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.
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.