Discover the Best Kept Secrets of the Heel of Italy
Remember that dream you had of wine flowing from petrol pumps like endless gallons of the best unleaded? That is no dream, that is Puglia. This still somehow lesser known region of Italy’s south-eastern heel is one of Europe’s glorious hidden treasures. Not least, it boasts the very top picks for wineries with over 200 producers and 25 dominations of origin. The more discerning among us may choose to experience fine dining at an upmarket wine resort featuring the exquisite raisiny reds that Puglia excels in. But you can do a whole lot worse than rock up at a local consorzio for ‘vino alla spina’, literally wine on tap, and dispense your own very acceptable five litre haul for a dreamy €8.
With over 800km of coastline and a strategically important location on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, the region has historically been a scene of conflict and occupation with Ottomans, Greeks and Spanish all leaving marks of their heritage. Nowadays Puglians seem to have embraced the opposite vibe, enjoying a peaceful, laid back attitude to life. Until, that is, night falls and locals take to the streets for their evening passiega. That’s when shops reopen, families come out and bars are filled. You’ll find some tourists for sure, but these are mostly attracted by the high temperatures and buzzing beach life of the summer holiday period. From mid-October through to early April though, you’re up for a less crowded, more enhanced, low season experience.
Winter time in Puglia is very mild and although the coolest months of January and February can dip below 10°C, low season mostly remains moderately warm especially when compared with northern Europe. Showers are possible with the Salento area seeing the least rainfall, but when rain does come it tends to be brief and there are still plenty of clear, sunny days. In fact, when summer’s blistering highs cool down, that’s the perfect time to visit Puglia’s charming whitewashed towns, see the stunning architecture of Renaissance cities and explore row after row of the olive groves of this beautiful region. Low season Puglia offers a real chance to find an authentic Italy, connecting with the southern land and people on a much deeper level than at any other time of the year.
Puglia is surrounded by clear blue waters to rival those of the Maldives and Seychelles. Okay, you might not be enjoying watersports or sunbathing in winter, but the scenic coastal areas are still great for low season activities. The Salento peninsula especially is known for its historic watchtowers and unique limestone formations, and Porto Selvaggio National Park is a favourite place for exploring miles of pine trails, sandy coves, and wildlife hideaways. Drive along the rocky coast of the Gargano promontory that makes up the spur of the Italian boot, running 140km past ancient forests, spectacular cliffs and the famous faraglioni white rocks jutting from the Adriatic.
Visitors to Puglia are taken aback time and again by just how many surprises are waiting round every corner. Each town delights with a charming personality, architectural masterpiece or world heritage site to rival those of the much better known centres of Northern Italy. Low season is the perfect time to take a bicycle tour of the city of Lecce, said to be the Florence of the south. Take your time exploring the beautiful squares, Roman amphitheatre, and the stunning Baroque masterpiece that is the façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce. Ostuni, the White City, is painted entirely with whitewash and offers a sparkling view to those who climb to the highest part of the city were you’ll find the Santa Maria Cathedral. Locorotondo is the prettiest of towns with its flower filled circular centre and narrow streets surrounded by olive groves. Alberobello is a must-see, with its distinctive Trulli, the peculiar cone shaped huts which date from 3000BC and are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Check out the Roman seaside town of Monopoli and its harbour filled with small blue fishing boats, or just up the coast, lovely Polignano a Mare where you can walk in the old town and enjoy views from Terrazza Santo Stefano.
Great Culinary Tradition
One activity that is most definitely available year-round is eating. Mouthwatering Puglian cuisine is to die for. Wonderful multi-generational tavernas, bars and bakeries abound with traditional home-cooked fare like mamma used to make. Cooking classes run from family homes are a great way to spend a low season afternoon. Local specialties include ‘orecchiette’ an ear-shaped pasta served with turnip tops, garlic and ricotta cheese; lemon custard pie from Lecce; the freshest seafood; and super soft burrata cheese handmade from mozzarella and cream. Visit Altamura where renowned bakeries sit side by side with ornate Romanesque architecture. The heavenly scent of hot fresh out of oven focaccia, taralli bread rings or pettole dough balls dipped in local olive oil might be just the finest experience of your low season adventure.