Like pasta, pizza and Aperol, Italy is a destination that hits the spot. Every single time.
Having spent previous summers ticking off most of the big names - Rome, Tuscany, Amalfi, Capri - I was left wondering where to explore next. I found my answer in sun-baked Puglia, Italy's southern peninsula that juts awkwardly out into the Mediterranean; the heel of the country's boot.
A top destination for Italian holiday makers, Puglia has the charm of being largely unvisited by hordes of foreign tourists. Way back in rainy March myself and the two girlfriends I was planning the trip with discovered that the region's infrastructure and public transport are somewhat of an afterthought. Scouring website message boards for advice from nameless strangers, we decided to take the plunge and discover the region by car.
It turns out that Puglia was made for road trips. The roads are wide, sweeping and mostly well maintained, making them perfect for cruising through its golden, dusty landscape. The countryside is dotted with olive groves and vineyards that battle their way up through the parched earth, fighting for a share of what little moisture there is. It's also a region that is bordered by a sea of many blues; azure on the west coast, a deeper blue on the east, and a sumptuous emerald green at the cape.
We hired a zippy four-seater in Lecce, the "Florence of the south". It's an ancient medieval city that dates back to the Romans, but the one that you see today is built in the medieval baroque style. A sense of crumbling decadence still pervades the passageways and squares of the old town, untouched by modern accoutrements. These winding streets with their ambling pedestrians and unexpected one-way streets were our first driving challenge as we navigated the way to our Airbnb. Once there, however, there was no need for the car: you can tour the ancient centre in just a couple of hours, not accounting for stops for Aperol and gelato. Although, to truly appreciate Lecce you would probably need an entire week, as it's jam-packed with restaurants to try, hidden squares to find and tiny museums to explore.
After a couple of days in Lecce we took off in search of the sea. Heading towards Otranto on Puglia's Adriatic coast, we came suddenly upon the perfect blue lagoon of its harbour. A hypnotic shade of turquoise, the bay is an exquisite semi-circle dotted with white sailing yachts. It's also freezing; a take-your-breath-away cold that is as bitter as the Cornish coast in summer time. We swam from the rocks that lined the bay, spreading our towels down in the shade of the harbour wall and absorbing the atmosphere of chattering local families.
From Otranto we cruised down the sun-drenched highway to Santa Maria di Leuca at the very tip of Puglia. As we neared our destination, the sparse landscape blossomed into sudden fertility: fields became verdant and fig trees loaded with fruit spread their luscious branches. Here at the cape, the mass of land tumbles urgently into the emerald green of the sea. There are few beaches, but instead we dived from the rocks into crystal depths.
Having spent a few days beach-hopping we took a break in Gallipoli, which is perched on a small outcrop of land on the west coast of Puglia. A bustling modern metropolis, its highlight is the ancient walled town. This is sequestered at its very tip, bordered on three sides by a sea that stretches out west as far as the eye can see. Full of cobbled streets, old churches and little restaurants, it's the perfect place for catching a fiery Italian sunset; we experienced it with a plate of tiramisu in one of the rooftop restaurants.
Punta Prosciutto was the final stop on our tour of Puglia. In our research we found that it is widely referred to as the "Maldives of Italy", a name which we were initially sceptical about. But after a morning spent navigating stony dirt tracks and clambering over sand dunes, we stood transfixed at the spotless curve of white sand lapped by aquamarine sea. It really hadn't been an exaggeration. Floating in the clearest water we'd ever seen, we marvelled at the lack of English-speaking voices around us and the niggling sense that we'd uncovered a truly local secret.
From hunting down the perfect Aperol spritz in Lecce to watching the sun set over the Mediterranean from Gallipoli, our road trip through Puglia was a week of many experiences. But the best thing about it was the sense of freedom we had to explore in our little car, with no hope or agenda for the coming week. Each day welcomed a new beach or swimming spot and - with the sun beating down at a relentless 35 degrees - the ocean became our place of refuge, a daily reclamation of sanity. We came back refreshed and revitalised, and wondering where our next Italian adventure would take us.