Spotlight on Puglia
Being the longest region in Italy, with over 800 km of coastline and a whopping 65 million olive trees, Puglia really has it all. From the northern Garganico area, a magical place with striking nature, to the culturally rich Salento with its Baroque towns and stunning beaches, it is no surprise that this is currently one of Italy’s hottest areas. And of course how could we forget the charming Valle D’ Itria, located in the heart of the region with its typical Masseria country houses now converted into luxury hotels. As a kid, together with my family we used to come every summer to this wonderful region for its tranquil setting, Caribbean-like beaches and of course for its glorious food. Only at a later stage I discovered that the wine here was just as good!
So where to start? What to taste, see and experience?
With Puglia being such an expansive region, one visit is certainly not enough,but I can assure you that a holiday here will definitely be memorable. I actually just came back myself a couple of weeks ago and it was like falling in love again. I stayed between the Valle d’ Itria and Salento and here are some of my highlights.
If you are a nature lover you simply cannot ignore the beauty of the caves of Castellana (pictured). These impressive “grotte” that go more than 60 meters deep and provide you with a wonderful scene of stalactites, stalagmites, concretions, incredible shapes, fossils, canyons and caves with fantastic names; calcifications from conformations and unexpected colours solicit the imagination of children and adults like very few other places.
Moving on just a few kilometers from Castellana Grotte we can find one of my favourite villages: Alberobello. What makes this place so special is its unique architecture. All houses here all interestingly have pyramidal, cone shaped or domed features built up of corbelled limestone slabs called Trulli. What makes these Trulli so remarkable is that they are examples of drywall (mortarless) construction, a prehistoric building technique still in use in this region. So remarkable they have been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Heading south we enter that wonderful part of the region called Salento which for me is all about 3 things: art, music and sandy beaches.
Going to Lecce, the capital of Salento is like going to an open-air museum. With its incredible baroque architecture with its pinnacle being the Santa Croce cathedral is no surprise to hear that Lecce is regarded as the Florence of the South. Of course there are other stunning towns nearby that equally showcase the same impressive art like Copertino Nardo’ and Galatina.
The moment you head east to the Adriatic coast or west and south to the Ionian Sea one thing is for sure: you will be astonished by the beauty of the beaches and the crystal clear colour. Whether you are in the buzzy town of Gallipoli, the majestic port of Otranto or at the dream-like tip of Puglia in Santa Maria di Leuca you will be in for something special.
But what makes the vibe particularly interesting in Salento is its music and dance traditions as it is the maximum expression of the culture and history of the population. One of the best examples is the Pizzica Tarantata, a typical female dance that was created at the end of the 15th century to arouse the tarantula’s bite – what a dramatic myth. Dancing, here like in other cultures, was considered the perfect cure after being bitten and getting rid of the devil.
Of course the music scene in Puglia has been evolving and it still plays a fundamental cultural role. In fact, every year in the final act of one of the biggest European popular culture festivals called “The Taranta Night”, a magnificent event in continuous experimentation, where Salentino folk blends with other other music genres. One of the most dynamic and explosive representatives of Saltento’s bands are“Zimbaria” a mix between the most traditional Taranta, Celtic atmosphere and rock adrenaline with the overwhelming tambourine rhythm.
Ok but what about the food?
Well quite frankly for me Puglia has to be in my top 3 regions for food and as an Italian food and wine travel specialist that is quite a big statement. I think it is the only place that could turn someone into a vegetarian. The vegetables are incredible; tomatoes here seem to be coming from a different planet. Fish of course is a local delicacy weather it’s in the form of a pasta with sea urchins or a platter of raw fish. But personally what makes my mouth water is their incredible selection and quality of meats and cheese. The divine Burrata, an incredibly God-like fresh cheese very similar to a Mozzarella but with a runny creamy center is perhaps the main reason why you stop what you are doing now and book a flight to Puglia right away. Of course should you want something more savory you can go for a Capocollo salami from the village of Martinafranca or if you are in for something heavier have an orecchiette, ear shaped pasta with Ragù of Braciole, a heavenly mix of sort of meatballs stuffed with cheese, garlic, herbs and other meaty goods.
Clearly these dishes scream for some full-bodied red wine so the perfect match would have to be the local Primitivo di Manduria or a Negroamaro. These robust red wines tend to be the perfect companion as they are incredibly concentrated, fruity and lush. But watch out, they can go up to 16.5% in alcohol. So just do like the locals do when it gets warm outside, drink it chilled and it will be your favorite summer wine!