There is one destination in the South of Italy that in the last couple of years has become very “hot” and desirable: that is the magical region of Puglia.
With 800 km of coastline and over 65 million olive trees, Puglia really has it all. The northern Garganico area, a magical place with striking nature, the charming Valle D’ Itria, located in the heart of the region with its typical luxury Masseria and the culturally rich Salento in the south with its Baroque towns and stunning beaches, it is no surprise to understand why so many people are falling in love with this area. Whether you are a group of friends, a family or couple you will be delighted by this wonderful region for its tranquil setting, Caribbean-like beaches and of course for its glorious food. So where to start? What to taste, see and experience?
With Puglia being such a vast region, one visit is certainly not enough however you can rest assured that any holiday here will be memorable. As a kid, I used to come a lot the Gargano area but recently for my clients I spent some quality time between the Valle d’ Itria and Salento and here are some of my highlights. If you are a nature lover you simply cannot ignore the beauty of the caves of Castellana. These impressive “grotte” that go more than 60 meters deep provide you with a wonderful setting of stalactites, stalagmites, concretions, incredible shapes, fossils, canyons and caves with fantastic names; calcifications from conformations and unexpected colours solicit the imagination of children and adults like very few other places.
Just a few kilometers away from Castellana Grotte we can find one of my favourite villages: Alberobello. What makes this place so special is its unique architecture. All houses here all interestingly have pyramidal, cone shaped or domed features built up of corbelled limestone slabs called Trulli. What makes these Trulli so remarkable is that they are examples of drywall (mortarless) construction, a prehistoric building technique still in use in this region. So remarkable they have been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. Here, you really have the feeling of being somewhere magical that takes you back in time!
Heading south we enter that wonderful part of the region called Salento, which for me is all about 3 things: art, gastronomy and sandy beaches. Going to Lecce, the capital of Salento is like going to an open-air museum. With its incredible baroque architecture with its pinnacle being the Santa Croce cathedral is no surprise to hear that Lecce is regarded as the Florence of the South. Of course there are other stunning towns nearby that equally showcase the same impressive art like Copertino. Nardò and Galatina. The moment you head east to the Adriatic coast or west and south to the Ionian Sea one thing is for sure: you will be astonished by the beauty of the beaches and the crystal clear colour. Whether you are in the buzzy town of Gallipoli, the majestic port of Otranto or at the dream-like tip of Puglia in Santa Maria di Leuca, you will be in for something unique.
Ok but what about the food? Well quite frankly for me Puglia has to be in my top 3 regions for food and as an Italian food and wine travel specialist that is quite a big statement. I think it is the only place that could turn someone into a vegetarian. The vegetables are incredible; tomatoes here seem to be coming from a different planet. Fish of course is a local delicacy weather it’s in the form of a pasta with sea urchins or a platter of raw fish. But personally what makes my mouth water is their incredible selection and quality of meats and cheese. The divine Burrata, an incredibly God-like fresh cheese very similar to a Mozzarella but with a runny creamy centre, is perhaps the main reason why you should stop whatever you are doing now and book a flight to Puglia right away.
Of course should you want something more savoury you can go for a Capocollo salami from the village of Martina Franca or if you are in for something heavier have an orecchiette, ear shaped pasta with Ragù of Braciole, a heavenly mix of sort of meatballs stuffed with cheese, garlic, herbs and other meaty goods. Not to mention that here extra virgin olive oil is a good as it gets. With an extraordinary variety of ranges and taste, locals rightly so regard it as the “yellow gold” treating it like a fine wine. Just get a loaf of good village bread, rub some garlic on it, chop some cherry tomatoes, some basil and pour lots of extra virgin olive oil on it. That is Puglia on a plate… simple yet unbeatable!
Clearly these dishes scream for some wine. The region was notoriously known for making quantity rather than quality. Luckily over the few years several artisans have realized the great potential of their land and therefore dropped production and increased their attention to detail in creating fine wines, especially reds. Examples of the perfect match to the local ingredients and recipes would have to be the lush and hearty Primitivo di Manduria or a Negroamaro. These robust red wines are the perfect companions as they are incredibly concentrated, fruity with a long finish making them almost a meal by themselves. And watch out, they can go up to 16.5% in alcohol. So just do like the locals do when it gets warm outside, drink it chilled and it will be your favourite summer wine!