The Pull of Puglia

The Italian enclave you didn’t know you needed to visit… until now.

We’ve all been to Rome, Florence, and Venice, along with throngs of fellow American tourists. But if you’re looking for a true Italian experience, visit Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, where Italians go for vacation. There are sandy beaches, endless olive groves filled with centuries-old trees, fields of brilliant red poppies, rambling country estates known as masserie, and adorable trullis. Narrow cobbled streets wind their way through beautiful Baroque towns with bustling piazzas, majestic cathedrals, shops, and cafes. Notably—and blessedly—absent are any Starbucks or Pizza Hut franchises. 

As long as you’re vacationing like a local, why not live like one too? Stay in a private villa in town, the countryside, or by the sea (choose the Ionian or Adriatic—or both in Santa Maria di Leuca, where the two seas meet). Think Puglia, a travel organization, offers 37 exquisite villas (the private homes of Italian fashion designers, art dealers, 

photographers, and the like, many from Milan, and all with a fabulous design aesthetic). The group will even plan your trip for you, arranging for chefs, food and wine deliveries, cooking classes, excursions, and full itineraries.

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And what should be on your to-do list? First, eat and drink local; you can’t go wrong with the regional wines, seafood, and cheeses (oh, the Burrata!) along with pasticiotti, heavenly little cream-filled pastries you can only find in this part of Italy. Rent a car and tour the countryside. Lecce is a must see. Known as “the Florence of the South,” it is filled with Baroque architecture (the elaborately sculptured exterior of Basilica di Santa Croce, looks like something out of Hieronymus Bosch); 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 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. 

Founded in 600 BC, Ostuni is known as “La Città Bianca” because of its uniformly white buildings. Climb up to the Archbishop’s palace and the 15th century Concattedrale, the highest point in town, and be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the countryside and the Adriatic Sea. As you amble back down the hill, check out the little boutiques down narrow alleyways.

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. Find a castle with towers and a perimeter wall in Otranto, the site of a gruesome massacre in 1480. The cathedral is the main draw, with beautiful 12th-century floor mosaics and a rather disturbing memorial to the 800 martyrs who died there. 

For a whole new perspective of Puglia, hop in a boat and explore the rocky coastline, dotted with grottoes and beaches. You may just decide to buy your own villa and never leave. 

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