Puglia has tempted travelers since the Greeks discovered the area and decided to export civilization to its rocky coast line. The region marks an ideal point between East and West where cultures have ebbed and flowed for centuries. You’ll hear it in the accents and taste it in the food. It’s not your average southern outpost. Puglia is well heeled and well off compared to its Southern Italian neighbors.
The vast plains and rolling hills that run parallel to the sea are covered in olive groves and grape vines and the region tops the list in oil and wine production. But this is also where they manufacture fuselages for Boeing Dreamliners and locals are as interested in the future as the past. Visitors are attracted by the long coast, trulli houses, and a surplus of castles that protect nearly every seaside town.
Here it’s possible to watch the sunrise over the Adriatic and see it set in the Ionian Sea. In between are Baroque masterpieces like Lecce, blessed with a soft, local limestone that provided sculptors and architects with new artistic possibilities and fishing villages like Otranto and Gallipoli that have remained faithful to their origins and provide an opportunity to step into a Byzantine and Norman past.
The exchange of culture is especially present in the region’s kitchens, which rely on simplicity rather than over-elaboration. Fish is present on nearly every menu and the durum wheat grown throughout the interior is rolled and cut into dozens of original pasta shapes. Anyone with an appetite can turn the local saying qui paga molto, mangia poco (“he who spends much, eats little”) into a delicious mantra that is easy to follow in Puglia.
Castel del Monte: Pictured on the Italian one-cent coin and named as a World Heritage site, this gem of a fortress at the foot of Le Murge Mountains is one of Italy’s finest castles, with eight towers overlooking hectares of olive groves and vineyards.
Lucera: Lucera has the looks of a movie set, but the Roman amphitheater, castle, and sanctuary are all very real. The town is full of bed-and-breakfasts located inside historic palazzi where it’s easy to leave the 21st century behind.
Parco Nazionale del Gargano: Puglia’s largest park has a supreme position in the center of the Gargano Promontory. Hundreds of mammals call it home and migrating birds make it an annual pit stop between hemispheres. Nearly every town bordering the mountainous terrain has a park office from where visitors can set off by foot, bicycle, or horseback.
Alberobello: This town is worth a visit to admire the unique skyline dominated by circular whitewashed trulli houses with high conical roofs. Many of the trulli can be visited and one of the best is the Trullo Sovrano.
Lecce: Anyone with a passion for Baroque architecture must make a pilgrimage to Lecce. At night, all the facades are illuminated and become the backdrop an enchanting dolce vita southern style.
Otranto: This town sits on one of the most scenic bays in Italy, but the real highlight here is the Cattedrale di Otranto. The mosaic floors inside this church cover nearly 1,000 square meters and are the largest of their kind.
Puglia is shaped a little like Florida, minus the panhandle. Most of its 800-kilometer coast faces the Adriatic Sea and waters here are particularly clean. At the northern edge near the border with Molise is a vast promontory with two seaside lakes and 1,000-meter peaks in the center. There are hills inland, most notably Le Muraghe, that run north-south through western Puglia. The rest is flatland that has been a boon for grapes and especially olives. If your oil says “Made in Italy,” chances are it comes from here and rows of twisted trees line the roads from Bari to Brindisi.
The climate and geography are also similar to the Sunshine State, and in the Salentina Peninsula only 50 kilometers separates the Adriatic from the Ionian Sea. Roads are relatively slow along the coast and the Autostrada Adriatica (A14) runs from Foggia to the outskirts of Taranto, where it remains to be completed. Eurostar train service between Foggia, Brindisi, and Bari is quick, but local trains make many stops and haven’t run on time since Mussolini was in charge.
Unless you’re planning on seeing it all or have a week to spend exploring the entire coast, you may have to choose between heading north or south from Bari. It’s a tough choice between the natural wonders of the Gargano Promontory or the cultural ones of the Salentina Peninsula.
Lecce is the most beautiful city in Puglia and should be circled on your map. Although it’s not centrally located it can make a good base from which to absorb the region. It’s close to the beaches and many roads lead from the city to surrounding countryside that provide endless opportunities for daily excursions.
Tourism is well developed and there is no lack of masseria, the Puglian version of farm accommodation. Visitors have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and give locals a hand transforming the fruits of the earth into orecchiette pasta, Altamura bread, and Negroamaro wine. Beaches are busy in August and the weather is as good in June or September when crowds thin. In recent years, forest fires have ravished vast swathes of land and it’s wise to check the news before your arrival.
Greek colonists from Laconia and Sparta first reached the shores of Puglia in the 8th century BC. They founded the cities of Gallipoli, Otranto, and Taranto, where Magna Grecia (Greater Greece) prospered and managed to overcome fierce resistance from native Iapigi tribes who didn’t welcome the newcomers with open arms. Roman interest in the area began after the second Sannitica war when bases were established in Lucera and Venosa. Taranto fell in 272 BC and began a long decline as Romans favored the port of Brindisi, which was later connected to Roma by the Via Appia and provided a convenient sea link to Macedonia, Greece, Egypt, and Syria.
Christianity began to play a role in the region during the third century AD and was firmly established by the time the archangel Michael was spotted on Monte Gargano. The fall of the Empire caused less chaos than in other regions and the real dark ages came during the years of fighting between Byzantines and Goths. Lombards and Saracens followed and it wasn’t until the Normans arrived that things settled down.
Thanks to the first crusade, many of the coastal cities were revived and received both an economic and architectural lift. Frederick II was responsible for building more castles and churches than anyone else and managed to unify the land. Spanish occupation with brief intervals of Austrian and Napoleonic troops led to a steady decline, which the Bourbons had little interest in reversing. Things only began to improve after World War I when the economy began to diversify from agriculture to heavy industry. Today Puglia remains distinct from its southern neighbors and can look forward to the future with optimism.
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