Our next stop found us crossing from Basilicata into Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot) and the sleepy and charming Valley of Itria. The most famous thing about this region is probably its trulli, traditional conical dwellings. We picked out a comfortable bed and breakfast where we could stay in one of these unusual buildings (and the hammock and pool were nice bonuses) and spent our days journeying around the small hamlets in the region.
Each town felt similar: the whitewashed buildings, the blooming flowers in window boxes, the cafes with tables spilling out onto the public square. And yet each had a slightly different vibe: different topography, its own culinary specialties, and a different view over the countryside dotted with olive trees as far as the eye can see. Puglia is where the majority of Italy’s wine and olive oil is produced, and while the interior of the region is mostly dry and flat and agricultural, it also boasts tons of beaches and coastal towns that in some ways are more reminiscent of Greece than Italy.
We had heard great things about Puglia — it is even referred to as “the next Tuscany” (i.e., get there while you can!) — and we both found it to be lovely and unassuming in its offerings. It didn’t try to be anything it’s not, and while Puglia has lots to offer, it hasn’t let its appeal get to its head; it’s still welcoming without begging for your tourism. It felt more real to me than many parts of the popular Tuscan countryside; sure, tourists have been visiting for decades, it’s not some kind of well-kept secret that backpackers just discovered or anything, but it didn’t seem like Puglia had inconvenienced itself or undergone any major transformations just because people are increasingly discovering what’s on offer. Would you like to taste some of the local wine? Great, come on over, but we’re not going to pour you a fancy flight and give you a cheese & meat board to go along with it; in fact, we’d prefer if you just bought a plastic jug of it and enjoyed it at your leisure!
This region also contained the culinary (and perhaps overall) high-point of the trip, an eight-course dinner at Masseria Il Frantoio. Upon driving up the estate’s gravel driveway, we felt like we were traveling back in time (our first hint may have been the ancient Fiat parked outside the gate). Before dinner, the owner led us on a short tour of the property, telling us about the dozens of different strains of heirloom olives they grow — each one produces a unique olive oil which brings a unique flavor to the dish it’s used in — the 24 herbs they grow in the herb garden, and the Arabian garden growing oranges and even bananas. His speech was quite boastful, but anyone in his position and with his lifestyle would be proud. We got a clear sense of the region’s and the property’s history, and he seemed eminently aware of his place in the world.
After the tour, we were seated for dinner, and as Luciano and his family brought out course after course of simple, fresh, and delicious food, we were awakened again and again to “how food is supposed to taste”. We always have this feeling many times in Italy; maybe it’s the pace of life, the agriculture methods, or something in the air, but so much Italian produce is so bright, flavorful, and always served at the peak of ripeness that the corresponding food we get here in the U.S. often pales in comparison. Italian cooking is very simple; most dishes have only a handful of ingredients, but when the ingredients are so wonderful, you don’t need to do a lot to them.
Our bellies full and our bodies rested, we headed a few hours north to Trani, a charming port town on the Adriatic that doesn’t attract many tourists. Indeed, the thing that brought us there was not the restaurants, sights, or the beach, but the fact that my grandfather was born there. You’ll have to wait, because this story will be told in the next post.
The last stop (after Trani) on our all-too-quick tour of Puglia was the Gargano peninsula, where we rented the last apartment on an outcrop of land over the Adriatic Sea. The Gargano Peninsula juts out like a spur on the boot of Italy, and feels more like an island than a peninsula. It boasts a dramatic coastline and the interior contains the only remaining part of an ancient forest, the hilly Foresta Umbra. We woke each morning to have coffee on our small patio with commanding views of the sea, then packed the rental car to explore just a few of the peninsula’s many beaches. Although it was a bit windy and not quite high-season, we were shocked to find a beautiful and rugged beach completely to ourselves. We spent all morning in the little cove pictured below with only seagulls for neighbors. We laughed at how many people would be crammed into this beach if it were on the Amalfi coast.
One day after working up an appetite sitting on the beach, we walked a few minutes up the coast to have lunch at a trabucco, a style of seafood restaurant completely unique to this region. My understanding of the fishing method is that every night they just drop a huge net off a corner of the structure with a few long poles leaning out over the water, then in the morning the pull the ropes at the end of the poles to haul in the day’s catch without ever leaving land or casting a line! The informal atmosphere reminded us of lobster shacks in Maine or crab dives in Maryland. The fish was juicy and fresh as can be, accented with a simple tomato salad and even a delicious pale ale–Italy’s craft beer industry has made great strides in the last few years!
The main town in the Gargano Peninsula is Vieste, which we spent a couple hours exploring one afternoon. It is famous for its dramatic white monolith, Pizzomunno, jutting up from the town’s beach about 80 feet high.
We loved the beautiful coastline, plethora of beaches, and windy coastal roads and wish we had had a bit longer to journey into the peninsula’s mountainous center. At least we’ve left something to explore for the next time!