Everybody falls in love with Italy. For many, the moment will happen on the streets of Rome, the beaches of Sicily or the colourful coastal retreats of Amalfi. My Italian love story however, started last May of 2018 with my husband on a road trip through the lesser known region of Puglia. And it’s a love that will endure...
Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, is a sun-baked region that has a rich culture of simple pleasures. It’s a favoured getaway within Italy, and so gets packed out in the summer months, with Italian families filling their cars and hot-footing it here for the back-in-time hilltop and coastal towns, long sandy beaches, space to roam, and beautiful coastline, as well as the delicious rustic cuisine.
As with many great travel destinations, Puglia doesn’t just have the one feature that made me fall in love with it. Here are 9 reasons why everyone wants to visit Puglia – and why I can’t wait to go back.
Every Town is Beautiful
“Yep, this is the prettiest town yet”. I would utter this each time we arrived in a new town - and it’s testament to the fact that Puglia is home to perhaps the prettiest little towns in all of Italy.
With names that roll of the tongue - Locorotondo, Gallipoli, Alberobello - the main draw of each is not simply how gorgeous, well preserved and rustic they are, but that each town has been made even more beautiful by the loving hands of locals.
You Will Discover the Italy of Your Dreams
There were countless occasions every day where we just had to stop and remind ourselves that we were actually in Italy, not on some fantastically designed film set version for tourists.
Classic Fiats, Vespas, actual Ape being driven by tanned old men, not just to ferry tourists around. The sing-song melody of a gesticulatory Italian argument on a street corner, old boys who looked like Junior from the Sopranos playing cards together, nonnas in long dresses sitting in doorways and keeping a watchful eye on everyone.
Your heart will swell at the sights and sounds of it all. It turns out that the Italy of our dreams and wildest imaginations (and stereotypes) was here in Puglia all along.
Southern Europe has a reputation for its friendly locals and Puglia is no exception. Everyone seems to have a bit more time to say hello here. Even if you don’t know any Italian, a ‘ciao’ and a smile will always go down well.
If you want to work on your street photography, this is definitely a good place to start. Pretty much everyone is ok with having their photo taken – in fact the more senior gentlemen hanging out with their friends will insist!
Getting Fat is a Cultural Activity
You’ll be thrilled to know that pizza and pasta really are on pretty much every menu - it’s not just for tourists! But, more importantly, a trip to Puglia means you’re entering the region responsible for much of what we love about Italian food. It wouldn’t be a travel list of Italy without including food, would it? But in Puglia, food plays an even more important role than a lot of other Italian regions.
One of the most fecund agricultural areas in Europe, from its copper-toned soil comes the raw materials for much of Italy’s olive oil, wine and pasta.
Italian food also has clear regional variations, and there are certain elements which you will only really find commonly in Puglia - orechiette and other types of pasta, various cheeses (Canestrato Pugliese, Caciocavallo which means "cheese on horseback" and Stracciatella), and the most fantastic little biscuits (Taralli - excellent with wine).
It’s all so fresh
Puglia is famous for its apricots. You’ve got to try them; you’ll find them in every greengrocer and every market here. And they’re cheap! Being a peninsular touching 4 different seas, Puglia’s fresh seafood is incredible. Every coastal town has a fishing port where you’ll find fishermen tenderising octopus by thrashing them with wooden paddles. Throw in some incredible seafood and you’re never really going to go hungry in Puglia.
Just note, you might want to start that diet now to make up for all the carbs you’re going to devour every damn night. And that’s before we’ve even talked about gelato...
It Won`t Break Your Budget
It would be easy to go to Puglia and spend thousands. The region is home to quite incredible luxury and boutique retreats (like this one, this one, this one and oh, can't forget this one), as well as restaurants where one would happily spend over 50€ on a bottle of wine. But, we don’t travel like that and we know that not everyone who loves to travel is able to spend a small fortune.
Thankfully, Puglia is accessible for travellers looking to discover the region independently on a bit of a budget. A great lunch or dinner can be found for under 6€, a glass of wine is affordable and the best attractions are, by and large, available for free.
You Will See Cacti
Who would have thought that Italy would be home to the most fantastic array of wild cacti that we’ve ever witnessed on our travels?
Instagram succulent fiends will be delighted to know that the cacti also adorn most balconies and apartments.
The Beaches and the Views
Located on one of the biggest peninsulas in the world – the heel of Italy – Puglia lays claim to over 800km of the country’s coast.
This coastline varies from quiet sandy beaches to craggy cliff tops and rocky promontories. This range gives you the luxury to experience the luxuriant and the dramatic almost in the same place.
Puglia is also home to one of the world’s great cliff-diving venues. Towns like Polignano a Mare often host these heart-in-mouth events, but all the way round the Puglia coast you’ll find thrill-seeking locals hurling themselves from heights into the deep blue.
It`s Perfect for a Road Trip
As you’ll fly into either Bari or Brindisi, it makes sense to rent a car from there and then either head inland and anti-clockwise, or head south towards Pogliano a Mare. After that, the route you take is open to endless possibilities based on your time, budget and preferences.
Driving in Puglia is actually awesome. I was a bit nervous initially, but it’s way easier driving there than in the Amalfi or in Naples. Roads are in good condition, signage is reasonably clear and there aren’t that many cars on the road considering the population of Puglia.
It hasn`t Been Destroyed by Tourism... YET
I write this knowing that the secret is already out about Puglia and that, one way or another, it’s only a matter of time before this beautiful region which has slowly been emerging to non-Italians becomes the ‘next big thing’. And that, unfortunately, often means that the magic of a destination starts to fade.
Following on from the previous point, Puglia has retained its traditions and culture better than many parts of the world. When you spot a street parade here full of the pomp and finery of yesteryear, you know it’s because that’s what’s been happening here for centuries. It’s not a tourist hook.
The ladies making their orecchiette on the street love the attention from passing holidaymakers, but the nonnas would still be doing it if they weren’t aiming their cameras at them.
There aren’t many travel destinations where real life is not only so accessible but also so interesting. From the fishermen playing Scopa on the wharves to the nuns hopping in a friend’s car to go to the next messa, you’ll see it all – but not because they want you to. They’re just doing it.
Writing this guide, we are of course playing a part in this, so I sincerely ask you to travel considerately when you’re there and help Puglia to enjoy the much-needed benefits of tourism, without letting it ruin all that is fantastic about it. Be the sort of tourist that locals will welcome with open arms.
Puglia is waiting for you! Let this extraordinary land captivate you.