Far in the south of Puglia, an hour or two's drive beyond the popular tourist hotspots of Bari, Brindisi, Ostuni and Alberobello, this renovated 17th-century castle offers a sophisticated yet convivial stay that immerses guests in southern Italian culture - and we don't just mean through your stomach, though the world-famous cookery school and stellar restaurant are sure to see to that.
The castle is a labour of love in every sense. Owners Diana and Massimo (a former CEO at Pepsi and whose family has owned the castle since 1643) have masterminded a thoughtful restoration that has resulted in this honey-stone darling, where a chic clientele can spend hazy days drifting between secret gardens and cobbled courtyards, beneath tall arches and lovers' balconies.
Just nine suites stretch out within these ancient walls and, while there may be frescoes, turrets and antiques galore, this is still very much a family home. Expect to see Diana and Massimo breathing life and laughter into the property as they chat to guests, who often find themselves so enchanted that they return time and time again, with many becoming great friends. You'll want to be in this camp, so bring your most charming travel companion.
No one pulls the short straw here. Ground-floor rooms open onto a courtyard that's just a stone's throw from the 18th-century kitchen garden, while first-floor suites have a private terrace and rooftop views.
Whichever you choose, expect a light and airy affair, with gorgeous original stone throughout (we're boasting, but our room had star-vaulted ceilings above the mammoth bed - as good as an excuse for not leaving ours as any) which lends itself to a grotto-esque effect akin to the coves of the Adriatic in the bathrooms.
Juxtaposed with zany mid-century furniture, striking art and splashes of colour, it's an interior-design dream - but unfortunately one that's hard to mimic at home, unless you've got an ancient castle at your disposal.
What's for breakfast?
A continental spread is bolstered by ample local fare - traditional pastries, cured ham, nutty cheeses and so on. Everything is made from scratch in the sparkling stainless-steel kitchens - brownie points if you manage to time your breakfast entry with the arrival of just-baked croissants. Eggs, and so on, are made to order.
How about lunch and dinner?
We didn't have lunch at the Castello - following breakfast we made tracks straight to the Maldives-esque beaches of the Ionian coast - but dinner at Il Tempo Nuovo ("new time, new life") is as surprising as it is brilliant.
You don't need us to bang on about Italian food, nor Puglian food in particular, but the set tasting menu here is something special, combining the best local produce in imaginative ways - yellowtail ceviche with 'nduja; ricotta gnocchi with sea urchin; guinea fowl with fig. The softly lit courtyard setting isn't bad either.
Is there a bar?
Yes. It's not of the thumping-beats and flashing-lights variety, but cheerful staff will happily mix a mean version of whatever your poison is, at whatever time of day you might require it. Join other guests and the owners for an aperitif in the courtyard each evening.
Yes the castle has WiFi (though we rather wish it didn't) but no it doesn't have a swimming pool, thank you very much. Guests are welcome to use the one at sister property, Le Mandorle, just a 10-minute drive away.
The cookery school at Castello di Ugento is a big draw, attracting international students from around the world for residential courses (accommodation is separate to the hotel) while guests are invited to book a lesson during their stay.
Don't leave before you've wandered the corridors and rooms on the first floor where impressive artwork and eclectic furniture are a nod to Diana's eye for design. At the risk of sounding a little lofty, the combination of history, gastronomy and art (there are plans for an artist-in-residence) here means that the Castello is almost a microcosm of southern Italy and an ever-evolving cultural hub. No wonder those guests keep coming back.
What about its green credentials?
The hotel has an extensive sustainability manifesto, spanning everything from food waste to renewable energy, water-resource management and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Hats off to them; it's no mean feat in a historic property such as this. Call us picky but they do, however, have those plastic mini shampoo (etc.) bottles, that seem to crop up at even the most "eco-conscious" hotels and drive us nuts.
Things I should know…
"Off-season" is "in" and we've got our sights set on returning to Puglia in winter - we just hope the crowds that flock to Polignano a Mare et al. don't catch on. Christmas at the Castello? Yes please.
We can't explain exactly why, but the bathrobe was one of the best we've ever paraded around the room in. In fact, we loved it so much we bought it for 60 euros (we never thought we'd be one of those people) and haven't taken it off since.
Within a short walk, I can find…
Potter out to the pretty piazza and cathedral just beyond the castle gates for a relaxed pre-dinner stroll (you'll find an aperitivo pit-stop in the corner of the square). We also recommend hopping in the car and heading about 30 minutes south to Santa Maria di Leuca, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet at the most southerly point of mainland Italy.