We cycle in a clean line, spokes whirring, through a patchwork of silver-green olive groves back to the hotel.
On flat fields unbroken by high-rise buildings or bulky machinery, workers here and there work by hand in the evening sun to maintain the latticework of gnarled, ancient trees, some with trunks as thick as oil barrels.
We slip into the ivory-hued courtyard, hand our bikes to a waiting attendant, and sneak to the pool, bagging lounge chairs next to none other than Downton Abbeyis Hugh Bonneville.
My partner and I lazily raise our heads from our loungers when we see him, but it’s not much of a shock. Of course Hugh is here. He was across from us at the Beach Club yesterday.
Olive groves, bike rides, beach clubs, celebrities – this is Puglia, sometimes known as Apulia, the strip of farmland and rugged coastline that forms the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot-shaped landmass.
Recommendations for this part of Italy have been bubbling and swirling among the most seasoned travelers for years, but the region has really evolved in the last three years; Magazine covers featured their pristine green pastures and their distinctive cone-shaped ones trulli Houses.
Travel publications have dubbed it the jet set’s It destination. Wealthy movers and shakers booked destination weddings and honeymoons. Before I fly there, a travel industry personality grimly warns me not to visit in what is still the best of September.
“There’s more Americans than ever before,” they say menacingly, implying it’s the death knell for a cool destination.
Maybe we were lucky, but Hugh was the only trace of global starry sky we found in Puglia in mid-September.
What struck me more was the spellbound sleepiness of the place: cycling between its Masseries (delightful old farmhouses that have been brought back to life by hoteliers and restaurateurs), you could hear real birdsong. Far from pumping out chill-out tunes, beach clubs were mostly closed, lapped by playful fall waves.
The pace of life here is seductively simple: you spend part of your day relaxing in characterful, rustic-chic hotels with lovely pools, and you’re always seemingly only a half-hour bike ride from a beautiful whitewashed village or an Instagram -worthy bathing bay.
Our first stop, the heavenly Borgo Egnazia Hotel, embodies the architecture, food and style of the region. As well as a sun-drenched, two-tiered pool surrounded by olive, bougainvillaea, and prickly pear plants, there’s a locally-obsessed kitchen and even a fabulous little boutique that champions ceramics, fabrics, and local produce.
It is laid out like a mini village of ivory stone and has its own ‘town square’ that hosts festivals and pizza nights under the stars.
Nevertheless, a number of impeccable bicycles encourages us to get off. With a small group we cycle to a nearby olive oil farm in a 1754 villa suitable for oil painting.
While a chubby dog lazes in the sun nearby, curly-haired Alessandro Colucci guides us through the history of oil production, a real master class in this Puglia lifeblood. We learn about the many ways an olive oil can pass or fail the extra virgin test, and taste Mr. Colucci’s wares to verify the right levels of grassiness, acidity and peppery spiciness.
We sample far more of the green nectar at a range of satisfying lunches and dinners throughout the week.
At Casa Masciola, I happily wrap spaghetti tendrils around juicy mussels from the shell all vongole, Each bite is enhanced by the bright pungency of local Verdeca white wine.
In a moonlit square in pretty Polignano a Mare, octopus tentacles were rubbed with it before being well roasted on a flickering charcoal grill.
At Palazzo Guglielmo, in the far southern sub-region of Salento, it flavors all the flame-roasted sea bass that we debone and caramelizes the garden vegetables that accompany it.
We dip so much thick, rustic bread in the stuff that we cut ourselves off from the ritual at the end and increasingly don’t get to the dessert goal.
In between lie idyllic beach afternoons. Bathing moments are plentiful here, thanks to the beautiful coastline on all sides; We quickly discover that the sandy beaches tend to be on the Ionian coast, with the rockier, jewel-bright coves on the Adriatic side.
Not sure we’re in the right place as we slide into an abandoned parking lot near Padula Bianca, one of a series of beautiful beaches recommended to us on a stretch of coast between Porto Cesareo and Gallipoli.
Weaving between seemingly locked vacation rentals and the odd van or two, we get closer to the sound of the waves lapping on heavenly pine-backed white-sand beaches.
In early autumn, the waves are warm and inviting, and we dive in giddily, enjoying the clarity of the water and the tranquility of the beach. After days of fine dining, there’s something incredibly decadent about a prosciutto panini and a freshly decapped peroni, barefoot in the sand. It’s the least luxury we’ve experienced so far and somehow the most delicious moment with the best view.
Your only problem in Puglia if you were looking for one is too much choice.
On a Google map I had breathless “Oh you got to…’ Tips from friends and acquaintances, right through to a dizzying pile of pins, sometimes an hour’s drive from our hotels. Since we only had a week to play, we resolutely picked half a dozen cities to visit, along with a handful of beaches and a restaurant or two just outside of town Masseries.
We choose to stay first near Bari, our point of entry, then halfway up the heel, near Ostuni, ending in the quirky and charismatic Castro, at the very top, with an hour to 90 each minutes direct drive. If you had two weeks, you could slow down a lot, mixing lazy days of spa treatments and wine tasting with more intrepid bike rides, hikes, and city visits.
My own stunning highlight is Ostuni. The ‘White City’, a Greek-influenced hill town rising out of the verdant Valle d’Itria, is best visited for a stroll at golden hour before a satisfying dinner at one of its sparkling, romantic trattorias.
We sip Aperol Spritzes in a sunny piazza before venturing into the cobbled, concentric streets, admiring the imposing Church of St. Vito the Martyr and browsing quaint tourist boutiques for fluffy towels and limoncello. This is probably the busiest we’ve found in Puglia, but it’s a gentle, happy gush of holidaymakers (even the Americans don’t spoil the mood).
The city of Lecce – also known as “the Florence of the South” – makes for another golden afternoon with blue skies. With an abundance of beautiful, unspoilt churches, ornate monasteries and domed theaters, it’s a catnip for photographers and history buffs alike. Not on the hit list of Rome or Venice, this is a place to just wander – pop into frescoed churches and stop for an ice cream or an aperitif. There are enough pretty alleyway cafes to skip the reservations and just follow your nose.
What we don’t find here in the fall – which perhaps explains the lack of crowds – is reliably roasting Mediterranean sun. Instead, mostly bright days blow in cool breezes and spells of persistent clouds at low 20 degrees Celsius.
This is the season for exploring, not slathering on sunscreen: whether it’s visiting pretty villages, wineries, swimming spots or cycling routes. And we like to do that.
We spend our final afternoon strolling through the seaside town of Castro with its French Riviera looks and stumbling upon a world-class sushi restaurant with a sparkling sea backdrop.
We digest and swim in Cala dell’Acquaviva, right on the shore – a pale jade green suntrap of a cove carved deep into the rock. While sad that I don’t have more days to explore the area, I sit back and marvel at how much we saw and did—with very little crowd control along the way.
Where to sleep
Borgo Egnazia is one of the many glamorous options in Puglia and one of the most established hotels in the region. It really delivers a dose of what makes this area great, from the architecture to the food and crisp white rooms to some fun food and drink innovations (like an all-vegetarian fine dining restaurant as well as their own vermouth) . Double room from €330, B&B.
If you want to book one massageSawday’s Guide has dozens of glorious, authentic, family-owned properties on its books. Masseria Salinola has the best location to visit Ostuni as well as a historic and impressively traditional restaurant. Fire pits are lit around the property at night, leading to warm al fresco nightcaps from the honesty bar. Double room from €170, B&B.
Palazzo Guglielmo, near Castro, is a magnificent building set around a courtyard pool shaded by citrus trees. It hosts fun fish barbecues and other community celebrations to mingle, and hides treats from a basement spa to a rooftop hot tub. You can book a trulli stay apuliarentals.com. Double room from €130, B&B.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/spellbound-sleepiness-puglia-makes-a-great-off-season-escape-in-italy-42110965.html “Drowsiness Banished” – Puglia is a great off-season getaway in Italy