Experience la dolce vita in Puglia, Italy

Experience a real slice of Italy in the southern region, where locals soak up the halcyon summer days, fresh produce and fantastic wine

At the height of a Mediterranean summer, the air is quiet and still. A breathless heat reverberates from the road and I pedal faster to feel a hint of breeze.

My guide Andrea and I are on the first leg of a 40km cycle through the Puglia countryside.

Past olive groves and dry stone walls, on tiny roads which meander across the undulating landscape, we ride through abandoned streets of dusty villages, where church clocks never seem to keep true time and buildings show signs of decay.

But here are tended pots of what look like begonias and nasturtiums overflowing from windowsills, and there, parked haphazardly at the roadside, is a blue Piaggio Ape, a lightweight, three-wheel truck that is to the Italian countryside what the Vespa is to its cities. These vehicles - pronounced "ah-pey", which means "bee" in Italian - zip down the back lanes of towns, carrying everything the land has to offer.

We hardly see anyone until, going around a bush-lined bend, we encounter several contadini, or Italian farmhands, bent over and picking scarlet tomatoes from vines, then loading them onto a nearby truck.

 

I ask Andrea to stop so I can take a few photographs and, inadvertently, attract the attention of the group's foreman, rotund of belly and cheek, with skin the same rusty brown as the earth under his fingernails. He smiles and I try my luck, asking if I can sample a tomato.

The foreman happily offers me one of each type grown in the field, a long San Marzano and an orb he calls a Tombolone, though I cannot find any reference to this variety once I am home. They are destined for a nearby canning factory to be stewed and turned into sauce. I bite into their taut skin, and the sweet, slightly acidic meat is sun-warmed and full of flavour. Juice runs down my arm as I eat them greedily like we would apples.


Children and adults alike jump off rocks with abandon into the azure seas south of Otranto. ST PHOTOS: LYDIA VASKO

Puglia - sometimes called Apulia by English speakers - is a region in southern Italy between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. It starts at the top of Italy's ankle, at the spur of Gargano National Park, and continues down the heel of the boot.

With more coastline than any other region on the Italian mainland, Italians flock here by the thousands for their summer holidays in July and August, when the region's sheltered coves and beaches are lined with the candy-coloured towels and umbrellas of Italian urbanites.

The most famous are arguably the 30m-high cliffs around Polignano a Mare - a small but vibrant city atop a jagged headland roughly 30km south of Bari, the region's capital - which tower over a scenic inlet and Lama Monachile, easily the most photographed beach in the region.

Puglia is largely untouched by foreign tourists, who prefer to explore Italy's western coast and Tuscan countryside. Though it is peak tourist season when I arrive in August, I am delighted to find that, aside from staff in restaurants, hotels and historic city centres, I rarely hear a word of English, French or German. Everywhere I go, I am immersed in the musical lilt of Italian instead.

While the seaside is spectacular, Italians also holiday here to indulge in fantastic wine and food.

Mozzarella and burrata are local specialities, handmade here from fresh cow's milk for centuries. Wander the alleyways and back lanes of the old towns in the morning and you will see aunties and grandmothers sitting outside their homes making orecchiette, little ear-shaped pasta, by hand, and leaving them to dry in the sun. They might invite you to join them, though the region offers plenty of cooking classes which teach how to make them too.

  • Getting there

  • Most travellers will get to Puglia via its main airports in Bari and Brindisi.

    One can take a Singapore Airlines flight to Rome, then transfer to an Alitalia flight to Bari, or fly Singapore Airlines or Lufthansa to Munich, then transfer to an Air Dolomiti flight to the regional capital.

    Those who wish to arrive in Brindisi can fly Singapore Airlines to Rome, then transfer to an Alitalia flight to Brindisi.

    Once you have arrived, it is best to skip boring, industrial Bari and Brindisi and head straight to the coast or countryside, where you can visit interesting cities such as Monopoli, Ostuni and Lecce.

    TIPS

    • Puglia is at its best from May to October, with July and August as the busiest and most expensive period of the tourist season. Winter, with strong winds and heavy rain, is not popular for visitors, and many hotels and tour operators are open only during the warmer six months of the year. The cheaper shoulder seasons, from May to June and September to October, still boast beautiful weather, however, and hotels and tours, while they might still seem expensive, are value for money. However, if you are after Pugliese food rather than fun in the sun, some say winter is the best time to go. Fishermen catch the tastiest fish, Pugliese dishes are most nuanced and restaurants are much quieter during this time of year.

    • It was not until the mid-19th century that Italy was unified as a nation. Before that, the boot comprised independent kingdoms, each with its own language and dialects. After unification, Tuscan Italian was declared the national language, but many regions retained their unique speech. Puglia's many dialects include some of the most distinctive in the country. Guttural and abrupt, loaded with consonants and different words and phrases altogether, they can be largely unintelligible to Italians from the north. People in the tourist industry will mostly be able to speak English, however, so travellers will have no trouble getting around.

    • While there are hotels and bed and breakfasts aplenty in Puglia, a trip is not complete without spending at least one night in a masseria - grand farmhouses which have been converted into hotels. The Mr & Mrs Smith (www.mrandmrssmith.com/destinations/italy/puglia) collection of boutique hotels has listings for some of the best masserias in the region, such as Masseria Torre Maizza, and exceptional hotels such as Don Ferrante, with 10 rooms built right into Monopoli's historic seafront ramparts.

    • The best way to explore Puglia is by car. If this is not available to you, a cheap, clean and reliable network of trains and buses connects the cities. From your stop, you can book a tour or rent a bicycle to explore the countryside.

Viator (www.viator.com), TripAdvisor's booking arm, offers dozens of vetted and traveller-rated guides, tours and day trips in the region. I take a class at Masseria Potenti (www.masseriapotenti.it), an expansive lime-washed farmhouse which has been converted into a stunning bed and breakfast in Puglia's south-west, close to the region's best beaches, Punta Prosciutto and Porto Cesareo.

The seafood in Puglia, caught daily from the pristine waters around the coast, is worth its weight in gold. Prawns from the quaint Savelletri fishing village are the sweetest I have tasted.

I stayed nearby at the Masseria Torre Maizza (www.masseriatorremaizza.com), a stylish hotel converted from a farmhouse 20km south of Monopoli, with trellises of grape-laden vines and pink and purple bougainvillea scaling the rooftops of the property's 30 rooms.

I opt for lunch in town, where a dozen seafood restaurants line the picturesque port. All are good, I am told, so I pick a trattoria with a view of the sea and dig into a delicious seafood risotto.

Puglia is known for seafood so fresh it is often eaten raw, with slices of the day's catch - octopus, prawns, red mullet and scallops - served on a plate, occasionally with a squeeze of lemon. But the king of Pugliese seafood is the sea urchin, plentiful along the rocky coast.

Andrea and I stop at a roadside stall, where a father and son have tipped over plastic buckets of small inky sea urchins onto a table. Half a dozen customers are seated at similar tables behind, their plates piled high with the prickly spheres full of roe, which they inhale, one after another, like peanuts. At €0.50 (S$0.76) apiece, they may as well be, and Andrea, who conducts private bicycle, food, and wine tours of Puglia through his company Path Walks, Talks & Beyond (www.experience-path.com), says locals can eat 40 to 50 a person, just as an appetiser.

Agriculture plays a major role in the region's economy and a ride through the fertile countryside will take you past sun-drenched fields of tomatoes, fennel, oats, artichokes, salad greens, almond trees and its most important crops - olives, wheat and grapes.

Puglia has deeply rooted viticulture and produces more wine than any other region in Italy. Though it is best known for its red Negroamaro and Primitivo grapes, I prefer its chardonnay, which is bright and crisp, with no oak and just the right amount of butteriness. Try it and you will never look at chardonnay the same way.

With more than 60 million olive trees, Puglia is also Italy's largest producer of olive oil. For centuries, the oil was used not for food, but for soap and lighting lamps, and was pressed in underground stone mills. Now out of use, some of these mills are open to visitors, such as one constructed under the streets of Gallipoli in the 1600s, which I visit with Green Italy Tours (www.greenitalytours.com).

At its peak, Gallipoli, on Puglia's south-western coast, was moving 35 ships of olive oil a day from its harbour to markets as far as England and Sweden, until demand for olive oil fell with the rise of petroleum in the 1800s.

Still, the trees remained and, eventually, the market turned to producing olive oil for food. Thousands of trees here are many centuries old, their gnarled branches producing olives since they were planted by the Romans. The oldest olive tree in Puglia has stood for an astonishing 3,500 years.

While in Ostuni - a romantic, hilltop city rising from the surrounding olive trees - I join a half-day cycling tour with Madera Bike Tour (www.maderabike.com) to the national park and farmland nearby. The tour takes me to a working farm, where I sample fresh cheese, figs and honey and stop by a dolmen, a Stonehengelike megalithic tomb made of three stone slabs thought to be about 5,000 years old.

Puglia has been inhabited for more than 50,000 years, so every city I visit boasts historical architecture and artefacts. Stone- and Bronze-Age relics and tall, tapered stone monuments called menhir, whose purpose is still a mystery, are scattered across the landscape.

In Ostuni, the Church of San Vito has an intriguing exhibition of artefacts from the Neolithic and Paleolithic eras. In Lecce, a Baroque-era capital with elaborately decorated basilicas, museums and palaces, a recessed Roman amphitheatre stands in its historic centre - as they sometimes do in Italy - where performances are now held most nights.

In the 11th-century Cathedral of Otranto, where the floor is an intricate mediaeval mosaic of scenes from the Old Testament, visitors will see the skulls and bones of 800 martyrs, massacred for refusing to convert to Islam during the Ottoman invasion of the city in 1480.

A trip to Puglia is not complete without a visit to Alberobello to see the trulli, cylindrical dry stone huts with conical roofs unique to the region's Itria valley, some dating back to the 14th century. The town offers the highest concentration of the huts, creeping up the hillsides like a fairy-tale village.

Every city in Puglia has its charms, best observed at night. In the summertime, the sun is often too strong to do much more than lie on the beach or retreat into the shade, so the streets are practically deserted. But once the sun sets at around 8pm, the cities come alive. Suddenly, they are full of people heading for a drink or a bite before dinner, which typically does not start until 9.30 or 10pm.

I am most charmed by cities such as Monopoli, which hum with laughter and chatter at night, locals and tourists indulging in gelato and a walk around the city's ramparts.

I love that the old towns in Puglia are not as touristy as other cities in Italy, where historic centres are overrun with sightseers and kitschy souvenir shops, their native inhabitants long escaped to other suburbs.

Here, touristy shops are interspersed with local corner markets and cafes, laundry is still hung from the windows and boisterous boys chase one another through the piazza. The locals still live here and I am able to admire an authentic slice of Italian life, one made by Italians for Italians, the ultimate connoisseurs of la bella vita, the good life.

I do not have to dig deep to find it either. The pure Italian experience is right here, where the people are, enjoying halcyon summer days and night-time strolls, gorgeous wine and the freshest produce. While foreigners traipse through the northern cities and queue for museums, the Italians are peacefully soaking up the sun, living the bona fide bella vita right here, in Puglia.

• This trip was co-sponsored by Mr & Mrs Smith (www.mrandmrssmith.com) and Viator (www.viator.com).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'Picturesque Puglia'. Print Edition | Subscribe