I recently had the pleasure of going to Puglia for a long weekend with Liz minus the kids! Although only mid-April, the weather was warm and sunny, beautiful bright blue skies without the threat of a cloud in sight. I have always loved this region and happily return time and time again, always discovering something new as well as revisiting old haunts.
On Citalia’s recommendation, we stayed at Tenuta Monacelle, a pleasant hour’s drive from Bari airport where the landscape is dominated by age-old olive trees – some as old as 2,000 years! The hotel, a former convent, stands in over 40 acres of farmland in a haven of peace and tranquillity. Ample-sized, comfortable rooms are housed in Masserie or Trulli (typical Puglian farm dwellings) and a lovely swimming pool can be used by guests. We arrived in the evening, so we dined at the Ciliegetto hotel restaurant where lovely chef Francesco cooked us wonderfully fresh local dishes. Puglia is often known as “the table of Italy” for its freshest produce offering good, honest home-cooking. The region offers some of the best cheese, olive oil, bread, pasta and excellent easy-to-drink wines like Locorotondo white or Primitivo red.
On our first morning we decided to visit Bari as Liz had never been before and I wanted to show her the atmospheric old town with its quaint backstreets and churches. There is one cobbled little street which we seemed to spend most of our time. Known locally as “Orecchiette Street”, it is where you find ladies making handmade pasta. Trays of freshly made pasta were laid outside to dry alongside the laundry! We were invited inside the tiny kitchen where the signora and her daughter were busily making Puglia’s signature pasta shapes, orecchiette and cavatelli, their fingers working so fast that I couldn’t keep up! I gave up attempts at trying to beat them and bought some pasta to take home instead. Further down another lady was selling local products from her kitchen window where I bought some delicious taralli – little ring-shaped bread snacks traditionally enjoyed dipped in wine and always present in bread baskets at local restaurants.
In the afternoon we headed to the stunning coastal gem of Polignano a Mare, beautifully perched atop limestone cliffs overlooking the clear, crystal waters of the Adriatic. We had a wander through the winding streets of the old town, visited the lovely Church of Santa Maria Assunta and did a little shopping. Apart from being a pretty coastal town, its claim to fame is as the birthplace of Italian singer, Domenico Modugno, famous for his renowned Volare song and there is a statue erected in his honour. After a Campari at one of the many cafes, we had dinner at the famous cave restaurant – Grotta Palazzese – a spectacular location for a restaurant built inside a cave overlooking the sea. It certainly has a wow factor and had left us both quite speechless at its beauty and uniqueness. Being by the sea, we tucked into the fish and seafood specialities as we watched the sun go down. As it turned chilly, the waiters were more than happy to supply us with blankets. A truly unique dining experience not to be missed!
The next day we set off early to catch the Saturday market in the charming hilltop town of Ostuni. Stall after stall was filled with an array of wonderful local produce – various types of broccoli were readily available as well as spring favourites like fresh peas, broad beans, asparagus, chicory, gigantic fennel and sweet strawberries. We came across a lovely chap selling amazing olives, olive oil, honey and other local products, which he was more than happy for us to sample. I just couldn’t resist the olives and bought a couple of kilos and Liz came away with a jar of bee pollen. The market is mostly frequented by locals and it is simply foodie heaven.
Ostuni, often referred to as “the white city” for its whitewashed buildings (even the paving stones are white!) contrasts beautifully with the surrounding green countryside. Souvenir shops and small boutiques line the small quaint winding streets. For lunch we stopped at one of my favourite restaurants, L’Osteria del Tempo Perso – a typical trattoria serving excellent Puglian food. It hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I discovered it and the owner made us feel very welcome. We started with a selection of local cured meats, cheese and filled courgette flowers, followed by the region’s speciality of orecchiette con cime di rape (local broccoli variety.)
The afternoon was spent in one of Liz’s favourite places in Italy – the fairy tale town of Alberobello - with its unusual trulli houses. These traditional stone houses with the characteristic conical-shaped roofs date back to the 1400’s, originally built as temporary rural dwellings often for farmers to use as sheds to store tools. They were deemed unstable so owners were exempt from paying taxes on these properties and in time became popular dwellings for families preferring to build a new one rather than pay tax. People still live in trulli today and they are far from unstable – in fact they have become very sought-after and Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A number of artisan and souvenir shops line the main streets leading up to the pretty trullo church. For good quality produce and wines, we stopped at the wonderful Enoteca Tholos, where I stocked up on excellent olive oil. Again, another foodie heaven!
As with all good things, our trip to Puglia was coming to an end, but not before a visit to a masseria (farm) about 500 metres away from our hotel on recommendation from one of the waiters at breakfast. I’m always on the lookout for rustic haunts and this was a true gem where wonderful fresh bread and focaccia are baked daily and local cheese is made from their eclectic herd of goats and sheep. I couldn’t return to England without bread, focaccia and some cacciocavallo cheese. There aren’t any signs on how to get there and no sign above the door but the wonderful lady who does the baking said they are known as Lisi Anna. So welcoming and friendly, they couldn’t do enough and showed me round the small but perfect bakery with their rustic ovens. As we left, Liz noticed another building with chairs and tables set out, so I know where I’ll be eating on my next visit to Puglia.
Only a couple of hours away from the UK to Bari, this lovely, unspoilt region is perfect for a weekend or longer stay. Next time though we promised we would take the kids, they would absolutely love the trulli houses of Alberobello!