Taking the Road Less Traâ€‹veled: Puglia Italy
In the heel of Italy’s boot, find fabulous food, Baroque towns, charming fishing villages, and historical and archeological sites in the lesser-known region of Puglia—on its way to becoming one of the hottest new destinations for savyy travelers. Insider’s tip: It’s even better in winter with fresher seafood and fewer crowds.
As a mom of three, I have plenty of experience in planning family vacations, but I have this fantasy about a trip where I can actually be on vacation, too. Where I can relax and let someone else do all the research; arrange for transportation; and handle troubleshooting for lost luggage, missed connections, and mixed-up reservations. I know, a crazy dream. Then I heard of a group called Think Puglia that does exactly that and more, setting up guests in private villas throughout the region, arranging for chefs, food and wine deliveries, cooking classes, excursions, and full itineraries.
I have to admit I wasn’t “thinking Puglia” at all—I’d never even heard of the region that makes up the heel of Italy’s boot, bordered by the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. But apparently, those in the know discovered it long ago. All my foodie friends raved about the fresh seafood, orecchiette pasta, local cheeses, and wines. Justin Timberlake married Jessica Biel here; Francis Ford Coppola has a hotel nearby. Jude Law and Sienna Miller stayed at the charming Villa Elia, one of Think Puglia’s exclusive properties. Not that I needed any nudging, but hey, if it’s good enough for Justin, Jessica, and Jude, I’m on board.
My flight from JFK to Rome landed a half-hour late and, of course, I worried about making the connection to Brindisi. But, sure enough, there was a man standing just within the terminal holding a sign, who led us through the airport, and arranged for a later flight along with vouchers for breakfast. Once we landed in Puglia, our guide was waiting with a car.
The first thing we saw upon leaving the airport was a sign that read, “Welcome to our stylish town,” followed by fields of brilliant red poppies, glimpses of sandy beaches and sea beyond, rambling country estates known as masserie, adorable trullis (conical stone houses that look like hobbit homes and are found only in this part of Italy and Rhineland, Germany), and endless olive groves filled with centuries-old trees.
We arrived in the charming town of Galatina, winding our way through the narrow cobbled streets to Palazzo Gorgoni, our home for the next few days. Frederica Musco, the concierge, welcomed us into the expansive courtyard with offers of Prosecco, pasta, prosciutto—and massages. Ahh, the perfect antidote to a transatlantic flight.
The 18th-century, eight-bedroom palazzo has been meticulously renovated and is filled with clever contemporary and folk art: paintings, statues, even an old Vespa in the second-floor gallery. The grand staircases are adorned with intricate carvings; there is a pool in its own courtyard, a rooftop terrace, and wonderful little nooks to escape to. That first night, our private chef brought out seemingly endless dishes and bottles of local wines as we dined alfresco under a cobalt-blue sky, the courtyard lit by stars and candlelight, the only sounds being the occasional bark of a dog. It was perfect, and I didn’t have to do one single thing but enjoy the experience.
Breakfast was a treat, with traditional meats and chesses, espresso, and orange juice so brilliantly hued, at first I thought it was Tang. It wasn’t, and it was delicious, as were the pasticciotti, little pastries filled with cream that I ate way too many of (after all, they are only available in Puglia). Then, off to explore. First stop Lecce, known as the Florence of the South, filled with Baroque architecture (don’t miss the elaborately sculptured exterior of Basilica di Santa Croce); archeological sites (an amphitheater built at the end of the 2nd century BC that once held 25,000 spectators); and a bustling street scene. Cars, motorcycles, bikes, people, and dogs—lots of well-behaved and leashless dogs—share the paved stone roads that are lined with bars, restaurants, and shops selling papier mâché crèches and religious figurines, carved limestone artworks, and ceramics.
Every day, a new delight. Ostuni, founded in 600 BC, is also known as La Citta Bianca, because of its uniformly white buildings. Originally, lime washing made the labyrinthine medieval streets brighter and easier to navigate after dark. But during the plague in the 17th century, it helped stop the spread of the disease. Gallipoli is a port town with a bustling fish market and a charming village filled with cafés and shops, and surrounded by defensive walls built in the 14th century.
Otranto, the site of a historic sacking in 1480, was the most touristy town we visited, but, even here, we met no one who spoke English. You may want to bring along an English/Italian dictionary.
While there, do get out on a boat to explore the rocky coastline dotted with 30 karstic grottoes. In one, sunshine broke through an opening in the rock, dancing on the water and back wall, creating a natural cathedral. Backing out, we saw a school of effervescent jellyfish, breaking away from the mother, one by one, filling the grotto with an unearthly orange glow. A fantasy vacation indeed. —Nancy L. Claus
Details: Think Puglia offers 37 exclusive villas (the private homes of Italian fashion designers, art dealers, photographers, and the like, many from Milan) ranging in size from one to nine bedrooms; depending upon the level of services requested, prices range from $2,662 to $33,400 per week.
Getting There: Alitalia has regular flights from most major Italian cities into Brindisi or Bari airports. Think Puglia can arrange for ground transportation or car rentals.