By Jim Ferri
It’s plain and simple: if you want to experience the Italy travelers knew 40–50 years ago, head for the Province of Puglia in the heel of Italy’s boot. Most likely you’ll fall in love with the place.
The region, also known as Apulia, is relatively small – it’s only a four-hour drive north to south, and less than an hour east to west, sea to sea. In between, though, is a place unlike anywhere else in Italy, ranging from beautiful beaches (on 500 miles of coast along two seas) to vineyards and olive groves inland, and medieval villages to the most ostentatious Baroque architecture in all of Italy. And the food….
This is a place where you’re not trampled by hordes of tourists and you’ll rarely, if ever, see a tour bus. What you do see is an area that shows the influences of centuries of different conquerors (from ancient Greeks to Spaniards) and a landscape that in some places looks more Greek than Italian.
We drove to Puglia across the mountainous interior of Basilicata, since we were coming from the Amalfi Coast. Once past Basilicata’s ancient city of Matera (itself a fascinating place to wander about) we made a beeline to the city of Lecce, smack in the middle of the lower heel.
Lecce is one of the true gems of Italy and one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The site of an ancient Greek settlement, it was an important center for the Romans and an educational center in the Middle Ages.
It’s best known for the Lecce-Baroque style of architecture that flourished in the 17th century, made possible by the easily carved limestone in the area, which later hardened over time. It is the most exuberant architecture in Italy and a walk around town just viewing the wonderful details on buildings is a great way to spend an afternoon, if not an entire day. The city is also well known for its papier-mâché workshops.
In the center of town on the Piazza Sant’Oronzo is a Roman amphitheater dating from Emperor Hadrian’s time, discovered in the 1930s and still undergoing restoration. Head west from it up Via Vittorio Emanuele and in just a few minutes you’ll come to the Piazza Duomo, a beautiful square almost hidden down a little alleyway, and surrounded by the Cathedral of the Madonna Assunta, the Bishop’s Palace and Seminary.
Via Vittorio Emanuele is the main street in this part of town, although you’d never know it since it is so narrow, bereft of sidewalks and lined with cafés and shops as with all the streets in the old city. It lends itself well to the rest of the Middle-Ages character of the city.
Not only is Lecce a great walking city, it’s also a great place to while away an evening at an outdoor restaurant. Countless numbers of them line the streets in the evening, which is a good time to join the locals in their daily passeggiata and walk about reviewing restaurant menus and ambiance before selecting a table to sit and chat with Italians and other Europeans over the meal.
From Lecce it’s an easy drive to Capo Santa Maria di Leuca at the very tip of the heel through a sunbaked landscape that’s much more Greek than Italian. It should be an easy drive anyway, but the traffic light in one tiny town brings everything to a crawl on one stretch of the road.
When you get to the cape and the end of Italy you find a large plaza filled with tourists shops and sweeping views out over the beautiful Ionian and Adriatic Seas. Down below, on the Ionian side to your right, the little town of Santa Maria di Leuca harbors a multitude of yachts in its marina and a multitude of tourists in its little hotels and B&B’s.
If you head north from Lecce instead, taking the E55 up the coast, you can turn inland at Fasano and take the road up into the hills through the little whitewashed village of Locorotondo on to Alberobello where you’ll find many Trulli, small circular buildings with conical roofs made of slate, many of which have been turned into homes, restaurants and shops (you can even rent one for a week if you want to hang around).
Trulli are ancient buildings, the origins of which are obscure, but many have religious, pagan or magical symbols painted on the sides. There are more than 1000 Trulli scattered about the area and Alberobello today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The countryside around Alberobello is filled with little lanes – hardly more than a car-width wide – that run through vineyards all over the hillsides and which can be somewhat harrowing to drive, if you’re not used to driving on such narrow roads. But it is very picturesque nevertheless, with neat little stonewalls running across the vineyards and alongside every road with Trulli poking their stone roofs up out of the vineyards here and there.
The town of Alberobello itself may feel a bit too touristy after you’ve driven up about the rest of low-key Puglia but it’s worth a quick visit if only to see the Trulli on its outskirts.
Go back down to the coast and you’ll almost be in Bari, the regional capital and a thriving commercial center even back in Roman times. At one time Bari rivaled Venice as a maritime center.
But most travelers today only know it, and Brindisi further south, as the place where you catch the ferries to Croatia and Greece. It’s an old port city with basically only two sites, both of which are basilicas.
The better know is the Basilica of St. Nicholas, dating from 1087, is a Norman-designed church which contains the relics of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the city. We decided instead to visit the Cathedral of Bari, just a five-minute walk away, which dates from the late 12th-century and still retains its medieval simplicity. This is the church in which the remains of San Sabino, the original patron saint of the city, are interred. Why he was given the boot I don’t know.
Continue northward through the little towns and villages along the picturesque coast and you’ll come to the Gargano Peninsula, that little spur-like bit of land above the heel. As you approach it from the distance it looks more like an island and it differs from the surrounding area. It’s a rocky and dramatic place with a shoreline flecked with coves and cliffs and a heavily wooded interior. The entire place has been designated as a National Park to preserve it from development.
Interestingly, Puglia is a lot more accessible than one would think since you can fly from Rome to Bari or Brindisi in only 1¼ hours.
Even better in my estimation, would be to drive across the mountains from Rome to Pescara (the route we drove to return to Rome after coming up the coast), which is a beautiful trip, and then drive south to Puglia for another 1½ hours along the picturesque coast.
It’s a wonderful trip. And you’ll likely be the first among your friends to take it.
If you go:
Italian Government Tourist Board
630 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1565
New York NY 10111
Tel: (212) 245-4822
Puglia Tourist Board