Flying over the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic sea on one side and Ionion on the other, Puglia immediately strikes you as utterly different from the rest of Italy. Far removed from the gentle hills of Tuscany, the flatter countryside of Italy’s heel stretches out before you, covered in puffs of green – endless groves of ancient twisted olive trees, as old as the hills, scattered with white houses, which lead to the beaches and blue sea.
In the fertile hills of Valle d’Itria, round ‘trulli’ houses pepper the countryside, with their conicle stone roofs and pinnacles. It is here that the pretty hills towns of Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino and Ostuni rise out of the flat valleys below, reminiscent of Greece, with their white stone buildings and cobbled streets, dramatic by day but lit up at night, they seem almost magical.
The proud ‘Pugliese’ people describe themselves as ‘nearly in Africa’, not only a reference to the hot summers and southerly location, but also to their Moorish past and strong traditions. Italian musicians perform in some of the most beautiful settings in Puglia throughout the summer months, at coastal towns and village piazzas. Even the smallest villages sprout ‘feste di paese (village festivals), attracting the residents to dance the ‘pizzica tarantata’ to the ancient rythms of the haunting tarantella music. Nearby seafood restaurants are plentiful, but for many it is the informal coastal cafes which hold more appeal, where a plate of fresh sea urchins and local wine after a refreshing dip in the sea is just part of daily life.
Salento is a special part of the Puglia region characterised by rich historical remains from its Greek and Roman ancestry, whose traces remain both in the architecture and language of the area. This area is enjoying a cultural renaissance, the extraordinary Baroque towns of Lecce is known as the Florence of the South), and those with an interest in architecture can find many Byzantine remains.
Relaxed, friendly and with an appetite for good living, the Salento people are almost universally kind and hospitable. Whilst English may not be widely spoken, a willingness to help is, and many a time a request for directions has been met with a guided escort and a friendly wave the only expectation by way of thanks. Local restaurants serve a population which is passionate about food, so the most basic trattoria generally offers wonderful food at a fraction of UK prices.
The wonderful coastline offers a great variety of options. Kitesurfing and windsurfing at Puntarenas, rock-jumping for dare devils in the many grottos on the Otranto coastline, and pay per day lidos for those who like their beaches manicured and their sunloungers reserved.
During summer there's a choice of several festas to attend most evenings. Many involve old religious rites, like the carrying of a Virgin Mary statue around Lecce (August 24-6) or into the sea at Otranto (September 6). Others, like Novoli have bonfires and spectacular fireworks (January 16-17). Maglie has a wonderful 5 day food festival during August, extraordinary in scale and in the quality of its local producers.
Most festivals include the pizzica, a fast and compelling rhythmic dance done to the accompaniment of the tambourine, accordion and violin. The atmosphere is pulsing, whether it's a modest village festa or the August event in Melpignano, which has international guest stars and attracts audiences of 150,000. Thousands of lights and torches create a carnival atmosphere. The pizzica band will start playing at 11pm when young and old dance together. The pizzica’s origins are Greek, its function being therapeutic. Women living hard and restricted lives would dance themselves through the night into a cathartic trance. The next day they would go to be blessed at the chapel of St Paul in Galatina - a pizzica and special mass is still held there every June.