Puglia is hot and dusty and a bit shabby. It is wheat fields, ancient
olive groves and vineyards. Its heritage mixes greek, roman, arabian,
bizantine, spanish influences. The shadow of the Emperor Frederic II
hangs over it. It is not the North. You wouldn't go to Puglia for a
serious walking holiday but, once there, you will still do a lot of
walking, up and down stairs and round the winding streets of the
picturesque towns and villages of the region.
Even the holidays offered by serious trekking companies shamelessly
involve road transfers from one place of interest to another, picking up
a bit of local walking and featuring lots of exploration on foot of these
places. This is pretty much what we did as we made our way south
from Umbria in 2005. And what wonderful places of interest there are:
Lecce, Otranto, Gallipoli, Ostuni, Alberobello and the Trulli country,
the Gargano promontory and just over the border into Basilicata is
This is an account of the places we enjoyed.
Exploring the heel of the boot
La Foresta Umbra, the shady forest, is in the heart
of the Gargano's mountains and is the only Italian
remnant of the ancient oak and beech forests that
once covered central Europe. It is quiet and
peaceful, harbouring a maze of footpaths and shady
picnic areas. From one of the picnic places we
found a leafy circuit to walk before moving on to the
coastal town of Peschici.
Peschici was an idyllic place where we found a
hotel above the cliffs in the shadow of an old
medieval castle and relaxed for a couple of days.
Narrow staircases and pathways led between
whitewashed houses to a pristine beach where you
could follow the shoreline exploring caves and fallen
boulders to discover more secluded beaches. A
road above the cliffs was an alternative way to return
to then begin a discovery of the restaurants that
were hidden away in quiet corners of the old town
serving delicious fresh seafood.
San Giovanni Rotondo and Padre Pio
Padre Pio was a Capuchin priest who arrived in the then
unknown village of San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916 and soon
came to be celebrated as a mystic and miracle maker. His
main claim to fame was the many stigmata that he received
but he was also apparently able to cure others of their serious
maladies. He died in 1968, was beatified in 1999 and the
sanctuary where he is entombed receives over 7 million
pilgrims a year. The place is a nightmare miracle of cheap
hotels, tacky souvenir stalls and horrendous traffic.
The Gargano Promontory - the 'spur on the heel of the boot'
This is a rocky mass of limestone which rises up from the inland plain and
plunges into the Adriatic Sea. There are natural arches, grottoes and sinkholes,
typical of karst country, but also an extensive forest area where many rare
plants are preserved. Over 11,000ha of the promontory is included in the Parco
Nazionale del Gargano and there is some good walking here particularly in the
forests of La Foresta Umbra and along the coast.
Much less enjoyable is San Giovanni Rotondo. It is a place of pilgrimage for the
saint Padre Pio and as a result has been brutally overdeveloped.
Two streets in Peschici
Matera and the Sassi
Nothing prepares you for this strange place where the sides of several deep
gullies are riddled with caves that until relatively recently housed thousands of
people in the extreme poverty described in Carlo Livi's book Christ stopped at
Sassi is the word given to the caves and excavated dwellings constructed down
the side of the ravine or gravina that drops steeply to the Matera river. People
lived here in the crude hillside caves from prehistoric times. With improvements
in skills and technology, more complex homes were created. The living areas
were extended outside, additional rooms and terraces were added and more
were constructed on top of these till the whole hillside became a solid jigsaw
puzzle of stone coloured building facades, separated only by narrow streets
Up to 15,000 people lived in this dense concentration of dwellings until, in 1952,
the government took a stand on health and hygiene grounds and relocated the
There are two areas of sassi
and the only way to really
appreciate them is on foot.
You clamber up and down
the stairways finding more
pretty corners and
perspectives than the
camera can handle.
Today many of the sassi have
been tarted up as hotels,
restaurants, shops and chic
dwellings and the whole area
is included in UNESCO's
World Heritage listing.We
took a room in one of the
sassi hotels. It was a unique
experience to luxuriate in a
cave with modern plumbing,
electricity, smart furniture and
a mini bar and, it has to be
said, an unpleasant musty
Then you go in search of the rupestrian churches which once sheltered hermits
and recluses. Some of these are embedded in the dense mass of buildings,
others are reached along rough pathways through the scrubby vegetation of the
gravina. Faded byzantine frescoes are still to be seen on the roughly carved
walls of some of the churches.
You can also follow pathways that lead further afield through the gravina and
surrounding countryside for a glimpse of the rocky landscapes of the area.
Then for a complete change of scene, the modern town is nearby with all the
amenities of contemporary life, most of all a wide range of restaurants and the
most vibrant evening passeggiata we have seen in all our travels in Italy.
Trulli are also found in rural areas and we found these to be
even more appealing. Little groups, not as well maintained as
those in Alberobello, are clustered together in farm
complexes in the midst of vineyards, orchards or fields.
Alberobello and Trulli country
Another World Heritage site, the trulli country makes you
want to laugh out loud for the sheer whimsy of the place
and its extraordinary buildings.
Trulli are flat walled houses, usually white, topped with
conical stone roofs that feature decorative topknots and are
sometimes painted with astrological symbols. The trulli are
unique to this area and no one can quite explain their
origin. They possibly date from the 16th century. The
biggest concentration is in the town of Alberobello which is
very touristy but like an oversized fairyland of comical
Also in this area are Locorotondo and Martina
Franca, two baroque gems, well worth a visit. As
you might expect from its name, Locorotondo is
built to a circular plan. It is a pleasant place to
wander through narrow streets lined with tall
whitewashed buildings which are decorated with
wrought iron balconies and colourful hanging pot
plants. Being perched on the top of a hill, there is a
wonderful view from here over the trulli plains.
Martina Franca is larger and has more imposing
buildings. It is a mad mix of baroque and rococo
with quite grand palaces, churches and piazzas
decorated in an elaborate baroque style. It is a
fascinating place to explore and has many
restaurants in the narrow streets or small piazzas
which are well worth trying.
In the year 1480 the Turks massacred the Christian inhabitants of Otranto. In a
macabre sight in the cathedral you can see the bones of the 800 victims displayed in
In a totally different setting, Gallipoli is a fishing port surrounded by ancient fortified
seawalls right at sea level. The old town is contained within the constraints of a small
island, connected to the mainland and the modern town by a low level bridge.
White towns - Ostuni, Gallipoli and Otranto
These three towns are masterpieces of simplicity where square, whitewashed buildings reflect the
bright light of the south. Each appealed to us for different reasons.
Seen from the groves of ancient olive towns
below the town, Ostuni is like the star on a
Christmas tree. From its hilltop position clusters
of white, clean-cut square buildings tumble down
the hillside to merge with the stony hill side and
the green of the olives. The only disparity in
colour is the brown stone and tiled roof of the
Gothic cathedral, standing grandly at the
pinnacle of the mount.
Within the town narrow passages and flights of
steps lead through a many levelled maze of
gleaming white walls. Brightly painted doorways
and windows, elegant lamps, pot plants and
colourful washing strung across the streets all add
to the charm.
Ostuni is a difficult place for cars. We stayed in a
hotel just outside the old town but spent several
shutter happy hours climbing up and down
through the jumble of the place.
You can walk right around the island
admiring the simple low level facades of the
buildings that have faced the sea for
centuries. We loved the stark whiteness of
the walls and the bright contrasting colours
of doors and windows.
Back from the seafront, tangled streets
lead through archways to more narrow
passages and courtyards and people's
homes. This was a town where people
lived, in spite of it being a tourist mecca.
On a brilliant sunny Sunday in May it was
particularly popular with Italian families out
for the day.
Needless to say the seafood here is brilliant
Otranto is dominated by its Aragonese
castle that stands on the shore of
Italy's historic and easternmost port.
The crusaders set off for the Holy Land
A walkway round the shore is flanked by more lovely whitewashed
buildings and terraces where restaurants entice you to spend a few
hours over a yummy lunch.
Today you can clamber round the solid remains of the castle or admire its immensity
from beneath the walls. In the 11th century the Normans built a cathedral over a
Byzantine church. It is a simple Romanesque building, almost lost in an odd shaped
square in the centre of the old town. All that remains from Byzantine times is "the
biggest mosaic in the world", covering the entire floor of the huge church. It is a
masterpiece, not all on display, depicting the tree of life and various other mythical or
The omens as we arrived in Lecce were not good. Driving from
Otranto, the traffic had become progressively heavier and was
complicated by road works which completely threw out a carefully
planned route. We stopped to refuel and a bus smashed into the
petrol pump. Frenzied confusion followed before we could
excess it is surprising to discover Roman ruins in the central piazza of the city. An
amphitheatre, triumphal arch and immense obelisk sit somewhat incongruously in the
centre of the modern piazza where everyday business is conducted and many more
cafes attract both locals and visitors.
When it was time to move on we planned our escape route and walked it before setting
off. We were confident we had mastered the intricacies of the one way streets, but no.
After a circumnavigation of the city we were back at the Roman forum. So our advice to
other travellers is to enjoy this lovely city but take a GPS.
We decided to abandon the car at the
edge of the city's confusing street layout
so we set off on foot to find an albergo.
After we had found one we went back in
search of the car but straight away got
lost. Round and round we went always
coming back to the same (wrong) place.
Eventually the car was found but then
we got lost a second time navigating
back to the hotel. Cofusion and
frustration wasted a lot of our time.
Happily, Lecce was worth the effort.
So refined and unique is the baroque
architecture of Lecce, that they call it
Churches and palaces are decorated with a
confection of sculptures and ornamentation
that is so far over the top that you have to
love it. Gorgons, sirens, angels, putti,
dragons, birds and animals look down from
pedestals, arches, doorways and
architraves. The southern ambience of vast
piazzas and pedestrian streets invites you to
pass lazy days just drifting around or sitting
in cafes enjoying a coffee or a drink.
In the midst of all the Baroque
See pictures of