Find adventure and romance in Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot

Published July 24, 2013


The outdoor dining patio at Peccato di Vino must be pictured somewhere on an Italian Valentine's Day card. White tablecloths and candles cover tables small enough to lean over and kiss your date without your shirt dipping in the tomato sauce. In the heart of Otranto's twisting alleys, the cafe is squeezed into the side of a narrow, dark passageway on an elevated, well-lit deck.

It's as if romance is on stage.

About an arm's length away, however, Puglia's romantic present rubs elbows with its violent past. I can reach out and nearly touch the town's 11th century cathedral where the skulls and skeletons of 800 locals are housed in seven glass cases, courtesy of a bloodthirsty Turkish invasion 600 years ago.

I'm in the heel of Italy's boot. It's an appropriate description as this isolated region has been under the heel of not only the Turks but the Romans, Greeks, Normans, Germans, Venetians and Spanish.

Yet as a longtime Italophile and one-time resident of Rome, I'd been told by Italians from Sicily to Milan that the friendliest people in Italy were the gentle Pugliese.

After visiting for my first time, I can see why they're so happy. It's the 240 miles of coastline, much of which I biked while prowling the golden-sand beaches. It's the three national parks chock-full of hiking trails and magnificent views of two seas. It's the cucina povera (poor cuisine), the simple yet scrumptious dishes combining vegetables and fruits with Puglia's trademark ear-shaped orecchiette pasta.

One of Puglia's real icons sat across the table from me at Peccato di Vino. Maria Rosaria teaches English at a school for tourism and marketing and well represents the friendliness and beauty of the Pugliese.

Over a mouth-watering meal of steamed clams, orecchiette with fresh sausage and shaved provolone cheese with a basket of doughy Pugliese bread, we talked about life here. Before tourists really discovered the region in the early '90s, back when Otranto was nothing but a scenic fishing village, her father put up visitors who had nowhere else to stay.

She told me big sources of the legendary friendliness were all those invasions over the centuries

Really, I wondered. The 800 skulls in the cathedral wouldn't seem to engender such good feelings.

"But that was only the Turkish men," she said. "The Romans, the Venetians, the Normans, they all came and built roads, castles, fortresses."

They did nothing with the beaches. In Italy, only the sands of Sardinia can compete with the beaches of Puglia (pronounced POOL-ya). Starting in June, buses run from Otranto's city center to beaches no more than 3 miles to the north.

Simple life, spectacular setting

Visiting in May, I went to the scuba/bike shop on the harbor and grabbed a reliable five-speed bike, free courtesy of my well-connected pensione, and pedaled up the quiet two-lane country road. Under a brilliant sun in the high 70s, I passed lettuce fields and greenhouses and the shell of a future Club Med.

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After countless smiling people gave me directions, I whizzed down a dirt path through some undergrowth. Then I saw it: a broad beach with fine white sand as thick as the Sahara lining the deep blue Adriatic Sea.

I dropped my bike in the sand and dove into the warm, calm water. It was shallow without a single hidden rock underfoot as I swam out toward the horizon. I didn't worry about anyone stealing my bike or backpack. The only people on the 2-mile beach were three workers in swimsuits prepping the grounds for the tourist season.

Puglia is much more than beaches, however. It's about breathing in Italy's piazza mentality, where life is sipped one cappuccino at a time, and slowing it to a Sunday evening stroll while sampling the local gelato.

For a thousand years, Otranto was Italy's main port to the east. Today, the port is lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants with seats facing the water. In May, there are hardly any tourists. I basked in bright sunshine which locals warned in July feels like a greenhouse for African violets.

Old men in fishing caps sat at tables talking and playing cards. Old women in heels strutted slowly along the seawall.

Puglia's biggest city is Bari, once known only as Italy's gateway to Greece but now boasting a comeback as one of the country's best-preserved old towns. Many Italian tourists flock to Lecce, a baroque city dotted with more than 40 spectacular palaces and churches that have attracted architects for years.

I spurned the cities and instead went to Vieste. The town of about 14,000 is on the edge of Gargano National Park on an outcropping that sticks out into the Adriatic like a small spur.

It's a network of narrow, winding, hilly alleys barely wide enough for two people to pass without turning sideways. I walked past tiny trattorias and enotecas and stoops where the locals gathered to gossip, and children kicked soccer balls against 2,000-year-old walls.

Inside my hotel, the Rocca Sul Mare, in a 1,000-year-old building high above the Adriatic Sea, another Pugliese tradition was under way. The hotel cook showed me how she makes the region's iconic orecchiette.

In about 10 minutes, she rolled out a table full of dough, cut in narrow strips. She placed a knife on a little pad of dough and curled it backward. The dough formed a little ear. Then she wrapped some other dough around a metal skewer, twisted it and formed a little fusilli tube which can be filled with cheese or meat.

One of the hotel owners, Maria Teresa Mafrolla, told me that orecchiette was never sold in the markets. The Pugliese had to make it themselves.

"My grandmother and mother wouldn't just make it for the family," Mafrolla said. "We also made it for company. What can we make to feed many?"

Alluring, all through history

The movie La Dolce Vita was set in Rome but it was meant for Puglia. I spent my mornings at the beach and afternoons and evenings eating one of Italy's best cuisines.

After a day at Vieste's broad, white-sand beach near a huge white monolith, the Scoglio di Pizzomunno, I walked past a cheese shop where huge balls of white provolone hung from the ceiling behind an old-fashioned cash register. Cheese filled the entire glass case below.

Owner Costanzo Laprocina is a third-generation cheese man who gave me samples of nearly every cheese he had: the cacao cavalo, which was a little too hard; the fresh pecorino, which was just right; and the cacao ricotta, which tasted so sweet you could put it on gelato.

I bought a hunk of pecorino, a link of Pugliese sausage and a bottle of local red Negroamaro wine, all for 9 euro (about $12.)

I hurried back to the hotel's huge rooftop where I had a lofty picnic lunch in a scenic spot all to myself. I stared out at a lighthouse, perched atop a nearly barren rock with the blue sky as the backdrop. To the left were the whitewashed buildings of Vieste.

Then I wondered: Who wouldn't invade this place?

John Henderson is a writer in Denver.