As I stepped off the aeroplane in Brindisi on my first visit to Puglia, I was immediately struck by the deep blue colour of the Adriatic Sea, which is clearly visible from the airport. Blue skies with a few white puffy clouds greeted me as I climbed onto the bus to take me to the Baroque city of Lecce.
I was then amazed by all the olive trees, which stretched as far as the eye could see, and further. In fact Puglia produces more than half of Italy’s olive oil; more than any other Italian region.
It is also the second largest wine producing area in Italy after the Veneto, with around 14% of total wine production. The wines that come from this dry, sunny, breezy climate are rich and full bodied, with more than 30 Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines available.
Little did I know, on my first visit back in 2011, that this was to be the beginning of a love-affair with an entire region. In fact, the pull of the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot-shape has been so strong, I am planning to move there permanently later this year.
Over several visits, exploring Puglia has been a great pleasure. Now I am going to share with you some of my favourite towns, wines and food.
As you drive down through Puglia, the countryside is mainly flat, except for the Gargano Peninsula in the north, though the Valle d’Itria (Itrian Valley) around Ostuni, Locorotondo and Alberobello consist of the Murgia, a limestone plateau made up of rolling hills dotted with trulli – cone-shaped houses typical of this area – and criss-crossed by dry stone walls, olive groves and vineyards.
After Ostuni, the White City on the hill, the Salento plains begin which stretch down to the southernmost point of Puglia; the tip of the stiletto heel of Italy.
On your journey south, after by-passing the city of Bari, one of the first seaside towns you will see is Polignano a Mare with its horse-shoe shaped bay.
With the blue Adriatic on your left, you will pass by all the wonderful marinas that dot the coast, with Ostuni and the Itrian Valley high on your right hand side.
Circling the beautiful baroque city of Lecce and heading out to the coast, you will arrive in San Cataldo, with its big holiday homes and remnants of its old sea wall…
…while you keep on heading south towards Otranto with its famous beaches.
The coast then becomes more rugged with cliffs plunging towards the sea, interspersed with sandy coves and dotted with fortifications.
Passing the old spa town of San Cesarea………
…..and Castro with its stunning views…….
…you will find yourself arriving at the tip of the stiletto heel of Puglia: Santa Maria di Leuca, where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas collide.
Driving up the west coast along the Ionian Sea you will arrive in the popular town of Gallipoli, with its old fishing village and harbour.
Puglia is an extremely fertile region. As well as olive trees and grape vines, there are also abundant tomatoes, artichokes, aubergines, figs, almonds and wheat fields to be found.
With 800kms of coastline, you can imagine that fish is high on most menus. Seafood restaurants abound. However, meat is eaten in the hills of the Valle d’Itria where sheep are bred.
Foodies certainly won’t be disappointed at the variety of interesting local dishes and wines available. Pastas you will see on every menu are either orecchiette or cavatelli – both small and ear-shaped. Typical dishes from this area are fave e cicorie selvatiche (broad bean purée with wild chicory), orecchiette con polpette (pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs) and bombette (pork meatballs). Of course, one must not forget to try the wonderfully creamy burratina cheese. Accompanied by the local rosato wines, the food flavours are out of this world.
When it’s time for an aperitivo, wherever you go, the snacks are generous and delicious.
The two most popular and widely available wines from Puglia are Salice Salentino and Primitivo.
Salice Salentino is made from the Negroamaro (Italian for black-bitter) grape, which is dry red wine with a spicy, raspberry flavour and is full bodied, though not too acidic.
Richer and more full-bodied is popular Primitivo, with its blackberry taste. The Primitivo grape ripens early and the result is a wine that is fruity and rich. Apparently, it is the same grape as California’s Zinfandel.
Bombino Nero grapes are late ripening and are mainly used to make the delicious rosato wines that I love so much.
Malvasia, usually blended with Negroamaro, is also used for the rosato wines with their hints of raspberry and cherry.
Verdeca, blended with Bianco d’Alessano, is used in the making of the Locorotondo and Martina Franca Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines, made either still or sparkling, and is considered an important indigenous grape in Puglia. Or indeed a fruity Chardonnay, which rarely fails to please.
If you want a perfect holiday, full of sunshine, fresh fish, excellent wines, sandy beaches, blue seas, beautiful towns and scenery, look no further than Puglia down on the stiletto heel of Italy.