I’m sitting on a beach chair under an umbrella staring out at a sparkling sea of turquoise and sapphire hues.
It’s near lunch time and the only thing beckoning is a Spritz* and anti pasti at a nearby trattoria.
Life IS good.
It’s something I’ve hashtagged a lot this past week.
When my beautiful friend Simone emailed about six months ago and said her family would be holidaying in the south of Italy at the time we’d planned to visit them and would it suit us to see this part of the country instead of the big name cities, it took about 30 seconds to say YES.
The big-ticket cities and attractions of Italy will always be there. A chance to explore a region not often on the tourist trek with good friends who spoke Italian and had an understanding of the Italian “way” would not.
So where have we been?
Picture a map of Italy. Right down the bottom of the boot – on the stiletto heel – is a region called Puglia. The coastline at the very tip of the heel is known as the Salento Coast.
We’ve visited five different towns/cities in this region, driving in between along stunning coastlines.
We’ve awed at the mixed and varied history this region has been built on, thanks in no small part to its vulnerability to invasion and settlement from other nations.
We’ve collectively had our fill of pizza, pasta and prosecco.
We’ve swam in the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian.
We’ve embraced the mid-afternoon siesta … so that we can embrace eating at 9pm.
We’ve laughed and shared stories while making memories to last a lifetime.
The stuff of holiday bliss.
Where to visit
This is a purely subjective list of what to see and do in Puglia and is based on what we’ve done and where we’ve stayed in such a short time. You could spend weeks in this region alone and still not see everything.
Lecce: Our first night was in this beautiful baroque university town, staying in a B&B in the old town, wandering the cobblestone streets filled with soft local sandstone buildings in the evening for dinner before leaving our son with our friends’ teenagers for a cocktail or three across the narrow street from our accommodation. You can’t plan such a find but a find it was – quanto basta was manned by two men who were part-scientists and part actors in their cocktail-making ways. (It was also in Lecce that I also had one of those “small world” moments … Brisbane’s Danielle Crismani, the amazing woman behind #bakedrelief arrived in town that very same day. We didn’t meet up but the odds were crazy – especially as we only ran into one other Australian family the entire week we were here.)
Otranto: Next stop was two nights in an apartment in the harbour town of Otranto. It too has an old town, perched up on the hill, which comes alive in the evening for dinner, shopping and bar hopping. The town’s main beach (sand) is heavily crowded. Venture north to sand beaches like Baia dei Turchi and you may find a spot with fewer people.
Santa Maria di Leuca: This town is at the very the tip of Italy’s stiletto and is the dividing line between the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. There is a small sand beach on the promenade in town but the real beauty of this area is found in the grotto (coastal caves) just north of the main town. We easily walked over flat rock formations to set up a camp for the morning, swimming, diving and exploring the caves for a couple of hours. It’s a good idea to wear reef shoes to protect your feet from the rocks and sea urchins.
Gallipoli: The last stop was probably the sweetest. Gallipoli is a modern city connected via a bridge to the island, which is the old town. High walls surround the town – built to protect it against attacks from the sea. It’s an important fishing centre for Italy so has a dynamic that extends beyond the summer tourism season. If you’re a sucker for a sunset over the water, you’ll get your fill at the tip of this island port.
What to eat
Our friends have been living in Italy for almost a year now and use the “Margherita pizza index”, as a first indicator as to the value and quality of an otherwise unknown restaurant or trattoria. Their benchmark is 4 Euros per pizza – anything above that, you’re paying too much; below that, quality will not be up to scratch. And we’re talking the equivalent of a large pizza in Australia for that money too.
Eating out was on the whole very good value. You can also choose to self cater (a good idea for breakfast in particular as breakfast isn’t really a thing in Italy – coffee and a pastry is about it) buying up fresh produce, breads, mozzarella, ham and eggs from a local, small supermarket.
If you’re gluten intolerant like me, you won’t find anything labelled as gluten-free. You will rely on your own knowledge and guesswork to work your way around a menu. I had success all week with anti pasti, caprese salads, capaccio and grilled seafood.
Each region in Italy has its “typical” offerings, food or dishes particular to the area. In Puglia, the typical pasta is orecchiette (little ears) pasta; the summer coffee (caffe con latte di mandorla) is an espresso with two ice cubes and a dash of sweetened almond milk; the pastry is a pasticciotto shortcrust oval mini pie filled with creamy custard.
The afternoon drink of choice anywhere in Italy? Spritz – a refreshing mix of Aperol liqueur, prosecco and soda water served mostly in a wine glass with a slice of orange.
Oh and, of course, every day calls for gelati … sometimes two.
Where to stay
My girlfriend booked all our accommodation. She has been doing this type of travelling with her family for years and knows how to find the right places in the right locations, offering value for money. We paid on average 100 Euros a night for our room or apartment. Researching this trip started with a blogs (Expats Blog; Never Ending Voyage), which then led her down the Google rabbit hole to pinpoint the must-see towns. From there she used booking.com to book a combination of B&Bs and apartments. She reads through the reviews and where possible opted for “old town” locations.
Here’s where we stayed. I can recommend all for cleanliness and location. All except our house in Santa Maria di Leuca had access to wi-fi.
Lecce: Nonna Jole B&B
Otranto: Residence Catona
Santa Maria di Leuca: Casa Mediterranea
Gallipoli: Residence Kale
Brindisi: (night before our flight to Milan) Regina Margherita B&B
What to wear
The high summer part of my European travelling wardrobe got a good workout – each piece packed justified its suitcase space. We enjoyed hot, fine days (tops of high 20s to early 30s with mild evenings averaging 20 degrees celcius). The hottest time of the day is between about 2-5pm (another tick for siestas).
I wore a mix of summer dresses, swimsuit cover-ups, and shorts and tanks with a lightweight shirt on top. I wore a scarf most days to help prevent incidental sun exposure while walking everywhere and at night as an extra if the coastal winds got a bit cool.
Most of the streets we walked in the evening were cobblestoned so flat sandals or comfortable wedges were the go. Thongs were very acceptable during the day.
The dress was very relaxed – as is most things in the south of Italy – but women would typically add on an accessory or a dressier outfit piece for the evening.
How to get there and get around
We flew (budget airline) RyanAir from Paris to Brindisi and then hired a car to pick up at Brindisi Airport for the duration. We booked our car through carrentals.com and paid about $500 for the week for a Peugeot SUV – an upgrade from the VW Golf booked.
In each town it was mostly a case of parking the car (in the old towns parking was not near the accommodation) and walking on foot while there – a good way to earn that Spritz or gelati, yes?
Our friends told us that July may be busy with Italians holidaying in this region (and the whole of Italy) but August will be even busier with other Europeans taking their summer holidays. They advised if you can travel outside of August then it will be easier for you.
Thanks for following along on our European holiday. Sadly it all comes to an end tomorrow when we make the trek home. We’re already planning our next trip. That happens when you get a taste for travel, doesn’t it?
What I’d love to hear from you is if you’ve visited Puglia, Italy before? And if we were to make a return to Italy, what region or city should we visit?