Blessed with golden sunshine, blue skies, ancient olive groves and white-washed old towns that cling to hillside precipices, the heel of Southern Italy is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. The heel of Italy’s location along both the Adriatic and Ionian seas boasts exquisite stretches of coastline where fine sand disappears into emerald green and powder blue waters and showcases the remnants of its eclectic invaders from the Normans, Greeks and Turks through the mishmash of architecture scattered across the region. Full to the brim of charm and character, it’s not the beautiful baroque churches, sweet stone trulli, sun-drenched landscapes nor the laid-back Italian lifestyle that make Puglia such an attractive destination. It’s all about the food. Food, glorious food. Fresh fish, ripe figs, citrusy olive oils, perfect pasta and full-bodied wines. The food is so good here in Puglia that it produces 80% of Europe’s olive oil and pasta. Despite being representative of Italy’s culinary capital, the region seems to have slipped under the radar for everyone other than the native Italians. We suppose that means more for the rest of us…! Here we’ve listed 10 of our favourite experiences in the region.
Svevo Castle and square in Bari, Puglia.
The regional capital of Puglia, Bari used to be one of the most important trading ports along the Adriatic and still represents the busiest passenger port in the region with well-established ferry links across the sea to the Balkans. Its fascinating weave of streets is abuzz with the sights, sounds and smells of local life and provides an intimate portrait of traditional Italy. The old town of Bari boasts an eclectic mix of age-old architecture as well as a mouthwatering selection of traditional culinary delicacies. The quaint back streets and impressive church-adorned piazzas provide the perfect opportunity to soak up the culture, pausing for an Italian coffee and pastry in a string of wonderful cafés and bars within easy reach of all the town’s major architectural attractions. Oh and if you’ve ever eaten little ear-shaped pasta before, chances are it will have been made right here in Bari, which is the home of orecchiette pasta.
2. PASTA MAKING
Pasta Making with the Italian mammas in the old streets of Bari.
Tucked away behind the Basilica di San Nicola in the heart of Bari Vecchia down two tiny alleyways is an enchanting pocket of living culinary tradition. Nicknamed ‘Orecchiette Lane’, this is the home of the traditional ear-shaped pasta of the same name that Bari is famous for. The streets are lined with semolina-dusted tables where women of all ages transform fresh dough into orecchiette at lightning-fast speeds, leaving them to dry on wooden-framed screens. Tempting aromas waft through the open kitchen doors, the scent of fresh tomato sauce and garlic cooking in extra virgin olive oil filling the air. Of course, making orecchiette is easier said than done but don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to practice the craft under the expert eye of one of the Italian mammas who’ll have no problems ticking you off for poor technique! You’ll roll out the dough into long strings, cut them into a bite-sized cube then curl each piece into a tiny cup with a knife. Each little ear has to be just right, small and curled with rough ridges to soak up all that delicious sauce. At the end of it all you’ll be rewarded with a big bowl of pasta to tuck into… just make sure you save some room in your belly and in your suitcase as you’ll want to bring a couple of bags home!
3. THE SASSI
Ancient town of Matera (Sassi di Matera) at sunrise.
Aside from Petra in Jordan, Matera’s sassi (literally ‘stones’) represent the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in history, its cave dwellings dating all the way back to the Palaeolithic age. Carved out of the soft rock face by prehistoric settlers and hermit monks who settled in the caves during the Middle Ages, the ancient grottoes were later transformed into crypts, rocky churches and cave dwellings that were inhabited right up until the 1950s when the area was evacuated due to poor living conditions. Since its addition to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1993 by UNESCO, who described the area as ‘the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean’, the desolate region and its caves have been renewed and even revamped into luxury hotels and atmospheric restaurants, offering an incredible glimpse into the archaeological and cultural gems hidden within the rocky cave walls. The settlement also comprises more than a hundred rock-hewn churches some of which boast stunning medieval frescoes built into the cliffside church walls that represent some of the greatest examples of rock art in the world. It’s no wonder then that this dramatic landscape has been the cinematic inspiration for numerous film directors, most notably Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, which was filmed here.
4. THE BAKERY TOUR
This family bakery in Altamura is a hub of living culinary heritage and divine flavours sure to make even the fullest of tummies rumble. None of this bakery’s products have been touched by machines; each and every loaf, biscuit and bread has been lovingly handmade by the family that has worked here for generations. Di Gesu even boasts its own DOP certificate that indicates a very specific manner of bread-making from the type of wood burned in the stone ovens, the ingredients used and the shape and style of the loaves which are marked with a cross. Take a look inside the traditional working room with its ancient wood-burning oven and wooden planks covered with perfect rolls of soft dough dusted and ready to be rolled. The stone ovens were built in the 1800s and can bake up to 300 kilos of bread at any one time! The ingredients are simple and organic: ground semolina, ‘grano duro’ grain from Alta Murgia along with natural yeast, tepid water and marine salt. Once you’ve heard all about the bread-making process you’ll be invited to taste some of the bakery’s products. Think thick slices of focaccia encrusted with sun-blushed tomatoes and black olives, traditional biscuits still warm from the oven and sweet plaited loaves sprinkled with sugar. Save space in your suitcase – you’ll no doubt leave the bakery armed with enough bread and tasty biscuits to feed a small army!
5. ITALIAN COOKING
Fresh hand made Orecchiette pasta with tomato sauce.
Master the art of Italian cooking and learn how to prepare a range of traditional dishes for an authentic taste of Southern Italy. Although the location of the class can differ according to group numbers, the session will likely take place in a traditional masseria (farmhouse), half an hour’s drive from Matera. In the kitchen you’ll get straight to work chopping, mixing and cooking the freshest of ingredients, many of which have been grown on the grounds of the masseria, under the expert eye of your Italian chef who will let you in on the secrets of the local cuisine and offer plenty of special tips and tricks so you can prepare fabulous dishes back at home. You’ll whip up three courses in total including an antipasto, fresh pasta like cavatelli with a delicious sauce and a main course. Reap the fruits of your labour at the end of it all by tucking in to your homemade meal and enjoy a couple of glasses of local wine while you’re at it!
“Le Cummerse”, typical houses and narrow streets in Locorotondo.
In a country renowned for its picture-postcard pretty towns and a region full to bursting with them, Locorotondo claims the mantle as one of the most beautiful in Italy. In the heart of the Itria Valley, the circular spiraling of the white-walled houses give the town its name – literally meaning ‘round town’ – and overlook the rolling countryside below with its smooth hills, ancient olive groves and cone-roofed Trulli houses. The pedestrianised historic centre (centro storico) is an absolute gem of a place – a maze of winding alleys paved with shimmering ivory-coloured stones flanked by historic houses perfectly white save for the blue of the sky and a splash of colourful flowers that spill from the balconies. Meander through the narrow lanes of this tiny town losing yourself in its sleepy charm, perhaps stumbling across the 17th-century church of Santa Maria Della Graecia nestled amidst slanted staircases and Baroque balconies. Once you’ve feasted on a delicious lunch and a glass or two of the region’s own DOC sparkling wine, head over to the small public garden just outside the town walls and marvel at the panoramic views with a gelato in hand. We honestly can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon. Pure Italian bliss.
Traditional Trulli houses in Alberobello.
Welcome to Trulli-Land! Anyone who has read anything about Puglia will no doubt be familiar with the existence of conical-roofed dwellings that pepper the Itria Valley countryside. These distinctive cylindrical constructions are unique to the area and make up the entire town of Alberobello, which has to be the undisputed Trulli capital of the world. Alberobello is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some 1,400 magical Trulli houses nestled within the sloping, winding streets of the charming old town including a Trullo-church and the Trullo Sovrano, which is the only two-storey Trullo you’ll come across. Constructed from thick limestone blocks, legend has it that the Trulli were built without cement or mortar as a way of avoiding property taxes so when the tax collectors were on their way around Southern Italy, the locals would simply dismantle their houses and carry on as usual! Many of the Trulli are open to visitors and feature exhibits, tools and examples of local tradition and while we’re not particularly keen on the trinkets sold and the droves of tourist groups, you simply cannot leave Puglia without seeing Alberobello.
8. WINE TASTING
Wine tasting at I Pastini vineyard.
Learn more about the process and art of winemaking with a vineyard tour and tasting session at Cantina I Pastini in the heart of the Itria Valley. Located between the whitewashed towns of Locorotondo and Martina Franca, the vineyards are famous for their production of white grapes including indigenous varieties of Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and Fiano Minutolo, their unique taste a result of the hot summer weather and steady northerly wind. By preserving traditional wine-growing traditions in the vineyards and fusing them with modern winemaking techniques in the cellars, their wines represent an evolved method of local viticulture. You’ll start with a guided tour through the vineyards and across the traditional farm with its collection of ancient original Trulli and beautiful panoramic views where you’ll find out about how wines are grown, harvested, and bottled before taking part in a tasting session. Enjoy savouring the flavours of the local wines alongside a taste of some typical nibbles including bagels, olives and dried beans.
9. OLIVE OIL TASTING
3000 years old olive tree at Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni.
A visit to Puglia simply wouldn’t be complete without a leisurely stroll around a grove of sun-kissed olive trees. The family-run farmhouse of Masseria Brancati boasts some extensive organic olive orchards full of ancient olive trees that date back to pre-Roman times. Enjoy a wander through the groves in the beautiful afternoon sunshine where you will be introduced to some particularly special olive trees some of which have been carbon-dated to 3,000 years old. These ancient trees are so precious that they have been declared as natural monuments and have even been fitted with GPS tracking mechanisms to ensure they stay safe and sound. Afterwards you’ll descend into the original underground mill and press area that had been used for olive oil production since the bronze age before having a wander around the wonderful display of household artifacts and agricultural instruments upstairs. The tasting session takes place in the peaceful farm courtyard where you’ll be invited to sample a variety of the estate’s delicious and organic extra virgin olive oils. The citrus-infused oil is particularly excellent. By the end of it, you’ll come away with some expert tips on selecting a good oil and no doubt a few bottles of (very reasonably priced) extra virgin olive oil to enjoy at home.
The interior of a Trullo room (left) and a cave room in the Sassi (right).
One thing you can’t fail to notice in Southern Italy is the “hobbitesque” Trulli dotted all over the countryside and no trip to Puglia would be complete without spending a night in one. While on our Dolce Vita Experience you’ll get the opportunity to do just that. You’ll also stay in cave accommodation in Matera’s fascinatingly unique Sassi.
If you’re interested in visiting Southern Italy and experiencing the good life then come and join us on a Dolce Vita Experience.