By Ricky Ghosh Dastidar.
Puglia is a region in Southern Italy which forms the heel part of the country’s boot-like shape. It is a land dominated by millennia-old olive groves, unspoilt coastlines and warm sunshine. Although Puglia is primarily a holiday destination for Italian natives, low-cost flights to Bari and Brindisi airports have recently made the region more popular for British tourists.
Polignano A Mare
One of the gems of Puglia is the small coastal town of Polignano A Mare. Perched on the edge of limestone cliffs, this charming town offers stunning views of the Adriatic coastline, and a good variety of hotels and bed and breakfasts to unwind in. I stayed at the small but cosy family-run Malu B&B, situated in the centre of town, with a dining terrace overlooking the crystal clear waters of the sea.
Over the years, the town has gained fame for being one of the hosts of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. During this event, huge crowds gather to watch divers plunge 27 metres into the sea from a roof-top terrace situated over the town’s most famous cliff. Access to this unique take-off point is gained via a private living room, making it an iconic spot in the international high-diving scene.
Polignano a Mare is also well known for being the birthplace of Italian singer Domenico Modugno, known internationally for the hit song “Volare”. There is a large statue of him by the sea and all around town you can hear his famous song being played.
Ostuni, known as the ‘the white city” is an important part of Puglia and well worth visiting. Situated just 8km from the coast with a population of around 32,000, the city is considered an architectural jewel and its baroque-style churches and monuments are partly the reason for this. The main reason however, is its “old town”, consisting of a citadel built on top of a hill still fortified by ancient walls. The white walls and white-painted buildings make the city truly memorable and the largest buildings to be found here are the cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace. On a clear day, don’t miss the opportunity to see for miles across the surrounding region from the top of the citadel.
Puglia is synonymous with extra virgin olive oil and this is because it is Italy’s primary producer of it. Some of the olive groves in the region date back to over 500BC and still continue to provide a good annual yield. Whilst in Puglia, be sure to visit a local oil-mill, where they will teach you how the olives are harvested, crushed, and utilized to produce the unique Apulian extra-virgin olive oil.
Other culinary delights to be enjoyed in this part of Italy include orechiette (pasta formed in the shape of little ears), focaccia bread, panzerotti (small deep-fried folded pizzas) and traditional local liqueurs. For more active food enthusiasts, the autumn months offer activities such as grape harvesting and olive picking. All the necessary equipment is provided on the farms and you can even order a bottle of wine or olive oil produced by a specific tree to be sent directly to your home. More information about this can be found at www.discoverypuglia.com
One of the best ways to experience Puglia is by staying in a local masseria. Masserie are country estates originally owned by noblemen that date all the way back to the 15th century. They started out as farms and can include anything from stables, warehouses, manor houses, oil mills and even churches. The estates became the social hub of the community as they would often offer a place for locals to pray or a communal oven for them to bake their bread. Nowadays, many of them have been transformed into charming and comfortable accommodation spots and provide an ideal setting for soaking up the local culture. The majority of these masserie are located in the Itria Valley, between Bari and Brindisi, and Lecce, in the southernmost part of the region.
Two of the masserie that I visited were Masseria Il Frantoio and Masseria Asciano.
Located 10km from the Adriatic Coast, Masseria Il Frantoio is spread over 150 acres and consists of numerous buildings, ancient olive groves and an underground olive mill. The highlights of my visit were the warm welcome afforded by the hosts and the high quality of food that was served; all organically produced and cooked on the estate by the owner’s wife. It was this personal touch that set the masseria apart and genuinely left you feeling a like a member of the family. More information about the estate can be found at www.masseriailfrantoio.it
Masseria Asciano on the other hand, is equally as charming but known principally for its extra-virgin olive production, incorporating the 17,000 olive trees found on the estate. The olives are pressed using a combination of traditional and modern methods and the owners were kind enough to give me a tour of the production site. The finished product comes in 3 flavours; fruity sweet, fruity sweetish and fruity bitter. I found the fruity-sweetish variety to be the best and was also impressed by the range of cosmetics produced by the masseria using its own extra-virgin olive oil as an ingredient. More information about this estate can be found at www.agriturismoasciano.it
Puglia is a land rich in natural beauty and this is evident all over the region. However, there are 3 conservation areas that I would particularly recommend. These are: The Natural Park of Coastal Dunes, The Natural Park of Monumental Olive Groves and the Natural Reserve of Torre Guaceto. The sights serve to highlight the incredible diversity of the flora and fauna found in the region and all three are equally as impressive.