This is a guest post with photos by Jessica Coup and words by Scott Bergstein. Thanks to both!
From the rugged hills of the Gargano to the broad plains of the Salento to the sun-drenched, white sand beaches of the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, Puglia provides visitors with a vast array of experiences. The heel of Italy’s boot with the Adriatic Sea on its east and the Ionian Sea on the west, is also its breadbasket and sends its bounty of fruits, vegetables, seafood, wine and, most notably, olive oil, throughout Europe.
We live in central Puglia, in an area called the Valle d’Itria, a collection of whitewashed hilltop towns surrounded by swaths of olive groves, vineyards and orchards. From our home in the quaint, peaceful town of Cisternino, it is an easy drive to many of the interesting places in the region.
What to see in Puglia? Let’s start with our recommendations in Trani, Gallipoli, Lecce, Grottaglie and the Valle d’Itria.
Perched on the Adriatic Sea between the Gargano Peninsula and the major port of Bari is Trani, a city that is full of surprises. The harbor hosts yachts that would look perfectly at home in Portofino and the restaurants and bars that ring the harborfront serve the freshest seafood and locally-grown produce. A short walk through the old town of Trani brings you to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Pilgrim, a magnificent example of Romanesque architecture. A little further on is Castello Svevo, the castle/fortress built by Frederick II in 1249. Stroll through the narrow, winding streets of the historic center of Trani and take in the ambiance of life hundreds of years ago.
A trip to the Salento, the southern portion of the heel, would not be complete without a stop in Lecce, the Florence of southern Italy. The centro storico includes one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters and churches of significance in the Catholic world. The amphitheater adjacent to the Piazza d’Oronzo was built by the Romans in the 2nd century and, still today, serves as a venue for concerts, holiday celebrations and other cultural events. The Chiesa di Santa Croce has a spectacular façade complete with dragons, gargoyles, snakes and other creatures that draws crowds of tourists with clicking cameras. A short walk will bring you to the Piazza del Duomo, the Cathedral of Lecce, an imposing edifice dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The nearly-400 year old structure and its campanile (bell tower) dominate the large square and, if open, merit a visit inside to see its Last Supper painting and twelve altars.
Between Lecce and the Ionian coast is the town of Grottaglie, a place famous for the creation of Pugliese pottery. The historic center of the town contains the Castello Episcopio (Archbishop’s castle), the Chiesa Matrice (mother church), and a Jewish quarter, but the highlight for visitors is the host of storefronts behind which ceramics are made and sold. Since the time of the Greek domination of Puglia the clay soils around the town have been turned into plates, cups bowls and decorative items such as the pumo, a good luck totem in the form of a ceramic acorn.
Surrounding Grottaglie is one of the region’s most productive grape growing areas and the wines made from these grapes are becoming recognized throughout the world for their quality. Have lunch in the old town of Grottaglie and wash it down with a local wine. Your mouth will thank you.
One of the most pleasant walks in all of Puglia takes you from the harbor of Gallipoli, along the Ionian Sea and the town’s battlements and back to the harbor. Vestiges of its Greek roots can be seen in the whitewashed buildings and the views of the sea are dotted with the fishing boats that bring seafood into port each day. Gallipoli, while not a place to find sites of cultural or historic significance, is a quintessential Pugliese experience. Take advantage of the caught-that-day seafood at one of the many sea-view restaurants and do what the locals do: relax and enjoy.
Alberobello and Ostuni – respectively, the town of the trulli (photo second from the top) and the white city – are the best known of the Valle d’Itria hilltop cities but others are definitely worth a visit. Ceglie Messapica has developed the reputation as a culinary attraction and new, edgy restaurants have brought traditional Pugliese cuisine into nouveau times. The inhabitants of Martina Franca are certainly among the best dressed Pugliesi since many of the clothes that are designed in the fashion houses of Milan are actually made in this most beautiful of the valley’s towns.
And nothing is better than sitting at a bar overlooking the Valle d’Itria in our town of Cisternino with a bubbly rosé, a bowl of locally-grown olives and a basket of taralli (small crackers in the form of a doughnut) watching the sun set.
No matter what your holiday happiness requires—world-class cuisine, clean, sandy beaches or a taste of history–the heel of Italy’s boot sets them in front of you and invites you to mangia.
Photographer Jessica Coup and author Scott Bergstein have been living in Puglia since 2013. You can see more of Jessica’s gorgeous photos at www.jessicacoup.com and read more of Scott’s hilarious accounts of travels at www.souloftheheel.com
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