The southeastern province of Puglia (also known as Apulia) is traditionally one of the lesser-visited parts of Italy. But it's a great place to holiday, and not only because of the smaller crowds. The “heel” of Italy's boot has a sublime Mediterranean climate, gorgeous beaches, delicious local cuisine, and archeological and World Heritage-listed sites galore. All that, and lower prices too.
WHAT TO SEE
Possibly the most famous buildings in Puglia are the trulli, whitewashed stone huts with conical roofs. They're only found in and around the town of Alberobello, where the districts full of trulli have become a major tourist attraction.
Wandering around Alberobello feels like you've stumbled into an abandoned Smurf village, but the trulli aren't there for show. For centuries they were used as single dwellings for agricultural labourers or homes for whole peasant families, who would share two or three connected trulli. Today most have been converted into shops or mini apartments for tourists.
The Puglia region is also known for its medieval castles, nearly all of them built by one man, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250). His masterpiece is the Castel del Monte, which appears on the Italian version of the Euro one cent coin, but his grand fortresses are all over Puglia, including in the seafront towns of Bari, Trani and Brindisi.
You'll definitely want to see Lecce, a town with a history of at least 2500 years which was rebuilt in extravagant Baroque style during the 17th century. Sometimes called “the Florence of the South”, Lecce can't boast the wealth of culture of its northern cousin, but it's a lovely place to spend a day or so wandering through the great cathedrals, castles and squares.
Ostuni, a dazzling white town perched on a hillside overlooking the sea, is worth a visit – but be warned, you'll need strong legs to explore its steep streets and narrow alleyways. Reward yourself with a meal at Masseria Il Frantoio, a country house just outside Ostuni, where owner Armando will give you a tour of the house and gardens before you sit down to an eight-course menu of Puglian specialities on the elegant patio.
Officially, it's over the provincial border in Basilicata (the “instep” of Italy's boot), but you must see the cave city of Matera on your trip to Puglia. People have been living in caves here for at least 9000 years, making Matera's caves the oldest continually inhabited dwellings in Italy. After spending much of the 20th Century in an impoverished state, Matera has experienced a major turnaround thanks to tourism. If you want to stay the night in a cave there's an impressive range of mid-range and luxury hotels and B&Bs to choose from.
WHAT TO EAT
Tuscany and Liguria may be more well-known as foodie destinations, but Puglia has some of the best eating in Italy. The hot Mediterranean climate grows an astounding variety of vegetables, and you'll eat most of them as part of a Puglian antipasti, a vast smorgasbord of dishes which is about as far from a sad salami-and-breadsticks antipasti as it's possible to get. The pasta speciality here is orecchiette (or “little ears”). Wander through the old town of Bari and you'll see nonnas (grandmothers) making orecchiette by cutting tiny slivers of pasta dough and pressing them with their forefingers. Every restaurant serves orecchiette dishes, the most common being “con cime di ripa” (with turnip tops).
Puglia is olive oil country - almost a quarter of all Italy's entire production comes from the region – and you'll find it poured liberally over most dishes, from pasta to fish. Dairy is used less often, but what it does serve is amazing. Puglia is the home to the burrata cheese, a heavenly, gooey version of mozzarella that has to be eaten fresh. Puglia even has its own version of coffee, the caffè leccese (leccese means “from Lecce”), an iced espresso with sugar and almond milk or almond syrup.