Drifting Through Puglia, Italy’s Heel

Aug. 27, 2019

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. Before Puglia, he was sampling the coastline (and the focaccia di Recco) in Golfo Paradiso.

Puglia, the region of southern Italy in the heel of the boot-shaped country, has been called “the new Tuscany.” Lecce, a Baroque masterpiece of a city built from cream-colored limestone, is often referred to as “the Florence of the South.” It’s not unusual for tourism boards and the travel press to grasp at analogies that bring to mind more familiar destinations as a way to drive traffic to “undiscovered gems.” But comparing Puglia to anywhere else does it a disservice.

Over six days, while making my way up, down and around the heel of Italy, I encountered a place that was far too complex and far too varied — in terms of culture, cuisine, architecture and history — to fit into a catchy tagline.

I have to confess something. I arrived in Bari, the largest city in Puglia, tired — like, a no-amount-of-sleep-could-ever-be-enough kind of tired. It’s happened at a few points during this yearlong trip, seemingly at random. I hit an invisible wall and feel an intense fatigue that’s hard to fight through.

Luckily, in Puglia, I didn’t have to. The slow, hot days lent themselves to the pace of this temporarily laconic traveler. I drifted with the barely perceptible breeze from Bari down to Lecce, then back up to the stunning town of Martina Franca, built on a hill overlooking vineyards and olive trees. I put my lunch orders in the hands of waiters, shrugging, smiling, and agreeing to whatever the first recommendation was.

That’s how I dug into plates of orecchiette with broccoli rabe and fava bean curd with chicory, dishes that clearly were born out of tough times and taste like the surrounding countryside. For lunch, I ate plates of capocollo, a cold pork cut that in Martina Franca is smoked with herbs and almonds. I fell into food comas after each puccia, a pocket-like sandwich stuffed with a variety of different fillings, including, down in Lecce, horse meat.

In a dream state, I drifted across the region, taking back roads that led me down dirt paths to ghost towns and tiny villages where it was hard to find a person under the age of 70. I took exit ramps based on whimsy, making turns toward my best bet for where a beach might be. Often, I was right.

I barely scratched the surface. A country within a country, Puglia requires repeat visits — but this time, it proved ideal for a stop around the midpoint of this journey, where the last thing I wanted was an elaborate, down-to-the-minute itinerary.

Puglia is deservedly known for its 500 miles of coastline; a sandy beach or a rocky shore is usually a short drive away. I heard one name repeated again and again: Polignano a Mare, a quaint seaside town famous for its white-pebble beach that’s framed by cliffs. I went on a weekend and found it too crowded, so I drove just two miles up the coast, to San Vito, where the crowds were thinner and the beach was filled with brightly colored fishing boats, all with an imposing 10th-century abbey as a backdrop.

The first time you see trulli, the traditional conical structures found scattered across the Itria Valley in the heart of Puglia, it’s easy to think you’ve walked into a fantasy movie set. They’re just too charming to be real, with white-washed foundations leading to stone caps that are often painted with religious and astrological symbols. Then you start seeing them everywhere.

The largest concentration of trulli is in Alberobello, where, densely concentrated and dating to the 15th century, they’ve been included on the Unesco World Heritage list. That also means every tourist in Puglia makes their way to see them. (Though theories about their original use vary, many believe they were built either as temporary shelters and storehouses or as permanent structures for agricultural workers.)

I spent an afternoon wandering between the structures there, but found it much more rewarding to stumble upon the rural trulli scattered across the countryside. Best of all, I was able to find a place where I could sleep in the structures, at an unassuming masseria (a farmhouse lodging) outside Martina Franca called Masseria Pozzo Tre Pile. There, the biggest disruption came in the form of a pair of black horses that walked right in front of my own little trullo, out for their morning stroll with the farm’s caretaker.

Talk to a Pugliese for long enough and the subject of horses will invariably come up. Murgese horses, jet-black and hardy, have been bred in this part of Italy for at least 500 years and were valued for their versatility by farmhands and cavalry alike. Today, they seem to serve most of all as a point of pride.

Through a series of chance encounters, I wound up at a farm outside of Martina Franca run partly by the local police force, where they breed the horses. A stern officer, decked out in full uniform, showed off his stock to me, while regaling me with stories of falconers and King Ferdinand V’s favorite horses.

Just a few hours earlier, my departure from the trulli-filled masseria had been delayed as its owner read to me a poem about her own favorite Murgese, a tempermental stallion who was wont to roam the farm after dark, blending into the night sky.

  • A rental car is essential if you’re trying to hit more than just a few of the most popular cities in Puglia. I picked mine up at Bari Airport and from there made my way to Lecce and Martina Franca, with plenty of detours along the way. Try to take as many back-road routes as you can. (Hitting the “Avoid highways” option on Google Maps helps.)

  • In Martina Franca, have at least one meal at a butcher — yes, you read that right. From the counter, you can choose an array of bombettes, sausage-like chunks of pork neck stuffed with a variety of fillings and cooked over hot coals. I particularly liked the solo feast I had at Braceria Valle d’Itria. Prepare for meat sweats.

  • Don’t leave Lecce without a breakfast stop at Caffè Alvino. Yes, it’s touristy, but yes, it’s also very, very good. Order the pasticciotto, a pastry filled with custard, and wash it down with a caffe Leccese, iced coffee with almond milk. Then order seconds.

Some places are worth traveling to just for the sake of geographic novelty, and Santa Maria di Leuca, right at the tip of the heel, where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, is one of them. In just an hour’s drive, you’re transported from landlocked Lecce, where the sun dances across limestone churches and streets paved in marble, to a quiet seaside town. There, the most important moment of the day is sunset, when people climb hundreds of steps to a lighthouse perched 300 feet above the sea.

Idyllic countryside and pristine coast; Baroque majesty and homey hospitality; cuisine that is complex on the taste buds but simple in its preparation. Puglia has a bit of everything, and six days was far too little time to properly digest it all. But it was the ideal opportunity to turn what could have been a sprint into a relaxed amble. Sometimes one’s hazy impressions, disjointed and amorphous, can carry an emotional resonance that will one day draw you back.

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