Monday, November 15, 2010

The historic, homely heel at the end of Italy's boot: Six things you must do in Puglia

written By Gareth Huw Davies for DailyMail

Think the high heel of Italy's famous 'boot' and you have Puglia, the country's buzzing destination. This long-forgotten region has been climbing the travel league table and is now challenging Tuscany and Umbria as the chic place to visit. Here is Gareth Huw Davies's must-see-and-do list in this tucked-away region:

1. Look out
Puglia (Apulia in Italian) is a land of vivid colours and rustic charm - all low hills and broad red plains smothered in crops and gnarled old olive trees. The big scenic feature is the long, east-facing Adriatic coastline.
Dotted with pretty seaside towns and bays of clear water and white sand, Italy's south-east extremity has been an invaders' thoroughfare down the millennia. Its early-warning system survives in ancient watchtowers along the Salento peninsula.
There are about 50 left, some Norman. Another ancient feature is the string of 800-year-old churches and cathedrals. Finest of all is in the seaside town of Trani. Its dazzling, chalk-white, big-impact cathedral sits on a broad square, on the lip of the turquoise sea.

2. Floor show
One of the many little-known marvels scattered about Puglia is in Otranto. This peaceful place is on the clear, clean Adriatic, near the tip of the heel, where Albania is much closer than Rome.
The astounding 800-year-old Tree of Life mosaic is in the Norman cathedral. Filling the entire floor of the nave and choir, it is arranged like a standard family tree. The trunk rests on two elephants.
Lose yourself in a fabulous and dotty mix of images spread through the branches, depicting Creation, the fall of Adam and Eve and Judgment Day. There's a supporting role for Noah and other biblical worthies as well as King Arthur, Alexander the Great, the Tower of Babel and assorted dragons, unicorns and Norse gods.

3. Bold build
In the 17th Century the city fathers in little Lecce commissioned their own masterpieces to compete with the grand cities in the north. The exuberant baroque architecture gave the town the unofficial title 'Florence of the South'.
Six fine churches are scattered through the compact historic centre, alongside Piazza Sant'Oronzo, the main square, the Roman amphitheatre, triumphal arch and shady courtyards under wrought-iron balconies.
Leading the over-the-top list is one of the most exciting baroque churches in Italy, the 16th Century Basilica of Santa Croce. Carved cherubim, mermaids and wolves swirl around the lavish facade and encircle the Rose Window. The Trattoria Le Zie does amazing home cooking.

Chiesa di San Domenico, Nardò, Lecce, Puglia

4. The chic of it
One of the key words in Puglia's current tourism boom is masseria. These once-crumbling fortified farmhouses, with turrets and thick walls to deter invaders, are being spruced up to boutique hotel standard. Rooms look out over orange groves and shimmering sea. Now seaside watchtowers are being converted, too. Expect sumptuous bed linen, swanky furniture and polished antiques. Some rooms have their own private gardens, or a pool. Many have a spa and there's usually a restaurant. The new deal is cookery lessons from the chef, and wine and olive oil tasting. Bikes are often supplied for touring.

5. Power of eight
The 13th Century Castel del Monte has the secret of eternal youth built into its ramparts. The exceptionally well-preserved, honey-hued fortress, commanding a rocky peak near Andria, is more maths formula than fairy castle. The perfectly regular shape is a homage to the figure 8, with octagons everywhere. Experts are still trying to fathom what it all means. Built by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, this unique piece of medieval military architecture is one of two world heritage sites in Puglia.
The others are the trulli - little stone houses with conical roofs - around Alberobello. Some are very old indeed. They were built without mortar using an ancient technique.

6. Smart chefs
Puglia chefs know how to make the land work for them. The cuisine is simple and glorious, based around the local orecchiette (ear-shaped) pasta and a cornucopia of vegetables.
Tough times made cooks inventive with chickpeas, capers, green peppers, aubergines and basil. They even have their own vegetable, the barattiere, a cross between a cucumber and a melon. Look around for small, extremely hospitable family restaurants. My drink of choice would be deep red Primitivo wine.

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