Things to see & do in Puglia, Italy

Move aside, Piedmont. Over the last few years, the southeasterly region of Puglia has been emerging as a pilgrimage place for lovers of slow food. Really, these southern farmers are just doing what they’ve always done – dutifully producing over 60 per cent of Italy’s olive oil and pressing red wine using age-old methods. It’s just that the rest of the world is starting to cotton on to this rolling countryside of jumbled white-gold villages. Albania sits just across the water – a great match if you’ve got an extra week to spare.
Don’t forget Puglia has a long Adriatic coastline, where baroque cities cling for dear life to wave-bashed cliffs.
Organised tours – both small group and tailor made – pluck the stress of driving and planning out of your hands. It can also help you focus on a theme. Fancy cycling around the Apulian countryside with the wind in your hair? Want to swap monuments for a momentous wine tasting experience? Tours often specialise in a theme – and excel in it, thanks to savvy tour guides with a local’s nose for the best wineries and off-road trattorias. Read our travel guide to find out what you could do on your vacation to Puglia.

Southern Baroque cities

Bari is your path in and out of Puglia. It’s a regional capital done the southern way, with all the high-volume trattorias, maritime churches and graffiti-lined alleys you’d expect of a working sailor’s town. The alleyways are also where you’ll also find the ‘orecchiette ladies’, who put the world to rights while hand-rolling ear-shaped pasta right in the street.

Further south, Ostuni offers a completely different flavour of city. Its hilltop heap of whitewashed houses, churches and trattorias light up like a beacon when the sun rises. Lecce, on the other hand, is all southern baroque. This is Florence with fewer crowds and more sunshine. What’s not to like? Over 40 churches and timeworn palazzos cram the little city, along with a Roman amphitheatre.

Many Puglia vacations finish up in far-easterly Otranto, practically an olive stone’s throw from Albania. As Walpole’s gothic novel promises, it’s got a suitably looming medieval castle. Most tours will give you time to join the locals on a passeggiata along the rose-white promenade and grab dinner at a seafront restaurant. The 12th century Romanesque cathedral is worth a look, too.

Trulli brilliant

Puglia has characterful hotels coming out of its ears. Take the 1,500 conical stone trulli of Alberobello – hotel owners, shopkeepers and osteria owners have given these one-time farmhouses a new lease of life. This town is about as touristy as Puglia gets (which, luckily, isn’t a touch on its northerly cousins), so the hotels are less farmhouse and more farmhouse chic these days. Still, staying overnight is a good chance to see Alberobello quietly twinkle with fairy lights after the day-trippers have gone home.

Trulli aren’t the only farmhouses-turned hotels. Many fortified masserie have been revamped into agriturismos offering cooking schools and oil tasting from their own stock. They’re still working farms, too, so your breakfast bread, tomatoes and mozzarella don’t get fresher than that. Best of all, on a small group tour you don’t have to dig out the best hotels – your tour operator will do all the hard work for you.

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Puglia small group tour, Italy

Puglia small group tour, Italy

Puglia, whitewashed towns, traditional farmland and fine cuisine

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Walk (or bike) this way

Between the cities and towns, you’ve got miles of Apulian countryside laid out for walking or cycling vacations. Pedal peaceful country lanes, roll over sea-view hills, and wander beneath centuries-old gnarled olive groves. The Adriatic Coast unravels empty sea roads that swing around limestone bays and white pebble beaches.

Strategic resting stops are essential, of course. Your tour guide will know the best places to pause: a stop at Locorotondo, say, to taste the white DOC at the renowned Cantina Sociale winery, or a breather amongst the whitewashed churches of Cisternino. Some vacations get you soaking your aching muscles in the bathtub-warm sea, where Adriatic resorts like Porto Cesareo are Italian right down to their bones. Think less cone-of-vinegary-chips, and more seafood soup and lobster pasta.

It’s also worth noting that Puglia has a great (if slightly rickety) train network. That’s a bonus for hikers and cyclists, who can hop from scenic village to vista-laden valley while skipping the busy roads between. These transfers, plus road and luggage transfers, are all included in organised cycling and walking vacations. If you’re worried about the activity level, don’t be. Activity vacations in Puglia start at so leisurely you might as well be walking with a glass of wine in hand, to moderate cycling trips that cover some lumps and bumps.

Fine wining & dining

Italy being Italy, there’s really only one way to truly get to grips with Puglia: inhale as much food and wine as you can. Some of the countryside backing onto the Adriatic coast has been farmed since Roman times. The Jadicco wine estate originally put down roots around 2,000 years ago; these days it juggles classics like ruby-red Primitivo with Salende whites rarely seen outside southern Italy. The best farms, vineyards and trattorias aren’t exactly winning popularity contests. They’re little-known outside of Puglia, often discovered by word of mouth or by complete accident, while meandering off-road. An organised food and wine tour of Puglia will save you all that research and give you access to an Italian-speaking tour guide with a little black book of foodie contacts. You’ll need about a week to see everything – starting from Bari’s pasta-makers in the north to the Roman vineyards dug deep into Puglia’s heel.

Craggy coastline

While most eyes fall on the foodie-friendly countryside, there’s much to be said for the Adriatic Coast. Torre dell’Orso is a lovely bay with a frame of limestone cliffs and ancient caves; the Cave of Poetry is the bluest natural tidal pool you’ll ever see. And clifftop Polignano a Mare is a great base for exploring the 90-million-year-old stalagmites, fossils and canyons of the nearby Castellana Caves.

Basilicata

Most vacations to Puglia can’t resist hopping over the border to Matera in Basilicata. The town’s sassi cave dwellings have been inhabited in for 9,000 years, until impoverished families were forcibly relocated in the 1950s – a national scandal that’s still talked about today. It’s more modern art museums and candle-lit cafés these days, although the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Idris is still welcoming churchgoers into its frescoed caverns over 800 years later.

Walking vacations in Puglia will often include a quick hike to the Murgia plateau from Matera. Over 150 cave churches are chipped out of the rocks here. Wobble across the yawning canyon on a suspension bridge; on the other side, you’ll be treated to some spectacular views over Matera.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Giuseppe Milo] [Intro: Pug Girl] [Southern Baroque cities: Juan Antonio Segal] [Trulli brilliant: Güldem Üstün] [Fine wining & dining: bob] [Basilicata: Mboesch]
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