Off the beaten path in PUGLIA

August

Puglia, aka 'the heel of the boot' in Italy, is a relative newcomer on tourist radars. All the more reason to plan a trip to this relaxing region that still offers a taste of 'real' Italy. The regional wines and rustic Italian cuisine specific to Puglia is worth the flight alone.

Duration: 6 Days

We’ve been returning to Italy for decades, and have travelled to all of the typical tourist cities and towns, but our visit to Puglia offered a completely new way to experience the dolce vita of Italian life. In recent years, the buzz around Puglia seems to be growing, and we were curious to experience an ‘off the beaten path’ version of a country we thought we knew so well. We weren’t disappointed. The pace in the south is slower, more relaxed, and more rustic in this region famous for its olive farms (40% of the country’s production is said to come from the masserias in Puglia). The sea is beautiful, and a beach is anywhere you stop and lay your towel – this isn’t the place for daybeds and bottle service. We flew into Bari, rented a car, and picked a few towns we knew we wanted to visit, which is the best way to explore the region. Every town offers something different, and we could easily have spent two weeks driving and exploring all around Puglia. With only 6 days, we focused our time in Cisternino, Ostuni, Otranto, and the tiny town of Carpignano Salentino. We wanted to see the famous trulli that are specific to the region, and experience the rustic, farm fresh local cuisine. There were a dozen more towns and beaches we wanted to see, but we’ll just have to come back. If you think you’ve ‘done’ Italy, or you’re looking to escape the tourist masses in Europe, Puglia still offers sleepy, undiscovered towns and hidden beaches.

  • Sight Seeing 85% 85%
  • Food 100% 100%
  • Ease of Transportation 70% 70%
  • Activities 80% 80%

Bari – Upon arrival in Bari, we sorted our minor rental car disaster (note, do NOT under any circumstances rent from Goldcar. We’ll go into detail later but we ended up wasting a ton of time with them before abandoning our reservation, returning to the airport, and renting with Hertz who came to our rescue), and headed straight into Bari for lunch. We didn’t want to spend much time in cities with so much to explore in the countryside and quaint hill towns, but for lunch and an hour walking around, the old town of Bari was charming. We sat outside at Ristorante Borgo Antico eating burrata and prosicutto, fresh pasta with clams, and our first chilled Puglian white wine (sauvignon blanc grapes are widely grown in this region). As we ate, a parade of locals continuously walked by with wrapped parsels of fresh made foccaccia, so we finished lunch and followed the trail back to Panificio Fiore Bari, an unassuming little bakery making what many believe to be the best focaccia in town.  According to the sign, they’ve been at it since 1508! We joined the nonnas and picked up our own parcel as a roadtrip snack for later. We spent another hour wandering around the little whitewashed lanes of old town Bari, stopping into churches, and walking past apartments where we could see little old ladies laying out their fresh made pasta to dry while watching afternoon soap operas. We stumbled upon the beautiful, whitewashed Basilica di San Nicola, and went into the crypt where the remains of the real Santa Claus-St Nicholas– are said to reside in a tomb under the silver altar.

Polignano a Mare is perhaps the most famous town near Bari. We had seen countless images of the famous narrow beach, and would have tried to make it here with more time. However, with limited days, we didn’t want to go to the most instagrammed place in Puglia where crowded hoards might await. Instead, we continued on towards Ostuni and Cisternino. If you have been to Polignano a Mare, let us know if you found it worth visiting next time we are there.

Ostuni and Cisternino: we picked a trulli hotel, Acquarossa, which is situated between these two cities and made it our base to explore the area for a few days. Between the two main towns, the coast, and the various masserias in the area (fortified farmhouses that are increasingly being renovated into beautiful hotels and restaurants), you can easily spend a few days just in this area. The hotel has a nice swimming pool, warm owners, and is a relatively reasonable option (our room was €130/night). Just a heads up, the trulli lodging experience is perhaps more rustic than you are expecting. These charming stone huts were originally intended as temporary field shelters and storehouses, and later as permanent residences for agricultural labourers. In sum, they aren’t luxurious or particularly comfortable, but they are charming, and a new experience. Water from the shower pools and floods (by the end of our stay we were sloshing through standing water in flip flops), the structures get hot and don’t have much in the way of air flow (and obviously no AC), and they aren’t air tight to keep out bugs (we had a bit of a mosquito issue). That said, it’s all part of the adventure. If you want comfort, I would go for a refurbished masseria. We are dying to stay at Masseria Moroseta, and Masseria Il Frantoio (read below for our incredible meal there).

The white city of Ostuni is visible from miles around, perched overlooking the verdant olive groves of the Valle d’Itria below. Originally situated for protection from invaders, the labrinthine streets have formed a maze of staircases, churches, restaurants, and alleyways that are pedestrian-ready to wander and get lost in. (Note, you should park outside the town as soon as you see parking and just walk in, the narrow roads and one way signs are stressful to navigate with a vehicle). We came to the city on a pilgrimmage to try La Pastasciutta and weren’t disappointed. We ate some of the best pasta we’ve ever had in this casual (but extremely popular) restaurant where pasta is served in little plastic bowls at their outside tables. Every day a dozen or so fresh pasta varieties are listed on the blackboard to choose from, we had mushroom and burrata ravioli and foglie d’ulivo with pancetta, along with a plastic cup of chilled white Apulian wine.

Other culinary highlights in Ostuni include Il Vizio del Conte for takeaway focaccia, popular Pizzeria Notti Bianche for Neapolitan style pizza, Osteria Del Tempo Perso for a slightly more upscale dinner in a whitewashed, cozy cave setting. and Borgo Antico Bistrot for some of the best views overlooking the countryside outside the city. Also, if you’re in Ostuni on a Saturday, don’t miss the weekly market near Via Gabbriele d’Annunzio where you can buy juicy olives by the barrel, fat, salted capers, and local home-made taralli. (There are also stalls filled with clothing, plants, hardware, and antiques, but it was really all about the food for us).

Picturesque Cisternino was perhaps our favourite town in Puglia. It has a charming town center that comes alive at night as restaurants pack their outside tables, and squares fill with locals out for their evening passeggiata (stroll). This is also where we had our first macelleria experience, at the famous Da Zio Pietro. Macelleria are butchers, but the dining experience is unique to Puglia and unlike anything we’d experienced in Italy before. You sidle up to the traditional butcher counter, point out all the various meats you want, (one of which must be the regional specialty bombetta pugliese) and then, in the case of Da Zio Pietro, they tell  you what time to return (for us it was about an hour). We then were free to wander around Cisternino, get some shopping in, and sit in the squares people watching, before returning to the restaurant where we were ushered to our outdoor table on a busy alleyway. They took our salad and wine order, and then, as if by magic, our array of grilled meats began arriving. The servers somehow know exactly what meat goes with what table for their many patrons, and the meal is a rare carb-free feast in Italy. Succulent sausages bursting with fresh basil and fennel, pork wrapped around cheese, breaded cutlets, all came sizzling hot and grilled to perfection. We don’t even know everything we ate, but it was a meat lover’s feast, and a completely  unique experience that you must try while in Puglia. If you’re looking for pasta and fish, Osteria Bell’Italia in Cisternino comes highly recommended from Puglia’s most famous fashion star, Anna Dello Russo.

Our favourite beach in the area was next to the Spiaggia Torre Guaceto in a Natural Reserve area. From the Spiaggia Torre Gauceto, we walked south to the next inlet which we had all to ourselves. We spread out a feast that we’d bought at the infamous mini market Caseificio Oronzo Crovace.  Located in the little hamlet Speziale di Fasano this market is not only one of the best cheese shops in the area, but also a place to stock up on Apulian wines, veggies, and a huge deli counter of made to order sandwiches and prepared foods. You could easily do all of your shopping and souvenir buying here if you were trying to bring regional specialties home. We picked up fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and artichokes, homemade focaccia, prosciutto paninis, pork meatballs, and a few Peronis for our beach picnic.

Masseria Il FrantoioWe made one reservation ahead of our Puglia trip and this was it. The masseria is a refurbished working olive farm that serves an unbelievable multi-course dinner cooked with fresh local ingredients from their working farm. They also have hotel rooms and was one of Italy’s first agriturismos- a working farm offering guest accommodations. These have now become quite popular throughout Puglia, and next time we visit, we would love to stay here. While trulli are iconic in Puglia, in terms of comfort and the right mix of modern amenities with traditional architecture, you’re probably better off at an agriturismo. Upon arriving up the long driveway through an expanse of olive groves, you’ll see the glowing fairy lights of the main reception area welcoming you to dinner. Booking in advance (as far in advance as possible) is essential. You’ll be greeted and offered an aperitif (Aperol spritz for us) and then taken on a brief tour of the olive press, herb garden, and some of the grounds, before being ushered inside to dinner. The four-course (€40), six-course (€55), or eight -course (€65) tasting menu includes one, two or three different wine pairings, which are refilled freely throughout the meal. Obviously, we went for the eight-course meal as it showcased the finest Puglian cooking with foraged herbs, wild vegetables, organic meats, freshly made pastas, and fruits from the 19th century orchard. The local Apulian wines are perfectly paired to enhance the flavours, and the price feels like an incredible value for what can only be described as a completely magical, yet welcoming and homey evening. We doused our bread in the various olive oils made on site, feasted on  pizzelle (fried bread dough) with tomato sauce before dishes of anchovies, chicories, lamb, and boar’s ragu. It felt more like a dinner party at a country estate than a restaurant, with warm, unpretentious service (our favourite), and guests from around the world (including many Italian tourists). The meal was one of the highlights of our trip, and we would love to return to stay at the Masseria as hotel guests. For more about Masseria Frantoio, read HERE or HERE

Otranto and Carpignano Salentino: After a few days in Ostuni and Cisternino, we made our way further south to Otranto, one of the southernmost points in Italy. We winged it a bit with this portion of the trip, driving into the seaside town of Otranto, and spending a half day walking around to get the lay of the land. We walked along the seafront promenade, ate gelato at the packed pastry and gelato mecca Martinucci, and watched a spectacular thunder and lightning storm that doused the city in a deluge before blue skies re-emerged. We walked around the ramparts, and wound our way through the maze like streets to the beautiful Otranto Cathedral. A few hours felt like enough time in the city for us, and we realized we wanted to spend the night in another quaint town so we sat in the car googling and calling until we somehow stumbled upon Salento Guesthouse B&B in the tiny, ancient town of Carpignano Salentino. It was just what we were looking for; a quiet, relaxed little town (very little), off the tourist path where we could experience the local way of life. We stayed in one of their apartments outside the main house, in a converted old church with high, vaulted ceilings. It was spacious, air conditioned, clean, and renovated, and had us imagining returning to the town to rent this apartment for a month to learn Italian and take up with the locals. Speaking of locals, we felt as though we were the only tourists in town (in the best way). There was a little bar/coffee place on Via Roma at the intersection of Via Giudeca where all the local middle aged men would gather to sit in chairs facing out towards the street to people watch. We came and sat with them, sipping espresso while various gossiping, yelling, fighting, and reconciliations took place. They welcomed us and we communicated with hand gestures, and a few broken French and Spanish phrases. What I wouldn’t give to be able to speak fluent Italian and come back to shoot the shit with this crew. They were a riot, even with the language barrier. At the intersection of Via Roma, and Via Pasquale Pasca, there is a little corner store (‘store’ overstates it – it’s more like a room with produce and snacks arranged) where you can buy fresh fruit or cheese for lunch. Across the street on Via Roma, a hanging picture of bread is the only indication of the tiny bakery inside, selling fresh cornetto, and bakes cookies and crackers (I can’t find any trace of these places online or on Google maps). For dinner, we went to Ristorante Pizzeria La Locanda. It was a busy night, packed with local families, and while there is no English on the menu (a good sign), the open antipasta bar means you can pile your plate up with every variety of roasted peppers, artichokes, cheeses, fried dough, and other local favorites. We ordered two pasta dishes that were solid, though not particularly memorable on a trip that set the culinary bar quite high. We spent one day at the beach a short drive out to the coast from Carpignano Salentino at Conca Specchiulla Beach. Here, a coastal footpath leads to various rocky inlets, and you can keep walking until you find an uncrowded place to lay your towel by the crystal clear water. 

 

We still want to try: With only 6 days, there was so much more we wanted to explore in Puglia. These are a few places that are top of mind for the next visit:

Matera, in the instep of the boot (and technically in Basilicata, not Puglia) is the next town we were curious to get to but just didn’t have the time. Named the European Capital of Culture for 2019, it’s one of the most continuously inhabited sites in the world, dating back roughly 9,000 years, and has homes and churches carved into the mountainside.

Heading south from Otranto, we were hoping to get to the Grotta dei Cervi (Deer Cave), Grotta Zinzulusa, and Cala dell’Acquavivia.

Just north of Otranto we were curious about the Cave of Poetry (the pictures online look amazing).

Outside Ostuni, we wanted to try Cibus restaurant, and in the little town we stayed in at Trulli di Acquarossa, the local Braceria Macelleria Soleti was packed with lively crowds eating plates of meat at the outside picnic tables when we were there. It looked more like a town gathering than a restaurant, and would be fun to try next time. In terms of lodging, we hope to stay at Agriturismo Masseria Lamacavallo, Masseria Frantoio, or Masseria Moroseta on our next visit. Another stop would be Salento to stay at Critabianca.

A few more beaches outside Ostuni that we wanted to get to were: Grotta del Moro, and Beach Costa Merlata.

Finally, for the most luxurious and star-studded hotel in Puglia, the five star Borgo Egnazia (where Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel famously got married). It’s an entire village unto itself with a golf course, hotel rooms, and private villas and townhouses to rent. Although it was the laid back, unmanicured charm that we loved most about Puglia, so it’s hard to picture this style of property in the region.

 

Update: Song of Style recently went to Puglia and her guide is pretty good

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