Amid the hype about Puglia as the "new Tuscany", thanks to Ryanair flights to Bari and Brindisi, Manduria is a typical Pugliese town off the tourist trail through the likes of Alborobello and Ostuni, but within easy distance of both, and also Lecce, the "Florence of the South". A typical Pugliese town, it offers classical history in the shape of the "Fonte Plinano", a well mentioned by Pliny the Elder, archaeological sites highlighting this part of Italy's Grecian influences, a Romanesque cathedral, an old town and ancient Jewish Ghetto unpolished by tourist-traps, but welcoming to the visitor, and wonderful local cuisine in the shape of the typical dish of "Orichette Rape" (ear-shaped pasta with broccoli) and "Primitivo di Manduria", rustic red wine. Only 10km away is the Ionian coast. A worthwhile trip off Puglia's beaten track.
Walking through the historical centre of Lecce is a unique experience. The central square 'Piazza Sant 'Oronzo' is on a Roman amphitheatre, part of which is still uncovered and visible from the piazza. Within walking distance from here can be found the Chiesa Santa Croce: one of the most beautiful examples of southern baroque buildings, with its picturesque pattern of statues on limestone. A few yards away again it opens up the breathtaking monumental Piazza Duomo: a sequence of building creating a theatre-like space formed by the cathedral, the Bishop's Palace and the bell tower. Walking on the piazza you cannot help but feel you are entering one of the most beautiful corners of the Italian architectural landscape.
Santa Maria al Bagno is a beautiful little town on the Ionian coast. The sea front is compact and low key, fronted by old Italian town houses which double as 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.
I’d recommend spending the afternoon swimming in the crystal clear sea and as the sun begins to set head south a few miles down the coastal road towards Lido Conchiglie to one of the fish restaurants (one is called La Maruzella). These restaurant sit 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). Bring a phrase book!
Via Cristoforo Colombo (lido conchiglie), Sannicola,
Google map: bit.ly/MsTqIW
Whatever your itinerary in Puglia will be, don’t miss out this town. It is a real gem cast on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic sea. You can have a cheap and delicious ice cream at Il Super Mago del Gelo topped up with coffee whipped cream and hazelnuts praline or a pricey and succulent dinner at Donna Gina listening to the waves crushing on the bay. Now that you have satisfied your appetite head into the old town and reach one of the terraces while reading about the poetry of 'Guido il Flaneur' painted on the old houses’ walls, because this must be the place.
A visit to Old Gallipoli, perched above the glittering Ionian Sea on the Salento peninsula will not disappoint. The unpropitious approach, across the dusty plains of southern Puglia and through the slightly sprawling newer suburbs, leads you across a narrow causeway to the island-like Old Town. Climb up the steps and take a circular walk along the ‘riverias’ that surround the town, looking out to sea or down to the sandy beaches backed by the distinctive 'ombrellone' pines and boats in the harbour. For cool respite from the heat descend to the museum of the Frantoio Ipogeo, one of many olive oil presses set in the rock below the streets. The Puglia region is reportedly Italy’s largest producer of olive oil and if you have only ever seen the olive trees of northern Italy or Tuscany you will be bowled over by the magnificence of the Pugliese olive groves. Olive oil from Puglia was shipped all over Europe from Gallipoli as lamp fuel, long before it became the culinary ‘must have’ that we know today. Potter around the quirky Museo Civico with its displays of artefacts and shark bones. And don’t miss the superlative ‘Granite Limone’ from the cafe in the Piazza del Duomo.
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.
One of the loveliest towns in Puglia with a perfectly shaped harbour, surrounded by relaxed cafes ideal for a mid afternoon aperitif and a stunning cathedral, from which crusaders left for Jerusalem. It's almost a pastiche of what southern Italian small towns should be like, it's that idilic!
Google map: bit.ly/PdnxIN
Stay near Alberobello at the Chiusa di Chietri. As well as the excellent restaurant and pool, you can choose to stay in a genuine trulli house which is part of the hotel grounds.
The atmosphere is enhanced by the local weddings held there (judge the amount of money they cost by the size of the fireworks!
Visit Craco, an abandoned hill town that you can climb all over.
Matera is fascinating (used for fiming The Passion of the Christ).
Don't miss out Lecce, if not for the Roman ruins, for the relaxing and shady park and the fabulous Gelateria Natale!
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