Italy’s best kept secret…. Puglia

This is the heel.  The bottom. The forgotten land. Puglia, a destination rarely on the typical Italy sightseeing itinerary.  This is the striking land protruding between two seas; a land of violet sunsets with hues of cyan, amber, magenta and daffodil combined.  If you can, arrive at sunset.  

The arid vegetation of this place is striking; almost as a desert, yet the pink/white flowers and multi-dimensional cacti portray vivid life on this strip of land “down under”.  Adorned with ancient olive trees, Puglia’s olive groves create a visual fantasy world, like art that dances in one’s imagination.  There are the young plants with high hopes of a bountiful production and the dead trees that, after years of glory, have become nothing more than artistic creations too exorbitant to remove from the land, perhaps for a reason. The grape vines too stand tall as if they own this piece of paradise.  They just belong; the olive trees, the grape vines, the cacti, they all belong in Puglia, where they have majestically dominated the landscape for hundreds of years.  

But what makes Puglia even more magical is that you are never further than one hour from the sea, regardless of where you are in Puglia.  Sea on the right side, sea on the left side.  Most of Puglia’s seashore is dominated by historical clifftop towns, such as Otranto and Monopoli, and others often called Torre something or other.  It’s difficult choosing which Torre to visit in Puglia as they each have their own charm and breathtaking views; just as it is almost impossible to choose the best beach because everyone seems to have a different perspective on the best beach.  It really depends what you like but my personal favourites were Porto Cesareo and Le Maldive del Salento, where the water was comparable to the azure Caribbean beaches.  

Somewhere in the middle of this strip, white houses atop hills adorn the land to create small villages such as Ostuni and Alberobello with its world famous trulli houses.  Typical Pugliese houses are compact, whitewash and with few windows, to maintain cooler temperatures sans air conditioning. Driving through Puglia really feels like going back to a more innocent time, without competition in home sizes, fancy gates or large-scale resorts.  The tranquility of this place lies in its simplicity and authenticity, a pace of life often seen on islands; slower, smoother, more relaxed.  And despite having larger cities like Lecce, with its unique crafts and random churches and ruins, Puglia maintains its charm in all aspects of its landscape.   

Then there was Brindisi, our “home base” which felt just like what it actually means, CHEERS. Brindisi is a “cheers” town through and through. A town that felt like home to me from the moment we arrived.  This city on the sea has a life of its own; night festivals on the boardwalk, people dancing in the moonlight, violin concerts on the shore, fireworks, yachts, ferries, food trucks and cheers, lots and lots of cheers.  This city is a celebration of life, every single night.  All around, happy people; happy and content people on their nightly strolls in search of a gelato flavour to end another moment of “la dolce vita”.  This city felt like family to me, like we were all connected in a magical fairytale with a contagious joie de vivre.  In Brindisi, I felt passion; not the passion that comes from within, but the passion that penetrates you from the surroundings.  Here, there were not only happy faces, but there were joyful eyes.  Everyone from the police officers to the vendors and the multi-generational families appeared to belong here.  And the feeling of belonging radiated in their interactions and their demeanor.  Aside from my Northern Italian accent while speaking to the locals, I belonged in Puglia too.  

Then there is the food.  Puglia will impress even the pickiest of eaters with its fresh and simple cuisine because ultimately, it’s all about the ingredients and in Puglia, a large part of the ingredients grow on the land.  Sea and farm to table, olive grove to plate and grape vines to bottle… very simple concepts with remarkable results.  We tried a number of new dishes such as ricotta forte, puccia Pugliese and various delightful seafood dishes.  I was astonished that the low cost of eating out in Puglia varied very little depending on the “quality” of restaurant and in fact, the standards were so high that you could have eaten anywhere and been extremely satisfied.  Just ask for “antipasti per due” the locals told us…. and then the plates started coming and never stopped.  Antipasti becomes a meal, as there are about 14 different dishes usually brought out with small bites of tasty delicacies to try.   

But what really topped it all for me was the warmth of the locals.  Rarely have I visited a place where I felt that sort of sincere connection with the locals.  The people in Puglia are kind, genuine and warm. Be it driving around and stopping to ask for directions and the family inviting us for a drink, or the bar owner asking the local singer to sing English songs for us, the people in Puglia shine with depth and authenticity.  An instant bond was formed with our bed and breakfast owners, Carlijn and Remo, a Dutch-Italian couple who made us feel like family. They swept us off our feet one evening, to Ceglie Messapica, where late at night we were able to share a scrumptious dinner at a well-hidden place in the alleys.  A family restaurant without a menu, at Osteria Pugliese, with dishes worthy of Michelin stars.  A place where the nonnas are still making everything from scratch, with time, in the traditional way.  It was an unforgettable experience at late hours watching life unfold in front of our eyes.  We then walked through Mesagne, Remo’s birthplace, where we ran into a number of his friends, which was pretty much everyone that walked by. Everyone knew each other, from the gelato shop to the bar to the passersby.  Everyone in Puglia felt connected; connected to their past and connected to their present.  In the words of Carlijn, we had come as guests and left as friends.  Every village we visited felt alive and “happening”. It did not seem like anyone spent time indoors in Puglia as streets were filled with life, laughter, friendship and family at all hours of the day. People sharing smiles, food, and above all, indulging in the human connection.   

Puglia felt like the missing part at the bottom of my being.  It felt like home.  It felt like the life I want, the simplicity I crave in a place I connect with and with people I want to be surrounded by.  Sans pretense, sans superficiality, Puglia felt like the serenity of my soul.   

Some photo credits to Carlijn of BiondainItalia.com 🙂

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