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The heel of a boot is what gives the boot its allure and prestige. You could say the same of the Puglia region of southern Italy. Long overlooked in favor of Tuscany, Campania, Rome or Sicily, Puglia has become an attractive destination in its own right. Previously thought of as a kind of an embarrassing cousin you would hide away at special events, now Puglia is described as ‘the Tuscany of the South’. The Puglia region that makes up the heel of Italy is becoming more and more popular with Mediterranean enthusiasts due to the abundance of unspoiled villages and coastal towns. Its sublime rustic cuisine and Grecian and Arabic cultural influences differentiate Puglia from rival Italian holiday destinations.

Centuries-old customs can still be found in this mostly rural region, with old men meeting in village squares next to baroque churches, family matriarchs rolling dough and small family-run vineyards bathed in warm sun. Due to its untapped nature, it is still advised to rent a car if you want to truly explore the nooks and crannies of a fantastically beautiful region of Italy. Public transport will still easily link you to the major cities like Lecce and Bari but it is in isolated hilltop villages and lazy fishing ports where the real Puglia showcases its rich flavor.

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The fact that relatively little has been written about Puglia, compared to Tuscany or Campania for instance, means it is hard to know where to start and what to invest your time in when visiting. Well, fret no longer. BUCKiTDREAM has created a ‘best of the best’ list of the sights to see, places to stay, food to savor and drinks to quaff. So get them added to your BUCKiTDREAM planner and say arrivederci to all those confusing travel guides out there.

Activities

Embrace the Diversity in Lucera The town of Lucera is a perfect place to begin your journey in Puglia. Lucera was the last area in Italy where Muslims lived and thrived until 1300 and the Arabic influence can still be seen in the town’s architecture and its cultural openness to outsiders. You can get a real sense of what Puglia is all about by chatting with the surprisingly open and friendly locals in cafes and restaurants. In the center of the town and dating back to the times of Augustus, you can visit one of the best examples of a Roman amphitheater in southern Italy. From Lucera you can go to numerous idyllic beach spots on the Gargano coast.

Bellissimo! The Gargano Promontory After a short drive from Lucera you’ll arrive at Italy’s last primeval forest, the Foresta Umbra with its ancient oak and beech trees. There is a reason why couples and families from all over the Italian mainland visit the Gargano Promontory to explore, unwind and hike to areas with stunning natural vistas. Rising above the plains below, this mountainous haven (which became a national park in 1991) showcases a plethora of little swimming lagoons, beaches, coves, and mountains. There are a number of terrific trails to explore and you can relax after a long day of physical exertion by taking a detour to Vieste.

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Raise Your Pulse at Vieste if a sleepy village and a glacial sense of relaxation don’t spice your interests, why not visit the lively town of Vieste? The party capital of the Gargano coast not only boasts a range of high-quality bars and hotels but is regionally famous for its deep blue waters.

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Be Baffled and Amazed by Castel del Monte No trip to northern Puglia is complete without a trip to this stunning monument. Probably the most iconic out of all of Frederick II’s fortresses, this optically mind-blowing octagonal castle from the 1240s was built with mathematical precision. Prepare to be met with optical illusions while exploring its complex courtyards and walls, as octagons spring from every corner of your vision. Its sinister preoccupation with the number eight and surprising lack of fortification have confused experts and anthropologists for centuries. Nobody knows the truth, yet it remains an architectural wonder.

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Trulli a Sight to Behold As you traverse from the north into the south of Puglia, the rural highways of Itria Valley offer other peculiar abodes that are distinctly Puglian. Gaze dreamily at vineyards, olive trees, almond groves, fruit orchards passing by the window, and you may spot one or more unusual conical houses called trulli. Small white houses with cone-shaped slate roofs, often ornately decorated, these houses were originally built to avoid paying house tax. Unique to Puglia, it may be worth stopping by Alberobello or Martina Franca, both townships containing hundreds of trulli. There are B&B options to stay in a renovated trulli, with a captivating example being Pietradimora.

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The Haunting Ruins of Sassi The Sassi is an example of one of the oldest inhabitations on the Mediterranean. It has slowly gained international notoriety due to its grim past, current rejuvenation and appearance in the crucifixion scene of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. 20,000 peasants used to live in little more than dug-out caverns into the sides of a steep ravine until the Italian government built an entirely new town and moved the population into it in 1960. The Sassi is currently being given a new lease of life with bespoke boutique hotels, bars, and businesses.

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The Florence of the South, Lecce

A cultural and navigational crossroads, Lecce is the heartbeat of southern Puglia. In the city of Lecce you will find the finest examples of Baroque architecture and art in all of Italy. Antonio Zimbalo was the Michelangelo of Lecce who personally designed the baroque 17th-century Basilica della Santa Croce which took 150 years to embellish. Zimbalo’s other masterpiece is the Church of San Giovanni Battista, which is equally splendid and eye-catching. But everywhere you walk in Lecce will reveal the artistic and architectural beauty and we advise to go urban exploring and ease into the relaxed pace of this city. Lecce also has a fantastic cafe culture and a number of exquisite hotels and flavorful restaurants to choose from (more on that later). We recommend Lecce or Ostuni as your launchpad to explore southern Puglia.

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The Real Puglia in Ostuni

The best food and wine can be found in Ostuni, Puglia’s culinary capital. Ostuni, also known as ‘the white city’, is one of southern Italy’s most spectacular towns. Placed high up on a ridge, the town covers three hills and the old center is situated on the highest of these. Staying here and wandering it’s immaculate and historic cobbled streets, you will be treated to exceptional views and a true slice of old Italy as you gently amble through this lazy town. Everything changes in the evening, however, when Ostuni becomes a magnet to the surrounding countryside and draws in a merry crowd looking to dine on local delicacies and enjoy the exceptional local wine. You will find local culture at its finest here and the entire town takes pride in its food. It is literally impossible not to dine well in Ostuni.

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Accommodations

In Lecce is it hard not to recommend Prestige B&B, a high-quality establishment facing a church in the heart of the city. Perfectly located, modern and winning plaudits from many tourists.

A cheaper option may be to stay at Malìa, which is a boutique B&B designed by its owner Laura Aguglia. Featured in many design magazines, its uniqueness lies in it cozy design, with bread made from the wood-fired oven completing the homemade breakfasts. Its four rooms have been specially designed by the owner.

In Ostuni we highly recommend Masseria Cervarolo, a four-star trulli that has stylish décor and a very good rustic restaurant.

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Food, Drink and Nightlife

If you stay in Lecce, an absolute must is the Trattoria Cucina Casareccia. Ring the bell to gain entry to what is essentially a private home that has been run by the same family for generations. The menu is still influenced by the matriarchal wishes of the mother, grandmother, and sisters. Expect simple yet sumptuous antipasti, pasta, chickpeas and polenta dishes. Their most famous dish is Pezzetti di Cavallo (horse stew), a Leccese specialty. You can eat and drink until you’re fit to burst for $30.

Ostuni is the place to be for the best food in Puglia. There are so many options to dine well but Spessite next to the cathedral is a local favorite for its delicious seafood pasta.

Osteria Piazzetta Cattedrale is renowned for using locally-sourced produce and their signature dish is a crepe basket filled with cauliflower purée and crisped bacon drizzled with sweet wine.

Osteria del Tempo Perso is often recommended by locals and serves a stunning range of antipasti include lightly battered zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and mint.

Porta Nova is probably a gorgeous dining spot in the town. Set in a fifteenth-century stone city gate overlooking olive groves and the sea, the restaurant focuses on squid, prawns and other freshly caught delicacies. Why not try the black trofie served with turnip tops, baby squid, anchovy and toasted breadcrumbs?

Must See

This is more of a ‘must eat’, but our top culinary tip is to keep an eye out for any local restaurants serving Puglia’s iconic regional dishes. Fish soup alla Gallipoli, which blends the catch-of-the-day, cernia (a whitefish), cuttlefish, and prawns, all cooked with hot spices and onions. It is championed by locals and visitors alike. The town of Gravina and the surrounding area near Bari in southern Puglia claims an ancient tradition of cooking lamb in milk, olive oil, onions, spices, and herbs. It is absolutely divine and you simply can’t go home without trying it.

We guarantee you a slice of la dolce vita even if you try only one or two activities in this BUCKiTDREAM guide and are positive that you will come home raving about Puglia as so many other tourists have done in recent years. Get this dream destination added to the BUCKiTDREAM app and start sharing your desires and wishes with other passionate jet setters!