Ask an Italian where they vacation and they’re likely to point to Apulia. Located in the sun-kissed fringes of Southern Italy, Apulia, by means of introduction, is the heel of the nation’s boot; a narrow peninsular province lapped by the turquoise waters of both the Adriatic and Ionian seas. It’s a true Italian classico where time moves a little slower, the sun shines a little warmer and la bella vita blissfully lingers beyond every silver-leafed olive grove, every ancient castello and every glimmering secret inlet. This is Italy, uncut.
Yet, even for a seasoned Euro-traveler, cities in the region of Apulia might not roll off the tongue like the blockbuster destinations of Tuscany or Amalfi. A region of untold secrets, Apulia truly remains a hidden Italy.
It’s amazing what you can discover once you decide to step away from the crowd, especially in the company of a local Classic Journeys guide who can lead you down enchanting alleyways, help to discover a hidden chapel, an elegant palazzo or an ancient amphitheatre and, best of all, give you the history and context behind what you are seeing.
Our visit to Apulia begins in the region’s melting pot capital, Bari. Wandering the labyrinthine streets of the city’s old town, Bari Vecchia, a slideshow of classic scenes await around every lantern-lit alleyway; from moustachioed gents sipping espressos on street-side cafés to piously veiled donne strolling towards the basilica’s evening vigil. There’s a wonderful air of preserved serenity here, even when the serene ambience is occasionally shaken up by the zip of a Vespa engine or the animated laughter of teenagers hurrying through the piazzas.
Amid its rich history and architectural wonders, it’s Bari’s stumble-upon characters that make the greatest imprint. Along the winding lane of Via dell’Arco Basso, we discover dozens of local women sitting in their homes, doors ajar, in the midst of the evening ritual of fresh pasta crafting. “Buona sera!” one lady pipes, gesticulating for us to step into her Italian kitchen and watch as the moon-faced nonna kneads dough to the soundtrack of an Italian soap opera. That’s the nature of Apulia—its citizens have a way of making even first-time visitors feel right at home.
Into the hinterland, Apulia is studded with myriad treasures, from the city of Matera, with its prehistoric roots, to the ancient hub of Ostuni, with its charming, shabby-chic center. The most curious town is UNESCO-listed Alberobello. The town is home to more than 1,000 traditional conical stone dwellings called trullis, which together created a topsy-turvy, Tolkien complexion to its streetscapes.
The backdrop makes for a quirky postcard amble, as we walk past white-washed façades vibrantly splashed with lilac blossoms of wisteria and shadowed by palm trees wavering in the breeze. Most inviting is the quaint store of Trullo Antichi Sapori, an epicurean Aladdin’s Cave stuffed with local artisan fare. “My grandfather opened the shop in 1930 and we’ve always kept it in the family since then,” owner Maria Concetta Marco explains with pride. Beneath smoky hocks of ham and braids of fresh garlic, the signora points out delicacies around the shop, all the while inviting us to indulge in delicious samples of local cheeses, salamis and liquors. “Prova!” (Try!), she beams enthusiastically. This is southern hospitality—Italian style.
When it comes to rural retreats, Italy might be synonymous with Roman palazzos or Tuscan villas, but Apulia is the terroir of the masseria fortificata: the region’s traditional farmhouse estate. The landscapes are characterised by distinctive fortress-walled manors; originally mastered to protect the estate against the marauding pirates in medieval times. Today, however, the ancient fortifications simply add to the Italian fairy-tale views.
Driving up the gravel driveway of a family-run homestead, the turrets of the home finally appear through the acres of gnarled olive trees which have been on this patch for centuries. We spend the morning exploring the property in the company of the owner, whose family has overseen the estate for the past 400 years, and enjoy our mid-day meal in a room where the old oil-presses are stored, along with other relics of classical country life.
“Apulia’s famous for our cucina povera—or peasant food,” our host explains. “It means we eat whatever nature gives us and only use seasonal produce, from wild broccoli picked under the olive trees to wild asparagus from the coast.”
Just as it began, our Apulian odyssey bookends with a slice of authentic Italian life, this time in the Baroque city of Lecce—the “Florence of the South” as it’s known.
The day takes on a relaxed, unhurried air as we stop in to visit local craftsmen in their workshops or pause to enjoy a glass of Prosecco in the town’s old center. By evening, the city’s streets come alive, especially during la passeggiata—the customary Sunday stroll where the whole city seems to descend on to the streets for a leisurely wander. As we join the informal procession, surrounded by a sea of locals, laughing, bantering and savoring gelato along its honey-hued thoroughfares, it’s easy to become swept up in the jubilant, easy-going atmosphere. We feel right at home.