Walking vacations in Puglia

“There is perhaps no other region of Italy with such cultural wealth concentrated into a small area as Puglia,” says Valentina Chironna, from our Italy small group walking vacation specialists Exodus. “This is a land full of archaeological interest, with one of the best cuisines in the country, many local and organic products, and highly rated wines. You have some of Italy’s most beautiful villages. The walks are easy but full of scenic interest, and you can add visits to museums, cities of art, white beaches, caves and UNESCO World Heritage Sites that have few equals in Italy.”

Walking in Puglia and neighbouring Basilicata, especially through the Sassi di Matera, or the commune of Alberobello, it’s impossible to ignore the poverty that still afflicts many people in this region. The white, conical-shaped houses known as trulli that pepper the countryside are traditional peasant houses. In Alberobello, for example, many of these little cottages have been restored and converted into fashionable vacation lets, many more lie empty, while others still accommodate families in very basic living conditions.

The windowless cave dwellings of the Sassi di Matera are today a far cry from the slum-like conditions of the post-World War II period. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the districts are now populated with boutique hotels, hip restaurants and artisanal businesses. Yet many Italians still feel a sense of shame, not only at how the residents of these caves were once allowed to live amid deprivation, but also at the loss of culture and community suffered when they were encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to resettle elsewhere.

Responsible walking vacations in Puglia and Basilicata are led by knowledgeable local guides. They don’t only know the best routes, the best places to try a selection of regional cheeses or stop for a glass of wine. They can also explain the history of this area, and how sustainable tourism here means money entering the local economy through museum visits, accommodation and eating and drinking, also contributing to the preservation of the region’s unique architecture.

Highlights of walking in Puglia and Basilicata

There are plenty of architectural highlights to admire as you travel. Walking in Puglia and neighbouring Basilicata might take you to the rock churches of Matera, built in the Middle Ages and once inhabited by hermits. The churches are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and often feature Byzantine frescoes.

Perhaps the region’s most famous architectural icons are the whitewashed conical trulli, whose origins are mysterious – some locals claim the houses, which could be quickly and easily dismantled, were conceived as a way to dodge property taxes. Today many have been converted into boutique villas with steep price tags; plenty remain empty.

Ostuni, on the coast, is a beautiful hilltop town where you can stay in a traditional farmhouse. If walking further down the coast, around Otranto, you will no doubt see the occasional pagliari. These circular dry stone buildings with flat roofs were once simple accommodations for shepherds.
Walkers will dine exceptionally well whatever route they take. With a long coastline and fishing heritage, Puglia also produces most of Italy’s olive oil, as well as many exceptional cheeses and the regional speciality orecchiette (little ear pasta). On some Puglia walking vacations you may be invited to take part in tastings of regional wines, cheeses or oils, or enjoy a cookery class, learning how to make orecchiette in a turnip or tomato and ricotta sauce.

“Puglia is a very different land from other classic and crowded destinations,” points out Valentina. “You can eat a thousand times better and at much lower prices, with plenty of vegetarian choices too.”

All vacations help support local producers as well as giving you plenty of opportunities to fill your suitcase with souvenirs.

Walking in Puglia and Basilicata

A typical Puglia walking vacation will take you on a circuit, starting in Bari, moving inland to Matera, then continuing to Ostuni on the coast, and finishing in Alberobello. In Matera, a knowledgeable guide can talk you through as many of the 150 Rupestrian churches honeycombed across the Murgia plateau as you can manage.

Alternatively, you might base yourself in the famous sassi district and hike the vast limestone ravine. Carved into the rock, the grottoes make for memorable accommodation. Matera is now flourishing as a hip destination (with the usual implications regarding Airbnb pushing up resident house prices), but it’s important to respect the fact that the squalor and poverty associated with these former slum dwellings remains a difficult memory for some in these parts.

In whitewashed Ostuni, you can stroll among vineyards and olive groves, never far from a sublime view over the Adriatic coast or a refreshing swim stop, and stay in a handsomely restored farmhouse. From here you could easily use a free day to take the train over to the Baroque city of Lecce, known as the ‘Florence of the South’, or the magnificent town of Polignano a Mare, which sits on top of a limestone cliff.
Reaching Alberobello, there are walks that take you to Locorotondo, which besides being revered as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, is also highly regarded for its white wine. Narrow country lanes in the Itria Valley lead you over the area’s rolling hills, which are a patchwork of olive groves and vineyards interspersed with trulli storehouses.

Other Puglia walking vacations take you further south along the coast from Ostuni. From Otranto to Gagliano del Capo, there is a little-known path threading lovely swimming beaches with villages. Tailor made and self guided trips follow ancient stone-walled country lanes between bunkers left over from World War II and old shepherds’ pagliari.

Walking vacations that take a bite out of regional cuisine are popular in Italy. In Puglia, you can stop in Altamura, famed for being the only town in Italy with its own officially protected bread, which comes in huge round loaves. You can see the bread being made in wood-fired ovens, visit an organic farm, take a lesson in making the Puglian pasta orecchiette, and watch as cheeses such as nodini, mozzarella and trecce are made freshly in front of you.

Other possible outings include a butcher in Cisternino, known for serving a barbecued local delicacy known as bombettes, which are parcels of minced meat, ham and cheese. Or a working olive oil mill with ancient trees, where you can take a tour, sample some of the oils, and take a few home for friends and family to savour.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Italy walking or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Practicalities of walking in Puglia

Valentina advises that walking in Puglia is for the most part easy and not technical at all. These vacations are less about counting off the kilometres and more about enjoying the landscapes, food and friendly nods you receive in little communities along the way.

Puglia walking vacations can be either tailor made vacations, where itineraries can be tweaked to your preferences and you can travel for as long as you want, or small group tours led by local guides. The latter are capped at around 16 hikers so that they are nice and sociable, but can also make use of smaller, often family-owned accommodations.

“You can walk in Puglia all year round,” says Valentina, “even in winter. I would only avoid the hottest months: July and August. The walks are short but you’re exposed to the sun. Unfortunately, most of the big cultural events in Puglia occur in summer. The most interesting are the feasts for patron saints, especially St Orontius of Lecce at the end of August and the Madonna della Bruna festival in Matera in early July.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Massimo Virgilio] [Intro: Kirsten Velghe] [Orecchiette pasta: Giuseppevalvano] [Locorotondo: lavaligiainviaggio ] [Practicalities: carlos hevia]