|All photographs by Maureen Stone|
Independent-minded American travelers will enjoy visiting Puglia, the region situated on the Adriatic coastal heel of southern Italy, during the slow travel period between Thanksgiving and early spring. We recently confirmed our affinity for the rewards of the uncommon experience by making the off-season journey. Puglia is the kind of quiet town-and-country destination that can richly reward the spontaneous style of travel preferences that motivated our choice—and potentially others’—for such a narrow time and place.
We wanted to travel without a guide and, except for a few scattered student exchange groups, saw no escorted tourists during a two-week stay in Puglia. We wanted to meet Italians and, in fact, saw no American or English travelers. We spoke an amusing, passable mix of Italian and English to our hosts who included Fausta, Allesandro, Luigi, Candida, Daniela, Angelina and Domenico, all of whom provided accommodations and guidance without reservations.We were able to communicate successfully, primarily with the help of a pre-studied Berlitz Guide to Italian phrase. Our short sentences, sometimes with book in hand, delighted our new Puglian friends and helped open doors.
We relied on public transportation and experienced an efficient system that exceeded expectations and allowed us to stay in just three towns while being able to take day roundtrips to three others. This also avoided the complicated, expensive details of driving and especially parking a rental car in the small towns. Contrary to guidebook warnings about unreliable intercity buses and trains, they proved to require only a moderate amount of patient waiting and provided the best countryside sightseeing of our itinerary. Travel was helped immeasurably by packing light with only a rolling carry-on. We guessed correctly that dark grays and blacks were the winter dress code of Puglia and left unneeded colors at home.
In the spirit of the holiday season our wishes and more came true. We had been told to expect friendly people in Puglia and encountered several random acts of kindness. In Brindisi, where our trip started in southern Puglia with a visit to the Cathedral (Dome) Piazza, we met a friendly doorman at the Museum of Archeology, who spoke only Italian but directed us to the Roman antiquities within. We learned that Brindisi was an important strategic port city for the Romans, with the southern end of the Appian Way marked by the Roman street column nearby. The original Roman excavations beneath the ground floor of the museum made a solid impression on a first-time visitor.
The doorman, concerned that most restaurants closed on late Sunday afternoon, called a restaurateur friend and walked us several blocks to the fine “Il Carpaccio” Ristorante on the Via Marco Pacuvio. There, we enjoyed multiple courses of salad, pasta, meat, and dessert with local wine served at a private side table despite several family parties hosted elsewhere in the large room. Our tab for two came to just over $50, and we were offered delicious birthday cake from the friendly party crowd.
Our first night in Brindisi was spent in the local “Carpe Diem” Hostel, a former convent where the private en-suite double room was basic, but the fellow guests were entertaining. Over beers and conversation we met young men from Quebec, Bordeaux, South Africa and northern Italy, all temporarily working in the hostel for different reasons. One was studying Italian to teach the language, another learning Italian cooking, a third trying to start life over after a bad first marriage. All seemed most interested in the innkeeper, Maurizio’s, lovely daughters Marianne and Julia, age 17 and 20, who were zealously talking about their hopes to one day visit New York City.
We took a comfortable, blue public “pullman” bus the next morning from a stop just outside the hotel to the “White City” of Ostuni, a hill town about 90 minutes to the northwest of Brindisi. Our fare, purchased onboard, was $5.25 each and left us off about 15 minutes’ walk from the city center, which we found easily by asking (“Dove centrostorico, per favore?”) directions. Invariably, the Ostuni locals recognized a visitor and offered friendly help, often taking one to the end of the street to point the way. At the charming Parisi Café off the main Piazza della Liberta on the Via Cattedrale, the friendly bar keeper “Luigi” tried to direct us to a chosen Bed & Breakfast. When we were unable to find the way on hilly and wet cobblestone streets, the confusion proved fortunate. We stopped instead for our first Ostuni night in the comfortable 12-room La Terra Hotel (www.laterrahotel.it), a historic 13th-century building on the Via G. Petrarolo only steps around a corner from the Parisi Café.
We thought the $105 room at La Terra was a bargain for a roomy stone- tiled guest room with arched ceilings, a courtyard window and modern conveniences including cable TV and free Wi-Fi. Also included was a full breakfast, including eggs, fresh fruits, breads, pastries and multiple cappuccinos, served by a charming grandmother who made known her desire that we eat hearty. Our next three Ostuni nights, however, were an off-season bargain in a three-room apartment above the Parisi Café offered by owner Candida Parisi at $78 per night including croissants and cappuccinos, along with free Wi-Fi, in the café. We especially enjoyed opening the living room shutters and watching from our balcony the street life below, including locals who gather at outdoor café tables even in winter for a quick coffee if the sun is shining. After shopping at inexpensive markets for fresh local ingredients, we cooked and enjoyed some meals in our own kitchen. Early December temperatures reached the high 50s on most days.
Our days in Ostuni included visits to the 15th-century Gothic-style Basilica of the Assumption situated at the pinnacle of the cobblestoned, lime-washed White Town. We spent quite some time taking pictures while enjoying the scenic city panorama from both within and outside its ancient walls. The old streets of the town rise on five hills overlooking olive groves surrounding the village and leading down to the town’s sandy beaches on the Adriatic Sea, which is visible four miles away from the old town center. The town’s most festive days are in late August when residents celebrate their patron Saint Oronzo, whose statue stands on an iconic column in the main square.
A convenient day trip to the baroque city of Lecce, not to be missed, in southern Puglia was available via a 35-minute speed train, costing $13 roundtrip per person from Ostuni station. A bus, running frequently at rush hours, connected passengers from the central Ostuni Piazza della Liberta to the train station. In Lecce, there was a short 15-minute walk from the train station to the historic city center. It was quickly obvious that more than one day was needed to see the abundant, monumental architectural sites of Lecce, justifiably known as “Florence of the South.” Hiring a local guide would be recommended here. We saw the Cathedral, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, along with its Campanile, a bell tower 230 feet high in the Duomo Square, where a former seminary now serves as a government office building. Other sites, only scratching Lecce’s surface, included a Roman theater museum, another outdoor Roman amphitheater that once seated 25,000 for ancient sporting events, and the famed Church of The Holy Cross (“Chiesa di Santa Croce”) dating to the 14th century and considered the city’s most famous, architecturally. Not to be missed are Lecce art galleries displaying works in the Italian art of paper mache, for which the city is considered a capital for preserving the ongoing practice of this ancient art form.
One hotel we visited that appears to be an excellent choice in Lecce is the Risorgimento Resort (www.risorgimentoresort.it), a WorldHotels property near the central public gardens. Featuring several restaurants, the hotel has standard rooms starting at $130 in off-season and suites starting from just over $400 per night. Nearby, another luxury hotel choice in Lecce is the Santa Chiara Suite Hotel (www.santachiaralecce.it), situated in a recently restored palazzo.
Stay tuned to www.travelagentcentral.com for Part 2 of John Stone's trip, which will air on Tuesday.