Welcome to Puglia! The stunning region in south of Italy is a peninsula of the Italian mainland, and it can be described as the “heel” of the Italian “boot”.
Several environments co-exist in this region: in the north is the GARGANO, which is the most mountainous area of Puglia; going south there is a large area called TAVOLIERE, which widens from Foggia to Bari; further south there is the MURGIA, a hilly area, dotted with the ‘TRULLI’ of the ITRIA VALLEY.
Trullo (plural TRULLI ) is the famous tradition Apulian dry stone wall hut with a conical roof. The small town of ALBEROBELLO, in the province of Bari, where the whole district contains dense concentrations of trulli has been made UNESCO World Heritage site. I recommend a wander around Alberobello to marvel at these traditional buildings and perhaps even experience a stay in one. There are few hotels which have some trullo accommodation, and a comfortable and affordable way to stay is in a self-catering trullo apartments. There are a number of firms which hire out holiday-trulli offering various standards of accommodation, based both in the centre of Alberobello and in the more rural nearby countryside which is a pleasant option if you have a car.
SALENTO, the southern area of Puglia region, is home of some of most Italy’s historical and characteristic towns, some of the best beaches with glorious golden sands and turquoise-azure waters surrounded by an amazing rocky coastline, which is heavenly for sea lovers.
Just as with all Italy’s southern region Salento has a traditional Mediterranean climate, with lots of plantations of ancient olive trees and vineyards and over 500 miles of coast line! The west coast, from the southernmost tip near Santa Maria di Leuca, running up to Gallipoli and beyond, is a vast almost non-stop strip of beautiful white sandy beaches and transparent azure blue waters. To the east, the Adriatic coastline is more varied still offering sandy beaches but also Karstatic grottoes, chalk cliffs and salt-waters lagoons. Some of the stunning cities and towns in the beautiful Salento’s area to visit include the creamy baroque sophistication of Lecce, the seafront-fortified gems of Gallipoli and Otranto and the luxurious seaside Liberty pleasures and iconic lighthouse of Leuca.
Salento also has many small sleepy towns that are found off the busier tourist trails but absolutely worth visiting given their unspoilt historic town centres and the unassuming genuineness of their inhabitants. Towns like Specchia, Calimera, Caprignano Salentino, Castrignano dei Greci, Corigliano d’ Ototranto, Martano, Martignano, Malpignano, Custrofiano, Soleto, Sternatia and Zollino are all about 20km south of Lecce and are all pristine examples of Salento’s strong historic ties with Greece which date back over a thousand of years. The local dialect - “Grika”- and many of the area’s gastronomic, cultural, and religious traditions have strongly evident Hellenic roots which are celebrated with frequent festivals, including the hugely popular and energetic Notte della Taranta.
The night of the Tarantula, one of the most anticipated folk music festivals in Europe is held in Monpigliano and attended by thousands of people. This festival has very ancient historical roots full of magic and mystery.
The popular “taranta” dance started as a ’medical ritual’ for the farmers feeling unwell after a long and hot summer day of work in the fields. It was thought that they had been bitten by the tarantula spider and that the only way to fight the effects and get rid of the tarantula venom was to move vigorously, even violently to the beat of the tambourine.
Religious celebrations are very significant events right across the Apulian territory, with villages competing against each other decorating houses, streets, and squares with the now famous illuminated decorations (‘luminarie’ in Apulian dialect) during the festival season. Some examples of these religious celebrations, festooned with the illuminated decorations can be admired at the celebration of Santa Cristina in Gallipoli town, or the Madonna della Coltura festivity in Parabita village.
Some of Salento’s towns and cities which I have had the pleasure to visit and admire are:
GALLIPOLI situated on the west, Ionian coast of Puglia’s Salento peninsula. The old town centre sits on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge and it is surrounded by the original defensive walls, built mainly in the 14th century. The island heart of Gallipoli is home to numerous impressive Baroque churches and aristocratic palazzi bearing witness to the town’s former wealth as a trading port. A labyrinth of narrow streets weaves around and eventually leads to the broader sea-front promenade and with its wonderful ocean views. An evening stroll around the city walls looking out to the sea is a great way to work up the appetite for a delicious fresh fish dinner or simply to enjoy a traditional Italian ‘gelato’ or ice cream. The stunning architecture, delicious food, and extremely pleasant atmosphere of the coastline north and south of Gallipoli is complemented by a series of long sandy beaches and transparent water that have been attracting sea lovers for centuries.
I had often been told about LECCE’s charm, but the reality more than overshadowed my expectations. Built using the local soft creamy limestone with stunning architectural surprises around
every corner, Lecce is a minor Baroque masterpiece. A quintessentially southern
Italian town, full of splendid squares and quiet little tucked away places, Lecce’s old town centre is a wonderful setting for the strolling visitors.
A Lecce’s curiosity…
In 2020 Lecce was in the fashion spotlight for the Dior Cruise 2021 collection presented at Piazza del Duomo. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Creative Director of Dior, reportedly said she was delighted to do the show in Lecce, a city she loves, and close to her family because of her father Apulian’s origins. The runaway show, which took place with no live audience in attendance to respect Covid social distancing guidelines, was an ode to Puglia by celebrating the craftmanship and paying homage to the region’s ancient and mystical traditions.
“The Christian Dior fashion show represents a very important acknowledgement for the city of Lecce,” said one local in a video that Dior posted on Instagram a day before the livestream. “It could have been held in any other city in the world, considering the importance of the fashion house. And if it’s here, it means it was chosen among many. [It is] also due to the richness of this city’s artisanal activities. Salento is not just about it’s beautiful landscape, but it’s also about the talents of it’s people.”
Maria Grazia Chiuri staged a glittering spectacle, amidst luminous backdrop of architectural delights, paying homage to the sartorial legacy of the city.
Dresses were adorned with a traditional embroidery technique called “tombolo” lace, which is native to the Puglia region and dates back to the 15th century. Extremely delicate in nature, this pattern is in danger of becoming extinct due to the meticulous complexity of the application process.
Maria Grazia Chiuri also found inspiration in the ‘luminarie’, the colourful nocturnal illuminations that showcase the architecture of the region’s many stunning buildings during the many religious celebrations. The illuminations were reinterpreted by, artist, Marinella Senatore and the technique used gave life to the figurative motif of the scarves in the collection, featuring openwork and embroidered embellishment.
GIULIA CONVERSATION WITH MARIA PIA PISANELLO…..
Maria Pia and her family are Apulian through and through and this gives her a unique insight into the territory. A couple of years ago I was a lucky enough to the guest of my good friend Elisabetta, Maria Pia, her husband and daughter, in their stunning and typically ‘Salento’ style house. The house is in Parabita, a beautiful town 8 miles away from Gallipoli, eye catching in every detail like the typical floor or the roof top terrace.
I could listen to Maria Pia and Amerigo talking about the tradition, history, and architecture of Puglia for hours. What I think makes this region so unique and so complete is the variety of its territory, food and wine, coastline and beaches. Add in its history, ancient traditions, and architecture and you have it all.
Apulia is divided into five territories (Daunia, High Murgia, Murge, Lower Murgia and Itria vally), and each one of them is a well-defined wine district, strongly anchored to typical grapes that characterize the wine produced. Puglia’s marked mutability of its territory, and wide variety of terroir, is expressed in a rich bouquet of aromas and flavours expressed in it’s unique wines. The two most popular and widely available wines from Puglia are ‘Salice Salentino’ and ‘Primitivo’. There is plenty of delicious food in the region to enjoy while trying the local wines.
Puglia is a farming region, with its olive plantations producing most of Italy’s olive oil meaning you will see olive trees wherever you look! Some of the farms even give tourists the chance to see the traditional ways of making olive oil. People can also, while spending time in Bari, see the local ladies sitting in the street and making orecchiette, or ‘little years’, the typical shaped Puglia’s pasta. While in Apulia, it is a ‘must-do’ activity to try the iced coffee, in italian ‘caffè con ghiaccio’, made following a specific receipe to ensure they preserve the aroma and quality of the coffee. The Lecce’s variant of ‘caffè in ghiaccio’, with almond milk, absolutely delicious and famous amongst Italians.
Giulia: The fabulous local food and great wine can all be tasted in the ‘Masseria’, typical building dating back to between the sixteen and eighteen centuries and originally used as farmhouses. A movement to restore the structures and turn them into artisan shops, boutique hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants began sometime in the 1990’s and they are now very popular meaning the restoration has certainly p: Maria Pia, what you miss the most about Salento when you are away from the region?
Maria Pia: When I’m not in Puglia I certainly miss the sea views: the sea colours and clarity of the water. The coastlines: the lower ones with golden sands and surrounded by the typically scented Mediterranean vegetation, and the rocky shores with their white ‘falesie’ overlooking the sea and hiding stunning-coloured caves’. I do miss the local food, deeply rooted in the territory and its traditions. The unique inland villages, their squares surrounded by the fascinating baroque palaces, and the captivating and fast paced folk music, named ‘pizzica’ or ‘taranta’, played at every village’s religious or food festival.
Giulia: Especially in the past few years Salento has become one of the favourite destinations for American and British tourists, do you think this new trend has somehow changed the way of living and routine of its population? And how do you think the region has changed over time?
Maria Pia: I don’t think anything has changed regarding traditions and Salentine way of life. In recent years tourism has increased a lot, especially in August and the high summer months. The multitude of tourists flocking to the seafront have had an impact to the lifestyle in those areas. In my opinion, if you wish to enjoy and appreciate the beauty, peacefulness, and genuine atmosphere of this land it is best to avoid visiting the area in August.
Giulia: What tips do you have for people planning to visit Salento for the first time?
Maria Pia: I recommend staying in one of the ancient houses of the characteristic villages, or staying in a ‘masseria’, a typical building dating back between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and originally used as farmhouses. A movement to restore the structures and turn them into artisanal shops, boutiques hotels, B&Bs, and restauranst began sometimes in the 1990’s and they are now very popular so the restoration has certainly paid off. Through spending time and living in one of those traditional buildings you can experience the true Salento; I also advise you to hire a car to move around the area freely. Prices in the region are still very reasonable, especially if you avoid the busiest times of the year.
Giulia: Which are you favourite typical product?
Maria Pia: I have a sweet tooth so I have to mention the ‘Pasticciotto’ : a delicious pastry traditionally filled with egg custard, perfect to eat while drinking the iced coffee with almond milk. One of the regions typically shaped pasta is the ‘tubettini’ and I would suggest you try them with some seafood sauce.
Giulia: Can you tell us the locations, and time of the year where is possible to see one of the religious festivals, and admire the town when artistically illuminated by many lights and watch people dancing the ‘pizzica’?
Maria Pia: One of the most important events of the Salentine’s tradition is the San Giuseppe’s Tables, in Italian ‘Tavole di San Giuseppe’, on the 18th and 19th of March, to celebrate the patron saint ‘San Giuseppe’. During the celebrations typical food products are spread out on long tables by the community. San Giuseppe traditional rituals are particularly important in some towns of the ‘Otranto’ area, like ‘Minervino’, ‘Uggiano la Chiesa’ and ‘Giurdignano’ and are very interesting to watch.
Easter Thursday is dedicated to visiting the graves, on the eve of Easter Thursday the ‘confraternity’ is moved in procession to the churches that traditionally held the body of Christ. As part of the Good Friday celebrations the procession is devoted remembering The Passion of Christ, called ‘Urnia’ by the locals. In Gallipoli’s old town this fascinating, emotional and ancient ritual are very important to the local population and moving to watch.
On the 24th, 25th and 26th August, Lecce celebrates it’s patron saints: Oronzo, Giusto and Fortunato. This is an event not to be missed if you wish to fully understand the Salentine’s tradition. The entire town celebrates with a sensational firework display, drama performances, a local market and music. The procession opens the celebrations on the 24th and the fireworks end them on the 26th.
‘Santa Domenica’ celebrations are in the town of Scorrano, the international capital of the traditional ‘luminarie’, and take place on the 5th, 6th & 7th of July.
The world famous evening concert event, ending the July and August traveling festival in the Salentine’s squares, called ‘Notte della Taranta’, is held in Melpignano’s town, and takes place at the end of August. This year unfortunately due to the Covid pandemic the travelling festival and final concert will be held behind closed doors and broadcast on national television, to avoid public gatherings.
Maria Pia has suggested some of her favourite restaurants:
Terrazza Paradiso – Santa Cesarea Terme- The restaurant is located on the coast road to Otranto, in a beautiful location overlooking the sea. It is one of the best seafood restaurants she thinks. The prawns, fresh fish and seafood risotto are especially outstanding, although the menu is very high quality. They also have 16 lovely rooms on offer, and the owners have another well known restaurant in Otranto: ‘Laltro Baffo’.
ALEZ – Lecce- Located just around S. Oronzo square, is the restaurant she recommends the most in town, The menu is mostly fish and the wine selection is exceptional.
OSTERIA ORIGNANO- Minervino di Lecce- The place was born as the ‘Menhir cellars’ business restaurant. It is now a well-known and locally appreciated restaurant with one of the best chefs in the area. The menu is equally divided in seafood, vegetarian, and meat-based dishes. The wine selection is “limited” to the fine local ‘Menhir cellars’ wines and there is also a shop where you can buy the exceptionally high quality local produce.
GIANLUCA CHIEF BISTROT- Taviano- Is the best value for money place. With the modest price of €30 you will enjoy a 7/8 course meal, very tastfully and beautifully presented. There is no set menu for this restaurant, only the chef’s personal daily dish options, although if you book a day in advance you can select the “gourmet menu” experience for €55.
Maria Pia also suggested some local hotels and B&Bs:
TENUTA MOSE’ -Sannicola
FURNI RUSSI- Serrano di Carpignano Salentino
MASSERIA LI FOGGI – Gallipoli
Maria Pia’s ‘must-see’ places in Puglia
Nardò village- Is one of the ‘off the beaten track’ treasures Apuglia has to offer, with its unique properties, clear seas, acre upon acre of olive groves, incredible food, great cycling-tracks, peaceful walks with picnic areas in the protected forest of ‘Porto Selvaggio’.
Santa Caterina d’Alessandria’s cathedral - Galatina- The stunning cathedral and its Giotto’s wall painting is definitel ‘must-see’.
Castro town - The town has a very interesting archaeological museum and the scenic Minerva’s temple, which Greek mythology describes as the goddess who guided Enea in the Italian landing.
Tricase village- This small remote town is located in the province of Lecce and is an excellent place to stop off if you are driving to/from Santa Maria di Leuca. The town centre has a majestic square surrounded by historic buildings, including one of Puglia’s very finest baroque churches.
Maria Pia also suggested that you should try to take in some of the inland beautiful villages like Specchia and Corigliano; and don’t miss the S.Andrea’s cliffs, the Green Cave, and the Capitan Swamp in ‘Porto Selvaggio’ natural park.