Friday, April 11, 2008

The heel of Italy, still wonderfully untrodden by British tourists, is home to some of the country's finest cuisine and wine. Francisca Kellett report

Puglia, the region comprising the "heel" (and the lower calf) of Italy, has long suffered invasions. Over the past 2,000 years and more, the Greeks, the Romans, the Turks and the Venetians have all rampaged through. But tourists have yet to launch a serious incursion and Puglia remains one of those destinations known only to devotees of Italy.
To the Italians, though, the delights of Puglia are nothing new. They've been drawn for decades by the rugged bright-white coastline, its silvery-grey groves of olive and almond trees, and the whitewashed villages of the ancient conical trulli houses.
But the scenery, though pretty, is mostly flat, and not the main draw for tourists; the real reason for coming here is the food and wine. Puglia makes 80 per cent of Italy's pasta and olive oil; there are bountiful crops of tomatoes, figs, fennel and melon, and mozzarella is made by many local producers. Both the northern plains and the Salentine Peninsula are given over to vineyards, producing particularly good reds from the primitivo grape, and some of Italy's best modern wines - known as the Super-Puglians.
Despite Puglia's strong rural feel, it also has a handful of appealing towns worth exploring, such as Lecce, with its extravagant honey-coloured Baroque stonework. The trulli town of Alberobello and the oddly octagonal Castel del Monte are the most popular sights, but even these are free of the crowds found in Tuscany or the Lakes.
While the beaches may not rival those of, say, Sardinia, there are some beautiful stretches that combine well with an inland stay. In the north is the Gargano peninsula, with well-developed sandy beaches, spectacular bright-white cliffs and the dark forests of the Foresta Umbra, popular with hikers and cyclists. Central Puglia has good family beaches, while the bright green coves of the Salentine peninsula have some of the cleanest bathing water in Italy.
Overall it's not an ideal family destination, but it's a good place for couples who are happy to split their time between pottering around little towns and basking on a beach. This falls in line with the choice in accommodation - many of the area's masserias (fortified farm houses) have been converted into smart hotels. They work particularly well for a short, early- or late-season break.
Above all else, Puglia is best-suited to those with a love of all things Italian. This is the place for long lunches, early evening passeggiate (strolls) and drinks watching the comings and goings of fishing boats. Italy's heel, visitors will find, is still a long way from being well-trodden.
Southern Puglia
Lecce: It's difficult not to be impressed by the frivolity of Lecce's extravagant baroque architecture. A haphazard grid of alleys characterises the centre, where each turn reveals a fresh set of excessive swirls and sculpted façades formed from a honey-coloured stone, which is malleable when quarried but quickly hardens, making it ideal for sculpting. Baroque churches and palazzos abound, but the finest building is the Basilica di Santa Croce, with its decorative stucco and superbly preserved figures.
The Salentine peninsula: South of Lecce is a small stretch of rugged coastline, with few beaches but a handful of seaside towns worth visiting.
Otranto: The old town of Otranto has long spilled beyond its 15th-century walls, but it is the tightly packed centre that remains the main draw. Here, narrow, car-free lanes paved with smooth ivory-coloured stone wind between pockmarked houses. Don't miss the Romanesque cathedral, with a stunning restored 12th-century mosaic covering the floor. Beyond the thick town walls is a modern seaside resort with a small harbour and palm-lined promenade. There's a handful of small but clean beaches, surrounded by cliffs dropping into crystal-clear turquoise water.
The coast road: From Otranto, the countryside opens up into fields - hazy with wildflowers and butterflies in June, parched brown in August - before the road heads back along the cliff-lined coast. It passes through a series of tiny settlements, taken over almost entirely by holiday villas. It's worth pausing briefly in the faded little town of Santa Cesarea Terme, which clings to rocks above a small cove. Have an espresso in Porta D'Oriente; it overlooks a spectacular Moorish villa with a burnt-orange dome and eccentric porticos.
Santa Maria di Leuca: At the southern tip of the peninsula is this lively resort town, with whitewashed houses and a broad promenade busy with strolling families and strutting youngsters. This is one of the few resorts with a beach, although it's small and narrow, with coarse yellow sand and rocky shallows.
Your move When to go June and September are the best times as the temperature has fallen to the high 20s, the main tourist sights are quiet and the beaches are empty.
Additional research by Nick Trend.
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