On the Road: Puglia

On the Road: Puglia

pasta, pizza and Aperol, Italy is a destination that hits
the spot. Every single time.

But, much like the aforementioned
food and drink
, Italy is perennially popular, and in the summer
months the top tourist destinations can get over-hot,
overcrowded and over-priced

Having spent previous summers ticking off most of the big names
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.

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
, 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
. 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
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.

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