I returned from Italy more than a month ago but I’m still suffering from vacation withdrawal, craving the food, towns, countryside and beaches in my new favorite Italian region–Puglia.
I began my Italy trip in the north, in the Lake District, where I went to see Christo’s latest installation on Lake Iseo. Check out my piece about this once-in-a-lifetime experience in the HuffPost: Walking On Water: Why I Loved The Crowds at Christo’s Floating Piers.
For the second part of the vacation, I made my way down south to the stiletto of Italy’s boot. I was there on a family bike trip (read my essay about it in Barron’s and my listicle on family bike trips in the HuffPost). The region of Puglia is known for its pristine waters along the Adriatic coast, unique old towns, ancient olive groves and great earthy food. I also visited the town of Matera which is in Basilicata, the region right next to Puglia, and is a must-see if you’re going to be in the area.
I had the advantage of exploring Puglia on a bicycle. Riding mostly on back roads, I experienced the countryside up close. I rode through olive groves, past fields dotted with bales of hay, farmhouses and pastures with horses and cows. I smelled the sea before I saw it and got whiffs of rosemary passing by village gardens.
I couldn’t get enough of the Italian food. In Puglia, I particularly loved the seafood, fresh vegetables and fruits and, of course, local mozzarella and prosciutto. One of the lunches I won’t forget was in a farmhouse along the road, L’Orto di Lucania, in Basilicata. The food was homemade and homegrown. Another highlight was the dinner in L’ Altro Baffo located in the seaside town, Otranto. We ate on the rooftop garden and the meal was outstanding (see the cucumber squid dish on the lower right photo).
I was unprepared for the magnificence of the ancient city of Matera, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its stone dwellings (Sassi). The steep bowl-like ravine has been likened to a beehive with homes built on top of each other, carved deep into the rock. Narrow stone alleys and stairs traverse the town.The iPhone camera failed to capture the depth, power and rawness of the place, and I’m afraid my description won’t do it much justice either.
Ostuni is known as the ‘white city.’ It sits on top of a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea and has a charming old town with cobblestone alleys, churches and shops. One of the most unique places in Puglia is the town of Alberobello (unfortunately it was also the most touristy). It’s famous for its narrow streets lined with whitewashed trulli houses dating back to the 14th-16th century (another UNESCO World Heritage site). Built without cement, they look like they have on party hats, albeit all white. Lecce is a beautiful Baroque city known as ‘the Florence of the South’ that also has a Roman theater and amphitheater, great gelaterias and a chocolate shop.
Some of my favorite hotels in Puglia (and Basilicata):
L’Hotel In Pietra in Matera is housed in a 13th century church at the top of the cliffs in Matera. The rooms are like caves dug into the rock but offer all modern amenities.
Masseria Montenapoleone, a 17th century fortified olive plantation turned B&B, is an amazing place with a stunning pool that looks like a watering hole, beautiful grounds and unique rustic furniture.
Relais La Sommità, a five star hotel in Ostuni, is housed in a 16th-century building and has beautiful rooms with expansive views of the sea in the distance.
Palazzo Rollo, a renovated 17th century palazzo in Lecce, has been turned into a charming B&B with grand bedrooms and sitting rooms, exquisite tiled floors, beautiful carpets and art.
THE ADRIATIC COAST:
The water in the Adriatic Sea is pristine. The beaches are small and crowded but the coves are beautiful and you can always find a more secluded place to swim and suntan if you don’t care for amenities.