Putting Puglia on the map
Reading time: 12 minutes
Puglia, pronounced 'pool-ya' or 'a-pool-ya' (Apulia) if you want to say it like the Italians, is in southeastern Italy. 6 provinces make up the region known for its sun, architecture and glorious coastline. In fact, its 800 kilometres of glistening coastline stretching along the Adriatic and Ionian Sea, is only less than fellow Italian regions, Sicily and Sardinia.
4 million people live in Puglia, but only a quarter of them live in the region's big towns. Instead, the locals love country-living and live in small communities, which is a big reason why Pugliese culture is the way it is.
Diving into this coastal beauty
Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence. When you think of Italy, these cultural behemoths will most likely come to mind. And this is exactly why you should explore Puglia instead. It’s an unadulterated slice of Italy that most foreign tourists have yet to discover. In fact, that’s why it’s such a popular destination for Italians themselves, who flock here during the August break. So, we recommend visiting in May, June or September instead. The sun is shining and the crowds are small.
It’s a region of small communities that dot the countryside and coastline. So, a well-spent week or two will involve hopping from one charming village to another with plenty of beach breaks in between.
Places you shouldn’t miss: Alberobello and the wider Valle d’Itria region for the iconic trulli houses (read on to find out more), the beautiful White City of Ostuni, Polignano a Mare for its picture-perfect clifftop setting, Salento for paradisiacal beaches and Matera for its incredible history (which we also explore further on).
Beyond the sights, food is as good as it gets here! Especially cheese. Making and tasting it at a masseria (a sort of fortified farmhouse) is a must. As is wine tasting at an organic farm. I Pàstini in Martina Franca is particularly good. We tuck into a typical Pugliese day of eating further down, so warm up those taste buds.
Rising high above the vast plateau of the lower Murgia, Ostuni seems straight out of a fairytale
Good to know
Very few Italians in Puglia speak English (even in the big cities), so come with a handy phrasebook.
With 800 kilometres of coast to explore and limited public transport, hiring a car is highly recommended.
Search well in advance for accommodation with WiFi as there are so few of them. Or, be prepared for phone reception to be choppy, if at all existent. Not that you’ll be spending much time on your phone!
What makes Puglia, Puglia?
1. The trulli* incredible architecture (*sorry)
No one knows for sure how Alberobello’s iconic little houses came to be. But, the most widely accepted story involves an old king and taxes. In the 17th-century, construction of stable dwellings was highly-taxed by the then King of Naples, Ferdinand IV. So, the ingenious locals came up with the idea of the trulli - temporary houses that could be dismantled at short notice, particularly when the tax inspector came calling. The simple dry stone huts are made from limestone slabs stacked on top of each other to form conical roofs. Despite the lack of mortar (so they easily be taken down), the structure is surprisingly stable.
Alberobello was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996
These days they’re very much a permanent fixture. Because of rising costs, they stopped building trulli in the 20th century. The remaining 1,500 are now used as stores, restaurants, and lodging, and many are still inhabited by locals. And guess what? You can stay in one too! I mean, just look at how cute they are on Airbnb.
2. Matera, the city that went ancient civilisation to slum to hidden gem
The trulli isn’t the only unique architectural style in Puglia. Okay, technically it’s in the neighbouring Basilicata region, Matera and its cave dwellings sit right on the border with Puglia.
Its striking architecture has made it a favourite for the film industry, particularly standing in as a double for ancient Jerusalem. It also features in the James Bond film slated for the end of this year.
Inside one of Matera’s rupestrian churches. The 9th-century frescoes depict scenes from the Old and New testaments.
Matera is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in history
But, much more interesting than its film exploits, is its history. Once labelled the ‘shame of Italy,’ the ancient warren of natural caves in Matera may be Europe’s most dramatic story of rebirth. First occupied in the Paleolithic Age (9,000 years ago), the myriad of caves were gradually burrowed deeper and expanded into living spaces by peasants and artisans throughout the classical and medieval eras.
But, in the 1950s, the government grew concerned about the living conditions in Matera. Author Carlo Levi described what he had found there:
“The town’s prehistoric cave dwellings had by then become “dark holes” riddled with filth and disease, where barnyard animals were kept in dank corners, chickens ran across the dining room tables, and infant mortality rates were horrendous, thanks to rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery.”
So, the entire population of roughly 16,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were relocated to new housing projects in an ill-conceived program, leaving Matera and its Sassi (the two regions of cave complexes in the city) an empty shell. The ancient laneways became overgrown and decrepit. Soon the Sassi gained a reputation for crime, attracting drug dealers, thieves and smugglers.
Storica Casa Grotta has been assembled with original tools and typical local furniture, to give visitors a clear idea what it was like to live in a cave
The tide began to turn in the early 1980s when the first government archaeologists arrived. A few years later, they had secured protection and funding for the site. Then, in 1993, UNESCO listed the Sassi as a World Heritage Site, calling it:
“The most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”
The city authorities began offering 30-year leases at nominal cost to tenants who agreed to renovate the caves, under the supervision of conservation experts. The first cave hotels opened soon after. Today, around 3,000 people live in the Sassi and about half of the dwellings are occupied. There’s even one cave complex that’s occupied by a computer software company with 50 employees!
If you find yourself in Puglia, you have to visit Matera. Go see the cave complexes for yourself and learn more about the people that lived there for thousands of years. We highly recommend exploring the two Sassis with a knowledgeable local guide.
A cheesemaker perfects his ricotta in modern day Matera
3. It's slow living lifestyle
Lunches are a long, leisurely affair. Afternoon siestas are sacricant. Groups of old men play cards in the late afternoon sun. And it’s illegal to drive a car through the centre of most villages. Life in Puglia is slow. No one is in a rush, and it feels great.
And unlike our busy cities, the locals here have time to chat. It’s not uncommon for nonnas (grandmothers), each sporting identical haircuts, to wander over and introduce themselves. The locals are a friendly bunch and love to chat. So, even if you don’t speak Italian, you’ll be exchanging smiles and having conversations in charades style.
The nonnas in Puglia are so friendly and warm, and they make the BEST pasta rolled by hand
4. The food is divine (shock)
No deep-dive of a culture would be complete without talking about it’s relationship with food. Every one of us needs to eat to survive. But, just like the rest of Italy, to the Pugliese it’s so much more than that.
Given its coast, it’s no surprise that the seafood is delicious. So, make sure you enjoy some freshly caught fish in one of the cliffside villages. Tiella di Riso Patate e Cozze is a tasty and super original dish from Bari. It’s a baked rice dish with mussels and potato, and flavoured with onions, tomatoes and courgette. It may not be the prettiest of dishes, but tastes so damn good. Most restaurants in Puglia will offer it.
The olive oil here is also incredible! Did you know Puglia is home to over 50 million olive trees? Many are centuries old! In fact, such is their fame, that Puglia needed to enact laws to deter people from other parts of Italy coming down, digging them up, and taking back to plant them on their land. So, it’s now illegal to dig up a tree from Puglian soil. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Take the more legal route of bringing a big bottle of olive oil home with you instead.
There are 12 olive trees for every person in Puglia
And oh my, the cheese is good. If we had to pick, these are our favourite four:
Stracciatella - shreds of mozzarella from water buffalo’s milk, mixed with fresh cream to form a rich, creamy and buttery texture. It can be served with almost anything.
Ricotta - fresh, soft cheese made from sheep/cow/goat/water buffalo's milk. Almost curd like, it’s made by reheating whey and is slightly sweet and creamy. It’s usually served with Castagnaccio (plain chestnut flour cake) and Panini di Sant'Antonio (a sort of sweet bread roll).
Rich and creamy stracciatella
Burrata - okay, this one you might know. The famous tender ball of cheese originates in Puglia and reveals its buttery inside when you slice it open. Looks similar to mozzarella, but is usually drizzled with olive oil and served with warm or toasted homemade bread. If you’re feeling particularly extravagant, you could pile it on top of your pizza. Yum.
Canestrato Pugliese - a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. It’s actually one of the most prized products of the region. Made only between December and May at altitudes of 250 to 700 metres, which are perfect for sheep farming. When matured, it has quite a sharp flavour making it suitable for grating.
Burrata: Mouth. Won’t. Stop. Watering.
With it’s slow living culture, you’ll spend a lot of your day in Puglia sitting at an outside table with a view. Here’s what we recommend you order. You’re on a break, you deserve it.
Breakfast: An easy choice. Pasticciotto. This crumbly oval crust pastry from Lecce is filled with egg custard and sour cherries, and tastes as good as it is bad for you.
Wine: So what, it's 11am. Order a glass of Pugliese wine. Our favourites include Primitivo di Manduria (a bold red), Nero di Troia (a secret gem of a red), Negroamaro (a deep red with an earthy bitterness) and Castel del Monte Aglianico (a sweet red). To accompany your wine, get some Taralli. These moreish snacks are a circular cracker, similar in texture to a pretzel.
Lunch: If you’ve already sampled the tasty Tiella di Riso Patate e Cozze, try some octopus! Purpu alla Pignata is an ancient recipe from Salento and owes its origin to the seafaring culture of this part of Puglia. The octopus is cooked with tomato, potatoes, onion, celery, and carrots in the ‘pignata’, an earthenware clay pot suitable for long, slow cooking. It’s delicious.
Dinner: Start off with an Acquasala Salad made of torn stale bread soaked in olive oil and tomato juices. It’s a simple dish, so the quality of Pugliese ingredients really shines through. Then we eat pasta. And lots of it. Order a big bowl of Orecchiette, a local pasta that looks like a small ear. Typically rolled by hand, it’s still a common sight to see old nonnas lovingly make it fresh every morning on a table outside their home. Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa (with broccoli rabe) is a local favourite that pairs beautifully with a glass of Primitivo or Aglianico wine. Then, for dessert, what else when in Italy, Gelato. Like ice cream, but lower in fat. It omits the extra air whipped into ice cream, so is denser, smoother and richer. Plus it tends to be served a degree or two warmer.
Ordering a bowl of Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa is a must
Do as the Italian’s do: Explore Puglia
Puglia holds a special place in our hearts. In fact, Megha, our wonderful Chief Trip Designer, recently went in September 2020:
“Puglia is a part of Italy that is so very, well, Italian. Imagine what Italian towns would have been like 20 to 30 years ago. You can experience that in Puglia today. The locals live by the ‘La Dolce Vita’ motto and when you’re here, you do too. We explored the trulli houses, had our minds blown by Matera, ate twice what we usually would and enjoyed plenty of sunsets by the beach. Oh, and if you want to taste actual magic, try some fresh burrata after seeing it get lovingly made in a local masseria.”
Part of the Journee mission is sending people to places they wouldn’t have picked themselves, but end up falling in love with. So, when Sasha said this after we sent her to Puglia in 2019, we couldn’t have been happier.
“I would have never thought of going there myself. Puglia is my new favourite place and I'll definitely go back!”
Glistening coastline. Fairytale villages. Cute trulli. Matera's incredible cave dwellings. Rustic food. Gooey cheeses. Blissful organic wines. Slow living. Pasta nonnas. And now, hopefully, you.