On the road between Casalabate and San Cataldo on the east coast, turn off just beyond Torre Rinalda on one of the many unpaved tracks that peter out where the dunes begin. Clamber over the dunes, find your spot - it’s rarely busy, often just a few sunbathers and a man with a dog - and go into the sea. If it’s windy there are waves, if it’s sunny the sea is warm and turquoise and there is this secret to be discovered: fifty metres off-shore, just below the surface, a sunken wreck. The outer boards of the hull have rotted away but the ribs, the skeleton, are intact. It’s so near to the surface you don’t need special equipment to explore it: just take a deep breath, dive down, cling on to the beams and move from one to the next for as long you can hold your breath. Magic. There’s no marker, but I’ve found it each time I’ve been there.
Google map: bit.ly/MiFDcB
The best place to base yourself in Puglia is a trulli and I think you would be hard pushed to find one more idyllic than Trulli Stella. It's a little off the beaten track and surrounded by farmland, olive groves and locals escaping (from nearby Ceglie) to the country for the weekend. More importantly it has it's own fully equipped outside kitchen and pizza oven and if you like, Maria, the trulli's manager, will visit with her mother, and cook you an amazing meal with enough food to last you for the entire week using ingredients from the garden and the local market.
When you can bring yourself to leave the tranquility of the trulli you are truly spoilt for choice as to where you head. There's the market cafe at Locorotondo where you can pop in for a sweet cake and deliciously strong espresso, before heading into the market to buy more ingredients for cooking those long leisurely lunches in your trulli. You can join the locals doing their morning shopping in nearby St Michele, but be aware you need to be assertive in the bakery queue if you don't want all the good bread to be sold before you get your turn.
A trip to the coast is essential and Villanova di Ostuni has some of the best local beaches: crystal clear waters, acres of white sand and a sweet marina where you can choose between a glass of icy cold rose at the local bar or a gelato on the other side of the square.
The white washed, hill top town of Cisternino is not to be missed; head to Pizzeria Da Angelo for some delicious wood fired pizza, sitting down to eat among the local teenagers, young families and grandparents alike. Take a stroll after dinner to listen to music playing in the piazza, or come back during the day to explore its warren of back streets and alleyways.
Finally no trip to Puglia is complete without participating in the evening passeggiata and there is no place better for this than Martina Franca with its mixture of shops and wonderful architecture. Sit with a glass of beer in the main square and absorb the wonderfully convivial spectacle.
Santa Maria al Bagno is a beautiful little town on the Ionian coast. The seafront is compact and low key, fronted by old Italian town houses-cum-waterfront cafés. Here you can pick up a gelato or an Africano (espresso with Disaronno, fizzy water and ice) for the tiny but perfectly formed beach. The beach gets busy, especially at weekends but is a fantastic spot for people watching as the crowds are an eclectic mix of bronzed locals, young and old.
I’d recommend spending the afternoon swimming in the crystal clear sea and wait to watch the sun begin to set into the sea before heading south a few miles down the coastal road towards Lido Conchiglie to the fish restaurant, La Maruzella. This restaurant sits right on the water's edge and you can watch the sun disappear into the sea while enjoying their wide range of basic but delicious and incredibly fresh fish dishes (sometimes you can watch the fisherman arrive at the restaurant’s jetty with their catch and see it on your plate 30 minutes later).
We stayed at the wonderful beachside Riva di Ugento campsite on the Ionian side of the Salento Peninsula. A grasp of Italian comes in useful and there were no other English campers at the site when we stayed there last August. You'll have the large oval pool to yourself most of the time if you wish, as the Italians spend all their time sunning themselves on the beach or cooking long lunches in their family encampments under the trees. And what better, as not for nothing are the beaches in this part of Italy dubbed 'Les Maldives'!
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