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Exploring the "Bread Basket" of Italy: Puglia

As most of you know, I was lucky enough to take a trip to the Apuglia region of Italy in March – along with a group of Travel Advisor colleagues and my son! Let me just begin by saying that travel with family is what I’m all about. And remote work means that the kids can join me on these spurs of the moment trips. Silver linings, indeed. Puglia is a fascinating region of Italy. Experienced travelers will certainly see the similarities between Puglia and other countries on the opposite side of the Adriatic – like Albania and Greece. It makes sense – since the width of the Strait of Otranto – which separates them - is less than 45 miles. For clients who are visiting Italy for the first time, it’s more likely that they will want to visit the “big three”’ – Rome, Florence, and Venice. But for adventurous travelers looking to get off the beaten path, Puglia has so much to offer that is unique and beautiful.

Like all of Italy, Puglia is HOT in the summer. It’s also high season, so prices and availability are not ideal. August is a dreadful time to visit Italy as most Italians are on their “vacanza” and places will be crowded. In addition, many shops and businesses close in August while locals travel. While this is not a huge factor in the larger cities of Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice – it certainly can impact the smaller cities and towns of the Puglia region. The best time to visit the region would be the late spring and early summer months – April, May and early June are ideal weather months. Fall is also a great time – September and October. Puglia is a wine region, so there is harvest and the crush to enjoy in the fall. This should not discourage visitors from going whenever their schedule will allow. Puglia has many festivals all year round. In January, Lecce celebrates Puccia dell’Ampa – their wood-baked bread. Easter is huge in Italy and San Marco has the Fracchie procession with huge torches to light the way for the Madonna. Bari celebrates their patron saint, San Nicola, in May with a festival that includes boats, parades and fireworks. There are truffle festivals, wine festivals, seafood festivals, and even a meatball festival! There is no “bad” time to visit Puglia. While I don’t normally recommend that my clients drive in Italy – I would likely suggest it for Puglia. Although the cities have the same limited traffic zones (ZTLs) as the rest of the country, a car gives you freedom of exploration in Puglia. Careful planning can ensure that you don’t get any unexpected tickets or fines. I would, however, recommend that drivers choose the smallest car that they can get their bags into – and learn to drive a manual transmission before they go. Getting around Puglia isn’t difficult – but I did find that many people didn’t speak much English. I used quite a bit of my rusty Italian in shops and restaurants. Hotel staff had excellent English. But in any case, people are incredibly kind and eager to help. This did spur me to add a list of common phrases to my destination guide that my clients receive prior to travel. Puglia has many options for accommodation. Like much of Europe, there are fabulous villa options, hosted homestays, and lovely hotels. But due to the unique architecture of the region, Puglia has a couple of truly extraordinary offerings. The first is the trulli hotel. The Itria Valley is famous for their trulli homes. Trulli are traditional Apulian stone huts with a cone-shaped roof. Legend has it that the homes were constructed in such a way as to be easy to deconstruct when the tax man visited in order to avoid paying taxes. Trulli hotels around Alberobello have been converted from small cottages to imaginative hotels with stone walls, round rooms, and quirky alcoves. They are romantic and historic. They range from rural B&Bs to luxury hotels – with something for everyone. The second type of stay in Puglia is a masseria. Unlike the agriturismo hotels that you find all over Italy, masserias are fortified farms. They date back to the 16th century, and they are usually a complex of buildings surrounding a central courtyard. They are on the small size for hotels – usually no more than 25 rooms – but offer all the amenities you would expect from spas to pools. Many of them are still working farms, so you can expect that any culinary offerings will be the freshest possible. While not technically in Puglia, Matera (in the Basilicata region) offers refurbished cave dwellings in the sassi districts. Sassi is Italian for stones, and it is the name that is generally used to describe the caves in the area that have been home to humans since the Paleolithic Age. No longer the “shame of Italy”, Matera offers a truly unique chance to stay in a cave. What likely started out as single caves were dug deeper and deeper into the hills during the medieval era – and those have now been refurbished into hotels. Some of them are quite luxurious and can even include spas. While there many beautiful places to see in Puglia – there are a few “must see” places that any traveler to Puglia will want to visit: Lecce: Often called the “Florence of the South”, Lecce is one of Puglia’s largest cities. It has more than 40 churches and many beautiful palazzi (palaces) that have been lovingly restored. The city is known for baroque architecture. Although there are a few museums and the aforementioned churches, Lecce is really a city for experiencing. Wander down the narrow streets of the historic center, enjoy a long lunch at a wine bar while you gaze at the Basilicata di Santa Croce, or enjoy a late-night gelato while you wander past the Roman ruins in the center of town. The food in Lecce is delicious – but visitors should seek out the morning pastries and be sure to try the Pasticciotto Leccese. It’s a delicious two bite pastry filled with egg custard and lightly dusted with powdered sugar. In the evenings, the streets are filled with locals of all ages out for a passeggiata and, perhaps, a beverage. It’s incredibly welcoming and the perfect spot to stay and explore the rest of what Puglia has to offer. Itria Valley: From a home base in Lecce, visitors can easily access all that Puglia has to offer. The Itria Valley is spectacular and Alberobello is an absolute must. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage town made up of 1500 Trulli homes. Trulli are the stone huts with conical roofs that dot the entire region of the Itria Valley – but Alberobello boasts the highest concentration of these charming buildings. Although many of them have been converted to shops and restaurants, there are still many that are occupied. You can even stay in them. There are plenty of options to visit olive oil farms in the Itria Valley. Many of them offer tours and will even provide shopping opportunities. Further south in the Itria Valley lie the towns of Locorotando and Martina Franca. Both are gorgeous white towns with fascinating architecture that are well worth adding to your day. Ostuni: The city of Ostuni perches high on a hill and looks out over the Adriatic Sea. Like many other cities in Puglia, there are many opportunities to wander the narrow streets, climb tiny stairs, and enjoy the stunning views. The historic center has fabulous shopping, cosy cafes and aperitivo stops, and excellent restaurants. In good weather, outdoor dining is a must. Polignano A Mare: For those looking for a seaside destination, you can’t beat Polignano A Mare. The city is perched right on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic. It’s an important, ancient settlement that was built by the Greek settlers in the 4th century BC. By 108 AD it was a Roman city, and the remains of their roads include a bridge just north of the historic center of town. Although the city sits right on the sea, it’s not a beach town, per se. There is one public beach that reaches the sea between two cliffs – the Blue Flag beach. The water is crystal clear, and you will find people here from morning till sunset. Matera: While not actually in Puglia, Matera is a must-see site in the region. Just west of Puglia in the province of Basilicata, Matera is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. The area is generally believed to have been occupied since the Paleolithic times. The Sassi are a troglodyte settlement and are thought to be one of the first human settlements in what is now Italy. In the 1950s, the government forced many of the residents of the Sassi to move into public housing in the modern part of the city. However, many artists and “hippie” moved into the caves and refurbished them to the point that the local administration began to see the area as one of interest to tourists. Now the city is full of thriving businesses and Matera is one of the fastest growing cities in southern Italy.

The budget for Puglia can be a bit lower than the rest of Italy – because it is still relatively new and upcoming. But certainly, luxury travelers will find plenty here to please. Villas are plenty and they range from a small Trulli to a large, private masseria with pool and full staff. There truly is something for everyone in Puglia.

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