Words by Nardia Plumridge & Photographs by Renae Smith
One of the joys of travelling through Italy is its diversity. From snow-capped northern Alps to turquoise southern beaches, it couldn’t be more poles apart. But what makes this country so fascinating is that it’s not just the landscape that changes, it’s the culture too.
Puglia is the region occupying the heel of the Italian boot. Reaching the Ionian Sea to the south and running along the Adriatic Sea to the east, it borders Molise, Campania and Basilicata. A long, thin land with six provinces, what it lacks in powerhouse cities like Rome or Milan it makes up for with medieval villages, remote beaches, quaint fishing towns, farmland and run-down fortresses. Welcome to the jewel of the south.
To understand Puglia, you have to delve into its history, shaped by Mycenaean Greeks, Ancient Romans, Byzantines, Normans and the powerful Kingdom of Naples. And to truly feel Puglia, you must travel around its coast, exploring its rugged beaches, barren central landscape and whitewashed towns.
Leaving the port town of Brindisi - its industrial feel isn’t a reflection of the rest of the region - you encounter Puglia’s flat landscape, lined with pine trees and kilometres of white sandy beaches that stretch south along the Adriatic Sea towards Lecce.
With its elegant laneways and Baroque architecture, Lecce is one of Puglia’s most popular destinations. A walled town dating back, so legend has it, to the time of the Trojan Wars, it was ruled by Emperor Hadrian and today is a 17th century spectacle rebuilt in Baroque fashion. Largely constructed from local limestone, for which this area is famed, it is a glittering gem of a town where, at every turn, there is another building to behold. Such architectural beauty has led some people to refer to Lecce as the ‘Florence of the South’, yet to compare isn’t accurate or fair, for Lecce has a magnificence all its own.
Driving through Galatina towards Gallipoli you pass countryside filled with olive groves that make up much of the farmland. Olive oil is one of the region’s biggest exports and in the 18th century this part of Puglia became the largest olive oil market in the Mediterranean. The fortress town of Gallipoli along the west coast of the Salentina Peninsula is built on a limestone island and linked to the mainland by a 16th century bridge. Having held great economic power due to its geographical position, today Gallipoli is a magical seaside haven with quiet laneways that nip and dive around residential buildings.
Heading off the main roads, the sound of the locals’ Italian chatter lingers as you walk by their open windows and in the distance the gentle roar of a Vespa fills the air - then you turn a corner to see the breathtaking Ionian Sea. Surrounded by 14th century walls (renewed by the Spaniards in the 16th century), the Baroque architecture of Gallipoli is its main attraction - the façade of its grand 17th century Cattedrale di Sant’Agata was created by Giuseppe Zimbalo, who was also responsible for Lecce’s Basilica di Santa Croce. Fishing is also big business with a seafood market open daily from six until nine in the morning at the walls by the old castle where you can buy the local specialty gamberi rossi (sweet red shrimp) that is so fresh it is eaten raw.
The coastline in this area of Italy remains untouched in many parts with roads running alongside the white powdery sand and azure sea. Driving along the south west coast on the smaller SP roads it’s easy to reach the very tip of Puglia - and therefore Italy - at the village of Santa Maria di Leuca. Founded in the early 1st century and taking its name from the Greek Leucasia, meaning white beautiful mermaid, it is where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet, the De Finibus Terrae (End of the Land). Up a 284 step staircase from the town is Santurario di Leuca, a Christian church built on the site of a former Roman temple dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, offering stunning views away from Italy towards Africa.
If Lazio has the history of Rome, Tuscany the art of Florence and Veneto the canals of Venice, Puglia has the trulli of Alberobello; stone huts with conical roofs. This central part of the region, the Itria Valley, is full of quaint hilltop towns glowing white from using the local limestone, the most mesmerising being Martina Franca and Ostuni. Here the landscape changes, becoming more rugged, and then the trulli appear. These temporary shelters acted as storehouses or permanent homes for labourers and their families; simple drystone structures popular in the 19th century, the circular buildings look as if they are drawn from a Tolkien novel. The design was created to avoid taxes - the roof can be easily dismantled to avoid hefty fees charged if they were used as homes; when inspectors came to the area, down came the roof. The largest collection of trulli is in the town of Alberobello (meaning beautiful tree) which has over one thousand unique huts. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with many trulli available to stay in overnight, hired out to adventurous travellers.
When meeting locals, there is a real sense of Puglian pride. Ask what makes Puglia a paradise and everyone has a different answer. Some say the energetic sounds of La Tarantella folk music, others swear by the sights of whitewashed towns like Martina Franca, or the touch of Lucchese limestone in Lecce, the smell of sea salt along the Salentina Peninsula or the taste of fresh gamberi rossi and Negroamaro (literally ‘black bitter’), the robust local red wine. Though part of the joy of Puglia is discovering its five senses all for yourself - it may be the ‘end of the earth’ but it’s a unique side to Italy that many don’t see, and its rustic charm and diversity make it even more special.
This article first appeared in our Italy magazine all those years ago. While that mag is now sold out, you can nab other back issues here.
Meanwhile Nardia Plumridge has created a glorious new book all about the wonders of Florence. Order your copy - and you really, really should - by clicking here. You can learn more about her other ventures here too.