Puglia, also known as Apulia, is in the south of Italy; the heel of Italy’s boot. The region is not one of Italy’s traditional tourist destinations, but it is becoming increasingly popular as travellers discover the area’s varied charms: baroque towns, white-washed trullo houses, olive groves and orchards, blue sea and beaches, plenty of sunshine and excellent cuisine.
The region is divided into six provinces: Bari (which is the regional capital), Brindisi, Foggia, Lecce, Taranto and the recently-constituted province of Barletta-Andria-Trani. The area around Lecce and the southernmost tip of the ‘heel’ is called the Salento. Puglia borders the regions of Campania, Molise and Basilicata. Basilicata’s most famous site, the cave-town of Matera, is close to the Puglia border and makes a good addition to a tour in this region.
Almost always ruled by outsiders, Puglia was a primarily feudal farming region, and its character today still reflects its relatively humble agricultural past. The most glorious time for Puglia was probably the centuries when Greek colonists established cities in southern Italy. There’s not much to see now in Puglia of the towns of Magna Graecia, but the pottery from the period (‘Apulian ware’) survives in museums here and around the world. The Romans established important ports here which served the Empire; the Appian Way which starts in Rome finishes in Brindisi, its end still marked by one surviving Roman column (its twin is now in Lecce). The next period to have left a bold impression on Puglia’s landscape was the Middle Ages, when grand churches were built in Puglia’s distinctive version of Romanesque style, with added elements influenced by the area’s commerce with the East. In the thirteenth century, Puglia was ruled by the ‘Wonder of the World’, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who built a string of castles through the region which are still among its most notable sights.
Like the rest of southern Italy, the region has endured difficult decades and saw a lot of emigration as Pugliesi headed north or abroad to seek their fortune. Nowadays, although the poorer quarters of the cities still have bad reputations, it feels a fairly comfortable and settled place to the traveller. Investment in industry and development means that the areas around Puglia’s big ports, Bari, Brindisi and Taranto, are dominated by ugly industry and brutal modern residential tower blocks and building sites, but away from these eyesores, there are vast tracts of attractive countryside. Much of the region’s interior is covered by olive groves, interspersed with orchards and other crops. If you have only seen small olive groves before, the endless ‘forests’ of olive trees come as a surprising sight. Although the area is dry with low rainfall, the Pugliesi grow large quantities of fruit and vegetables, and their cuisine is rich in local products like beans, chicory and broccoli.
For many travellers, Puglia is a departure point for Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslavia, with ferries crossing the Adriatic from Bari and Brindisi. For others, it is an entry point to Italy, and in the past, the region has had problems coping with an influx of illegal immigrants. Nowadays there is a new (and more welcome) wave of arrivals: holiday-makers and ‘good-lifers’ attracted to the sunny climate, the coastline and the countryside. With an increasing amount of attention from Italy-loving outsiders, the area is setting itself up on the tourist trail. There are many new and upgraded hotels, holiday apartments and B&Bs. One of the most popular types of tourism is masseria accommodation. Masserie were the big houses at the centre of large agricultural estates: now they frequently offer comfortable rural accommodation, often with extras such as spas and cookery courses.