The Other Side of Italy – Puglia

We all know where Rome is, beautiful Florence and of course Milan with all its fashion houses and banks. Puglia is the heel of the boot, on the edge of the Adriatic Sea, with unspoiled wonders that lie in wait.

I might stay in a ‘trulli’, one of those typical Puglia white huts with their hat-like roofs or in a grand Masseria but I find a cheaper place to live. The village is small – San Vito dei Normanni doesn’t have much to offer except an opportunity to look, to absorb and to make sense of it all. The old men, three abreast, are seated on park benches and talk as if they have not seen each other in a long while. You know that it was only yesterday but this is the land of the art of conversation, and they can do this for hours. The sexy young ladies wearing only the bare minimum, make their presence known and you see the eyes of the young and old men who look, comment, and wonder if they have a chance.

They start young with their fashionable haircuts and flirtatious smiles.
They start young with their fashionable haircuts and flirtatious smiles.

The trattoria is recommended and everyone knows where it is. Nonna Mena is the name of this gem in the rear village. The antipasto consists of delicious arugula salad with tomatoes that have ripened in the sun, local cheese, meatballs, oven baked peppers and eggplant, deep fried zucchini and cucumbers to flush the palate and get ready for the next course. Orichietta is a small pasta that’s a local specialty and here, it is served with a fresh tomato sauce. The flavors are complimented by the red wine of this area, Primitivo. Dinner is late, from 8 pm onwards and this is about as much as I can handle before hitting the sack.

I’m close to the Adriatic Sea and it draws me like the Piscean I am to Torre Guaceto, located in a nature reserve where you park the car a short distance away from the beach. The little train provides transport but I need to work off last night’s calories so I choose to walk. This is nature at its best with very little to offer except the sea, sand and rocks that can cut quite badly if you are not careful, but the water seems clean and I enjoy every moment in its saltiness. If you are hungry or thirsty, you can buy fresh fruit from the local farmer and bite into a juicy peach or watermelon which costs just 0.39 cents for the whole thing. No restaurants here.

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Unspoilt Torre Guaceto

Another day, another beach and this time the more, but not quite, commercial Specchiolla. There are rocks and sand beaches, and the Italians lie brown and darkly tanned in the sun from morning to afternoon when it is time for lunch and siesta. And speaking of lunch, I spot Il Porticciolo, maybe a bit more expensive than the usual “greasy spoons” that one might normally encounter in places like this, but something tells me that this is going to be good. The antipasto consists of curried prawns, mussels in one of the best light sauces I have ever tasted, oven baked vegetables, calamari salad. The unoaked Chardonnay served as the house wine is beautifully fresh, with enough acidity and body to balance. And who will I meet there but Luigi, the owner of Nonna Mena where I ate the first night. Obviously being a restaurant owner he knows all the best places around, and here he sits with his friends, young and old, at a table where the wine flows, one empty bottle immediately replaced with a full one. He introduces himself again offering me a glass of wine. Of course he tries it on but I’m a tad too old in the tooth for such games and he can only look forward to serving me again at his restaurant as a customer. I tell you, a woman has to have hair on her teeth to travel alone in Italy.

'Starters' at Il Porticciolo
‘Starters’ at Il Porticciolo

Puglia is full of unexpected delights. Take Ostuni for example, the bride in her white garments clinging to the side of the mountain looking out over orchards of olive trees at her feet, with walking streets and church squares that thrill and surprise you.

Delights at Mela Bacata Lounge Bar and Restaurant, Ostuni
Delights at Mela Bacata Lounge Bar and Restaurant, Ostuni

Lecce is a 2000 – year old city with large, high and cream coloured buildings of limestone common in this area. The Ionian Sea on the other side has Gallipoli, the ‘Beautiful city’ and if you’re wondering what I was, it’s not the same place where the bitter war was fought between Turkey and Australia and New Zealand. This ancient port city does justice to its name with the old city high on a hill looking down on the beaches and harbour from above. The colour of the water shifts from turquoise to blue to green, and all I want to do is dive.

The art of papier-mâché in Lecce
The art of papier-mâché in Lecce
Gallipoli - 'Beautiful City'
Gallipoli – ‘Beautiful City’

Brindisi, another historical town where the Appian Way culminates in huge marble columns with fine Corinthian decorations looking out to sea and one of the most beautiful entrances to a harbour protected by the city enveloping it with her arms.

I wonder, when I return (Luigi wants to know!), will the smiles still be so wide, the service still executed with care, the wildness still as untamed or if the pearl’s lustre will disappear into yet another tourist trap location? What I know now is that it is quiet, that most of the people on the beaches are Italian and that the prices are reasonable.


Lonely Planet

San Vito dei Normanni

The Guardian on Torre Guaceto