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.
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.