Beautiful beaches, a rich history, picture-perfect landscapes, stunning agriturismos to stay in and some of the best food known to man, there are plenty of reasons to travel to the long-overlooked heel of Italy’s boot. Here, in the latest in our With Love From postcard series, Liz Wootton shares her guide to having a sustainable and stylish getaway in Puglia.
It would be impossible to visit the tip of Italy without falling head over heels in love with the entire region. The breathtaking landscape, the cheery locals, the out-of-this-world food and the beaches which look like they’ve been transported from the Maldives, all combining to make this one of the loveliest holiday destinations ever.
No, seriously, ask any Italian and they will thoroughly agree with this sentiment. Unless they don’t want to let you in on the secret that is… (Until recently Puglia was Italy’s private holiday paradise, with all the Italians migrating down southwards as soon as the summer holidays struck. But now the rest of the world has cottoned on and the area is a popular holiday spot for local and international tourists alike.)
As well as being drop-dead-gorgeous, a trip to Puglia goes fairly easy on the planet too. Firstly, the local area is bursting with rustic agriturismos, fresh, local produce and organic vineyards and secondly, the type of activities you’ll most likely be doing out there e.g. walking through a nature reserve, lying on a beach or exploring an old medieval city will all be eco-friendly enough.
The only real (environmental) problem with a holiday to Puglia is the travel itself: to visit, people generally fly into Bari or Brindisi and then hire a car to get around, as the public transport options, whilst good, are unfortunately not extensive enough if you’re planning to really go off the beaten track. It is actually possible to get to Puglia by train: you can get an overnight train from Paris to Milan and then a connection from Milan straight to Brindisi. We’re not going to lie, though, it is quite a shlep.
THINGS TO DO
There’s so much to do, see and scoff in Puglia that it’s hard to know where to begin. The area is brimming with rugged national parks, windswept swathes of coast, enchanting woodlands, magical grottos and ancient caves, so, if you’re a nature-lover, then I’d definitely recommend starting with a walk in one of the beautiful national parks.
Gargano National Park, which lies right at the very top of the region, boasts an array of landscapes and hidden pockets to explore. From the ancient Umbra Forest (known as ‘the forest of shadows’), where you can escape the hot afternoon sun and wander under the shaded green canopy of trees, to the Tremiti Islands – a stunning archipelago whose aquamarine waters house a rich and diverse array of marine life – there’s so much to see in this area, so make sure you leave plenty of time to explore. Another stunning spot to head to is Alta Murgia national park – with its castles, prehistoric burial sites and sinkholes it definitely makes for an exciting day out. However, the star of the show at Alta Murgia has to be the ‘valley of the dinosaurs’ where you can find over 30,000 dinosaur footprints – hold on to your hats history buffs!
As well as lovely walking spots, Puglia also has a whole host of great lying down spots (aka beaches). The word ‘beach’ doesn’t paint the full picture here though – it would perhaps be better replaced with ‘little slices of paradise’ because the area’s beaches are seriously out of this world. Starting at Gargano and moving down the coast, you’ll be met with stretches of white, pristine sand, sparkling seas of the brightest blues imaginable and towering white stone cliffs (just in case you’re the adventurous type who likes jumping off them).
There are so many breath-taking beaches stretching all along Puglia’s coast it’s so hard to pick a favourite. But, seeing as you’re asking, here goes… Some of the top contenders have to be Marina di Pescoluse (a little patch of the Maldives right in the middle of the Med), Punta Prosciutto (named so because of its distinctive pink sand), Porto Cesareo (you’ve never seen sea quite this blue) and Mattinatella Beach (Fontana delle Rose) (a small pebble beach in the Gargano region). Ultimately my absolutely favourite one of the trip has to be the little beach in the park of Porto Selvaggio and Palude del Capitano. As we visited in the summer holidays, a lot of the popular and better known beaches were very busy (note to self: visit in June or September next time), however, reaching this gorgeous little spot involved walking for 20 minutes or so along a pretty forest path and, as a result, it was a lot less crowded than the more accessible beaches. Top eco tip: head to the lovely bakeries and delis for your packed lunch, instead of filling your cooler bag with a load of plastic-wrapped products from the supermarket. Not only will you minimise plastic waste, but you’ll also support local businesses and get the chance to enjoy the fresh and delicious food grown in the region.
Once you’ve swum and sunned to your heart’s content, there’s still plenty of beautiful cities, towns and villages to be explored. Make your way along winding country roads, passing ancient olive groves and beckoning vineyards, stopping off at the picturesque villages for a caffè or Aperol spritz (you are on holiday after all). Ostuni, the legendary white city towering out of the local landscape, is unmissable, as is Alberobello with its iconic fairytale-like trulli lining the cobbled streets. Polignano a Mare is also gorgeous – a pretty little seaside town lining the clifftops around a dramatic bay, walk down to the beach (gelato in hand) or else explore the countless caves which pockmark the rugged walls of the ravine.
FOOD & DRINK
Beaches and nature reserves aside, it’s time to get down to the truly mind-blowing, heart-achingly beautiful part of Puglia: the food. I was told about the culinary wonders of the region by a friend who had visited the year before, but nothing could have truly prepared me and my tastebuds for the culinary journey of our lives.
Now, I’m already a huge fan of pasta and pizza (‘well who isn’t!?’ I hear you cry), but I just didn’t really have a proper concept of just how good they can taste, pasta especially. This is largely due to the fact that the Pugliese are fanatic about using fresh, local produce in their cooking – giving deceptively simple dishes the power to dazzle the tastebuds and blow the mind.
Wandering down the streets of Bari, we saw the wizened nonnas stooped over tables making the region’s famous ear-shaped pasta – orecchiette. Pulling into fishing villages and walking down the city harbours, we saw fishermen unloading their fresh catches, straight into the open arms of eagerly-waiting restaurateurs. From the ancient family-owned olive groves and vineyards, to the cheeseworks carefully crafting the local delicacy of burrata (a gooey, oozy, utterly delicious type of mozzarella), everywhere you turn food is written into the region’s landscape, culture and heart. While most places had vegetarian options, vegan dishes were a little harder to come by, however as all the ingredients are fresh and locally-sourced, the environmental impact isn’t as terrible as it could be. Ultimately, people here really care about what they eat and where it comes from, which is great for the flavour, their health and the planet in general.
While every restaurant I visited left me on the verge of breaking into tears when I finally got too full to manage another mouthful, there were a few meals which particularly stand out in my mind. The simple and hearty bowl of orecchiette we had on our first night at the sublime Masseria Montenapoleone (more about that particular spot later) was definitely one such dish, as was the linguine vongole I wolfed down on our first night and the delicious ‘puccia’ (Puglia’s answer to the humble sandwich) we scoffed in Lecce.
However, my absolute favourite feast of the trip was the meal we had at the beautiful old winery Terra Jovia. Tucked away in the old town of Gioia del Colle, this tiny family vineyard runs out of a beautiful manor house. Once you’ve toured the house and seen the wine-making process, you return to the grounds where a little table has been set up for you (we were the only people there that day), bursting with all sorts of deliciousness. Sweet and juicy tomatoes from the garden, balls of creamy burrata, made fresh that day and a hearty bowl of orecchiette, all washed down with a bottle of their delicious Primitivo. This is truly the thing food dreams are made of.
I didn’t actually do too much shopping whilst I was out there, although this was more due to limited baggage space than anything else. If there’s one thing I’d say bring back with you it’s all the food you can manage to fit in your suitcase – it’ll be worth it once you’re home, I promise. Olive oil, which the region is particularly celebrated for, packs of pasta, sauce and wine (of course) … just pack it in (making sure it’s wrapped up VERY safely of course).
If you’re interested in local art and craft, the town of Grottaglie is famous for its beautiful ceramics and is definitely worth spending half a day exploring (just be aware that most shops will close for lunch and reopen later on in the afternoon). Otherwise, there are a variety of local food, antiques and bric-a-brac markets across the region. Most towns will host their own market once a week, generally in the morning, and these offer a great opportunity to stock up on fresh local produce and interesting gifts and mementos.
WHERE TO STAY
The accommodation in Puglia is almost as spectacular as the cuisine (I said almost). From ancient palazzos in sleepy town centres and rustic agriturismos set on working farms to setting up camp in a fairytale-like trullo, the range of beautiful places to stay is simply mind-boggling.
One of my absolute favourite spots of the trip (probably in the whole world) was the gorgeous Masseria Montenapoleone. Everything about this stunning agriturismo is truly special: pass through the gate and along the winding path which leads you up through the gardens and towards the hotel. You’ll be able to smell the wild rosemary and oleanders as you go, mingled with the sound of a cacophony of plants and flowers swaying in the gentle sea breeze.
The masseria, which dates back to the 1600s, was originally a farm which then fell into disuse. The current owners lovingly repaired and restored the buildings, repurposing bits and pieces of the farm equipment into furniture: using milk urns as lampstands, old sewing machines as dressing tables and (my absolute favourite) making an old coffee pot into a bedside lamp. Honestly, the people behind the restoration here are utter magicians!
True to the masseria’s heritage, the farmland was restored and the gardens planted with fruit and flowers – all using ancient organic methods. Further afield, vineyards and olive groves abound, making for a lovely stroll come sunset. All the produce grown around the masseria is served for guests in the restaurant, accompanied by a glass of wine from the vineyards of course. Honestly, this is an absolute eco-haven in the midst of picturesque Puglia, if you ever get the chance to stay there then seize it with both hands.
Fancy a staycation instead? See our list of the UK’s best eco-hotels and holiday cottages for inspiration.