People tend to talk about Puglia as if it’s just one place—the heel of Italy’s boot, a place of ancient olive trees, whitewashed masserie, the domed little hobbit homes called trulli. It’s a place that celebrates family, slow living and long lunches under the Adriatic sun.
That vision isn’t wrong, but it leaves a lot out. The region stretches out over more than 250 miles and is home to 4 million people. It’s an area that encompasses a great deal of diversity. People in Lecce will tell you that they’re from Salento, not Puglia, and say that their dialect is more like Sicilian.
Ten years ago, Puglia was an up-and-coming destination, still a bit rough around the edges and without the refined grandeur of Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast. Since then, tourism has blossomed, but in a generally sane way. And even though Four Seasons has announced plans for a resort in Puglia and Rocco Forte is already there, the place still feels genuine.
“There’s no overemphasis on hospitality, but real feeling,” says Antonello Losito, the Pugliese president and founder of Southern Visions Travel, an agency dedicated to showing visitors the best of southern Italy. “Since it’s not a strain, we do what we do. We’re driven by passion (not to show off) and pride being Apulian.” (He’s using an Anglophone name for the region, Apulia.)
The region was “disregarded until 15 or 20 years ago,” he continues. But “Apulians have recently seen the appreciation in foreigners’ eyes, thus giving us the opportunity to value ourselves and where we come from. And to share the beauty with others.”
At the same time, “not all the places have seen the potential and impact that tourism can bring. There’s no long-term vision, in a way, but on the other hand, they’re preserving their real essence with no transformation.”
That’s especially true of Salento, the southernmost part of the peninsula. Tourism is still nascent in the city of Lecce, once a wealthy metropolis because of its role in the lamp oil trade. My guide called it the “Florence of the South” and the “Athens of Puglia.” Now a university town with a bohemian site, the city is unique for its Baroque architecture, its buildings decorated with stone carvings of angels, flowers, animals and pomegranates.
It’s a city of many churches, reflective of the 31 religious orders that had a place there. The bell tower of the Duomo dates from 1682, and facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce is wonderfully intricate, a collaboration between many 17th-century architects. The main square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, is a mix of architectural styles, including modern buildings and remains of a 2nd-century Roman amphitheater that once seated 250,000 people for gladiator flights.
The area is still “quite far behind Itria Valley when it comes to high-end travelers,” says Losito, referring to the most famous, central part of Puglia. “The socio-economic cultures in the two areas, though very close, are quite different, and this surely has an impact on the development.” That said, some high-end hospitality is taking root.
Pollicastro is a new 12-room boutique hotel inside a 16th-century Renaissance palace, with original stonework, sinuous chandeliers and a sumptuous marble bathtub in the Octagonal Suite. The decoration reveals the owners’ previous family business: furniture, clothing and textiles. Nearby, the new Palazzo Luce is the passion project of art collector Anna Maria Enselmi, equal parts hotel and art gallery, with a special emphasis on the work of Gio Ponti.
Even deeper into Salento, Galatina is known for its beautiful, heavily frescoed Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, and nearby Gallipoli a fishing village that “has remained pure (somehow rough),” says Losito. While the city suffered from mass tourism and positioning as a party destination for youth, “huge efforts have been taken to change this direction and highlight the history and culture.”
The easiest way to appreciate that culture is through food. That’s why Southern Visions arranged for me to take a cooking class with Anna Maria Chirone Arnò in her atelier above a housewares shop. She trained a Cordon Bleu in Rome but is more interested in showing people the most traditional food from the region: olive oil-drenched foccacia, orecchiette with broccoli rabe, and pan-fried fresh fish from the nearby market. I’m much better at eating than cooking, and my attempts at forming the ear-shaped pasta failed, but Arnò promised that even I could learn to do it after a week of cooking with her.
Quite a ways away, Monopoli is another fishing village that has taken on a different character, or, as Losito says, “undergone a transformation that turned it into a ‘cool’ place to visit.” The town is known for its whitewashed buildings and fish restaurants along the waterfront. Its five-star boutique hotel Don Ferrante occupies an old fortress in front of the sea, with some of the residential-style suites in a discreet town house nearby.
And then there’s the part of Puglia that’s more widely known: the olive groves and masseria hotels of the Itria Valley, the white city of Ostuni and the famous trulli of Alberobello. “Even though the society is getting more and more frenetic, the values here are not being uprooted,” says Losito.
At the same time, towns like Ostuni and nearby Locorotondo are getting fresh energy, says Southern Visions vice president Alison Pike. “It used to be that everyone wanted to get out, but now young people are coming back home,” often with the experience and perspective gained from working in a big city. We have all the ingredients here. Now people have the courage to have their own voice. The restaurants are getting better, braver and bolder.”
Aside from sharing a hefty “aperitivo” at a riverside restaurant and calling it lunch, or sampling the fresh mozzarella made by a local farmer, the best way to explore the region is slowly, on foot or by bicycle. Southern Visions guide Max Tenuta says a highlight for some of his North American guests is picking fruit from the trees along the walking paths and not worrying that the property owners might be armed.
Cycling guide Silvia Como goes even further. “What’s special about Puglia is that people like tourists,” she says. “It’s part of the heritage, since so many people were always passing through. Tourism is growing but it’s not dominant.
“There’s a genuine hospitality,” she continues. “It’s not like Venice where the quality has gone down and the prices have gone up because everything is for tourists. Everything here is for the locals too. The owners know they can’t mess with the quality.”