Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Other than mounds of orecchiette and secluded rocky beaches, I didn’t know what to expect from Puglia, the southern region at the heel of Italy’s boot. I got all good surprises and three weeks of utter contentment, fueled by restorative swims in warm blue waters, foods both fried and full-flavored, and unexpected conversations with some of the nicest people I’ve met in Italy.
It’s clear that Puglia is the way it is because of the weather, which is warm, sunny, and calmed by sea breezes for most of the year. Because it’s so nice, people are generally outside all day, preferring to sit in chairs (which, amusingly to me, they bring from home) in the street or the piazza rather than in their homes. When it’s a bit too warm after lunch, they retreat to the indoors for three or four hours of siesta, which is why most towns in Puglia totally shut down from about 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (and why no one seems to be very grumpy). This is a delightful opportunity to nap at home, lie on the beach to nurse a food baby, and take pictures of town — with no one around to intrude your photos but a few stray cats.
The climate also gives the sea an extremely inviting temperature: just a little bit cold as you step in, but totally transformative as you go under, making you feel rebirthed as one of those elderly, tan Pugliese men who are leathery and the color of tree bark everywhere but underneath their tiny Speedos.
Like Speedo-wearing men, the beaches of Puglia come in all shapes and sizes. On one end of the spectrum are the long, sandy stretches of beach and electric turquoise waters of Gallipolli, where my friends and I played cards and took tequila shots. On the other end, there are the smaller, rocky hideaways that feel like your own personal secret along the Adriatic Sea near Ostuni. A really memorable place (though definitely not a secret) is Grotta della Poesia, the Cave of Poetry, where all ages plunge into natural pool surrounded by cliffs, with more rock formations in the distance. My favorite, though, is actually Cala Porta Vecchia, just outside the city walls of Monopoli. You can float face-up in the gentle water, dipping underneath to hear nothing but ocean and popping back up to hear kids playing with colorful beach balls in front of whitewashed walls.
Then there’s the beauty of the countryside. Puglia’s position on the Italian peninsula has blessed the land with brick-red, mineral-rich soil that makes its millions of twisty-trunked olive trees thrive. It’s a real pleasure to drive (or even take the bus or train) between cities, where Puglia’s dusty, dream-like color palette of red and brown farmland and white-washed stone houses are punctuated by so much green — of cacti, olive groves, vineyards, caper bushes, and so many fig trees.
The best place to be on the open road, especially by bike, is in the Valle d’Itria, the sub-region of Salento known for trulli, white stone huts with cone-shaped roofs native to this particular part of the world since the 1300s, but probably brought earlier by the Greeks. I saw lots of trulli up close during a bike tour that trekked between the three main Valle d’Itria cities of Locorotondo, Cisternino, and Martina Franca. Some were crumbling because they hadn’t been worked on since they were first built, while others were pristinely restored as boutique hotels. Many still serve their original function as storage and housing for farmers, like Masseria Madonna dell’Arco, where we stopped for fresh mozzarella and scamorza made with milk from their ginormous cows. Blissfully, animal sightings are not uncommon in this area; my favorite moment of the tour was when we passed a field of what must have been 100 goats, all grazing and wearing bells that jingled hypnotically in the wind.
It would be easy to survive on mozzarella in Puglia (the town Andria is the birthplace of burrata), but then you’d miss out on all of the other foods that make the region’s cuisine special. Like deep-fried polenta and pizza crescents, plus raw seafood straight from a fisherman’s hands, in Bari. An elegant seafood pasta or tower of crudo on ice in Monopoli. Cream-filled pasticciotti, bechamel-stuffed rustici, and simultaneously soft and crispy ciceri e tria in Lecce. And a dish that might even exemplify Puglia more than orecchiette with cime di rapa: pureed fava beans. Months ago, I silently judged my Pugliese classmate when he told me this was his favorite dish from his region (uh, did you read the foods I just listed?). After trying it a third time, I understood. The beans, shelled by hand, cooked until thick and creamy, and paired with seasonal vegetables, are a reflection of Puglia’s landscape. It’s nourishing, comforting, and just the thing to propel you into naptime.
After siesta, the sun lowers and the region comes back to life. This golden warmth and light, combined with the social, life-loving nature of the Pugliese, results in genuinely the best representation of the Italian passeggiata that I’ve ever seen. From Lecce to Locorotondo, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of the piazzas in Puglia. Kids run and ride scooters, adults chat and drink spritzes, and the seniors, the most social of them all, play cards and look out over their cities wearing expressions of total satisfaction. I was consistently moved to see such a happy elderly population, especially knowing how isolated they must have felt during the lockdown when they weren’t able to do the thing they enjoy the most: an outdoor chat with friends before going home to dinner.
The most memorable part about Puglia is the people. Puglia is Porzia of Bari, who, after knowing me for five minutes, invited me into her house for lunch with her family. It’s Gino the fisherman, who offered me mussels just plucked from the sea, plus his phone number in case I ever wanted to come over for riso, patate, e cozze. It’s an entire Ostuni restaurant staff who invited me into their kitchen to cook orecchiette. It’s the people I met for seconds to buy olives here, wine there, who asked me about my life and gave me travel recommendations. And most of all it’s the little burst of happiness you get from saying buongiorno to strangers on the streets of Bari, who know everything about each other because the city is their collective living room. They may not know everything about you, a visitor, but they do know what kind of underwear you wear because they can see it drying outside of your Airbnb. In Puglia, you may not have any privacy, but you’re never invisible. I’ll take it.