Most tourists to Italy know Rome, Florence and Venice. Some tourists get to know Naples, San Gimignano and Cinque Terre. But, if you want to know where Italians go in Italy for their holidays…they go to Puglia.
There are miles and miles of unspoiled white sand beaches, clear blue water, friendly people and artistic and historic treasures that rival those of Tuscany. And the food. The olive oil is pure ambrosia. The tomatoes are the sweetest and the bread is the tastiest on the peninsula.
We packed up and caravanned with a group of friends (one of whom was born in Puglia) down the length of Italy. The trip from the Veneto to Puglia is a good 11-hour drive. We broke up the journey with a stopover in Macerata in the Le Marche region.
A very popular hotel accommodation – particular to Puglia – is the Masseria. This is the name given to the small ancient forts that dot Puglia’s countryside. We stayed at the Masseria Panareo, which is located about two kilometers from the center of Otranto and is situated on a rise that has a clear view of the coast.
There are literally hundreds of these old fortifications left from the days when Puglia needed to defend itself from the Turks. Because of its location and miles of navigable coastline, Puglia has hosted, over the centuries, invasions by – among others – the Greeks, the Romans, the Turks and the French. Today, these forts that once turned back the foreign invaders, have been renovated into welcoming hotels.
Our Masseria had comfortable rooms along with a large swimming pool, which provided just the right mix for easy summer relaxation. The large outdoor terrace/dinning room is an ideal place to enjoy the wonderfully prepared Pugliese specialties that are served nightly.
Our first stop was a visit to nearby Otranto. Otranto is a lively coastal city with a long history. The port of Otranto is protected by the massive 16th century Castle which sits high above the port. Unlike in centuries past, when war ships anchored there, today the port is full of fishing and pleasure craft. We found the city full of visitors, bustling shops, and fabulous restaurants with views of the sea.
While some of our group busied themselves taking advantage of the nearby beaches, we often found ourselves exploring some of the nearby towns and cities.
Lecce is one of the must see cities of Puglia. It is commonly referred to as “the Florence of the South”. Its history probably predates its notable neighbor of the North, but Lecce has retained this moniker most likely because of its rich architectural history. If you love Baroque buildings, Lecce is the place for you in Italy!
We also visited the small inland town of Corigliano d’ Otranto. In the center of this sleepy city lies a recently restored castle!
We’d heard a lot about Ostuni, so we made a special day trip heading North past Brindisi, in order to visit the “White City”. We walked the crooked cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed buildings and ended up taking in the view from the “belvedere” near the Cathedral at the top of the city.
There are seemingly endless miles of beaches to explore in Puglia. We had a group, which included children, and one of the beaches we enjoyed was called the Lido Balnearea located a few kilometers from the center of Otranto. It offered all of the amenities one comes to expect at a beach in Italy, only super-sized – chairs and umbrellas for rent, a place to buy food and drinks and even a nighttime disco.
On what was supposed to be a 45-minute drive to the opposite coast of Puglia – roughly halfway between Gallipoli and Taranto – is the Mediterranean beach town of Porto Cesareo. Driving with our Italian friends, we managed to get terribly lost and 45-minute drive became an hysterical 3-hour journey. Once in Porto Cesareo, we discovered what countless travelers have discovered before us… Puglia’s beaches are a gift that keeps on giving.
Something else that travelers to Puglia are soon to appreciate is the food. In local country agriturismos we sampled fresh chicory prepared the “Pugliese” way; in restaurants along the tranquil waters of the Port in Otranto we sampled freshly caught fish that was buttery and melted in your mouth; and off on a country back road we discovered a herd of goats and followed them to the end of the road where there was a farm house that produced the freshest, most delicious goat’s milk cheese.
Seeing Italy the way Italians see Italy means taking a holiday in Puglia. That is of course if you like great food, wonderful beaches, history, art and kind people.
For a great video Guide to Puglia check out this video:
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All Photos Copyrighted to Luke Wynne.