Puglia -Travelling in the ‘heel’ of Italy, amidst countless olive groves, cruising the coastline through picturesque beach resorts, an explosion of white and blue light ending with a mellow glow of our graceful Baroque base in Lecce.
Quite a Greek feel to so many places which is not unexpected since Greeks settled along the Ionian coast as early as the 8th Century BC.
Our first step into paradise is at Polignano a Mare, caressed to the sounds of “Volare oh oh, cantare oh oh oh oh” playing from a restaurant as we wandered the shimmering limestone pathways. The village perched precariously on the cliffs protects a beautiful cove with only a handful of swimmers considering the time of year. On the opposite side a very appropriate statue to Domenico Modugno, author of “Volare” since it was his hometown.
Our first taste of delicious seafood and vegetarian specialities – puree of broad beans with chicory. The beauty of the place enticed us back for a second visit and swim and local buskers entertained us with a different rhythm of drum and violoncello.
Ostuni, known as ‘the white city’, for its whitewashed medieval centre, a practice begun to disinfect the poorer residential area during the period of the plague as well as a means to lightening the labyrinth of alleyways and stepped passages. The only buildings not white are the palatial dwellings now government buildings or churches. Blue skies enhance the contrast.
The view from Ostuni across 19million!! monumental olives to the coast is outstanding and we cannot resist the temptation to see them close-up. Puglia has 60 million olives planted centuries ago and still going strong, 14 times the population of the region. Producing a range of eating olives and extra virgin oil.
Our day ends at the sleepy port and fishing village of Villanova with its XVI century Castle still guarding the entrance.
Lecce, ‘the Florence of the South’, left us spellbound as we rounded the corner into the Cathedral square after dark and met this splendour.
The city is a riot of cherubs, ornate balconies of strange beasts and decorative facades, a Baroque masterpiece in local stone to rival Noto in Sicily.
A couple of days exploring Lecce‘s parade of ‘putti’ (cherubs) and savouring it’s local delicacies of tarallini, burrata mozzarella and orecchiette pasta with turnip tops finishing with the most fabulous gelati from the famous Gelateria Natale. With over 45 flavours it’s a difficult choice!
We head towards the very tip of the heel at Santa Maria di Leuca with a stop at Otranto, yet another paradise coastal resort, winding it’s way down from the Aragonese castle, laneways lined with tourist shops, and tempting restaurants and bars.
But we are not to be dissuaded from our project of arriving at the furthest point of Italy, and drive through endless fields of olive groves bordered by miles of dry stone walls, to the picturesque coastal road. On arrival hardly a tourist in sight and for the few that are about the owner of the ‘Sea Wolf’ restaurant commandeers us all with the promise of “if you are unhappy with what you eat, you don’t have to pay!” This would seem unlikely as he proudly boasts he has been in the business for 50 years! And we are not disappointed as we feed on the local fish of the day with a chilled glass of wine.
The day ends with a quick swim near Gallipoli in crystal clear water with a view of the city from the bay. The old town centre sits on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge that ends at the fish market.
A robust fortress dominates, confirming the city’s strategic importance from the past having been sacked by just about everyone – Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Normans to Bourbons! A pleasant stroll around its walls and a wander in the main street again past Baroque churches and aristocratic palaces.
It’s time to head home and while there are still so many places to discover in Puglia, this first trip has certainly been a delight and I will definitely be back….sooner or later!