By Jim Ferri
Puglia is a little, and for many, unknown, slice of idyllic, sun-baked Italy.
On the east side of Italy, Puglia’s northern tip is at approximately the same longitude as Naples. In the south, it’s the heel of Italy’s geographic boot that splits the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. It’s relatively small – only a four-hour drive north to south, barely an hour east to west.
Geography aside, it’s a delightful and stunning place. In fact, Puglia still retains la dolce vita that enamored so many travelers in Italy a half century ago.
Known as Apulia to Italians, many fall in love with it since it’s unlike most of the rest of the country. The landscape ranges from beautiful beaches (on 500 miles of coast along two seas) to vineyards and olive groves inland. Its architecture ranges from medieval villages to the most ostentatious Baroque architecture in all of Italy. And the food and wine is nothing short of delizioso.
Lecce, Italy’s Baroque Masterpiece
Well-known to travelers in Puglia is Lecce, which is also one of the most beautiful cities in southern Italy. It’s an ancient Greek settlement that was an important center for the Romans and an educational center in the Middle Ages.
Thankfully, it’s a place without hordes of tourists, and you’ll rarely see a tour bus. What you do see is an area that embraces the influences of centuries of various conquerors (from ancient Greeks to Spaniards) and a landscape that in some places looks more Greek than Italian.
It’s best known for the Lecce-Baroque style of architecture, the most exuberant architecture in Italy. A walk around town viewing its ancient buildings is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Also look into its boutiques, since the city is also well known for its papier-mâché workshops.
Walking the Ancient City
In the center of town on the Piazza Sant’Oronzo is a Roman amphitheater dating from Emperor Hadrian’s time. Discovered in the 1930s, it’s still undergoing restoration. From it walk up Via Vittorio Emanuele and in just a few minutes you’ll come to the Piazza Duomo. It’s a beautiful square almost hidden down a little alleyway. The Cathedral of the Madonna Assunta and the Bishop’s Palace and Seminary surround it.
Although Via Emanuele is the main street in this part of town, you’d never know it. It’s narrow, bereft of sidewalks, and lined with cafés and shops as with all the streets in the area. It lends itself well to the rest of the Middle-Ages character of the city.
Lecce is a great walking city, and this area is a great place to while away an evening. Countless numbers of cafés and restaurants line the streets, and many locals are drawn here for their evening passeggiata. Join them and select a table at any restaurant where you can sit and chat with Italians and other Europeans over a meal.
Capo Santa Maria di Leuca
The sunbaked landscape of Puglia is more Greek than Italian, and it’s easy to explore in a rental. The drive from Lecce to Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, at the very bottom of the heel, is relatively easy. It should be quick, but the traffic light in one tiny town brings everything to a crawl on one stretch.
Where the road meets the sea, you’ll find a large plaza peppered with tourist shops and dominated by a lighthouse. A small parking area nearby rewards one with sweeping views out over the beautiful Ionian and Adriatic Seas.
Down below little Santa Maria di Leuca is flush with tourists seeking the sun of the southern countryside. Its harbor, brimful with yachts, is the last stop for many en route to North Africa and further east.
Alberobello and Its Trulli
If you head north instead, drive E55 up the coast to Alberobello for a taste of the ancient world.
Turn inland at Fasano and take the road up into the hills through the little-whitewashed village of Locorotondo. Then continue to Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Alberobello’s claim to fame is its Trulli, small circular buildings with conical roofs made of slate. They’re ancient buildings, with obscure origins, but many have religious, pagan or magical symbols painted on their sides.
Most have morphed into homes, restaurants, shops, and the occasional vacation rental. There are more than 1,000 of them scattered about Alberobello.
Little lanes, most hardly a car-width wide, run across the hillside vineyards in the countryside around Alberobello. It’s all picturesque, with orderly low stonewalls and Trulli poking their roofs up out of the vineyards. It can also be somewhat harrowing to drive if you’re not used to driving on such narrow roads.
Although the town of Alberobello is a bit touristy, it’s worth a quick visit if only to see the Trulli on its outskirts.
Bari, the Commercial Center of Puglia
In Alberobello, you’re only about an hour’s drive from Bari on the coast. A thriving commercial center even back in Roman times, at one point it even rivaled Venice as a maritime center.
Most travelers today, however, only know it, and Brindisi further south, as the port for ferries to Croatia and Greece. It’s an old port city with basically only two sites of interest to travelers, both of which are basilicas. The better know is the Basilica of St. Nicholas, a Norman-designed church dating from 1087. It contains the relics of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the city.
We decided instead to visit the underdog, the Cathedral of Bari, just a five-minute walk away. Built in the late 12th-century, it still retains its medieval air. Its claim to fame is the remains of San Sabino, the original patron saint of the city.
Puglia’s Adriatic Coast
North of Bari along the scenic coast is the Gargano Peninsula, a spur-like bit of land jutting into the sea. From a distance it looks more like an island; it also differs in looks 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 area has been designated a National Park to preserve it from development.
Puglia is more accessible than one would think. In fact, you can fly from Rome to Bari or Brindisi in only 1¼ hours.
You may want instead to drive across the mountains from Rome to Pescara, itself a beautiful trip. Then drive south to Puglia for another 1½ hours along the scenic coast.
It’s a wonderful trip. And you’ll likely be the first among your friends to take it.