Updated: Jul 16, 2022
Southern Italy has a totally different feel from the rolling hills here in Tuscany, or the plains and mountains of the North. Puglia (also called Apulia in English) is "the heel of the boot" and extends into the Mediterranean where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet. It has an ancient and rich history that spans Paleolithic settlements, colonization by Ancient Greece followed by the Romans (who suffered one of their greatest defeats against Hannibal here at the Battle of Cannae), then came the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine Empire, the Normans, and finally rotating rule under the French, Spanish and Hapsburg empires.
Some traces of prehistory are easy to see, like the Dolmen of Montalbano, from c. 2000 BC. Dolmen, or stone slabs, are found around the world and undoubtedly had some religious significance, but scholars don't know exactly what (were they tombs? sites of worship? portals to the gods?), so it's always fun to find one just sitting out in a field (I walked through it but nothing happened 😉).
Another unique architectural feature you find in Puglia are the conical-roofed houses known as trulli (singular trullo). You find them dotting the countryside of the Itria Valley, but some towns have them in their city centers, like Alberobello:
There are over 1,500 trulli packed tightly together, which led to the town being classified a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately it has also become pretty touristy, but it's still cool to see. The white symbols on the roofs were for good luck:
During my recent trip to Puglia I also found some beautiful abandoned ones. Sometimes they're just one room (with one conical roof), which was probably used as a shelter or shed, while at other times they have multiple rooms and roofs.
This one was huge and had about 10 roofs!
I peeked in the one tiny window and saw a series of interconnected rooms. They were built using a dry-stone technique that had been used in the region since prehistory. Some say they were built without mortar to allow for quick demolition at the approach of the tax man (you don't have to pay taxes on a pile of rubble!) but that story is a bit hard to verify!
Their thick walls and lack of windows made them warm in winter and cool in the summer, but of course it also means they're pretty dark inside. Many have been renovated into holiday homes and they make a fun place to stay!
Puglia is also known for its vast sea of olive trees, some of which are centuries (or even millennia) old! You can read all about them here.
The Valle d'Itria has the perfect rich soil to grow these amazing trees.
They come in every shape and size, and are like giants compared to the trees we have here in Tuscany!
Standing guard over the sea of olives are fortified farmhouses called masserie (singular masseria). Some have actual turrets and walls while others were just grand farms that housed the lords who ruled over the land.
Many have also been turned into gorgeous holiday rentals.
Look at the bougainvillea at this one!
Another attraction in Puglia are the beaches:
Some are rocky, some area sandy, and they'll all be FULL with Italian tourists come summer.
Of course, people also come for the FOOD, which is some of the best in Italy. It's home to the sinful cheese called burrata, which is basically creamy mozzarella stuffed with more cream 😋, as well as fresh seafood, fluffy focaccia, lots of great wine (like this wall of rosé), and -- to my great joy -- a restaurant with an 8-course vegetarian tasting menu!
And if you've been following me on my spring hikes you'll remember this strange plant, the Tassle Hyacinth (Leopoldia comosa), whose edible bulb is prized around the Mediterranean. In Puglia they're pickled and known as lampascioni.
Of course no Italian region is lacking in beautiful villages, and Puglia is no exception.
The tiny hilltop town of Locorotondo is one of the cutest!
I love all the Baroque touches:
I also went to the small town of Ceglie Messapica, just as a massive thunderstorm approached:
We managed to walk through the castle just before the heavens broke loose.
What started as a fast-growing massive cloud soon turned into violent rain (and, I learned later, a tornado farther south near Lecce!):
You can easily reach this part of Puglia by air as the Bari airport receives a lot of flights, especially via low-cost airlines during the busy season, but I didn't find anything good so decided to take the train. I got a ticket in a "Silent Car" (no cell phones, no loud music, no noisy kids 😉) and found myself alone in a spacious car for the first few hours. Ahhh...
The storm from the previous day continued and it was cold and blustery out, so I was happy to be inside for what I thought would be an easy 7-hour trip back to Florence. But to my dismay the train stopped at the station in Pescara and they eventually announced that we were stopped on the tracks "due to the earthquake." WHAT earthquake?!? 😮
Everybody got out their phones and found that just 20 mins earlier there had been a quake off-shore just ahead of us, so Trenitalia (the national rail service) had to go make sure the tracks were safe. We now had a delay of THREE HOURS. 😖
I used the time to sort through my photos, do a Facebook post, answer emails, and prepare this blog post. Eventually we started up again and we began our slow crawl up the coast, with howling winds and pelting rain outside. I thought I'd never make it home!
Trenitalia did a good job of keeping us posted via announcements, and eventually they put boxes of water and snacks by every train car. They also announced that we were eligible for a FULL reimbursement for our ticket (it has to be extremely late for them to offer 100% back!), which I applied for pretty easily yesterday via their website.
I was worried I would miss the last connecting train from Bologna to Florence since I arrived so late, but most of the trains were also running late since the entire line along the Adriatic coast had been disrupted.
I finally got home at midnight after what was a VERY long day, but I guess that's just part of traveling!
I hope you enjoyed your trip to Puglia and will come see it some day with me. I'll go back to explore more soon but had to return to prepare for another tour starting next week, so the busy season continues! If you'd like to support my travel research, you can "tip your guide" via this link (or see the top of the page). Or, just send me an email to say Hi! I'd love to hear from you.
Ciao e buon estate!
(bye and have a good summer 🙂)