Like much of Italy, in Puglia you’ll find beautiful beaches, quaint towns and some of the finest cuisine. But Puglia’s rustic charm is very different to the welcome you’ll find in other parts of the country. Once you’ve travelled down the region’s winding roads, past ancient, gnarled olive trees; or tasted the freshest burrata, made right in front of you, Puglia’s likely to steal a place in your heart that’s all of its own. Here are some of the best things to do in Puglia, if you want to see the region at its finest.
Visit the trulli at Alberobello
Farmers built trulli in Apulia Italy as far back as the fourteenth century. These squat, stumpy, gnome-esque houses are traditionally made without mortar or cement. A cone at the top stops the whole thing from collapsing.
The place where you’ll see the biggest collection of these iconic dwellings is in the town of Alberobello – Puglia’s capital of trulli. There are 1500 of these trulli houses in Alberobello’s zona dei trulli. Alberobello has UNESCO world heritage status and is very busy in the summer months, but it’s possible to beat the crowds by visiting off-season, like we did.
Alberobello lies almost half-way between the towns of Bari and Brindisi, both of which have international airports. It’s an easy town to get around, with pedestrianised lanes in the trulli zone, and a lively central square where family-friendly restaurants serve exceptional food.
Follow in Madonna’s footsteps and visit a Masseria
Masseria are common in southern Italy, particularly in Puglia. There were over 100 near where we stayed, on the outskirts of Ostuni. What’s a masseria, I hear you ask? They are large, often manorial farms. Some of them date back to the 1600s. Although many masseria have fallen into disrepair over the centuries, since the 1990s there has been a wave of efforts to recover and preserve these noble buildings. Many of them now offer bed and breakfast, or hotel services. We visited Masseria Torre Coccaro, a 5-star rustic resort, where Madonna reportedly liked to spend her holidays. It was pure luxury, set against an authentic backdrop. One of its guest bedrooms was even in a cave where artisans used to press olive oil.
With a pool, a luxury spa and gourmet dining options, Torre Coccaro might be beyond the price range of some. But other masseria may suit different budgets. You can browse some options on the Bookings for You and Raro Villas websites.
Watch Italian cheese being made
Cheesemakers have crafted the finest mozzarella in Puglia for centuries. And burrata is a delicious twist on the famous Italian cheese. This speciality of Puglia features mozzarella tied into a ball, with a melt-in-the-mouth centre of stracciatella and cream. Burrata is light, delicate and makes a perfect introduction to a meal of tender pasta cooked in a rich sauce.
Puglian cheesemakers produce several other types of cheese. We tried some local ricotta, made from the whey left over from mozzarella. It’s a cheese that’s traditionally eaten on bread for breakfast. Pecorino is also made in Puglia. This salty, rich sheep’s cheese changes as it ages, with the young cheese – 25 days old – being milder and less granular than the aged version, which is kept for at least a year. It’s a delicious accompaniment to crisp, dry white wine.
Some masseria, like Masseria Lamapecora, allow visits to their cheese-making rooms. We visited the 19th Century working dairy farm. Lamapecora is set in deepest countryside near the small town of Monopoli. Artisan cheesemakers work there from 6am until 2pm, turning milk from Lamapecora’s cows and sheep into 120kg of cheese a day. On our visit, Omer showed us how he makes mozzarella. We watched the whole process, from salting the curds to knotting the buoyant cheese into balls. It was a fascinating insight into the traditional (and some would say, loving) methods used to create an extraordinarily good cheese. And the best bit was that we were able to taste, and buy, the freshest of cheeses at the end.
Taste the best olive oil
An estimated 50 to 60 million olive trees grow in Puglia. More olive oil is produced in the region than anywhere else in Italy. So it’s a good place to sample extra-virgin olive oil. The best Italian olive oil is worlds away from the bog-standard stuff sold in UK supermarkets. It’s a bit like comparing a fine wine with Pepsi.
The way the Italians press their oil has evolved in stages, over hundreds of years. It’s a fascinating process, and it’s worth trying to fit in a visit to a masseria or a farm to see olive oil-making in action. On our trip to Puglia, we went on a tour of Masseria Maccarone, an olive oil-making farm near Fasano, in Brindisi, Puglia.
Visiting an olive oil-making masseria like Maccarone gives you a sense of the scale of production. There were 2,000 fruit-bearing olive trees at Masseria Maccarone. 900 of them were over 1,000 years old. It was humbling to think that these trees had produced olives for Italians to enjoy, since way back in ancient times.
Alessandro Colucci, our guide, showed us the pitted grindstones that donkeys used to pull around, for hours and hours a day, up until the 18th Century. The stones ground the olive fruit into a sludge. Oil-makers then extracted the fresh, pure liquid. The hale and hearty Italians go through an estimated 100 litres of extra virgin olive oil per family, in just one year. Alessandro explained that a shot of the stuff every morning fuels the body with plenty of health-boosting antioxidants. If this is true, it’s no wonder Italy was ranked last year as the healthiest country in Europe.
If you’d like to read more about visiting an olive oil farm, check out my post on our visit to Masseria Maccarone.
Eat (and make!) Puglian food
You know the cuisine is going to be exceptional when even the Italians rate Puglia as a foodie region. As well as olive oil and cheeses, the key locally produced ingredients include artichokes, tomatoes, aubergine, asparagus, chickpeas and mushrooms. Vegetarians will almost always find something on the menu to please them. Meat-eaters and pescatarians can chow down on the region’s delicious fresh sea bass, mussels, anchovies, or lamb stew.
Pasta in Puglia
Puglian dishes are often uncomplicated. It’s the exceptional quality of their ingredients that make them so remarkable. The region’s pasta was traditionally made just with flour and water, as eggs were considered a luxury. The most well-known Puglian pasta is orecchiette, or ‘little ears’, because of the shape. You’ll find several other pasta shapes that aren’t common elsewhere, like troccoli, cavatelli, stacchiodde, curti and gruessi.
When cooked unimaginatively, pasta can be a bland dish, but we ate some exquisite pasta meals on our trip to Puglia. My daughter loved her orecchiette with turnip tops (which we successfully passed off as broccoli, bypassing any pickiness). And I ate some flavoursome pasta cooked in red wine. The scarlet strands looked as pleasing as they tasted.
Another dish that’s been exported successfully from southern Italy is panzerotti. Although we’re not so familiar with it here in the UK, in north America the deep-fried calzone pockets are a popular snack. Raro Villas treated us to a panzerotti-making masterclass when we stayed in one of their villas. My daughter enjoyed shaping the dough into crescents, then watching them bubble up in the deep-fat fryer. The panzerotti made a satisfying meal, with their traditional fillings of tomato with mozzarella, and onions with spinach.
Go to the beach
Puglia nestles between the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea. It’s blessed with more than 800 kilometers of coastline for visitors to explore. The coastline is varied, from wide sandy beaches to rocky coves and wild, hidden shores.
If you want to experience the best beaches in Puglia, the coastal resort of Polignano al Mare is a good place to start. Its clear waters are perfect for swimming and snorkelling. Dolphins and sea turtles live in the waters just off the shore, and the bravest of explorers can take inspiration from the Cliff Diving World Championships, held at Polignano a Mare for the last few years.
Visit the white towns: Ostuni, Cisternino and Locorotundo
Puglia’s whitewashed towns are very different to the golden-hued cities of northern Italy. If you closed your eyes when the occasional vintage Fiat car or Vespa scooter drove past, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in Greece, which lies close by, just across the Adriatic sea.
But these Puglian towns have a character all of their own. The whitewashed walls look clean and fresh, but the quaint old signs and elegant, ancient-looking doors betray just how old these towns are. They’re pretty: the narrow cobbled lanes are lined with well-tended pots of pink, red and orange flowers, as well as herbs, and succulents. But the towns are also attractively weathered round the edges, with uneven flights of steps worn away by thousands of footsteps.
Ostuni is the largest town of the three, and has earned itself the moniker ‘the White City’. It perches on a hill above a broad valley. During the evening it’s lit up, with a beautiful warm glow that’s visible for miles around. The smaller towns of Cisternino and Locorotundo are also attractive. They’re both listed as ‘Borghi i piu belli d’Italia‘ – the prettiest villages in Italy. All three towns are graced with plenty of restaurants and bars, which serve authentic, moreish food and drink.
I’ll leave you with some more beautiful images of Ostuni and Cisternino. These below were all taken by Penny Wincer photographer, who accompanied us on the trip.
Where is Puglia Italy?
Puglia is in the south-east of Italy. If you think of the country as being boot-shaped, Puglia is the area in and above the heel. You can fly to Puglia (Brindisi, and Bari) directly from the UK.
Where to stay in Puglia
From masseria to trulli houses to villas, there’s no shortage of Puglia accommodation that reflects the region’s unique character and charm. Bookings for You and Raro Villas hosted us on this trip in the beautiful Corte dei Messapi, a 12-bedroom villa complex built from local stone and olive wood. You can read more about Corte dei Messapi in this blog post. For properties of different sizes, check out the Bookings for You or Raro Villas websites.
You might also like to read these other posts I wrote about Puglia:
If you’re more interested in staying in the north of the country, I’ve written here about Villa Pia, a family-friendly shared villa on the border of Umbria and Tuscany.
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