Undiscovered Puglia

by Lee.Marshall

Billed as ‘the new Tuscany’, Puglia in Italy is famous for its food, beaches – and Brits staying in restored masserias (farmhouses). To avoid the crowds, head for coastal Gallipoli or Martina Franca

Gallipoli: Cornwall in the Mediterranean

The Salento peninsula – otherwise known as “the heel of Italy” – is a wild, invigorating place of gnarled olive trees, long drystone walls and some of the best beaches you will find anywhere in the country without taking a boat. With its strong local dialect and folk traditions – including the tarantella or pizzicata, a driving, possessed dance – it feels a little like Cornwall. The climate, however, is that of southern Italy: you can swim in the sea until mid-October, sometimes even later. The rocky eastern coast, around Otranto, is perhaps best-known among foreign visitors, due largely to its concentration of masseria hotels. However, it is the sheltered west that offers the most spectacular beaches.

Focal point is the attractive walled town of Gallipoli, jutting out into the sea that once provided its main livelihood (for centuries, Puglia’s rich olive-oil trade passed through the port). The best place to stay is the 20-room boho charmer Relais Corte Palmieri (mid-season doubles from €175), a restored 18th-century townhouse in the old town that has more stairs and terraces on different levels than an Escher print. If it’s full, the nearby Palazzo Mosco Inn is under the same management, and in a similar style and price bracket.

For a truly memorable seafood meal, head for La Puritate – famous for its antipasti (think raw king prawns, stuffed mussels) which come so thick and fast you are lucky if you make it to the pasta course. The best beaches are a short drive from the old town. Those to the north are more varied, featuring small fishing ports turned family resorts and deserted coves – including stunning Porto Selvaggio, part of a nature reserve and reached only on foot.

Don’t dismiss Porto Cesareo as a base. It’s the nearest thing to a high-rise resort in these parts – but, this being Italy, has a great deal of laidback style and charm. The beaches on either side of town (especially to the north) are magnificent. At first sight, the waterside Hotel Falli (mid-season doubles from €80) looks like an anonymous purpose-built block but its 40 rooms are tastefully done out in creams with splashes of colour, service is friendly and its mid-priced Cosimino restaurant – recommended by a chef friend from Rome – is a revelation. It’s great value if you avoid August, when room rates take a hike.

Martina Franca and the Valle d’Itria hilltowns

A fertile valley long known for its olives, wine and market-garden produce, the Valle d’Itria begins just south of Alberobello. First town of note is handsome Martina Franca, which rivals Lecce as the Late Baroque jewel of Puglia. The honey-colored local sandstone softens the elaborate façades of the town’s 18th-century churches and palazzi, and sets the place on fire at sunset.

Stay two miles south at the elegant, apricot-pink masseria resort of Relais Villa San Martino (mid-season doubles from €310) and eat in town at Il Ritrovo Degli Amici, a funky neo-Pugliese trattoria renowned for its pasta courses – notably maltagliati (flat, randomly shaped offcuts made from scraps of dough) with aubergines, tomatoes, basil and smoked cheese, and meaty secondi. In nearby Cisternino, the narrow souk-like streets of the old town boast a handful of fornelli – butchers that not only sell meat (chiefly lamb and pork) but also grill it. Vincenzo de Mola and Al Vecchio Fornello are two of the most reliable. You choose your cut of meat or your sausage (such as gnumarieddi, a mix of goat and lamb organ meats), watch it being cooked, then eat it at spartan tables out the back, with a glass of onesto local wine; the bill is unlikely to top €20 a head.

A few miles east, Ostuni hosts one of Puglia’s coolest, most Zen-like design hotels, La Sommità Relais Culti (doubles from €180). Created by style guru Alessandro Agrati, this spa retreat is frequented by Milanese fashion editors and their ilk. It’s a little frosty – but very, very stylish. Don’t miss modest but pretty Carovigno, a few miles further east on the Lecce road. There, Già Sotto l’Arco is one of Puglia’s most exciting restaurants, offering nuanced, gourmet twists on local tradition.

RESTAURANT CHOICE

La Puritate (+39 0833 264 205), via Sant’Elia 18, Gallipoli. Average €42 a head for three courses without wine. Closed Wed.

Il Ritrovo degli Amici (+39 080 4839 249), corso Messapia 8, Martina Franca. Average €45 a head for three courses without wine. Closed Sun.

Vincenzo de Mola (+39 080 444 8063), via Giulio II 2, Cisternino. Open daily in summer.

Al Vecchio Fornello (+39 080 444 6431), via Basiliani 18, Cisternino. Open daily in summer.

Già Sotto l’Arco (+39 0831 996 286, www.giasottolarco.it), corso Vittorio Emanuele 71, Carovigno. Average €65 a head for three courses without wine. Closed Mon.

 

  

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?