The brilliant white town of Ostuni has attracted visitors for centuries but has always been considered a little off the beaten track. That all looks set to change.
Down on Italy’s heel, Puglia has never been on most people’s holiday radar although popular with Italian families who come here to relax, eat good simple food and generally get away from it all. A sort of antidote to la bella figura. It has a chequered history, either being fought over by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Longobards, Arabs and Normans, or simply being left to its own, mainly agricultural, devices. Now, Puglia has seen dramatic growth as a potential southern counterpart of Tuscan Chiantishire, fuelled by Ryanair’s cheap flights to Bari and Brindisi, the lure of its incredible architecture and unique, vibrant culture.
The dramatic conical stone trulli are the region’s visual icons, thought to have been developed for tax evasion in the 16thC so that owners could dismantle their taxable structures, leaving only a pile of limestone for the King’s agent to evaluate. In 1797 the tax laws were eased but the trullo continued, latterly strengthened into permanent homes by mortar between the stone. A visit to Alberobello will help you to decide if you love them or if the sight of hundreds of trulli packed over two hills is just too much. Puglia is also home to some of the most Baroque architectural flourishes you are likely to see anywhere in Italy — Lecce is nicknamed ‘Florence of the Baroque’ — and even the smallest towns can throw the biggest surprises. And you won’t be jostling with hordes of tourists, this place is a bit of a traveller’s secret.
Ryanair flights arrive in the evening, so we drove straight for Ostuni along the fast but rather dull E55, stopping at La Vela in Villanova for delicious, and inexpensive, sea bass (spigola) and sea bream (orata). One is supposed to approach Ostuni in the blinding sunlight, but we arrive late at the gleaming white town, perched on its steep hill, the winding road guarded by a giant, neon-lit crucifix, and duly set off the alarm while fumbling with the door keys. Ostuni is a stunner. Established in the 1stC AD, the old town is almost too good to be true: it is an idealised fusion of cobbled alleys winding through whitewashed houses, charming 15thC cathedral, and buzzing social scene, centered on Colonna di S. Oronzo, a fine 18thC obelisk, at the Piazza della Libertà. Ostuni’s lofty position must beckon the countryside because everyone seems to be meeting up, young and old.
The restaurants are very good (try Vecchia Ostuni, just off Piazza della Libertà, Ristorante Porta Nova, via G. Petrarolo 38, or L’Osteria del Tempo Perso, via Tanzarella 47), and the bars do actually echo with laughter. Although you won’t come to Puglia just for the shops, Ostuni is surprisingly well stocked, from lingerie to power tools. The nearby beaches aren’t world-class, but there’s lots of sand and a refreshing breeze during the summer heat. Torre Guaceto has 7km of beach fronting a 1000 hectare nature reserve. Rosa Marina is good for wind surfing, canoeing and boogie boarding. If you feel in need of some serious relaxation try the Torre Canne thermal spa. The spring water is good for arthritis, and I’m told they do an excellent cellulite body massage.
We go exploring the next day and are instantly seduced. I’m sure all the holiday guides use the word ‘rugged’ a lot, but that doesn’t quite capture the earthiness you find here, nor the sense of history behind the crumbing trulli and sun-faded paintwork. Ancient olives trees are abundant and there are very strict rules about tampering or moving them, even on your own land. This has been for centuries a cultivated land, centered on agriculture and the populace are refreshingly down to earth and welcoming, with few airs or graces and a fondness for fun.
During the summer the area is practically over-run with celebrations, both religious and secular, fairs, festivals and concerts, many doing the rounds from one town to the next. We visit Pascarosa, which can’t have more than a dozen houses but has its own festival in August. An evening walk through lovely little Ceglie is a delight. We watch the piazza being dressed with bunting for the next festival (which features local ballroom dancing) when we are intercepted by Mimmo, proprietor and musician at Trattoria Messapica, just off the piazza. We are persuaded, and sit down to a succession of dishes served one after another, while the young clientele sing Italian songs. Some time around dessert, pretty much the whole restaurant is dancing with each other, and with the aged waiter, while Mimmo presides over his accordion. A more active nightlife can be found at Capitolo, on the coast just south of Monopoli, which has good night clubs and bars, generally coming to life after 9pm and stay open until 4-5am. Entrance is often free but drinks can be pricey.
Just a few miles inland from Ostuni, Martina Franca is a Baroque architectural confection which makes a good staging post for a tour of the local towns and villages. The Basilica di S. Martino has a fine 18thC façade and there are frescoes by Domenico Carella in the Palazzo Ducale. There is also a large antiques market every 3rd Saturday of the month. From here you can easily reach Locorotondo and Alberobello, or strike further north to Fasano and Monopoli. On the coast just north of Monopoli, Polignano is worth a detour for a spot of lunch (Donna Gina, via Cala Porto 7-9, overlooks the harbour and would also make a romantic choice for dinner).
There are some great oddities here, too. Frederick II of Swabia (nickname Stupor Mundi) built over two hundred fortresses in Puglia, but none weirder than the brooding Castel del Monte, eight tall octagonal towers surrounding an octagonal courtyard, scholars are at a loss to explain its purpose since it has no defensive features. When the sun gets too hot, go underground in the Castellana grottoes near Putignano; 1 or 3km tours, in English and Italian, take you through a spectacular cave system – wear grippy shoes. If you’ve worked up an appetite, a reviving meal with a twist may help: Macelleria di Antonio Soleti in Casalini, between Ostuni and Cistenino, is a butcher combined with a barbeque. Simply choose your cuts of meat and they barbeque it, serving it outdoors on paper plates. And if that’s too red-blooded, the L’Oasi del Riccio (C. da Forcatella just north of Torre Canne) specialises in sea urchins, cracked open and eaten raw with a glass of local wine. Your squeamish companions may choose the excellent seafood alternatives. It’s good value, and very popular with the locals.
It is easy to see why the region has become popular for overseas buyers. Art dealer John Dabney visited Puglia in 2001 after being put off by the astronomical property prices in Tuscany. Instantly smitten and searching for the right location, he was introduced to Bettina Marksteiner and Villa Santoro.
‘They had a combination of the perfect site and the expertise to make it happen on time and within budget, which saved me a great deal of effort. The site was lovely but the trulli needed to be completely rebuilt, stone by stone. This is common, especially with structures over 100 years old. I would strongly advise using local builders and craftsmen; they really know what they are doing.’ It costs £2500-3000 per sq m to restore a typical trullo. ‘Take some time to network in the area; I’ve found the locals very friendly if you attempt a few words of Italian, and it’s good to make as many contacts as you can. Also, find out about local customs. We were comprehensively burgled last winter – I mean, including the sinks – but I’ve now employed a local private security company and feel much more comfortable. The whole project was done in 13 months and I’m delighted with the results and with the bookings!’
Masseria Cupina was built in 1780 by a Taranto nobleman for his only daughter when she fell in love with a local farmer. The house was a ruin, but that didn’t put off Helena Winter who had been looking for a villa in Sardinia but fell in love with Puglia – and the prices were more affordable.
“We found architect Ado Franchini and he did so much to put the project together, including most of the translating! The craftsmen weren’t cheap but were very skilled and, importantly, very reliable. The team was passionate about their restoration work, which required total remodeling, especially the ground floor of the main building which had been for the livestock. The building work took just over a year. We found an agent and had guests staying three months later.”
We think Puglia is one to watch. But don’t wait too long before you visit. The welcome is warm, the food is wonderful and you may find a lot more there than you bargained for.