Spanning 400km from north to south, Puglia forms the heel of Italy. For centuries it was a strategic province, colonized, invaded and conquered by just about every major power of the day – from the Greeks through to the Spanish. These days clean seas and reliable sunshine are the draws for holiday-makers both Italian and foreign, and acres of campsite-and-bungalow-type tourist villages stud the shoreline, though there are still quiet spots to be found. Low-cost flights to Bari and Brindisi have opened up the area to British tourists, many of whom have been buying and doing up trulli (ancient storehouses) and masserie (farm estates) as holiday accommodation. There’s a brisk air of investment in many resorts, from the new top-of-the-range spa hotels in converted masserie to agriturismo places, where you can holiday among olive groves and orchards and go horseriding or mountain biking. B&Bs continue to spring up everywhere, often in the historic centres of towns, some simple, some splendid, all of them better value for money than most hotels.
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Puglia has plenty of architectural interest, as each ruling dynasty left its own distinctive mark on the landscape – the Romans their agricultural schemes and feudal lords their fortified medieval towns. Perhaps most distinctive are the kasbah-like quarters of many towns and cities, a vestige of the Saracen conquest of the ninth century – the one at Bari is the biggest and most atmospheric. The Normans endowed Puglia with splendidly ornate cathedrals, while the Baroque exuberance of towns like Lecce and Martina Franca are testament to the Spanish legacy. But if there’s one symbol of Puglia that stands out, it’s the imposing castles built by the Swabian Frederick II all over the province – foremost of which are the Castel del Monte (immortalized on the Italian five-cent euro coin) and the remnants of the palace at Lucera.
Puglia’s cities, generally visited only as transport hubs, merit some exploration nevertheless. Taranto and its surroundings have fought a losing battle with the local steel industry, but Lecce is worth a visit of a day or two for its crazed confection of Baroque churches and laidback café life. Though Bari is not a traditional tourist destination, reinvestment in its maze-like old city is drawing visitors in-the-know for its ambience and excellent restaurants; while Brindisi, best known for its ferry connections with Greece, lies just 15km away from the beautiful Torre Guaceto nature reserve, a long stretch of uncontaminated sand dunes, macchia and clear water where you can cycle, walk or scuba dive.
Puglia is geographically diverse, though it has to be said that the Tavoliere (tableland) of the north with mile upon mile of wheatfields, is hardly the most exciting of landscapes. More alluring is the hilly, forested Gargano promontory jutting out to the east, fringed by gently shelving, sandy beaches, seaside hotels and campsite villages that make good places for a family holiday – though you’ll need to catch a ferry to the Tremiti islands for the clearest sea. The best escape is to the southernmost tip, the Salentine peninsula where the terrain is rocky and dry, more Greek than Italian, and there are some beautiful coves and sea caves to swim in.
Puglia – Italy's breadbasket
Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy. It’s the source of 80 percent of Europe’s pasta and much of Italy’s fish; it produces more wine than Germany and more olive oil than all the other regions of Italy combined. It’s famous for olives (from Cerignola), almonds (from Ruvo di Puglia), dark juicy tomatoes (often sun-dried), cime di rapa (turnip tops), fava beans, figs (fresh and dried), cotognata (a moulded jam made from quince) and for its melons, grapes and green cauliflower. The influence of Puglia’s former rulers is still evident in the region’s food. Like the Greeks, Pugliesi eat lamb and goat spit-roast over herb-scented fires and deep-fried doughnut-like cakes steeped in honey; and like the Spanish they drink almond milk, latte di mandorla.
The most distinctive local pasta is orecchiette, ear-shaped pasta that you will still see women making in their doorways in the old part of Bari. Look out, too, for panzarotti alla barese, deep-fried pockets of dough stuffed with tomato or prosciutto and ricotta. Otherwise, there is a marked preference for short, stubby varieties of pasta, which you’ll find served with peppers, cauliflower and cime di rapa.
The province of Foggia, known also as the Tavoliere (tableland), occupies a broad plain stretching from the foothills of the Apennines in the west and the Gargano massif in the east. Foggia, the capital and transport hub of the province, is not somewhere to linger – for more of an idea of what the Tavoliere is like, head for the walled town of Lucera or the little village of Troia.
Lucera (pronounced Loosh-airer) makes a wonderful introduction to Puglia. A charming small town with a bright, bustling centre and a lively passeggiata on summer evenings, it was once the capital of the Tavoliere – a thriving Saracen hub. Frederick II, having forced the Arabs out of Sicily, resettled 20,000 of them here, on the site of an abandoned Roman town, allowing them complete freedom in religious worship – an almost unheard of act of liberalism for the early thirteenth century.
The Gargano promontory
The Gargano promontory rises like an island from the flat plains of the Tavoliere. It has a remarkably diverse landscape: beaches and lagoons to the north, a rocky, indented eastern coast and a mountainous, green heartland of oak and beech trees – more reminiscent of a Germanic forest than a corner of southern Italy. For centuries the promontory was extremely isolated, visited only by pilgrims making their way along the valley to Monte Sant’Angelo and its shrine. Tourism has taken off in a big way, especially around the seaside resort of Vieste, but in 1991 the whole peninsula became a national park, helping to protect it from overbearing development and ensuring that much of the interior remains supremely unspoiled and quiet.
It may seem as though the promontory is one long strip of private beach, but bear in mind that by Italian law everyone has access to the actual seashore, as well as the 50m length between the reserved areas. Check with your hotel – often the price of a sunbed and umbrella at the nearest beach is included in the cost of an overnight stay.
Vieste and around
The best base on the Gargano peninsula is Vieste, jutting out into the Adriatic on two promontories. Fifty years ago there wasn’t even a proper road here, but today Vieste, with its excellent beaches, is the holiday capital of Gargano, and the streets and sands are packed in August. Despite the crowds, it is a lively and inviting town, with an interesting historic core and, in summer at least, a fairly lively nightlife.
The old town sits on the easternmost of the two promontories, at the tip of which stands the Chiesa di San Francesco, once a thriving monastery, and a trabucco – used by fishermen to catch mullet. Probably Phoenician in origin, these cantilevered arrangements of wooden beams, winches and ropes are found on the rocky Gargano coast, and further north around Vasto in Abruzzo.
From the church, climb up Via Mafrolla, walking through the old town to Piazza Seggio. Straight ahead, Via Duomo is the site of the so-called Chianca Amara, the “bitter stone”, where five thousand local people were beheaded when the Turks sacked the town in 1554. Further down, past the stone, the Cattedrale, eleventh century in origin but tampered with in the nineteenth, provides a cool retreat from the fierce glare of the sun in the whitewashed streets.
Eating and drinking
There are plenty of fish restaurants to choose in and around the old town. If you’re on a budget, try the pair of cheerful pizzerias in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The terrace bar at Hotel Seggio is a perfect place to chill before dinner.
Day-trips from Vieste
The most obvious day-trip is to the beaches. Head for the small one between the promontories; north to San Lorenzo, with fine, soft, gently shelving sand; or, just south of town, to sandy Pizzomunno. They all go in for the grill-pan variety of sunbathing with rows and rows of sunbeds. Slightly less crowded, if you’re lucky, is the marvellous Scialmarino beach, 4.5km up the coast towards Peschici. Nicest of all is the small Baia di San Felice, squeezed between two headlands and backed by pine trees, just before you get to the Testa del Gargano, several kilometres south of town.
If you want to swim away from the crowds, consider an organized boat trip to the grotto-ridden coastline around the headland of Testa del Gargano. Boats leave for the three-hour grotto excursion from next to San Francesco church. Alternatively, you can rent your own boat for the day from Noleggio Gommoni, at the port.
Inland, the Gargano promontory can make a cool break from its busy coast, although there’s not much public transport, apart from the odd bus from Vieste. The tourist office in Monte Sant’Angelo, however, can help organize bike rental, jeep safari and pony-trekking, and Noleggio Gommoni rents scooters.
The pilgrim route: San Giovanni Rotondo
The ancient pilgrim route weaved its way along the Stignano Valley between San Severo in the west and Monte Sant’Angelo, and until comparatively recently was the only road that linked the villages of the Gargano interior. With your own transport, it’s still a good route for exploring a couple of the region’s most important religious centres. If you want to follow any part of the pilgrim route by bus, you’ll have to plan your itinerary carefully and be prepared to travel in leisurely fashion.
Nestling under Monte Calvo, the highest peak hereabouts, San Giovanni Rotondo is a modern centre for pilgrimage on a massive scale: it’s the burial place of Padre Pio, a local priest who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002. Pio received the stigmata and won an immense following – especially among Italian Catholics – for his piety and legendary ability to heal the sick. Proof of his divinity was announced in 2008 when his body was exhumed and pronounced to be in good condition and without signs of the stigmata, forty years after his burial. Two years later, his jewel-encrusted, silver coffin was moved to his own golden crypt.
Padre Pio is hugely popular in Italy, and you’ll see his image – bearing an uncanny resemblance to the late John Peel – stuck on the walls of bars, shops and petrol stations throughout the south. A whole industry has grown up around him in San Giovanni Rotondo, fuelled by the seven million and more pilgrims who pass through every year, making it the most visited pilgrimage site in the world after Lourdes. In 2004, renowned architect Renzo Piano completed a striking new church, the shape of which resembles a large snail – its “shell” forming the roof and enveloping the pilgrims below. The town takes its name from the Rotonda di San Giovanni, a building of indeterminate origin on the edge of the old town – like the Tomba di Rotari, it’s thought to have been a baptistry, built on the site of an earlier pagan temple.
The Tremiti islands
A small group of islands 40km off the Gargano coast, the Tremiti islands – Isole Tremiti – are almost entirely given over to tourism in the summer, when the tiny population is swamped by visitors. Despite this, they remain relatively unspoilt and the sea crystal clear. The main Tremiti group consists of three islands: San Nicola, San Domino – the biggest – and Capraia, of which only the first two are inhabited.
Brief history of the Tremiti islands
The islands were traditionally a place of exile and punishment. Augustus banished his granddaughter Julia to the islands, while Charlemagne packed his father-in-law off here (minus eyes and limbs) in the eighth century. Monks from Montecassino, on the mainland, first set about building a formidable fortress-abbey on one of the islands in the eleventh century, which managed to withstand frequent assault by the Turks. Later, during the eighteenth century, the islands returned to their old role as a place of confinement for political prisoners, though the Bourbons, concerned at the decline in the local population, shipped in two hundred single women from Naples to encourage a recovery.
The initial part of the coastal route south from Manfredonia is unremarkable, with flat lands given up to saline extraction. The first town of note down the coast is Trani, a beautiful stone-built port and fishing village with an unusually cosmopolitan air. One of the most important medieval Italian ports, it was a prosperous trading centre with a large mercantile and Jewish community, and rivalled Bari as a commercial port. A wander through the streets around the harbour gives an impression of the medieval city, not least in the names that echo the town’s mercantile and Jewish origins – Via Sinagoga, Via Doge Vecchia (the port had strong – not always amicable – links with Venice) and Via Cambio (Street of the Moneychangers).
Centrepiece of the town is the cream-coloured, eleventh-century Duomo, right on the sea at the edge of the old town. Dedicated to San Nicola Pellegrino, it consists of no fewer than three churches, stacked on top of each other like an inverted wedding cake – the facade austere but lightened by a pretty rose window. The interior has been restored to its original Norman state, the stark nave displaying a timbered ceiling.
Rising gently from the Adriatic coast, Le Murge – a low limestone plateau – dominates the landscape to the south and west of Bari. The towns in the region are not natural holiday destinations: the area is sparsely populated and the small settlements that exist are rural backwaters with a slow pace of life. But they do make an interesting day out or a good stopover if you’re heading for the region of Basilicata.
Castel del Monte
Despite its lack of appeal today, Andria was a favourite haunt of Frederick II, who was responsible for the major local attraction, the Castel del Monte, 17km south – the most extraordinary of all Puglia’s castles and one of the finest surviving examples of Swabian architecture.
Begun by Frederick in the 1240s, the castle is a high, isolated fortress built around an octagonal courtyard in two storeys of eight rooms. A mystery surrounds its intended purpose. Although there was once an iron gate that could be lowered over the main entrance, there are no other visible signs of fortification, and the castle may have served merely as a hunting lodge. Nonetheless, the mathematical precision involved in its construction, and the preoccupation with the number eight, have intrigued writers for centuries. It’s argued the castle is in fact an enormous astrological calendar, or that Frederick may have had the octagonal Omar mosque in Jerusalem in mind when he designed it; yet, despite his recorded fascination with the sciences, no one really knows the truth. There is only one record of its use. The defeat of Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son, at the battle of Benevento in 1266 signalled the end of Swabian power in Puglia; and Manfred’s sons and heirs were imprisoned in the castle for more than thirty years – a lonely place to be incarcerated.
Down the coast from Bari
The coast south of Bari is a craggy stretch, with rock-hewn villages towering above tiny sandy coves, offering easy escapes from the city. In summer, and on hot weekends, expect beaches to be crowded.
Burrata – a luxury made from leftovers
In some of the fancy restaurants around Egnazia, you’ll see burrata on the menu, a local delicacy in which still-hot mozzarella is formed into a pouch, which is then filled with scraps of leftover mozzarella and fresh cream before closing. It seems to have been invented on a farm in Andria in the early twentieth century, as a way of using up the spare scraps of mozzarella at the end of the day’s cheese making. It’s at its best when eaten within 24 hours, which has led to its becoming a prestige food, with upmarket delis throughout Italy vying to have the cheese flown in fresh from Puglia.
The FSE line: Grotte di Castellana to Martina Franca
Meandering lazily down towards the Valle d’Itria, the Ferrovia Sud-Est (FSE) train passes through some of the prettiest of Puglia’s landscapes. Olives gradually lose ground to vineyards and cherry and peach orchards, neatly partitioned by dry-stone walls. The barren limestone terrain of Le Murge swallows rivers whole producing a landscape cut by deep ravines and pitted with caverns and grottoes.
Trulli are still plentiful by the time you reach Martina Franca, a surprising town with a jubilant Baroque sensibility and a lively passeggiata at weekends. It is reputed to have been founded by settlers from Taranto fed up with constant Saracen attacks during the tenth century, but it was the Angevin prince of Taranto who bolstered the community in the early fourteenth century by granting it certain tax privileges. The town derives its name from this – franca meaning duty or stamp. Today its medieval core is adorned with some of the most subtle and least overbearing examples of architecture from the Baroque period you’ll find.
Through the Porta di Santo Stefano, which marks the entrance to the old town, Piazza Roma is dominated by the hulking Palazzo Ducale, which dates from 1688, and is now the town hall. A handful of rooms are open to the public most mornings (Mon–Fri) – most of them smothered in classical eighteenth-century Arcadian murals. Just across the square, the narrow Via Vittorio Emanuele leads right into the old town and Piazza Plebiscito, fronted by the undulating Baroque facade of the Chiesa di San Martino, an eighteenth-century church built on the site of an earlier Romanesque structure, of which only the campanile survives. From adjacent Piazza Immacolata you can either bear left down Via Cavour, with its Baroque palazzi and balconied streets, or wander further into the old town; the roads running around the edge of the surviving fourteenth-century town walls offer an excellent panorama of the Valle d’Itria, with its neatly ordered fields dotted with trulli.
Curious-looking trulli are dotted throughout the Murge area of Puglia. Cylindrical, whitewashed buildings with grey conical roofs tapering out to a point or sphere, they are often adorned with painted symbols. Unique to Puglia, their ancient origins are obscure, but are probably connected to feudal lords who made people working their land build their houses without mortar so they could easily be pulled down if tax inspectors came round. The thick walls insulate equally against the cold in winter and the summer heat, while local limestone is used to make the two-layered roofs water-tight. Most trulli have just one room but when more space was needed, a hole was simply knocked in the wall and an identical structure built next door. Although originally they were both dwellings and storehouses, these days they’re being snapped up as holiday homes, and some are rented out as self-catering or B&B accommodation. An organization called Trullidea, based in Alberobello, rents basic trulli in town and in the countryside for short- and long-term stays and can also arrange wine-tasting tours, cycling excursions and cooking courses.
The Festival della Valle d’Itria
Southern Italy’s top performing-arts festival, the annual Festival della Valle d’Itria, takes place in Martina Franca from mid July to early August. On a par with the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the festival is mainly operatic, with performances – often of rarely performed works – in the appropriately grand Palazzo Ducale, as well as classical concerts and film screenings. It’s a congenial and unpretentious event, though tickets aren’t cheap; they’re available from the festival office in the Palazzo Ducale.
Some 40km south from Brindisi, Baroque Lecce makes a good starting-point for excursions around Salento, the name given to the very tip of Italy’s heel extending from just south of Ostuni to Santa Maria di Leuca. Here the landscape begins to take on a distinctive Greek flavour, a mildly undulating region planted with carob, prickly pear and tobacco. The Adriatic coast is pitted with cliffs topped with ruined watchtowers, and rugged coves and caves trail right the way down to the southern cape. The hinterland, by comparison, is more barren, although again there’s a Greek feel to it, with tiny, sun-blasted villages growing out of the dry, stony, red earth and flat-roofed houses painted in bright pastel colours.
Otranto, a kasbah-like town nestling around a harbour, is only an hour by train from Lecce, set in an arid, rocky and windblown landscape, with translucent seas to swim in. The port overflows with tourists in August, when Otranto’s nightlife is at its peak and the town is most entertaining, but the picturesque location and slow pace will reward visitors year-round, even if the number of gaudy souvenir shops detracts a little from the charm of its winding whitewashed lanes. A variety of musical and theatrical events are held in Otranto throughout the summer, usually centred around the castle, among them a lively jazz festival in late July and the annual commemoration of the “800 Martyrs” on August 13–15.
Brief history of Otranto
Otranto’s history is decidedly grim. One of the last Byzantine towns to fall to the Normans in 1070, it remained a thriving port for Crusaders, pilgrims and traders. But in 1480 a Turkish fleet laid siege to the town, which held out for fifteen days before capitulating. It’s said that as a punishment the archbishop, on capture, suffered the indignity of being sawn in half, a popular Turkish spectacle at that time. Nearly twelve thousand people lost their lives and the eight hundred survivors, refusing to convert, were taken up a nearby hill and beheaded. Otranto never really recovered, though the town does feature one glorious survivor of the Turkish attack inside its cathedral: an extraordinary mosaic floor.
The dance of the spider
The small town of Galatina has long been a pilgrimage centre for tarantate – women (mostly) who have been “possessed” by the mythical spider of Puglia. Tarantism dates back centuries in this region, with the earliest known accounts of it appearing in manuscripts from the fifteenth century. Victims believed that they had been bitten by the Italian tarantula, or the European black widow spider. After descending into a funk of symptoms that included vomiting and sweating, fear and delirium, depression and paranoia, the only cure was the rite of the tarantula, which involved trance-dancing to the local tarantella, or pizzica, for days on end. The pizzica musicians – typically a violinist, guitarist, accordion and tambourine player – would perform fast and feverishly, engaging the victim in a call-and-response ritual, until eventually they were released from their misery.
The cult has continued to fascinate Salentines and others into this century, with the myth and music being both preserved and reinvented. St Paul, patron saint of the tarantate, is revered and celebrated to this day in Galatina and surrounding villages. On the night of June 28 around 10.30pm there is a procession from Piazza San Pietro to the chapel of St Paul, followed by performances by drummers and musicians from across the region, lasting until dawn of June 29 – the feast day of saints Peter and Paul. Around 4.30 or 5am, the musicians, dancers, tarantate and tourists gather at St Paul's chapel to pay their respects before the crowds arrive for the official early morning Mass. Today, pizzica music is enjoying a boom in the Salento and elsewhere. It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with the all-night music festival The Night of the Tarantula (La Notte della Taranta, held in late August at Melpignano, between Galatina and Otranto.