Perfect Puglia: Something for all the family on holiday in Italy’s ‘heel’
New flights from Dublin to Brindisi will make the region easy to visit for Irish tourists
In Lecce, there are plenty of restaurants for dinner. Most are Italian, but you can also find a selection of Greek and Turkish places too. Photograph: iStock
For me, Italy is the ultimate country to visit on holiday: stunning architecture, beautiful scenery, great food and wine, and you can’t help but stumble over some important history no matter where you go. Add in the skiing and hiking possibilities, great spa towns, and some serious shopping opportunities, and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better destination.
Made up of 20 distinct regions, Italy is a collection of older kingdoms and republics. This becomes obvious in Puglia (or Apulia), where you can still see, taste and hear the influences of its history – Turkish, Greek and north African architecture, foods and voices are all around. My mobile phone would often give me a “welcome to Greece” message while travelling around the “heel” of Italy.
Last summer our family spent a week in Lecce, right in the middle of the Puglian peninsula. Travelling down from Umbria, we had the chance to compare the rolling hills, towns and lakes with the more rugged southern region. Puglia borders two seas – the Ionian and the Adriatic – giving us the opportunity to swim in both on the same trip.
We stayed in the beautiful city of Lecce, right in the centre of the region. Lecce is more than 2,000 years old, and its walled city centre is the perfect size to wander around (with occasional shocks when a local car drives too fast down a street that you thought was pedestrianised). Lecce Cathedral is a few steps from the main shopping/strolling/restaurant street of Via Giuseppe Libertini, so it’s easy to enjoy the sights as part of your night out, with a stop for a drink or ice-cream, or to buy a souvenir along the way. The charmingly decrepit Piazza del Duomo is beautifully lit at night.
We stayed in a pretty Airbnb within the city walls. The small three-story house was beautifully restored, with all important air-conditioning (Lecce in August is very hot) and a rooftop terrace, from which we could see the church spires and the Cathedral Tower. Lecce has a decent selection of hotels too, though those within the city walls tend to be small. If travelling without kids, the stunning Palazzo Guido, a 16th century mansion, has lovely rooms in the city centre, while the Grand Hotel di Lecce is a four-star hotel in a historic building with a small pool.
After a light breakfast each morning in the city, we explored the region in our rental car to find the best beaches and pretty towns. Going east from Lecce (towards Albania, Greece and the Adriatic), the beaches start off as fairly typically Italian – sandy stretches with beach clubs with entry fees, offering sun-loungers for hire and a restaurant for lunch. The further south along the coast you go, the more rugged the coastline gets. There are fewer beaches and more coves and grottos for swimming, full of Italians outdoing each other with daring dives.
Our first beach day was spent at Vernole and nearby Melendugno, a beach with small dunes and a big swell. Overcast but hot, our family loved swimming here. We had a great lunch of oysters, mussels, clams and bruschetta at a beachside hut. We came across a Venezuelan food truck along the road and had sweet potato fries with fresh fruit smoothies from the beautifully restored van (look out for the bright red La Reina Pepiada at beaches and events in Puglia). We even got to feature in a promo video they were making.
Further along the coast, the pretty town of Otranto has an interesting past. Originally a Greek town, it was a city during Roman times, then became Byzantine and later Norman before the Ottoman empire took it over, followed by the French. It’s now a lovely town for a stroll and a gelato while you appreciate it’s multicultural past.
Gallipoli, across the peninsula on the Adriatic side, has beautiful beaches and a walled city-centre, accessed by a 16th century bridge. We walked around the extremities of the city before spending the day on a sandy beach, with the old city walls as a backdrop. Traditional Italian granita (lemon-flavoured ice) was the perfect cool-down snack while walking to the car through the compact city centre.
Back in Lecce, there are plenty of restaurants for dinner. Most are Italian, but you can also find a selection of Greek and Turkish places too. Our favourite was Ristorante All’Ombra del Barocco, located on the busy Via Giuseppi Liberini but set back enough to allow you to witness the activity in peace. The restaurant is part of the bookshop beside it and the food was a step above anywhere else we tried, and not much more expensive. We also loved the Arrosteria dell’Itria, just outside the old city walls. The focus here is on great cuts of meat – you can choose your own directly from the fridge – cooked well.
Continuing our trips down the Adriatic coastline, we spent several hours in the resort town of Santa Cesarea Terme, famous for its natural thermal spas. We paid a reasonable entrance fee to a bathing club, giving us access to changing rooms, sunbeds and a restaurant but most importantly, to a glorious emerald, natural pool, from where you can swim out to sea. In the same town, we had our first taste of puccia Pugliese, a sandwich made from pizza dough. This one was filled with ham, rocket, local juicy tomatoes and pesto. Our 17-year-old declared it the best sandwich he had ever eaten.
One of the most memorable days was spent at a cliff at the southernmost part of the region, near the town of Santa Maria di Leuca. Driving along the coast, we followed local traffic (it was a Sunday and everyone seemed to be heading to the sea), parked as they did in a field, and carried our swim gear to a cliff top. There were no facilities, save for a few people selling water and granita from cooler boxes. Swimmers waded around in grottos and pools of varying depths in the rocks, but the main draw was the cliff-top diving spot, offering a few levels to jump off. By the end of the afternoon, most of us had worked our way to the top.
It was a magical afternoon that typified Puglia; nothing organised or formal, just people enjoying what this rugged, beautiful and unspoiled region had to offer.