Head Over Heels

Woman's Day

18 January 2016

Southern Italy's Puglia region serves up the perfect mix of sun, sea and scrumptious cuisine discovers Tatyana Leonov.

The first thing that drew me to Puglia was the promise of quality Italian food (OK and quantity too) – fish fresh from the sea, velvety cheeses and plenty of wine... sign me up! However, once in Puglia, aka the “heel of the boot”, in southern Italy – what amazes me most is the beauty, both natural and man-made. Sure, the food and wine is top notch (burrata cheese shaped right in front of us, handmade orecchiette pasta drizzled with olive oil, oven-fresh focaccia topped with baby roma tomatoes and much more) and if it weren’t for my morning runs I’d definitely be going up a size. But I’m also in love with the moody coastline, the rich history and friendly locals, who’ve taken in my friends and me and made us feel like part of the family. 

A feast for the senses

On day one of our six-day Back-Roads Touring Slow Food Tour of Puglia, we leave the pretty coastal hub of Bari, the main gateway to the region. Within the hour, I find myself strolling through the octagonal-shaped Castel del Monte – a UNESCO- listed medieval castle. Just over an hour’s drive from here, we stop in magical Matera (technically located in the region of Basilicata, right next to Puglia) and the guided tour is one of my trip highlights! Often referred to as the City of Stone, the bizarrely picturesque town is the most intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean. The hundreds of sassi (stone homes carved out of the cliffs and caves) look like something out of Star Wars. I ogle the strange spectacle from various lookout points before entering the maze that is Matera. I spend more than an hour threading my way up and down staircases and take a look inside two sassis. One is an interesting museum that shows visitors what dwelling in a sassi used to be like, and the other is a stone cathedral, which houses incredible remnants of icons throughout. The next day, we visit the charming township of Alberobello, famous for its trulli homes – made out of limestone, with cone-shaped roofs. The ones here date back to the 14th century. Fascinated, I wander around the residential part of town first, then head over to the centre for souvenir shopping and gelato.

By the sea

There are so many pretty towns peppered along the 800km of Puglia’s coastline and fortunately our tour stops at quite a few. Otranto is one of the most charming – the whitewashed old city somehow makes the Adriatic Sea look an even deeper blue than I thought possible. We spend our last two nights in the old fishing village of Gallipoli – a town that encapsulates elegance, history and beach buzz. I wake early each morning to run along the footpath tracing the city’s seafront walls, enjoying beautiful vistas of sun and sea, gothic churches and the majestic fortress. It’s a magical way to get a sense of a city before it wakes – and makes me feel a little bit better about eating my weight in cheese over the past week! 

DISCOVER PUGLIA: A six-day Back-Roads Touring Slow Food Tour of Puglia includes accommodation for five nights, a private guide and driver, some meals and various excursions from $3395. Head to backroadstouring.com for more details.