our Puglian travels, they would have read a little something like this.
The winding streets of Ostuni are quieter than anywhere; enough to reduce our voices to a whisper in il centro storico (the old town). The approach is breathtaking. La Città Bianca, or ’the White City’ is perched on a hill and encircled with defensive walls and steep embankments – typical of hill towns in the area. These hilltop settlements are more like fortresses – not surprising given the endless invasions (Romans, Ostrogoths, Longobards, Normans, Turks…) suffered in southern Italy. The city’s walls look over a cloak of olive groves, which touch the turquoise shores of the Adriatic far in the distance.
The pretty maze of bright lime washed walls are lined with colourful potted plants which give a sleepy, Mediterranean charm. We happened upon an open cafe whose terrace afforded a slice of panoramic vista between two white walls and a washing line. The short menu consisted of caffè (espresso) and cappuccino – a purity of form which I admire the Italians for. Cappuccino (or any sort of milky coffee) is rarely ordered outside of the breakfast arena, so, swerving that faux pas, we enjoyed a dark, nutty shot of espresso and planned the rest of our afternoon.
We left the flats of the coast, whose sun-scorched landscape, faded billboards and scruffy palm trees feels like an unexpected cross between the coastal cities near LAX and inland Greece (which is just 45 miles across the Adriatic – I looked it up) for the steep slopes of the Itria Valley. We passed through endless olive groves, overtaken by speedy Italian drivers on every straight of road before winding up and up and around and up, gasping at panoramic views of the world below (and at still being overtaken) from a dizzying height. This landscape is peppered with distinctive huts called trulli, native only to Puglia.
These dry stone storage huts with conical roofs are the most concentrated in the little town of Alberobello, where we were headed. Alberobello is home to almost 1500 trulli, which is apparently the appropriate number to make it a UNESCO world heritage site. In a typically Italian fashion (sorry), it’s thought that the trulli were a tax dodging exercise – the peasants of the 14/1500s made temporary homes that could be demolished should an official inspection be made.
Unlike other towns in the area with their drab, modern perimeters, the rustic grey and white pointy-ness of Alberobello materialises out of the almond trees in a flurry of trulli and shiny paved roads. However, it’s more of a tourist honey pot here than anywhere else we’ve visited; I was poked in the ear by a selfie stick more than once. I love snubbing other tourists when I’m a tourist myself and only just Italian enough to order spaghetti alle vongole and a vino bianco da casa. Must remember to 1. add to phrase book repertoire 2. order (a lot) more courses and not get full after antipasto, and – 3. dither less and overtake more when driving – to appear (even!) more Italian than my selfie stick wielding counterparts.
It’s not strictly in Puglia, but well worth a mention because Matera is astonishing. Honeycombed into the soft rock are almost 2000 cave dwellings, burrowed deep into a small canyon and built upon using the excavated rock by a pre-historic settlement. The town is the oldest in the world to be continuously inhabited (the caves were inhabited until the 1940s!) and it has undergone the most extreme renaissance I’ve ever heard of. It’s now a luxury tourist destination and Hollywood film set – Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was filmed here, and it’s likeness to Jerusalem is not imperceptible.
Matera is set to be European Capital of Culture 2019, so book yourself into a luxury cave hotel and oggle 14th century frescoes in cave churches before it becomes overcrowded with tourists. I’d really recommend a visit, this place is amazing.
Polignano a Mare
Pinterest lured me to Polignano a Mare; oh mid-cliff restaurant above turquoise waters you beautiful temptress. Our first impressions of Polignano were of frantically googling the meanings of Italian parking signs and trying and failing to parallel park before driving back towards the main road in search of an easier life and more convenient parking. We crossed the main bridge which affords a glimpse of the famous beach cove down below and came across some scrubland where one or two cars had parked up. Excellent, free parking and just a short walk to the old town.
The old town lies behind the grand Porta Vecchia gates. It’s a gorgeous maze of tiny alleyways lined with prickly pears and whitewashed houses that delight at every turn with incredible views over the cove and Adriatic from precarious vantage points. The smells and sounds of the sea, friendly atmosphere and surprising graffitied poetry make for a lovely morning of wandering before an espresso in the main square.
Apparently Polignano is best known for cliff diving (Red Bull do a cliff diving contest here), its delicious ice cream and that the guy who sung Volare! oh-oh! was born here. We couldn’t find a shop to buy a picnic so just bought an ice cream and ventured down to the beach. When in Rome! The sun was shining really bright considering it’s only the start of April, and there were some people swimming. I dipped a toe – icy. We vowed to come back in September for a swim. Despite its Baltic temperature, the water was the brightest, clearest turquoise and completely mesmerising. Polignano would be the perfect base for a late-Summer holiday.
We knew nothing about Gallipoli before we arrived so were considerably underprepared for its rich swag of history, architecture and cuisine as we crossed the town’s main bridge. Gallipoli’s centro storico sits on a walled island over a causeway from its modern appendage, which sprawls inland. The atmosphere in the old town is relaxed, welcoming and completely unique. Baroque churches, a perfect, golden curve of beach and the gentle jangle of fishing boats give a warm seaside charm that I couldn’t relate to anywhere else.
We headed for the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata: the crown jewel of Gallipoli. Rivalling those of Lecce,the cathedral is a perfect example of Salentine baroque with its an impressive façade and a number of important 17th and 18th century paintings inside. Spiritually satisfied, we stopped for coffee at Caffe’ Duomo before walking the circumference of the 14th century walls.
Hungry for lunch and senza raccomandazione, we did some quick googling and found that Osteria Briganti had the best reviews.
An enjoyable descent into regional cuisine has taught us three things. Much like Spain, Italy is a country with uninterrupted access to small sized plates thanks to the beloved antipasti; antipasti enjoyed in a seaside destination is mind-blowing; one antipasti between two is always too much. So we resolved en route to Osteria Briganti that we would share one antipasti between two and we weren’t disappointed. Plate after plate of delicately presented fare landed on our table: a trio of the day’s catches, then octopus with fava puree, baccala with potato and a plate of lightly fried seafood. Satisfied from this bountiful feast, we faltered, wide-eyed, as the waiter asked: “Pasta? Secondi?”. Feeling slightly embarrassed of our €12 expenditure and no first or second courses, we paid and scuttled off, leaving the waiter bewildered at the eating habits of Brits. As we had previously learned, “a small lunch” does not easily translate.