Surrounded by crystal-clear waters with 500 miles of Adriatic and Ionian coastline, Puglia is an enclave that sits on the sun-baked heel of Italy’s boot. The region’s stark, unspoiled beauty is home to the brightest blue seas, mouth-watering food, historic little towns, diverse architecture, colourful folk traditions, and some of the loveliest people in all of Italy. These are just a few reasons to visit Puglia.
From the white alleys of Ostuni to the famed Trulli houses of Alberobello to the baroque art of Lecce, it’s no wonder Puglia’s beauty is trending on many Instagram feeds. But what makes the southeastern tip of Italy so appealing to travellers is its authenticity.
In Puglia, known in Italian as Apulia, visitors can still see, feel and taste the real Italy – it has only gotten a little more stylish and popular along the way, receiving a coveted spot (No.18) on the New York Times’ 52 Places to Visit in 2019.
GOT Contributor and travel writer Francesca Spizzirri, sat down with industry veteran Tony Macri, owner of Friends in Puglia, to unearth some of the region’s secrets while discussing his passion for Puglia and desire to connect travellers with this land through cultural explorations, guided tours, culinary indulgences and so much more.
Macri points out some of the essentials visitors need to know when planning to visit Puglia:
Is there a perfect home base to visit Puglia and discover its riches?
There are many great options when deciding where to stay, but it depends on which part of the region you want to explore. Puglia is a long and narrow peninsula so it can be divided into three areas: the wilder and quieter north (Gargano or Vieste), the central agricultural hub and countryside (Itria Valley or Monopoli), and the magnificent beaches and wine region to the south (Salento, Lecce, Otranto or Gallipoli). It is worth noting that there are beautiful beaches throughout Puglia.
If you can only choose one base, then it should be Monopoli for its central location. Staying within the walls of the old city allows you to relax into a daily routine – enjoy an espresso or aperitivo in one of the hidden piazzas, or sit along the old port with local fishermen to discuss the day’s catch or exchange gossip. A short two-minute walk outside the town walls leads to a picturesque beach with turquoise water. On your way back, stop at Caffe Roma. It is one of the best gelaterias in all of Italy, and we don’t say that lightly.
Monopoli is big enough that it offers a variety of places to drink and eat, but not too big that traffic and hoards of tourists become an issue. Visiting most sites in this area involves less than an hour’s drive, so you can easily stay a week and have enough activities to do from this base.
If you are staying in Puglia for more than a week, then we recommend adding Salento to the second half of your itinerary. For variety, we suggest staying in a countryside masseria (a typical ancient fortified farmhouse found only in this region) near Otranto.
What are some of the unique hotel accommodations offered in Puglia and what type of traveller might be drawn to each?
Puglia has seen an increase in its selection of accommodations with charming masserie beautifully restored as five-star luxury hotels and family apartments in local towns refurbished into BnBs.
You can stay in anything from a cave-dwelling (upgraded of course) to an elegant masseria. Each provides a unique experience. With our guests, we generally begin with price and location to help narrow down the sea of selection to something more manageable. For example, if you would like to stay in a town, a masseria is not an option as they are all located in the countryside.
It is also important to keep in mind that few places have elevators, so if stairs are an issue you should ask about them explicitly.
Using sites like Airbnb or Booking.com can help with your search as they cover most of the available inventory. It is also useful to look at the ratings on those sites because many websites in southern Italy are basic and unimpressive, so sometimes an amazing property is hiding behind a terrible website! Reviews will help you suss those out.
In an albergo diffuso, visitors can live like locals. What are some of the highlights of this experience? Downfalls?
The growing number of homes now being restored and made available to tourists are another viable option for travellers to the region. Some of these scattered site homes, called an albergo diffuso, offer guests experiences such as cooking classes, home-hosted dinners, and visits to the family farm. Ultimately though, what makes this kind of experience so unique is the insight a host family provides that cannot be found within the pages of a guidebook. Staying in a home, you become immersed in the daily rhythm of local life, smell the fragrant scent of meals being cooked in neighbouring kitchens, and become a part of conversations among local elders.
You should keep in mind that not all hosts have a hospitality background and as such may not have the know-how to provide exceptional and bespoke experiences.
What regional foods should people sample when they visit Puglia?
Puglia has been a long-established agricultural powerhouse. Meals are created based on what is in season and vary from month to month, but there are some dishes offered year-round that have become synonymous with Puglia.
Puree di Fave – Fava beans are a staple here. They are eaten fresh when in season, but more commonly as a puree made from dried beans and typically topped with sautéed cicoria (chicory) or octopus.
Orecchiette with Cima di Rape – This ear-shaped pasta is found throughout the region and served with many sauces. But in the spring, when this delicious green vegetable (known as broccoli raab or broccoli rabe in the United States) is in season, the combination of the two flavours is a favourite among Pugliesi.
Braceria – In the evening, many butcher shops turn into restaurants known as braceria. Imagine gingham tablecloths and terracotta carafes filled with wine, as you dine outdoors on freshly grilled meat that the butcher prepares in front of you. This is as old-world Italian as it gets. For meat lovers, local bombette are a must-try. These small rolls of thinly sliced pork wrapped around a tasty filling are absolutely delicious!
Focaccia and Burrata – Purchasing a freshly baked focaccia and burrata can easily provide a delicious meal any time of day. Focaccia is a flat oven-baked Italian bread similar in style and texture to pizza dough, while burrata is a fresh cheese made from mozzarella and cream, giving it an unusual, soft texture. Both are typical of Apulia.
Intense sun and fertile soil make Puglia the best region for fruits and vegetables and the largest producer for Italy so if you see a fruit stand, stop and try something. The produce here is incredible!
What are some of your favourite restaurants in the region?
Puglia provides a glorious feasting experience, so there are MANY places to indulge in incredible food and wine but, of course, we have our favourites.
La Taverna Del Duca, Locorotondo – Owner and chef, Antonella Scatigna focuses on traditional recipes while maintaining a 0 km rule: All ingredients are locally sourced. If it is not in season, she is not cooking it! The restaurant is also located in the beautiful city of Locorotondo which few tourists visit. Note: The menu is mostly di terra (land), so no fish here.
La Taverna Della Gelosia, Ostuni – This is one of the best and most unique places to eat in Puglia, not only for the ambiance but also the menu selection. The restaurant serves age-old recipes that showcase the influence of invaders throughout the centuries that seldom can be found elsewhere.
La Veranda Di Giselda, San Vito Polignano a Mare – Whenever possible, this is where we have our first meal upon arriving in Puglia. The restaurant’s oceanfront location and food seem to scream – WELCOME BACK TO PUGLIA! The comparison of price to quality is also hard to match. It is a local favourite and with good reason.
Origano, Salento – If you are visiting the Salento region then you must dine at Origano. The property has its own organic farm and a complimentary wine pairing with each course. The setting is enchanting, the service impeccable, and the staff is friendly.
What should you try to see, do and experience the first time you visit Puglia?
With most of our clients who visit Puglia, we try to begin their journey with the countryside food tour. During this half-day excursion, guests visit a frantoio (olive mill), a casaeficio (cheesemaker) and cantina (winemaker). Each of these foods is essential to Pugliese life and cuisine. This tour connects visitors with locals and allows them to experience the backroads of the countryside that they wouldn’t otherwise see.
A favourite among our guests are the cooking classes, too. Taking them into the kitchens of local chefs to learn about local food and history allows them to make a more personal connection, and the result is always delicious! We believe it is important not to just learn recipes, but also to understand the building blocks of the cuisine. So, we spend equal time in the kitchen preparing food as we do out exploring what makes it so unique. Along with that exploration comes the opportunity to meet local farmers and venture out into the countryside.
Explorations with local guides are important to us, too. Our list of local guides is the best the region has to offer. We work with individuals from a specific town, rather than guides who cover a large territory with less of a connection to the place. This makes each experience and interaction a heartfelt and memorable one.
Another “must do” is to just melt into the rhythm of everyday life in Southern Italy. Take time along the way to have a morning coffee standing at the bar, an aperitivo in the piazza, a gelato, and an evening passegiata (stroll) with the locals. We like to help our guests understand these traditions so they can really immerse themselves in the culture.
What activities will outdoor lovers find when they visit Puglia?
The combination of gentle terrain, vicinity to the sea, and excellent weather provide outdoor enthusiasts who visit Puglia with plenty of options. Finding the perfect activity tailored to each guest is something that excites us. Some of our favourites are cycling through centuries-old olive groves, setting sail from one of the many port towns, or hiking in the spectacular Gargano peninsula.
Why do you have such a passion for Puglia? How did your company, Friends in Puglia, come about?
You could say that southern Italy is in my blood. I grew up speaking, living, and learning the traditions of the region: the family making enough jars of tomato sauce in the summer to last them the whole year, the neighbourhood being one giant extended family, playing card games, and speaking Italian dialect over homemade grappa after dinner.
After spending almost a decade working in Tuscany and other northern regions, I had the opportunity to work in Puglia. After one season of leading bike trips here, I immediately fell in love with and had an instant connection to the region, much more than all my previous years in other parts of Italy. Having roots in Calabria, the southern culture and rhythm resonated with me.
When I moved from Firenze to Monopoli, my Italian friends thought I was crazy. They considered it “moving backward,” but I was convinced it was the best thing at the time and for many reasons: better food, lower cost of living, but most of all I fell in love with the people.
Making connections and meeting people in Puglia is very easy. Locals are warm, friendly and eager to share their knowledge and passion for the area. Ten years later, after meeting my wife in Puglia and getting married here, too ( we hosted close to 100 guests for four amazing days), we decided to start Friends in Puglia to continue our passion for sharing a part of Italy we love with others.
We continue to bring people to Puglia because even if Puglia is no longer Italy’s best kept “secret,” there are still amazing experiences that are not in any guidebook and not available online. We love sharing this knowledge with our guests and seeing their eyes light up when they fall in love with the region as we have.
All photo credits (except lead photo): Friends in Puglia
The lead photo shows Matera, the European Capital of Culture 2019, only a short drive from Puglia. Once a part of Puglia, it is now part of Basilicata.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Puglia is an easy place to explore. Many locals speak English. The region is long and narrow with significant natural landmarks (sea and Murgia) which make it easy to navigate.
- Driving is relatively safe and easy outside of any major city. Most towns are flat and therefore don’t involve climbing big hills to get to the best views and sights.
- The majority of tourists in Italy never go further south than Rome, so by nature, it is easier to “get off the beaten path” in southern Italy. Many things that make Italy attractive only intensify as you head south: traditional rhythms and ways of life are still evident, local people are warmer and more appreciative of visitors, the siesta still exists, AND the beaches are the most spectacular!
- It is a wonderful place to visit. Whether it is your first or tenth visit to Italy, there is always something new to discover.
- People always comment that the food is as delicious as further north, but it feels healthier and lighter, so that is a plus.
- When you visit Puglia, come with an open mind. This is not Tuscany, far from it in many ways. Embrace the pace of life, going against it usually leads to frustration. Service, in general, is slower, especially compared to North America. As with many other European destinations, there are more cigarette smokers than North Americans are used to.
IF YOU GO
How to get there
Depending on schedules and availability, Macri suggests choosing a flight to Brindisi or Bari. (Visitors traveling from the U.S. or Canada will have to change planes at one of the many cities in Europe (e.g. London, Milan, Munich, etc.) where flights to Brindisi or Bari originate.)
The Brindisi airport provides better access to the southern part of the region, he says, while Bari covers the rest, and with the influx of tourism, the Bari airport has been upgraded and now offers train service directly from the airport to the city for easy and efficient transfers.
For more information:
Friends in Puglia is a bespoke tour company specializing in tours of southern Italy.
All photo credits: Friends in Puglia
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