Simple, rustic dishes—this is the kind of food that you'll find in Puglia. Pugliese cuisine incorporates locally grown ingredients such as vegetables, herbs and durum wheat as well as seafood sourced from its hundreds of miles of coastline. Specialties include ear-shaped orecchiette (tiny curls of handmade pasta often served with broccoli rabe or tomato sauce); cheeses such as ricotta forte, creamy pear-shaped manteca and burrata; and seafood that runs the gamut from raw sea urchins, shrimp and squid to baccalà (salted cod) and zuppa di pesce (fish soup). Then there's the bread—hearty loaves like pane de Altamura, featuring a thick crispy crust and a soft golden interior that remains edible for weeks. Altamura bread has been a staple so long that Roman poet Horace was singing its praises as far back as 37 B.C.
Whether it's steaming cups of espressino (an addicting mix of espresso and milk with a dusting of Nutella) served in bustling cafes or a glass of Puglian wine such as primitivo—an intense red similar to California Zinfandel—or the darkly colored fruit-flavored negromaro al fresco at a local trattoria, quenching a particular thirst comes easy in these parts. The region is dotted with wineries, especially the endlessly sunny Salento Peninsula, which stretches diagonally across Puglia from Taranto to Ostuni, connecting the Ionian and Adriatic seas. While it's also easy to find well-known Italian liqueurs like limoncello and Sambuca, many locals prefer Padre Peppe, a walnut-based digestive blended with herb and spices—originally invented by an early 19th-century Capuchin friar in the Puglian city of Altamura.
Miles of Beachfront
Puglia features more coastline than any other mainland region in Italy. Along Puglia's southern Adriatic waterfront, you'll find gems such as Polignano a Mare, a stunning resort town of towering limestone cliffs, sheltered coves and swimmable sea caves; and Monopoli, with its long sandy beaches. Puglia's Salento Peninsula is known for seaside towns like Gallipoli—home to clear, Ionic Sea waters and restaurants that burst to life during warmer months—and Otranto, where you'll find the Baia dei Turchi or "Bay of the Turks"—stunning white sands sheltered by a pine forest.
It doesn't take long after leaving Bari Airport to find yourself in the thick of one of Puglia's prime agricultural treasures: endless fields of olive trees. Puglia produces 40 percent of Italy's olive oil (more than anywhere else in the country). In small-batch, locally produced bottles—which you can often purchase directly from producers—you can taste Puglia's varied terrain, including hints of pomegranates, green apples and grass. If you're lucky enough to visit the region from mid-November to mid-December, you'll even catch the annual harvest. Multigenerational family members take to the land to reap the rewards of the season, laying out heavy-duty nets beneath each tree and shaking the olives loose from their branches with handheld and pneumatic rakes. They then gather the olives in crates and transport them to the press, where the oil and the skins are separated. The sweet smell of oil permeates Puglia, already dense with an air of celebration. One word of advice: Puglians do not go easy on their olive oil; so if you want to eat like a local, get pouring!
A Subterranean World
Puglia's Murge plateau is a low-lying stretch of limestone tufa that occupies much of the region. It's home to Alta Murgia National Park, known for its many ravines, caves and sinkholes. There's the Pulo, a massive amphitheater-like hole that delves 300 feet down into the ground and is lined with caves prime for exploring. The nearby town of Gravina is the park's central base and has an underground of its own worth visiting. The park is also home to dozens of rupestrian churches carved into the land during medieval times, with the remnants of ancient frescoes still adorning their walls. An organization called Messors offers summer art restoration workshops at which you can y help restore the timeworn frescoes, as well as culinary workshops and a chance to assist in preserving an entire ancient cave site.
Distinct Culture & History
Romanesque cathedrals, seaside fortresses and picturesque old towns are another part of Puglia's immense charm, as are its people. You'll find a great combination of the two in Bari's Orecchiette Quarter, where local women set up outdoor tables to make orecchiette, cavatelli and orecchiette pastas by hand. This ancient port city is also home to Basilica di San Nicola, where a portion of the relics of St. Nicholas (yes, that jolly ol' St. Nicholas) remain. Each May, locals honor the 11th-century arrival of these relics with La Festa di San Nicola, a three day celebration that includes a costumed procession through Bari's streets and culminates with a fantastic fireworks display. Although Capuchin friar Padre Pio was born in Italy's Campania region, he spent the bulk of his life in San Giovanni Rotondo on Puglia's Gargano Peninsula. Opened in 2004, the city's massive Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church pays homage to this Catholic saint who passed away in 1968. The site draws millions of visitors annually—many who come to see his body in a crystal coffin.
Puglia abounds with unique architecture, from its 16th- to 19th-century masserias (fortified farmhouses or large estates) to its trullis—dry stone structures with adorable cone-topped roofs that dot the Valle d'Itria countryside outward from Bari. Alberobello is trulli central, with its Monti district sporting more than 1,000 of these beehive huts, many which house eateries, souvenir shops and B&Bs. Lecce is also known for its architectural wonders, with more than 40 stunning Baroque-era churches in the city alone. Among its many ornate facades decorated with griffins, gargoyles and human figurines stand the remains of a 1800-year-old Roman amphitheater. Ostuni, Puglia's “Città Bianca,” is a hilltop town of whitewashed homes, hanging archways and hidden staircases perfect for exploring, while the more subtle walled old town of Altamura is especially known for its claustros, approximately 80 courtyards that allowed individual ethnic groups to coexist in the larger city.
Where to Stay
There's Trullo Barbagiullo, an expanded trulli home with six cozy guestrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, located in the hilltop town of Cisternino. Over in Lecce's Corigliano d'Otranto, Agriturismo Masseria Sant'Angelo features both spacious guestrooms and stand-alone cottages tucked among a grove of olive trees on a working farm. Help milk goats, feed the donkeys, and even assist with dinner by picking fresh vegetables from the garden. Up north in Puglia's Foggia Province, the six-guestroom Bed and Breakfast Dalla Nonna is a fully renovated seaside property that includes a daily breakfast overlooking the water. Discover even more Puglia B&Bs.
by Laura Kiniry