Puglia, Italy

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Italy is always on top of the popularity charts in Recommend’s “Readers’ Choice Awards” for Europe’s best selling destination. Yet we wonder how many travel planners and travelers have heard of beautiful, unspoiled and therefore undiscovered Puglia, a.k.a. Apulia in the English translation. It is part of that southerly area of Italy commonly referred to as the “boot,” with Puglia its “heel.” Geographically, Puglia is also a land between two seas, embracing beautiful beaches along 500 miles of Ionian and Adriatic coastline, as well as 15th century convents and 21st century resorts, with distinctive food and wine. And, since dollars seem to go further here, it seems the perfect time to get acquainted.

“Puglia is becoming a ‘hot’ corner of Italy, a natural destination for the 40 percent of U.S. visitors who are repeat travelers,” says Ricardo Strano, director of the Italian Government Tourist Office for North America. “We are working hard to promote its vacation treasures to our industry partners.” Indeed, Strano personally escorted 40 travel agents during a recent onsite agent certification program of discovery in Puglia. Recommend tagged along.

We flew from the U.S. to Rome aboard Alitalia, connecting directly to Bari, with a return from Brindisi. One feels a new corporate “lift” in scheduling, equipment and service since the airline’s official merger this year with Air One, and personally, it felt good flying the same carrier straight through—there is one company looking after you and your luggage.

Puglia’s greatest draw is architecture: romanesque, gothic, baroque and those whitewashed Greek-style villages that recall that Puglia was part of Magna Grecia, colonized by the Greeks before it was conquered by Rome. And Puglia has known many conquerors since—the Byzantine Greeks, Lombards, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, the Bourbons who ruled from Naples and Turkish corsairs who harried the coasts. Each left its mark, from the ancient dolmens scattered across the landscape, to the baroque fantasies of towns like Lecce and Martina Franca.

not to miss Bari used to have a bad reputation, but no more. The historic center is a gem—rather like a Moroccan medina—and the San Sabino Cathedral and the Basilica di San Nicola are two of the most important examples of romanesque architecture in Italy.

Monte Castel del Monte, a mysterious, stunning octagonal castle built in the 13th century by King Frederick II, Puglia’s greatest ruler, is not to be missed. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Taranto is an interesting small city, whose old quarter lies on an island linked with the modern town by a swing bridge. The Aragonese Castle gives visitors a chance to explore a fine medieval fortress and the National Museum is the archaeological star of southern Italy, with its repository of a dazzling collection of ceramics from Magna Gracia.

Lecce is famous for its avvocati—its large population of lawyers—and for some of the loveliest and most exuberant baroque architecture in all of Italy. Buildings of golden-honey limestone are festooned with garlands of flowers, and gargoyles adorn the facade of the fabulous Church of Santa Croce, while the Piazza del Duomo is truly a breathtakingly beautiful square.

Alberobello in the Itria Valley is surely a triumph of the landmark trulli (a type of dwelling particular to the area) with their conic domes. The whole town, some 1,400 dwellings and the church, is composed of trulli. Of particular interest is Pezzolla House, a historic residence combining 16 different trulli of many periods—the oldest dating to the 18th century. It’s a fascinating place and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

tempting the palate Puglia’s cup runneth over in “new horizons” for the food and wine special interest traveler, whose growing ranks will find something new in Puglia: a home-based cuisine (therefore mostly created by women), rather than one marked by the influence of great chefs or restaurants. Pugliese cuisine is based on olive oil, one of the region’s great products. Of course, the countryside is covered with silvery olive groves, as well as cooperatives where travelers are welcome to stop for tastings and the purchase of luscious, boutique olive oils now on a par with top bottles from Tuscany and Liguria.

Doors are equally wide open to wine lovers, and many producers have almost museum-quality tours of their vineyards and cellars. Just as olive oils have up-graded to compete with top bottles from Tuscany and Liguria, the wines of Puglia have graduated from bulk to worldly bottlings—in general big, spicy reds, reminiscent of well-made California zinfandels. Many wines we sipped—seemingly nonstop—were unfamiliar grape varieties such as negroamaro, verdeca and uva do troia; however, the talk of the town among wine lovers is the primitivo. Add to these basics: artisanal sheep cheeses—particularly ricotta and pecorino—mushrooms and artichokes, glorious mussels, amazing ice cream, pomegranate and walnut liqueur, and know that Puglia doesn’t disappoint those who enjoy discovering new tastes.