By Elaine Srnka
Originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Virtuoso Life.
An Italian vacation conjures images of wining, dining, and la dolce vita. But where do you go once you’ve explored the country’s highlights? If Italy
’s a classic, Puglia is the country’s “what’s next.”
Also known as Apulia, Puglia (pronounced “Poo-lia”) comprises quaint towns, dramatic coastlines, and quiet countryside – without the crowds. Executives from 70 of Virtuoso’s top travel agencies recently spent a week exploring the up-and-coming region, situated in the heel of Italy’s “boot.” If you’ve never been to Puglia (which was featured in Virtuoso Life
’s January 2015 issue – read the article here
), you’re not alone.
“I’d been to just about every other region of Italy, but not Puglia,” says agency CEO Paul Largay. “I loved it. It really has something for most travelers, from history, architecture, and archaeology buffs to cyclists, golfers, divers, food and wine aficionados (it’s home to the Mediterranean diet), or even those who just want to simply relax. I tell clients that it’s a little like Namibia in Africa: You don’t necessarily go there first. People want to visit the regions they’ve always heard about – Rome, Venice, Tuscany – but this is a great follow-up.”
Travel agency president Peter Lloyd agrees: “Everyone loves Italy, but most haven’t visited Puglia. It’s perfect for clients looking for something off the beaten path. It feels like ‘what Italy used to be,’ without as much development, traffic, shops, or tourists.”
Situated between the Adriatic and Ionian seas in southeastern Italy, Puglia has 500 miles of coastline dotted with rugged cliffs, expansive beaches, castles, caves, and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Our base for the week was Borgo Egnazia
, a whitewashed, contemporary resort that only looks like it’s been there forever. Surrounded by ancient olive groves, the sprawling hotel with views of the Adriatic is reminiscent of a traditional Apulian village, albeit one with a spa, tennis courts, and nearby golf course and beach club. Owner Aldo Melpignano, whose mother owns adjacent property Masseria San Domenico
, explains, “We like to say that our properties are countryside hotels that happen to be by the beach.”
Borgo Egnazia, Puglia's most expansive, luxurious resort.
Local officials welcomed Virtuoso attendees at events throughout the week, and hoteliers and tourism partners from around Italy joined us in Puglia – a testament to the importance of the relationships they have with Virtuoso advisors. Here, a few ideas for what to see and do in Puglia.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
With 50 million (or more) olive trees, Puglia produces about 40 percent of Italy’s extra-virgin olive oil. Burrata cheese originated here, as did orecchiette pasta and addictive, crumbly round breadsticks called taralli
. “Farm to fork” isn’t just a buzz phrase in this agricultural region, but it’s not all rustic: One night attendees enjoyed a Mediterranean diet-inspired meal created by Michelin-starred chef Andrea Ribaldone at Masseria San Domenico. Later in the week, we took cooking classes, toured wineries, and even learned to harvest olives.
BE A CAVE DWELLER
Puglia is famous for its thousands of caves. Go spelunking in 90-million-year-old Castellana Grotte, with depths of nearly 200 feet. Visit Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage site (and a European Capital of Culture in 2019) where hundreds of troglodyte dwellings dot the landscape, including 150 rock churches. (You can even spend a night in a cave hotel.) And in the province of Bari, take in a sunset from Grotta Palazzese, with views of the Adriatic.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
“Lecce is a must for the avid shopper,” says travel agency president Patrick Fragale. In the city filled with baroque architecture, nicknamed “the Florence of the South,” our group shopped for lace, cartapesta
(papier-mâché handicrafts unique to the area), and linen and leather goods.
DRIVE A CLASSIC
Your advisor can arrange a vintage car tour, as our group did. We slid behind the wheels of Alfa Romeos, Fiats, even Volkswagens for an unforgettable drive through the countryside, stopping at the picturesque town of Ostuni, known for its whitewashed houses, and continuing on to Alberobello, a must-see for its trulli
: cone-roofed houses that look straight out of a storybook.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Most advisors recommend at least three nights in Puglia as part of a larger Italy itinerary. “For couples, I would suggest starting at one of Amalfi’s seaside resorts, then renting a car, spending two or three nights at Palazzo Margherita, and finishing up at Borgo Egnazia for three or four nights to take advantage of its spa, golf, and beach club,” says agency executive Donna Guttman. “Families who want to combine city and resort could spend three nights in Rome, then head to Borgo Egnazia for a few nights.” Other advisors suggest adding Puglia to Croatia or Turkey itineraries. Or you could just spend an entire week exploring the region. As agency executive Martha Gaughen says, “Puglia epitomizes slow tourism; relax and enjoy it.”
If you'd like to work with a Virtuoso travel advisor to plan a trip to Puglia, connect with one here.
(Above photos: Classic cars, group photo, and group lunch: Gregory Venere; Teatro Petruzzelli and Polignano a Mare: Nicola Cipriani/Zoomotion)