On my first trip to Puglia in 2006 the region still had a dusty, undiscovered feel; English was extremely thin on the ground, actual grandmothers could be seen sitting out cleaning vegetables on quiet streets, the fish markets in Bari were full of shouting (I remember mainly seeing and then eating a lot of delicious sea urchin) and there was (sad to say) delicious horse stew cooked up by the lady running my B&B.
Though Puglia has certainly been well and truly discovered now, in part thanks to daily Ryanair flights to Bari and Brindisi, it is still – compared to other regions – a relative newcomer, still a little rough around the edges. And as Covid rumbles on, it’s an attractive place to visit, with very low virus rates, excellent food, beautiful old buildings and plenty of beach options. For a short break, there’s more than enough to delight in these three cities within an hour’s drive of both Bari and Brindisi.
Where to go
Ostuni, the most famous of Puglia’s “white” towns, is a good place to start: it’s only half an hour’s drive from Brindisi and is outrageously pretty. After it was sacked following the fall of the Roman empire, the Normans rebuilt it in 996 atop a hilltop to protect against invaders. Now the centre of a region of high-quality olive oil production, it’s a jumble of alleyways and higgledy-piggledy houses that snake up and down hills and give way onto secret-feeling squares and flower-fringed cul de sacs. The 15th century Gothic cathedral in pale stone with a large rose window is not to be missed. Other beauties include the Bishop’s Palace and the citadel at sunset, with views spilling down to the coast best seen from a high rooftop.
Casa Chiara, a beautifully renovated one-bed flat, has the best view in town with the highest roof of all (150 euros a night). Ostuni is 8km from the blazing turquoise of an Adriatic coast fringed by beach clubs, of which the best belongs to the new and much-buzzed Paragon 700 hotel (of which more below), where you can lunch on whip-fresh giant prawns with braised veggies washed down with a glass of icy Verdeca.
Back in Ostuni, Taverna della Gelosia features tables set charmingly on steps and serves bitingly-fresh seafood, try the octopus salad with sea water and anchovies. Forno 31 is the oldest bakery in town where you can load up on giant focaccias with onion and potatoes for a couple of euros.
Half an hour’s drive from Ostuni is Monopoli, which has a potent windswept, old-world feeling, a castle with tip-top views, a port and seafront with a sandy bay and defensive fortifications. Most important, however, is lunch: Monopoli has the best seafood restaurants in Puglia. Try Il Guazzetto or La Locanda sul Porto.
The third stop is Lecce right at the heel, the “Florence of Puglia”, stuffed full of baroque buildings and a stunning Medieval cathedral restored in the 17thcentury. Other must-sees are the Roman Amphitheatre in the central square, built to seat 15,000 and rediscovered in 1901, and the Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico), which tells a rather surprising story of Jewish life in the Salento region. Lecce is also the portal for the glamorous towns of Gagliano del Capo and Santa Maria di Leuca, on the southernmost tip of Salento with aquamarine water, broad sandy beaches and hidden coves.
Where to stay
Paragon 700, Ostuni
Paragon 700 in Ostuni is the new big story in Puglia for the chic traveller. It opened in June and is entirely worth the trip on its own – especially now, when prices are a bit lower (around £280 a night including a masterful breakfast). Bought, designed and renovated by characterful Swiss couple UlrikeBauschke and Pascale Lauber, an architect, the ‘red palazzo’ was built by the first mayor of Ostuni and envelops you in a sense of aristocratic grandeur and sophistication unusual for the region.
The seven beautiful suites are vaulted with faded Renaissance frescoes on the walls, and Pascale was relentless in sourcing design touches: giant antique plant-shaped lights from Thailand, South African headboards and fabrics, bathtubs made from a concrete resin South African ‘fireball’ (a structure on which people sit round a fire drinking wine) and an Indian gazebo, plus other elegant furnishings from antique fairs around the world. Ceilings are 7m high and the balconies have beautifully appointed chaises and outdoor showers for your post-swim lounge, and with their views of the rooftops make a juicy spot for sunset drinks. The tiny spa in the palazzo’s former cistern – full of water when the place was bought – is a sumptuous cavern bounded by a gleaming Himalayan rock salt wall while the pool is a teal-tiled rectangle and, amazingly, the only pool in Ostuni.
Add in excellent service, nifty cocktails and a high-end (though slightly fussy) restaurant, it’s hard to drag oneself out the doors, though if you tire of the pool, there’s always the aforementioned Paragon beach club a 15 minute drive away. (Rooms from £280 including breakfast, www.paragon700.com).
Masseria Le Carrube
For a more rustic option, Masseria Le Carrube is just outside Ostuni, a vast tiled-roof edifice set within acres of olive groves and views of the sea. It has sprawling and comfortable outdoor areas for drinks (stick to the excellent wine), cosy rooms, and two elegant pools set amid the groves. (Rooms from £130)
Near Lecce, the place to stay is the 19th century pile Palazzo San Daniele, in Gagliano del Capo. The former palazzo of Francesco Petrucci, founder of Capo d’Arte, a not-for-profit organisation promoting contemporary art in Puglia, it’s been redone to honour ‘absence’ (minimalism) by a Milan design duo and the resulting fresco and mosaic-rich suites, art space and jet-black pool are stunning. (From £350 per night)