How about this for a perfect day out with three children: we rented Assunta Maria, accommodation with a delightful mix of old meets new, with a very modern lamia and traditionally restored Trulli - which keeps cool in the sun so it is brilliant for when the children need shade from the pool.
Head early to ZooSafari in Fasano and make sure your first stop is the Monkey Train. You sit in cages(!) as passengers on a train and you head into the monkey reserve. The monkey's then crawl all over the cages, right above your head and squawk at you until you feed them monkey nuts! The kids are either roaring with laughter or stunned into silence with fear.
Chill out in the afternoon by joining the old men in Ceglie Messapica town square, walking up and down, repeatedly, until those stomach's start rumbling and Aldo's Pizza is just round the corner - the best Pizza in Italy (says my 5 year old nephew Huey - and he is always right!)
Assunta Maria is just outside of Ceglie Messapica:
+44 (0)1386 710630
ZooSafari is in Fasano:
Via dello Zoosafari, 72015 Fasano Brindisi, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/RGxaAu
Aldo's Pizza is just outside Ceglie Messapica's town square
An amazing little family run restaurant below ground off one of the main routes to the piazza. We found this looking for a late lunch, were warmly welcomed by the two brothers for whom English was as much of a challenge as Italian was/is to us. We were offered hot or cold lunch and opted for hot. We were treated to course after course of anti pasti including sea food, olives, breads, sausage etc. mid way through this we decided there would be no 'primi piatti" only to be surprised by a steaming bowl of simple but beautiful orecchiette. Lovely wine, and friendly patrons all keen to help out in their pidgin English. A wonderful happy accident finding this place, and two years later we still laugh thinking about it all. Should have been called "Serendipity"!
Vico VI Orto Nannavecchia
Trulli are typical of the region, circular limestone buildings with a conical roof, each slightly different, kind of resembling a Moor's turban from an Aladdin film. They are dotted around the area, and come in different levels from basic to luxury. Rent one near Ostuni (The White City), only about 10km from the crystal Adriatic, visit different villages for dinner every night from Locorotondo (great outdoor club called Mavu) to a meat feast at Ceglie Messapica, or passegiata at Martina Franca. But maybe best of all is to go to the market in the morning to buy fresh Buratta, Altamura bread, Primitivo wine and orechiette. I'm dreaming again ...
Most people barely give Bari a backwards glance as they disembark from the boat in the main port and head to more aesthetically pleasing places such as Lecce, Polignano or Otranto. I think this is rather unfair; it may not be big on monuments, art and beautiful buildings like Florence or Rome, but there are few tourists, so you can shop, eat and drink among the local 'Baresi', and get a feel of the real 'Italy'.
Go to 'Da Donato' pizzeria on via Lattanzio. This is a family-run place and very popular - it gets so busy on a weekend night, you either have to go 'early', ie around 8pm, or book a table. The service is friendly, relaxed and professional, and as far as I can remember there is no English menu, so bring your phrase book! As you'll see from the pictures on the walls, it's popular with footballers from the local club, but prices don't reflect that - three to nine euros for a pizza (go for buffalo mozzarella and courgette flowers when in season). However, you may not have room for one after their legendary antipasti! (Tip: order one antipasti per couple - it's big!) Free sweets and a local speciality of sugared 'taralli' will then be passed around in giant bowls. Round it off with an espresso or amaro.
There are so many beautiful places in Puglia, and definitely visit these, but give Bari at least a day of your trip. With true Baresi food there shouldn't be a 'spaghetti carbonara' or 'hawaian pizza' in sight!
It's a hotel in a cave! The Sassi in Matera is a UNESCO world heritage site, a stunning collection of cliff side cave dwellings with ornate carved stone frontages. Best viewed from the ravine opposite the town, the scene is positively biblical. Indeed, Mel Gibson used the Sassi as Jerusalem's double in The Passion of the Christ, but don't let that put you off.
The area was run down and basically a slum until the 70s, but the last ten years have seen the unique charms of the Sassi finally receiving their dues. And the jewel in the crown is Le Grotte della Civita, a boutique hotel where Philippe Starck bathtubs stand proudly in bare limestone caves, the sparseness of the setting is uniquely romantic, artistic and beautiful. The breakfasts are delicious as well, and it's a brilliant spot from which to explore the vast charms of Italy's most neglected region.
I thoroughly recommend picking one of the small, whitewashed hill-top towns in the beautiful Valle d'Itria area of Puglia as an exploration base. I happened to pick Ceglie Messapica which is known for its excellent regional cuisine. It is less expensive than the better known towns, such as Ostuni or Alberobello but close enough to explore a range of places like Martina Franca, Cisternino, Locorotondo, Ostuni and Alberobello, as well as the lovely and sandy Torre Canne beach. A car is essential and driving through ancient olive groves with dark red earth dotted with trulli is an absolute pleasure - but make sure you have a satnav!
About 40 min. drive from Brindisi airport.
Google map: bit.ly/TgM6Fe
It's a night of "pizzica" (the typical music of Salento), played both by street performers, professional pizzica musicians, and famous
artists. It is in the centre of Melpignano (which is in itself pretty amazing!) Here is the place to come if you want to dance the night away like a true Italian!
The butchers in this village are open well into the evening and they give you the option to choose the meat you like from their fridge, and they will
cook it for you fresh and then serve it with chips, salad and regional wine; this is something so typical for the region but that no tourists would know to do, I was shown this by a Pugliese friend and would never have discovered it otherwise!
Puglia is great for cycling. Get a flight to Brindisi and head inland, find one place as an HQ and then go for meandering circular rides in the countryside. The coast is a great place for a day trip but the hinterland is more chilled and has less traffic.
One thing to remember: it's a myth that Italians drive like crazy but they do have a habit of giving the car horn a little bib when they are about to overtake cyclists; they do this as a courtesy to let you know that they are coming but at first I kept stopping and looking back to see if there was a problem. Once you've got used to that you'll find Puglia a very safe and relaxing place to go biking.
I'm not a vegetarian but I did notice that there were plenty of tasty vegetable based dishes in this region perhaps in reflection of poorer times when meat was not so readily available. There is an 'old world' feeling to this part of Puglia, which reminds me: if you're over 35 and you just have to wear Lycra shorts, the locals will greatly appreciate it if you put on something a little less revealing before you enter into a cafe or a bar.
I won't suggest a bike route because I believe it's best to just head off aimlessly and see where the road takes you, it's all good.
I've been cycling (aimlessly) around the Brindisi region of Puglia many times and the one place I recommend as a place to stay is a holiday villa called Rustic Puglia near Ceglie Messapica. It is run by a young English couple, Claire and Andy. They run the villa as a separate property while they grow organic fruit and vegetables on the land. This is a great base from which to explore the rolling countryside and nearby ancient towns such as Cisternino and Locorotondo.
I got chatting to a local (well, he was from Milan originally) and he asked if the area reminded me of Ireland and it occurred to me, that with all the stone walls and cottages, it is just like Ireland - but without the rain. The Milanese gentleman suggested a disused aqueduct for cycling along. I still haven't found that aqueduct. Next time perhaps.
+39 327 2398484
Nearest town is Ceglie Messapica, nearest airport is Brindisi.
There is something magical about beaches surrounded by pine forests and Punta della Suina is one of these incredible gems. The sea is classic Salento - calm and so transparent it's unreal. It has stunning views of historical Gallipoli and not many Italians know of its existence. The best strategy is to avoid the lido (expensive and a tad loud) and walk until you find your very own spot - lie down and let the smell of the pines trees fill your lungs...
Otranto is an ancient port on Puglia's Adriatic coastline and the perfect seaside getaway. We booked into the family run Bellavista hotel on the seafront and were given an 'Otranto card' which entitled us to use the city's bikes free of charge. Cycling down to Porto Badisco, a rocky, lagoon like swimming cove, nine kms down the coast, proved a real treat. However there is heaps to enjoy in Otranto itself. The Romanesque cathedral in the old city is full of ghoulish surprises. A medieval monk called Pantaleone clearly had a lot of fun designing the cathedral's mosaic floor which contains a plethora of weird and wonderful pictures from Noah's Ark and Alexander the Great to King Arthur. And after roaming about, exploring Otranto's delightful nooks and crannies (or sitting under the trees on the seafront with a coffee or ice cream) where better to finish off the day than dining on gargantuan portions of pizza and seafood at La Bella Idrussa, which must surely rank as one of the best value restaurants in Puglia. Get there early if you don't want to queue.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 18 73028 Otranto
Google map: bit.ly/QtYLRx
La Bella Idrusa
Via Lungomare Degli Eroi 73028 Otranto Province of Lecce, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/MSzW6S
The jewel in the crown of Puglia is Salento and there are plenty of free things to do. Try the local festivals – my favourites include the snail festival in Cannole, where you can try a plateful of snails as the locals like them – roasted then eaten with salt and cucumber; 'La Notte della Taranta' is a huge free mid-summer traditional musical festival in Melpignano; and if you're around at Easter, try to see Taranto’s Lenten procession, in which penitents wearing very creepy pointed hoods walk barefoot and painfully slowly through the town. The landscape is beautiful – for some of the best, visit ‘the Maldives of Salento’, aka Torre San Giovanni, with perfect white sandy beaches; go to see the ‘caretta-caretta’ (sea turtles) at the Le Cesine nature reserve; and try dolphin spotting in the gulf of Taranto. Finally – some of the most amazing churches: the Cathedral of Otranto has the exquisite ‘Tree of Life’ floor mosaic, said to have inspired Dante’s Divina Commedia, and an alter piece made of the skulls and bones of 800 martyrs slaughtered by Ottoman invaders. In Galatina, you’ll find the beautiful frescoed church of Santa Caterina, which I have a particular affection for, because I got married there …
The best way to reach each of these sites is by car, although Taranto, Otranto and Galatina are also accessible by rail.
This fantastic restaurant was recommended by an Italian friend from Lecce and it is wonderful. The outdoor terraces overlooking the Ionian Sea have a relaxed atmosphere and are busy with local and holidaying Italians. There is no written menu, with the dishes comprising what is available daily - an array of delicious Italian anti-pasti served tapas style, followed by a sea food pasta course, and if you have room, a fish course too. Be warned, the amount of food is huge, and too tasty so avoid over-eating!
Via del Mare, 2, Torre San Gregorio - 73053
Google map: bit.ly/QflZdU
In the heart of the historic centre of Massafra there is a little jewel, the Falsopepe. This vinery and restaurant offers an unusual menu. It will surprise you with its sweet and sour dishes made with simple organic ingredients and lots of imagination.
The terrace with a view over SS Medici piazza and the sea is something that can't be missed. The place is also run by extremely nice staff.
It is a kind of open air pub, however this undervalues its true beauty. The bar is located on the coast, where you can have aperitivo (lots of snacks) with friselle (typical food of Puglia) and elephant beer. It's called Fico d'India because of the prickly pears that surround the place (which is what fico d'India means.) It is in a stunning location in front of a sea cliff with the clearest water you'll have ever seen, and an ancient tower. There won't be another tourist in sight.
Porto Selvaggio, Nardò, Puglia, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/OUr78n
Beautifully converted farm houses in a stunning olive grove 10 minutes from the lovely fortified port of Otranto. Rooms are cool and elegant, private garden and pool in courtyard. Short drive or cycle to Otranto and surrounding secluded rocky coves. Swathes of fresh fruits and pastries for breakfast and unbelievable selection of antipasti and pastas served at lunch.
The butchers in this village are open in the evening as well, customers have the option choose the meat they like straight from the butcher's fridge, and they will cook it for you fresh, with chips, salads and regional wine; really typical way to eat and amazing food!
Google map: bit.ly/NkCD0R
A friend from Bari brought me to this small restaurant just outside Alberobello. From the moment you step inside, it becomes immediately obvious that this is a local fave. They serve good, hearty Pugliese Italian food at affordable prices - think 25 euros per person including wine. In the evenings, this restaurant is packed with locals - some who come all the way from Bari (a 20 minute drive away). I highly recommend their spaghetti alla carbonara, cold cut meat platter and cheese platter.
It is the best Italian restaurant I've ever been to - friendly, authentic, affordable and has a beautiful outdoor patio perfect for summer dinners.
Do be warned, though, that it is closed on Wednesdays and it is best to reserve a table before heading over to avoid disappointment.
Located conveniently and in a quiet location just off the main highway at the mid-point of Bari and Brindisi, Borgo San Marco is a Masseria uniquely restored to capture its originality as a small walled enclave. The details are exquisite without being forced or artificial and there is style. Stay on the upper levels and you can sun or read on private roof terraces or swim in the adjacent infinity pool in the gardens. There is also Borgo Aqua, a private wellness centre but it was summer, so our priorities were elsewhere. You are close to Savelletri, Torre Canne and the undeveloped beaches close to Rosa Marina. Eat in or at one of the fabulous sea-side outdoor restaurants on this side of Savelletri, it is a perfect base to explore this region of Puglia and works for couples and families.
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
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