Puglia: A pocket guide
Puglia is the heel of Italy, its northeast shore washed by the Adriatic and its southern one by the Ionian. The key to understanding southern Italy, it is where the events that shaped the south were born. With its olive trees, whitewashed hilltop medieval and Baroque towns, scorched landscape, and air of the ancient world, Puglia can seem closer to the melting pot of Greece than the grandeur of Rome. It’s not that the Renaissance bypassed southern Italy, but it certainly left fewer calling cards. To the fortunate who have visited Puglia, it offers a proper “Eureka” moment, a real treasure of natural beauty, art, history, and traces of the various conquerors and cultural influences that imbue this part of Italy. Even the light in Puglia has a very special quality, casting everything in a soothing, temperate glow, like a blessing. At night, its historic little towns, with their hundreds of churches and mix of medieval, Baroque, and Greek architecture, their maze of streets and steps and tiny piazzas, are beautifully and thoughtfully lit and, out of season, largely empty.
The north of Puglia is trulli territory, the unique conical little houses found in the southern Murgia area of the peninsula. Trulli have been around for many hundreds of years, though the oldest surviving ones date back only to the sixteenth century. Many have been beautifully restored and turned into clusters of little villas. Ostuni, “La Citta Bianca,” is in the trulli heartland. Strong medieval defensive walls and tumbling clusters of whitewashed houses wind around the hillside, which is topped by the magnificent Gothic cathedral. As a contrast, the little town of Martina Franca is a tour de force of eighteenth-century rococo. It is considered a sort of en plein air boudoir, with theatrical revelations and sudden surprises as one turns a corner into a square, where the main church is framed by a wing of Baroque palazzi in the local opulent marble and overlooking little street cafes and restaurants. Impromptu or little local musical festivals or performances are in every town. Lecce, in the south, is considered southern Italy’s most important Baroque town—a real jewel of architecture and “a riot of cherubs,” as one visitor described it.
The beaches of Puglia are legion—sandy, pebbly, dramatic, and peaceful, whether facing the Adriatic or the Ionian. The big sandy beaches with road access can get crowded at the height of summer, so renting a little boat and doing day trips to the more secluded coves and beaches is a great option. There are a few villas on the beach, but unless you are there off-season, it’s not to be recommended.
Above all, Puglia is famous for its food—over 200 types of pasta, shellfish, prawns, fish, barratieri (a cross between a melon and a cucumber), burrata (fresh mozzarella stuffed with cream), stracciatella (another variety of mozzarella), legendary tomatoes and vegetables, and of course bresaola, salami, and prosciutti. Like all southern Italians, the Pugliese have a sweet tooth, and their pastries and sweets, part Italian and part Moorish/Greek, are sublime.