Saturday, 11 June 2011

Puglia's Rustic Charm

Every part of Puglia oozes rustic charm.
I don’t think I will be upsetting anyone by saying that, in places, Puglia is a little rough around the edges.  But it is precisely this that gives the region it’s rustic charm and Puglia wouldn’t be the same without it.  And it’s not like there isn’t a whole lot of luxury available around every corner should you want it.  Northern Italy has pristine, almost staged, rustic appeal whilst Puglia provides the raw, real Italy.
Puglia is the long strip of land 400km from North to South that makes up the 'heel' of Italy.  This rustic charm may have stemmed from it’s varied occupancy throughout history, which is so evident in its landscapes, property and food.  For centuries it was a strategic provenience, colonized, invaded and conquered by just about every major power of the day, from the Greeks through to the Spanish.
The landscape is at its best in the Valle d'Itria, an undulating plateau in the centre of the province.  From historic centres of hill-top towns you can look across the patchwork quilt of small rural plots towards the blue Adriatic ocean.  Many of the beaches have shale rather than sand under foot and provide a serious chilling space before dipping in to the clear, warm water.  Join one of the private beach clubs for a day to take advantage of their sunbeds, caf├ęs and showers.
Unique to this area are 'Trulli' which are dotted throughout Puglia’s countryside with olive groves, vineyards, cherry, peach and almond orchards, all neatly partitioned by dry-stone walls.  Trulli are ancient cylindrical buildings with thick white limestone walls and stone conical roofs.  Often attached are 'lamia', a barrel roofed stone building.  These ancient stone buildings were lived in by the agricultural community to keep cool in the heat and warm in the winter.  Local expertise is required to refurbish the ancient stone and there are now some amazing properties in the area.
No better example is Trulli Talily, nestled in the heart of Valle d'Itria, which provides self-catering holiday accommodation sleeping up to five.  Off the beaten track the trullo is set in it’s own plot with olive grove and fruit trees. No words I write will better explain Puglia’s luxurious rustic charm than that offered by Trulli Talily, located between two favourite historic towns Ostuni and Cisternino.
Ostuni, known as "the White City", is one of Southern Italy's most stunning small towns with a sandy coastline only 7km away.  Situated on three hills at the Southern-most edge of “Le Merge”, it was an important Greco-Roman city in the first century AD.  The old centre spreads across the highest of the hills, a gleaming white splash of sun bleached streets and cobbled alleyways, dominating the plains below.  Cisternino rejoices in the nickname "La Vera" (the Real Thing) and is a marvellous antidote to touristy Alberobello.  It's a pleasure to wander around the tiny, whitewashed alleyways of it's old town.
A top tip for lunch is to order anti-pasti (a pre-starter) for two, or even share one between two.  For about 10 euros you’ll have a rustic feast and be able to sample the simply cooked fresh produce.  The local dishes may have peasant origins but they are uncomplicated and some of the best food I have ever tasted.
Finding good restaurants or any product and service in Puglia can be like hunting for treasure.  You can’t just look it up on the internet or follow the signs.  Ask around and you’ll eventually be pointed in the direction of a place that can only be discovered through word and mouth.  Whether you are yards from the central square of a town or in the middle of the countryside, you can find nameless places to eat that feel more like walking in to a friend’s dining room and will typically have a little old lady sitting in the corner, hunched over a bowl, making pasta by hand.  The local pasta is called orecchiette (which means little ears) and is well worth a try.
If you love seafood you will adore Puglia and must try the beach huts along the coast. A favourite is La Rotonda Da Rosa located between Savelletri and Torre Canne. Rosa featured on Rik Steins’ Med programme cooking Ricci (sea urchin) with pasta which was in Rik’s top 5 dishes in the med.  It’s always busy at lunch with every possible demographic represented including families, business men in suits, work men with muddy boots, teenagers, kids.  A few minutes up the coast is La Ritzina, a seafood restaurant where, if you are brave enough, you can try raw muscles and sea urchin.  Further north up the coast is the Hotel Grotta Palazzese in Polignano a Mare. This must be one of the most stunning restaurants in the world. Hewn out of a vast natural cave overlooking the Adriatic, with a 24-metre drop to the sea, it has been attracting visitors since the 18th century.  The list of places to eat like a king and enjoy great food and great cooking is however endless.  It won’t take long before you find your own treasure.
Wine lovers will enjoy tasting the local grapes - the region was once known as “the wine cellar of Europe”. Castel del Monte is produced in the north, and in the south, full-bodied reds such as Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera are popular. The local whites are lighter and include those from Locorotondo and Martina Franca.
The Apulian people are easy going and relaxed in nature, making you feel welcome wherever you go.  Neighbours treat you like long lost friends and come bearing gifts, usually in the form of something very tasty to eat or drink.  Perhaps it’s their charm that helps exaggerate the charm of Puglia’s landscapes, property and food?
Flights: There are daily three hour flights throughout the year with Ryan Air from London Stanstead to Brindisi and Bari.  Book flights with Ryan Air at www.ryanair.com Tel: 0906 270 5656. There are also regular flights with British Airways from London Gatwick direct to Bari.  Flights are every Thursday and Saturday and run from April through to October.  Book flights with British Airways at www.britishairways.com Tel: 0870 850 9850.
Accommodation: Further information about Trulli Talily Holiday Let can be found at www.trullitalily.com including photos, plans, availability and details of how to book.  Brindisi airport is a 25 min drive to the South whilst Bari airport is an hour north of Trulli Talily. Available from March to October prices from €685 or £595 up to €1,030 or £895 in peak season.
Car Hire: A car is essential and we recommend booking it in advance, ready for collection from one of the car rental desks at the airport.  You’ll find some of the best deals using a company such as Auto Europe Car Hire (www.auto-europe.co.uk).
Restaurants: Hotel Grotta Palazzese (www.grottapalazzese.it; 00 39 080 424 0677) in Polignano a Mare. Open from May to September, offering mainly seafood dishes. Prices start at about €30 per head but can be up to €200.  Osteria del Tempo Perso (Via Tanzarella 47; www.osteriadeltempoperso.com; 00 39 0831 304 819) in Ostuni serves delicious antipasto and melt-in-the-mouth ravioli. It costs €40 per head.