Flanked by two seas, magical Puglia is a thin peninsula packed tight with the same attributes that attracted us to Italy decades ago: It’s an undiscovered land with an enviable quality of life. The octagonal Castel del Monte, a 13th-century castle, inspires architects today, and the historic city of Lecce offers the purest expression of Moorish-Italian Baroque. Weathered stone and whitewashed buildings pop against green olive groves. Trulli are the mysterious cone houses in the Itria Valley, and all of Puglia’s stunning beauty is surrounded by some of the bluest waters in Europe.
Where to Dine
To say that Puglia has Italy’s best food is no exaggeration. It offers fresh ingredients, whether pulled from the sea or picked from the nearest tree. Masseria Il Frantoio is a foodie’s paradise, with a never-ending appetizer spread and grandmothers kneading orecchiette pasta in the kitchen. Ristorante Masseria Spina is slightly more sophisticated, but equally rooted in tradition. Antica Cucina 1983 Ristorante, Le Lampare al Fortino and Osteria Gia Sotto L’Arco offer excellent seafood dishes at various price points. Ristorante Penny boasts an excellent wine list.
Where to Stay
County manors, or masserie, from the 16th and 17th centuries are routinely being refurbished as luxury hotels. One of the most beautiful is Masseria Torre Coccaro, with a cooking school and romantic, wild botanical garden. The Justin Timberlake-Jessica Biel wedding was staged at the sea-facing Borgo Egnazia resort. Equally luxurious, if slightly formal, is Masseria Torre Maizza. If you are looking for homey, rustic charm, try the gorgeous Borgo San Marco. And, if you are visiting the town of Alberobello and want to sleep in one of the iconic trulli, book a cone-shaped room at Le Alcove.
Where to Taste
Puglia’s rapidly expanding wine scene has something for all tasting types. Don’t miss the grand cellar room at Tormaresca. Owned by Antinori, the property represents one of the biggest local investments in quality wine. Equally impressive are Masseria Altemura, inaugurated by the Zonin family with a wine shop and visitors’ center, and Castello Monaci. You can tour the postcard-perfect 16th century castle just beyond the winery. If your passion is organic farming, Agrinatura is a unique model. It presents a sustainable organic platform that spans wine, olive oil, pasta sauce and seasonable crops (all on sale). For boutique tasting rooms with great wines, consider these by-appointment visits: Castel di Salve; L’Astore Masseria, with an ancient olive press; and Rivera. The Movimento Turismo del Vino Puglia acts as a wine tourism and information center.
When to Go
Summer, for epic seafood meals on pristine beaches and all-night pizzica dancing.
Puglia excels at warm-climate wines made with indigenous grapes. Castel del Monte delivers red wines from Uva di Troia, Bombino Nero and Aglianico. Interesting work is being done with crisp Bombino Bianco white wines and sweet Moscato di Trani. Further south, the Primitivo grape (Primitivo di Manduria) is famously linked genetically to Zinfandel. Local wines show ripe berry nuances, inky concentration and soft tannins. Salice Salentino is planted to Negroamaro (sometimes blended with Malvasia Nera) for hearty reds. The past five years have a remarkable rise of crisp white wines from Greco, Fiano, Malvasia and Chardonnay.
Feast on raw sea urchins at one of the many beachfront ricci di mare shacks in the Salento. Scoop out the bright orange roe with whole-grain bread, and wash it down with red table wine.
“Castel del Monte is an astronomical machine more than a castle,” says Sebastiano de Corato, export manager for Rivera in Andria. “Go in the late afternoon as the setting sun reflects off the white stone. Built in the 1200s by Emperor Frederick II, the eight-sided castle was constructed according to the Golden Ratio, and symbolic shadows are cast during the equinox and different times of year. It has all sorts of Da Vinci Code-like appeal.”
This is a land of superstitions, and old-timers warn that poisonous tarantulas will bite humans (mostly young females), forcing them into a frenzied, trance-like dance called tarantella. This mystical affliction continues today with the contemporary pizzica dance and music festivals all summer long, where you can see the dance performed. Young women in flowing skirts swirl and stomp to rhythmic tambourine beats late into the night.