Puglia villa holiday guide
If a building can be a symbol for a whole region, then the trullo stands for Puglia—also known as ‘Apulia’ in English. Think of a Puglia villa holiday and those round, whitewashed limestone buildings with their comical, conical roofs always spring to mind. But there’s more to the region that is the narrow heel of Italy’s boot than trullo country around Alberobello. Discover baroque beauty in Lecce, Emperor Frederick II’s mysterious architecture at the Castel del Monte, and total relaxation on a Puglia villa stay in a rural Masseria.
Ports are strung out along the Adriatic coast, and each has a long history of trade with the Levant, Asia Minor, and Greece. Bustling Bari is the most important city, the regional capital, and the final home of Father Christmas—he’s known as ‘St. Nicholas of Bari’ in Italy, because a delegation from the city stole his bones from Turkey in the 11th century. However, Puglia’s real urban highlight lies a little inland: Lecce’s streets are lined with florid buildings crafted from local sandstone in the baroque architectural style.
Puglia’s agricultural flatlands were first portioned into farms by the Romans—the terrain here is more fertile than most of the arid, sun-baked south. Trullo country, among the orchards and vineyards around Alberobello, Cisternino, Martina Franca, and the Valle d’Itria, has some of the region’s most photogenic drives. The woods of the Gargano Peninsula are the last surviving Italian section of the Foresta Umbra, an ancient deciduous forest of oak and beech that once covered much of the peninsula.
The history of Puglia
Puglia is no historical backwater—all sorts has happened here through the ages. At the Battle of Cannae, close to modern-day Barletta, Hannibal’s army defeated the Romans in 216 BC—and you can tour the battlefield. Jumping forward a few centuries, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II is a name you will encounter all over Puglia. His most mysterious legacy is the Castel del Monte, an octagonal, 13th-century fortress-residence. Throughout the Middle Ages, Crusaders passed through Pugliese ports en route to the Middle East, and Turkish pirates massacred 10,000 residents of Otranto in 1480.
The Gargano National Park is Puglia’s most important, and has the region’s only really extreme topography. A peninsula that juts out into the Ionian Sea, it is cloaked in deciduous woodland and spiked with dramatic crags that tower over coves and fishing villages. Drive the circular SS89 and smaller roads for coastal views. Inland, close to the regional border with Basilicata, the Alta Murgia National Park covers almost 700 square kilometres of rolling terrain where species like the kestrel and wild boar are protected. You can explore on foot or by mountain bike.
Eating and drinking in Puglia
Pugliese cooking follows a couple of rules: ingredients have to be fresh, and preparation is usually simple. The sea is a well-used source of food, and Puglia is also Italy’s largest oil-producing region—Gallipoli is as famous for its olive presses as for its backstreet churches. Al fresco waterfront eating is great in Otranto, Trani, and ports and resorts all along the coast. Red wines made from grapes such as Negroamaro and Primitivo achieve heady levels of flavour (and alcohol)—Primitivo is especially refined from the Manduria DOC, south of Grottaglie.
Discover the art and culture of Puglia
So-called ‘Lecce Baroque’ is a unique variant on the decorative architectural style of the 17th century, and reached its peak in the city’s Santa Croce and Palazzo Vescovile. Puglia is also the original home of the tarantella, a traditional folk dance that got its name from the seaside town of Taranto. It became popular across the south of Italy, even in the Neapolitan royal court, in the 1800s. You will still hear it at village festivals all over Puglia.
Relaxation in Puglia
Many a typical Pugliese Masseria has been converted for guest relaxation—the need for a farmhouse fortified against marauding pirate raids has dropped in recent decades. Slow right down to the Pugliese pace of life among the farmland of the Valle d’Itria or a tiny seaside spot like Savelletri. Most of your Pugliese holiday pastimes are perfect for putting you in a relaxed frame of mind, from roaming the streets of the ‘white town’ of Ostuni (it really is white) to lying on a sandy beach in the Salentine Peninsula.
You’re rarely very far from the sea in Puglia—and either Carpignano or Martano makes a good base if you want to combine Lecce with a visit to the pretty seaside town of Otranto. At the fishing port of Trani, the 12th-century Duomo has all the sturdy elegance you expect from a cathedral built in the Romanesque style, plus one very untypical feature: a perch right beside the sea. Puglia’s beaches are idyllic in the far south of the Salentine Peninsula, close to Ugento and Salve.