Puglia, little-known, ruggedly beautiful, fringed by the sea – where the magnificent architecture of Lecce and Bari, coastal charm of Vieste, ‘hobbit’-like conical trulli and local cuisine offer a delightfully different experience of Italy.. Blessed with abundant sunshine and fringed by the bountiful waters of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Puglia is a land of plenty. One of the most fertile regions of Italy, it produces more olive oil than the rest of the country combined, most of its fish, 80 per cent of Europe’s pasta and more wine than the whole of Germany. Unsurprisingly, its natural riches have attracted a host of invaders throughout history – ancient Greeks colonised the area in the 8th century BC, then came the Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Spanish and Bourbons, before Puglia became part of unified Italy in 1861. Each culture has left a distinct footprint, from the local dialect peppered with Greek expressions to the Moorish ambience of the narrow streets of Bari, where traders’ wares spill out onto the cobbled streets. It is this melding of cultures that makes Puglia – the ‘heel’ of Italy’s great ‘boot’ – delightfully different.
Overlooked by many who prefer to head to Italy’s better-known attractions, Puglia echoes with its own history. In Lecce, an imperial column marks the end of the Appian Way, one of the greatest Roman roads, and Hannibal dealt Rome its heaviest defeat at nearby Cannae. A gem of a baroque city, Lecce also boasts around a hundred churches of myriad styles, ranging from Romanesque to Rococo. Its centre is a labyrinth of alleyways, and it’s easy to imagine Roman officials, medieval merchants and richly clad bishops going about their lives. Every town seems to have a Norman cathedral, decorated with intricate stonework, colourful frescoes and fine paintings. Huge Spanish-built castles overlook the rolling countryside, while the ports that once thrummed with crusaders embarking for the Holy Land now have a relaxed feel.
As you explore, it becomes evident that Puglia is not the Italy of the north. Its rugged limestone landscape is carpeted with olive groves and dotted with villages of white, flat-roofed houses resembling those of Greece and its islands, while the beauty of the forested Gargano Peninsula stands comparison with the more famous Amalfi coast. But there are many features unique to this area, none more so than the trulli, the cone-shaped houses that have become unofficial symbols of Puglia.
Here in the deep southeast of Italy, nature and history are powerful influences, the locals still wink cheekily at authority and the relaxed and communal way of life is in harmony with the sunny climate. Famed for its passionate embrace of life, simple cuisine, flavoursome wines, historic cities and charming coastal villages, it’s a delightful place to get away from it all.