Puglia. Forget yacht-sprinkled coastlines, metropolitan fashion capitals, and new world shopping. Forget other destinations today’s tourist may be searching for from a high-end luxury standpoint. Puglia brings an old-school character to the table that is hard to compare. Think idealistic Italian comfort food with hearty sauces that would make you grandmother jealous. Think deep history dating back over 9,000 years, with architecture and culture strongly intact. Imagine crystal clear water comparable to that of the Maldives. Yes, Puglia is the magical destination you’ve dreamed of but haven’t visited.
In this article, I will cover key highlights from my epic road trip spanning from Naples, southeastwardly through the Salento peninsula, up the Adriatic coast and back to Naples. You should be able to take away inspiration and glean insight putting this trip on your shortlist. Please see the following destinations I will cover throughout this post:
• Gallipoli (IT)
With an all-star lineup such as the aforementioned destinations, how could one possibly go wrong? You won’t, trust me.
Starting at the Naples airport, we picked up our spacious, “midsized”, 4-door Fiat. At first, we weren’t so thrilled with the idea of zipping through Italian highways with this low horsepower, wanna-be bug. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we rediscovered the narrowness of both Italian city streets and the associated parking spots in each town.
We headed straight for Matera, approximately 3 hours east of Naples. Matera stands as the third-oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world (after Jericho and Aleppo) and the oldest in Europe. The southern Italian city has been home to humans for some 9,000 years! This fact was evident as we glided into the city, up one slope and down the other into the beautiful valley that hosts the ancient town. Littered with cozy restaurants and bnb’s carved right into the side of the sandstone cliffs, the venues and residencies provide a new outlook on lodging and dining. It’s certainly a destination you’ll romantically fall for upon arriving.
A quiet morning street in Matera
From Matera, we aimed for Gallipoli, which actually means “beautiful city” in Greek and is also known as “the Pearl” of the Ionian Sea. The town is not be confused with the Turkish site of the disastrous World War I battle. Here you will find a stunning old town situated on a small-connected island to the mainland by a 17th century bridge. Entering the town, you’ll be shadowed by a mighty Aragonese castle which protected the city from invaders for century. Ensure to explore the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Cathedral of St. Agatha and the Church of St. Mary of Purity by foot.
For lunch options, make sure to grab a baguette at Baguetteria de Pace and for dinner, La Puritate will please from a seafood standpoint. The nearby beaches of Galipollli down coastline host a series of long sandy beaches and transparent waters that have long been attracting sea lovers. We loved Samsara Beach with its lively crowd and crystal clear water.
The trip continued along the coastline to the southernmost point of the Salento peninsula, Leuca, where we enjoyed stunning views of the town from the lighthouse perched on the seaside cliffs. From here, expect a delicious gelato break and pleasant views both east and west. From Leuca, we skirted the enormous seaside cliffs as we were introduced to the southern Adriatic coast of Italy. Along this drive to Otranto, you’ll note ancient stone dwellings, uninhabited now, but long used by former residents of the region. These structures resemble beehive-like structures or upturned ice-cream cones made of local rock. Another pleasantry along this drive includes a faint view of land across the expansive Adriatic. At first, we assumed we were peering at Corfu, Greece. Upon further inspection using the iPhone compass, we realized we were looking at the mountainous terrain of Albania.
The city of Otranto was next on the itinerary. As we pulled in late in the evening, we were welcomed again by another expansive Arogonese-Norman castle protecting the moated entrance to the old town. We lugged our semi-noisy wheeled suitcases along the cobblestone walkway to our hotel, gazing around at the quiet yet warm luminous weekday setting.
If there is one lodging option to stay at in the old town, it’s Hotel Palazzo Papaleo. If you were to stay here only for the mesmerizing breakfast complete with burrata, quiche, cappuccino, prosciutto, and blood orange juice, you’d be making a good choice solely on that criteria. So good! As you explore the town, you’ll again note the Greek, whitewashed influence in the architecture, granted the name of the town gives it away. Not to belabor the food advice (granted this is Italy!), but La Bella Idrusa serves some delicious pies (pizza).
From Otranto, it was on to Lecce, the “Florence of the South”. Lecce is known for its baroque architecture and provides a dramatic cityscape for gallivanting from delicious restaurant to café to shop. It’s also centrally located on the Salento peninsula providing a great base camp for exploring the surrounding towns and beaches in the region. The most memorable site was the impressive Roman amphitheater in the heart of the old town.
The amphitheater is still in use as a stage for performances during summer months. Another essential stop is the Piazza Duomo where you will see the embodiment of the Leccese baroque style sculpted in to the 12th century masterpiece. Another baroque work of art is the Basilica di Santa Croce and should not be overlooked while exploring Lecce. From a Lecce dining perspective, consider the following establishments:
• Traditiona Puglian fare – Try Trattoria Il Rifugio della Buona Stella | Atenze
• Top wine bar(s) – Enoteca Mamma Elvira | All’Ombra del Barocco
• Gelato – Baldo Gelato | Natale
• Cafe – Caffè Alvino (try the pasticciotto cake)
A skip, hop, and a jump later, we sped over in our Fiat to the town of Albarobello. The ancient town is world renowned for its trulli and yes, they are trulli spectacular. ‘Trulli’ or ‘trullo’ (plural) are traditional Apulian stone huts shaped in the manner you would imagine an upside down ice-cream cone. Their architectural origins are thought to come from Ottoman influence in the region in the 13th and 14th centuries. You will likely see these structures sprinkled throughout the Salento countryside but Albarobello hosts the largest concentrated gathering of these buildings. Have your camera ready for what feels like a town that seems like a perfect fit for a Hobbit colony.
Next, Ostuni. Ostuni is a complete Apulian, fortified, white washed, hilltop masterpiece of a town located east of Albarobello, between Bari and Brindisi. With an almost Matera feel, Ostuni is also ancient and storied with its medieval architecture. It has Greek, Roman, and Norman influences after each respective ruling era.
Along with this history, ensure to enjoy its essential cuisine options. Sapori D’eccellenza stands as my favorite for a day time snack. It’s located in the old town and provided one of the freshest, most delectable prosciutto mozzarella-based sandwiches we had the entire 10-day trip. For dinner, I highly recommend Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale, it’s worth the higher prices (for Puglia), which are still very reasonable.
From Ostuni, our voyage continued to the seaside town of Trani, known for its beautiful waterfront cathedral. The Cathedral of San Nicola Pellegrino was built in the 11th and 12th centuries. It’s certainly worth a visit and tour. Also, ensure to either take a few pictures or even enter the adjacent fortress on the water, Castello Svevo. This castle dates back to 1249 and is a relic of the Holy Roman Empire’s rule under Emperor Frederick II. Corteinfiore and La Darsena are great dining options among many others on the waterfront.
I genuinely hope you find insightful inspiration from this post. Puglia will not disappoint, no, it will rise above your expectations. Therefore, I encourage you to give thoughtful consideration to this, romantic and cheap Italy destination. Puglia is rich in culture, history, cuisine options, and splendid views. If you are fortunate enough to plan a trip here and enjoy the magic, be adventurous, be bold, and try new things! Enjoy.
To read additional information on my road trip travels, see the article about road tripping in Peru!
Also, for more on road tripping in Puglia, check out this article here.
Pizza in Lecce 🙂