Puglia is the heel of Italy’s boot and when you visit this part of the country be prepared to have all your preconceptions of Italy challenged. Puglia was part of the Kingdom of Naples right up to its overthrow by Garibaldi in 1860 and so its cultural and artistic traditions are very different from those of the North. More than that, this region was very isolated from the kingdom’s capital, Naples. Here people were, and indeed still are, fiercely independent. Coastal raids by Arabs and later the Saracens meant buildings on the coast had to be built with defense in mind and so you will see the fortified farmhouses known as masseria. Many of these farmhouses have now been converted into luxurious hotels and agriturismi. Further evidence of the need for defense are the amazing underground oil mills, some dating back to Roman times and earlier.
Even the cuisine here is very different and Pugliese antipasti are a delight. I would suggest ordering antipasti misti della casa – be sure you have a good appetite because a vast array of tasty dishes will arrive at your table.
Comparisons with the North are made even by Italians and the regional capital, Bari, is known as the Milan of the South. While there is certainly some very upmarket shopping in Bari, the cities are on a very different scale. Lecce is often called the Florence of the South; for me this is unfair to both cities. Lecce is a riot of southern Baroque, a style never seen in northern Italy. One of the most famous towns in the region is Alberobello, the town of trulli, in the Valle d’Itria and nearby is Locorotondo with its beautiful centro storico.
Puglia is the second biggest wine-producing region in the country and in the past much of the production was shipped to northern Italy and France to add body to the wines produced there. Things have changed now and Pugliese wines have a growing reputation. The climate here is much hotter than the north and the coastal plains are full of olive groves and vineyards. The grape varieties in Puglia are very different to those further north, a reflection of the climate, so here the names you will find are Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia.
In the north of the region is Castel del Monte, a castle built in the 13th century by Frederick the Second, famous for its eight-sided plan with eight-sided towers at each intersection. It is in this area that you will find one of the DOCG wines of the region, Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva. Riserva is a term used throughout Italy to describe wines of particularly high quality.
Heading south, between the town of Ostuni, known as the White City, and the city of Lecce is a rich area for local wines. We recommend sampling the luscious reds of Salice Salentino, Squinzano and Primitivo di Manduria.