The lure of Apulia

Apulia Apulia

C'耘 una piccola California anche in Italia. C'e‘ una parte della penisola che ha fatto innamorare il nostro Peter D'attoma a tal punto da fargli scrivere e condividere i suoi racconti ed emozioni. Di ritorno da un viaggio in Italia Peter ha preso carta e penna e ci ha raccontato delle bellezze che ha trovato in Puglia, dove il turismo di massa non e‘ riuscito a stravolgere le tradizioni e le radici un posto antico ed autentico...

Recently I returned from escorting our "Best of the South & Sicily" group tour. Upon my return I felt a strong need and desire to share my experience and write about our visit to the beautiful region of Apulia. The charm of this region, located in "the heel" of the country, is that it is still an area of Italy where the tourist industry remains in a wonderfully primitive stage of evolution. I can assure that this will not last much longer as many travel writers have proclaimed this region as the new Tuscany.

Italians refer to Apulia as "Little California" as Europeans and Northern Italians are purchasing land along the Adriatic Coast and either renovating or building new holiday summer homes. Prior to our arrival, I was told by my partner in Italy that unlike Northern and Central Italy, life here is very simple and that there would be little or no American tourists here.

There is so much that this little known and unexplored region has to offer and that you will truly enjoy. First and foremost are its people, who will welcome you with open arms and gracious hospitality. Everywhere we went we were received with warm smiles and a deep appreciation for visiting their towns and villages.

Here you will find hundreds of miles of breathtaking coastline along the Adriatic Sea, a landscape that drips with history from the Roman times onwards, and an extraordinary array of Baroque architecture. You can lunch in a town built of caves or enjoy dinner in a charming cobbled white village on a hilltop. And while sitting on that hilltop, you can gaze out over the region's magical red earth, dotted with olive trees, vineyards, fruits and vegetables like no other produced in all of Italy.

Many people are not aware that this region now produces most of Europe's pasta, presses most of the finest olive oil, catches most of Italy's fish and makes enough wine to rank Puglia as the sixth-largest winemaker in the world. Over the years I have had the fortunate pleasure of eating and sampling the foods of virtually every region in Italy. After my return I can honestly say that some of the best food and wine I have enjoyed has been in Apulia. The food, bread and wine here is exceptional! Typical was a tiny local restaurant that our tour director, Paolo, took us to in the small town of Cisternino, which has a grand tradition of fornello pronto (ready-to-go roasted or grilled meat) and numerous butcher shops where you can select a cut of meat that is promptly roasted or grilled on the spot.

Having walked along the narrow streets of this charming lazy little whitewashed town, we were ready to enjoy lunch. We stopped at Il Cuco, a great restaurant with a terrifically atmospheric wine bar serving typical local specialties. We quickly munched on foccacia followed by the local pasta, orecchiette, served in a veal sauce. There were similar feasts that we enjoyed in our hotel in Ostuni, starting with a nice morning buffet breakfast and homespun Italian cooking using the finest fresh local ingredients.

Part of the charm of this region is that this is a land in transition. As early as five years ago, much of its wine remained in barrels until it was consumed. Today there are many new cafes and trattorias that are quickly rising up in every part of this region. No longer can the Romans and Northerners dismiss this as the mezzogiorno -- the place where it is always midday, the land that time forgot.

Thankfully, much remains as it has always been. You'll discover pretty medieval ports where fish is still brought off the boats daily and cleaned beside the harbor. Driving along the coast, the fields, vineyards and olive groves may appear winsome, but there are farmers laboring away on their own, trying to keep cool under their wide-brimmed hats, just as they and their forebears have done for many centuries.

One town that many of us were amazed with was the trulli capital of Alberobello, known the world over for its trullis. It was like stepping back in time to centuries ago when these conical creations were first built. They could be seen from everywhere. Some rise from the ground, some appear stranded in the middle of a field of crops on a country road farm, others were clumped together atop a bigger building or in a small village. Protected since 1797, the trullis have become the symbol for Puglia, though no one seems to know how they originated. There are claims that they date back almost to prehistoric times and that they were simple peasant abodes.

For me and many other members of the tour, the joy of this region continued with visits to the town of Ostuni. Known as the "white town," it spreads over several hillsides and has a commanding position with lovely narrow streets that twist around its magnificent fifteenth-century cathedral. It is easy to see why this town is the most popular Murgia town, which is mainly due to its proximity to the coast and the wealth of good farm accommodation surrounding it.

Our next stop was Locorotondo, one of the most beautiful towns in all of Italy. I marveled at its beautiful circular position on top of a small hill -- like a gleaming white constellation above the surrounding vineyards. This is a lovely town where you can spend a few hours meandering through its delightful streets. Our local guide said that you cannot leave Locorotondo without sampling the local Spumante. We gladly accepted the invitation and stopped at the Cantine del Locorotondo.

Next came Martina Franca, a graceful eighteenth-century town with lovely wrought iron balconies and sculpted portals. Its historic center is one of the finest in Apulia with fine baroque and rococo buildings. Today this is a prosperous town that produces some of the best wines in the region.

Paolo informed us that the best was yet to come. Perhaps this was due to the fact that he was from Lecce. The deep love and passion he had for his town was very evident. What can you say about Lecce? There aren't enough words to describe this exceptionally beautiful city. It is easy to see why the eighteenth-century traveler Thomas Ashe thought it was "the most beautiful city in Italy." Nicknamed the "Florence of the south," the town boasts a profusion of incredible, beautiful buildings. At night decked in lights it reminds one of a sumptuous theatrical set. The buildings here are remarkable, especially for the extraordinary decorative works.

The day we departed Apulia I could not help to reflect back and think about our special visit to this magnificent region. To wander blithely around these white washed Mediterranean gems -- little slices of Greece that somehow got washed up on the shores of a neighboring land -- and wondered at how the heel of Italy avoided the wave of modern tourism that has been so prevalent in the northern and central part of country. We left with a deep love and appreciation for its people, their simple way of life with strong values, traditions and love for family. I can assure you that I will return to Apulia again and again!

Peter D'Attoma is the president of DaVinci Custom Travel & Tours. He has over 25 years of planning and designing independent, custom and escorted tours of Italy for individuals, groups and incentives. For more information, call (330) 633-2292.