Even stilettoes come back into fashion, and Italy’s geographical equivalent is certainly having its sun-splashed day. Usually, whenever Puglia is mentioned, the first image that comes to mind is of trulli, those iconic cone-shaped stone buildings that pepper the northern half of this region. But go deeper and further south, and the classic structure becomes a masseria (masserie in plural): a huge, austere farmhouse of stone that squats picturesquely amongst the olive-groves.
This is the Salento, the tip of Italy’s heel, where strong historic links to Greece (Magna Graecia – Greater Greece) brought the local dialect, Grika, and even a town called Calimera (meaning ‘good morning’ in Greek), acres and acres of flat olive groves, a good sprinkling of vineyards (another centuries-old Greek import) and plenty of grand palazzi reflecting the region’s former glory.
In numerous small towns of the interior, Byzantine churches, castles and palazzi constitute a goldmine of entrancing architecture – rivalled by a coastline lapped to the east by the welcoming waves of the Adriatic and to the west the Ionian Sea.
It was at least 12 years since I’d been to Puglia so it was intriguing to stay with an old friend who is now deeply rooted in the region, its traditions – and a beautifully converted masseria. Summer had just peaked (Ferragosto, August 15th, is the beginning of the exodus back home for domestic tourists) yet the sun was still high in the sky, the peaches perfect and the sea blissful. I wasn’t complaining.
Brindisi, home to the nearest airport, is not the best urban representative but Lecce is a dazzling star of baroque and golden stone, as well as capital of the Salento. Less written about is Otranto, looking across at Albania from a spectacular hilltop site, with an extraordinary 11th century cathedral, a Renaissance castle, dozens of tempting boutiques, cafés and restaurants – and an inviting town beach across the bay.
From Otranto south the coast is mainly rocky, dotted with the odd lighthouse or watchtower and plenty of mini-coves invaded by regiments of sun beds. Hardly the most scenic and they’ll cost you 30 – 40€/ day, parasol and thumping bass included.
So, far better to seek out some flat rocks, as at the little inlet of Porto Badisco. I love the mix of generations here that all squeeze amicably into every available centimetre. Even better, there’s a great little trattoria behind the harbour – Trattoria Le Taiate (+ 39 0836 811625). Try and get an upstairs terrace table for a breeze and semi-view – then tuck into their wonderful pickings of fresh antipasti – oh joy! I’m not a fan of sea-urchins, but the raw red Gallipoli prawns, marinated anchovies and octopus salad made a delicious kick-off to linguine, cozze e vongole (linguine with mussels and clams). Then it was time for a digestive dip…
Further south still, where the terrain at last adopts some hills, is the gorgeous and lively little town of Tricase – a favourite with a growing number of celebs who have houses nearby, from Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli to actress Helen Mirren – known locally as La Regina (the Queen). Of course.
As usual in Italy, Tricase revolves around a central square, in this case the intimate Piazza Pisanelli, around which jostle a 16th c castle, various palazzi, a Baroque church, a welcoming cafe, an upmarket cocktail-bar and a very seductive wine-shop. The cocktail bar, Farmacia Balboa, part-owned by Mirren’s husband, the film-director Taylor Hackford, offers a strategic terrace for people-watching as the sun dips behind the church.
Best of all though is the wine-shop, Cantina Castel di Salve owned by vintner Francesco Winspeare. It’s an aficionado’s delight, partly for it’s whimsically designed labels and partly for its punchy blends of Salentino grapes – primitivo, malvasia nera and negroamaro. As Puglia’s name derives from the Latin phrase a pluvia, meaning ‘without rain’, the reds really thrive, bringing berry flavours and often a gentle smokiness. Whites are usually from verdeca grapes (Spain’s very popular verdejo).
Puglia’s agriculture is not only about wine though; it produces about half Italy’s olive-oil – or rather DID, before the deadly march of Xylella fastidiosa – a devastating bug that in six years has wiped out over one million trees. It was a shock to drive past endless fields of felled or truncated trees, their leaves dead and of course not one olive in sight. Scientists continue to work on finding the solution – but time is running out.
Now to end on something more uplifting – frescoes. The region is rich in churches with interiors faced in beautiful paintings going back centuries to the Byzantine era, and some a bit later. One of the most astounding is the Basilica di Santa Catarina in Galatina, a town roughly midway across the heel on a level with Otranto.
The story of this 14th century basilica is pretty extraordinary – starting with a French woman, Catherine, married to a Salentino noble who supported the local Francsican order. All change came when her husband Raimondello took off on a crusade to Mount Sinai where he visited the relics of Saint Catherine. Clearly missing his wife, he is said to have bitten off the finger of the dead saint and brought it back to Galatina as a relic. Great move Raimondello, as it’s made Galatina yet another place of pilgrimage!
The result is a spellbinding interior of three naves and a portico, all blanketed in incredibly detailed and varied murals, often depicting pretty gory incidents – both sacred and secular. It’s a Gothic visual encyclopaedia – impossible to describe in a few words. You’ve just got to go to the Salento.