Nell Casey takes her family to Puglia and makes the case for why you should go now—before this true gem bordering the Adriatic and Ionian Seas becomes a trendy destination.
Apulia—or Puglia, as it is better known—is a region in the heel of the boot of Italy with immaculate beaches and Baroque architecture that has long been considered a well-kept secret by locals.
Our trip—I was accompanied by my husband and two children—began by flying into the capital city of Bari and immediately driving south to Polignano a Mare. (Though Bari is also worth a visit, our time and itinerary didn’t allow for it.) On the way, we pulled off the highway to eat lunch at the elegant Da Tuccino, having been tipped off by a Roman friend that this was a not-to-be-missed culinary experience. And she was right: we ate spaghetti con le cozze while sitting on the terrace overlooking the beach and the Adriatic, feeling triumphant for having started our vacation so brilliantly.
Afterwards, we settled into Borgobianco, a lovely resort in the hills of Polignano. With its white buildings and white decor, it certainly lives up to its name. In fact all of Puglia lives up to this name. The houses are white, the sand is white, even the entire town of Polignano a Mare is carved out of limestone—but always with a peek of bright color from the bougainvillea climbing the walls and the oleander lining the road.
Polignano is a wonderful town—tiny and amiable—built into the cliffs above the sea. We immediately found ourselves lost within the winding streets—peeking into the enchanting church of Santa Maria Assunta along the way—until we emerged on a balconied promenade with a panoramic view of the sea. As we took in the landscape, an appealing Italian scene played out around us: kids were kicking a soccer ball in the piazza, men were fishing by the water, up the street someone jubilantly shouted out a greeting to a friend: “Ciao Marco!” But perhaps the best signifier of Polignano’s cheery charisma is its famous one-time resident: Domenico Modugno, who wrote and sang the iconic Italian song Volare.
Our next stop was Monopoli, a fishing village just a short drive south of Polignano. On our way to Il Melograno—an exquisite hotel converted from a 16th-century farmhouse—we stopped at another restaurant on the beach: Lido Bianco. (Yes, bianco; it’s a well-acknowledged theme.) We had quickly learned it is best to plan for a long lunch in Puglia as the towns basically shut down from 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. every day. This is hardly a burden: The meals—especially the seafood—are outstanding. We ate on the outdoor rooftop terrace with a postcard-like view of pristine white sailboats gliding along turquoise water. The restaurant also overlooks a strip of beach that seemed so appealing, we found ourselves, despite the fact that none of us had our bathing suits, wading in the water and building sandcastles after lunch.
Early in the evening, we went to the historic center of Monopoli for a family passeggiata. The setting sun offered gorgeous light by which to see the many and varied cathedrals. This port city has constantly changed hands—from the Byzantines to the Normans to the Venetians, among others—through the ages. Much of the town still tells this story: From the Greek influence of its name (derived from Monòpolis) to the 16th century fortifications built to protect the city from Muslim pirates—the old cannons still sit along the walls—to the Castle of Charles the V, built in 1525, which now hosts art exhibitions and cultural events
We spent the next day in Alberobello, the UNESCO-protected trulli capital of Puglia. Trulli are small white stone huts with conical roofs believed to date back to the 14th century—they look as if they’ve been modeled after spinning tops. Alberobello has become a well-trod sightseeing stop and, as a result, many of the trulli now mostly house souvenir shops. One of the great pleasures of Puglia is that, while there are plenty of beautiful sights, there are no obligatory cultural stops—no Coliseum, no Caravaggios. So it was a bit disappointing to suddenly find ourselves in the thick of the tourists of Alberobello, being herded from one trullo to the next, despite the odd allure of these little homes.
We capped our trip at the Masseria Prosperi, a unique hotel in Frassanito, in the Salento, a region with its own distinct personality that encapsulates the peninsula at the very southern tip of Puglia. The Prosperi was a lovely surprise: It is a six-room hotel that feels more like you’re visiting that cool artist friend who ran off to become an ex-pat. Meals are communal affairs—families gather in the living room for a drink and then move on to the terrace for a home-cooked meal. Meanwhile, the children swim—either in the glass-encased indoor pool or the gorgeous outdoor pool—and play with the farm animals milling about the property.
Prosperi also makes a good jumping off point for day trips. We spent one day in Otranto—a coastal village best known for its cathedral, Santa Cesarea di Terme, and the 12th-century Tree of Life mosaic, one of the largest in Europe, that lines its floor. Another day, we toured Gallipoli, where fisherman haul their fresh catches—such as the spiky ricci di mare with the velvety orange roe within—and sell them on the beach.
Lastly, we visited Lecce, referred to as “Florence of the South,” and with good reason. The Baroque architecture is spectacular, particularly the Basilica di Santa Croce, begun in the 14th century but not completed until 1695. The grand façade—decorated with animals, grotesques, and a central rose window—stopped me in my tracks.
And we discovered yet another beloved restaurant in Lecce: Le Zie Trattoria. This hole-in-the-wall, where you must ring a bell to enter, is internationally known for its commitment to traditional local dishes using only ingredients from Salento, such as handmade orecchiette, fave e cicoria (beans and chicory), and pezzetti di cavallo—um, pieces of horse.
There is a high risk of spending too much time in the car when traveling a region as large as Puglia. The masserie tend to be in secluded areas—which adds to their attraction but also makes it an effort to get to the nearest town. The best way to avoid this is to mix things up, staying part of the time in a hotel in one of the historic centers. My choice would be Lecce—not only is it breathtakingly beautiful but it is also a bit bigger and offers more to explore. My best advice, however, is hardly to move at all, taking everything in at the composed pace of the Pugliese, and watch the sea roll back once more from the shore.
Masseria Le Carrube, Ostune
Tucked in Puglia's stunning little town of Ostuni, the "White City," this working farmhouse is a study in whitewashed stone and weathered honey hues. Cavernous guestrooms (16 rooms, 4 suites), a vegetarian restaurant, two sparkling pools, and a roof terrace with panoramic sea views make the region's newest hotspot a must-stay.