Puglia might be a bit off the tourist trail in Italy but, as Adam Jacot de Boinod discovers, it has plenty to offer.
Puglia best-known for its conical-shaped ‘trulli’, the unique dwellings which enjoyed their golden age of the 19th century and remain predominantly intact, and in greatest concentration, around the town of Alberobello. Marvellous and endearing though they undoubtedly are, for me the real joy was in the extraordinary fertility for an area of the Mediterranean so far south, as well as in the wonderfully life-enhancing, spacious and whitewashed farmhouses called ‘masseria’.
I stayed first at Masseria Le Carrube. Effortlessly chic, it’s why boutique hotels are often the best. It’s a true hideaway discretely signposted down a long route of winding lanes. It hides in a blissfully peaceful spot and is cradled at the base of surrounding mountains, overlooking the Adriatic and a mere six kilometres away from the Renaissance city of Ostuni.
There’s a liberating sense of space both inside and out. Even at full capacity it felt like I had the place virtually to myself.
It’s all enhanced by the charming purity of the limestone flooring. Ranch-style walls encompass the widespread courtyards and the lemon trees in the patios keep the senses engaged. Inside metal and wicker ware blend well to evoke the farmhouse’s history; the hues are natural and neutral and refreshingly no pictures are necessary as it’s all sufficiently picturesque.
A brave and progressive decision was taken to offer healthy vegetarian-only menus using seasonal vegetables that are locally sourced. Le Carrube means a locust-bean (in the pea family), which is offered at breakfast with its flower tasting very much like chocolate. The meals commence with traditional breadbaskets comprising of frittelle di ceci (chickpea medallions), then an assortment of courgette, fennel, artichoke, zucchini, aubergine, tomatoes and almonds adorned respectively with pecorino, parmigiana or cream cheeses. Their local red wines consist of ‘primitivo’ and ‘negroamaro’. How wonderful to eat straight from the land!
I then was to stay at Masseria San Domenico, a sister hotel in the same group. The rooms are mini-apartments decorated and furnished with the hotel’s signature style that employs traditional homely ceramics and pictures; all in keeping with the heritage of Puglia, a region with its own unique style of ceramics.
Indeed there’s a peculiar legend from feudal times regarding the moustachioed dolls (‘pupe con i baffi’) made in the nearby ceramic town of Grottaglie. The story centres around an 18th century winemaker from the nearby baroque town of Martina Franca who fell in love with a beautiful girl from Grottaglie and decided to marry her.
Yet the ‘ius primae noctis’ or ‘right of the first night’ (where the lord of the manor had the right to possess the future bride) incited the jealousy of this husband-to-be and in order to escape the unacceptable dishonour of letting his wife be deflowered, he decided to dress up as a woman and take the place of his bride. Unfortunately he forgot to cut off his moustache and was identified straight away and brought to trial. To escape being beheaded he was ordered to deliver his best wine in flasks representing his camouflage, called ‘pupe’. So he coaxed the artisans into producing about seven hundred of these and at the end he married his beloved.
The hotel’s amazingly equipped spa boasts treatments that are all highly restorative and all very balancing. But that’s not all. Do you know what any of the following are: cromotherapy, neomorphose, thermogenesis, algotherapy, aromaceane, pressotherapy or hyaluronic?
Borgo Egnazia, another of the sister hotels, comes with its very own golf course and neighbouring beach restaurant.
It was actually conceived only ten years ago and has developed a strong luxurious feel.
The golf course comes up beside part of the long strip of coastline that’s dotted with popular resorts between Monopoli and Brindisi, the latter being a city from which, along with Bari further north, the Italians hop over to Greece, typically more regularly than the Greeks do to Italy).
A stay of five days in Puglia was long enough for me to visit many of the local attractions and historic towns. Locorotondo is a lovely town situated on the Murgia ridge with a panoramic view across the Itria valley and with a grand baroque church.
There are old men taking shade in the gardens putting the world to rights while old ladies tended to the flowers in the chapels and shrines and made ‘orecchiette con le cime di rapa’ (little eared pasta with broccoli heads).
I went also to the town of Polignano a Mare on an early day of Spring sunshine that drew the Italians out to play.
Laughter was all around me. Lunches were taken al fresco. And boats luxuriously lapped the azure waters hugging the coastline with proud ever-standing skippers taking their protégés into caves and beneath grottos that include Grotta Palazzese, the famous restaurant set in a natural cave from which bow-tied diners look down from a giddying height below. All ‘trulli’ enchanting!
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064; classic-collection.co.uk) offers three nights at Masseria San Domenico, Puglia from £1,199 per person. Price based on two adults sharing on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick and private transfers.
Adam had support from chepstowcars.com ; gatwickexpress.com and prioritypass.com