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 Matera.

This is an account of the places we enjoyed.
Puglia -
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 Eboli.

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 and stairways.

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 entire population.
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 smell.
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 rooftops.
Baroque towns
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 glass cases.
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.
Martina Franca
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 from here.
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 biblical scenes.
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 continue.
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 barocco leccese.

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
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