Italians have always been known to go south to the heel of Italy’s boot in summer, where the 500 miles of coastline offers sublime beaches and a dialed-down ambiance. Helen Mirren and Taylor Hackford, Meryl Streep and Francis Ford Coppola have found Puglia (Apulia) the perfect escape from the frenetic pace that comes with celebrity. In the last five years, international tourism in Puglia has climbed almost 15 percent a year, bringing visitors from around the world, many of whom have already explored other parts of Italy.
Why Puglia? In a country where every one of the 20 regions is distinct from the others, this one has its own personality. About the size of Tuscany, it is completely different. Stays in cone-shaped trulli, or restored agricultural masserie, historic villas or green resorts are often experienced in the midst of the oldest olive groves in Italy, where a giant olive tree might stand in the middle of an elegant dining room. The cuisine is freshness defined: Fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fish, unusual pastas and excellent wines — most based on zero-kilometer themes. Beyond the dozens of long beaches, there are castles and caves, ceramics and sunny town squares to visit.
Though the region has much improved train service, traveling by car is more flexible and the distances between towns, beaches and historic sites are usually less than an hour and a half. Most upmarket travelers fly into Bari or Brindisi, where they rent a car or hire a driver.
In 2019, a Puglia itinerary requires an essential addition: A stop off in Matera, just over the regional border in Basilicata. Matera, where residents lived with their animals in caves called sassi from prehistoric times until the 1950s, has been named Europe’s City of Culture in 2019. The sassi are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Eighteen of these crumbling caves, which resemble a giant beehive on the mountainside, have been preserved by Italian-Swedish entrepreneur and historian Daniele Elow Kihlgren and his company Sextantio. We visited Kihlgren’s albergo diffuso, Le Grotte della Civita, where luxury and historic authenticity combine to offer a memorable experience. (An albergo diffuso is an Italian style of hospitality, where visitors live within a town or village in various apartments or rooms. There is often no central lobby and the concept has become a preservation effort designed to save declining towns or buildings.)
Each of the 18 restored caves (four suites, three executive suites, eight superior and three classic rooms) at Le Grotte is different from the others, but all reflect the commitment of owner to keep the original footprint of where a family (and their animals) lived, with no added walls or doors where there were none in the past. Some provide more privacy, light or space. The rough-hewn stone walls are dramatized with candlelight and the furnishings are often equally rustic tables. The beds have high-quality mattresses and handmade linens, while the bathrooms have modern fixtures. During restoration of the caves, the original floors were removed, heating and plumbing were installed, and the floors were replaced. There is a terrace overlooking the Murgia National Park; the breakfast room is a beautifully restored medieval chapel. Visit its website (legrottedellacivita.sextantio.it) to see floor plans of the rooms and suites. The general manager is Ninfa Giorgioni and the sales manager is Michele Centonze ([email protected]).
At 1,500 square feet, Cave 10 offers privacy, light, a living area and a bedroom. The bathroom is actually two rooms, one for the bathtub and the second for the other facilities. A Plus: Since it was originally a storeroom, the bathroom is separated from the bedroom by a door.
Cave 21 is a light-filled 1,600-square-foot suite, with two sets of doors: Glass and ancient wood. Three beds (one king and two twins) in two adjoining bedroom spaces offer an apartment that might work well for a family. Keeping with tradition, the beds are high because the animals slept underneath them to provide warmth for the humans. This suite has a two-room bathroom, with an egg-shaped tub in one area and the rest of the facilities in another. (All suites have both tub and shower.)
Le Grotte della Civita's Room 17 is a Classic Room that has 375 square feet of space and comes with an egg-shaped bathtub in the room.
With its candlelit romantic shadows, egg-shaped bathtub in the bedroom, and handmade linen sheets, staying in Cave 17 was definitely not roughing it, but there was little privacy. At 375 square feet, it was spacious enough for two people who don’t require a separate bathroom or shower. (There are no internal doors, though there is a wall behind the toilet and bidet.) There is air conditioning and under-floor heating, as in all the caves here. (Hint: Ask for two keys and leave the system running when you go to dinner to avoid dampness. It is a cave, after all.)
Moving south 30 miles into the region of Apulia (Puglia) near Castellaneta Marina, is the five-star resort Kalidria Hotel & Thalasso Spa, part of the Preferred Lifestyle marketing group. In contrast to Matera, here we found Italian contemporary eco-architecture designed by Emilio Ambasz, with 100 rooms and nine junior suites. Soaring, colored glass works by Brian Clarke provide an accent of light and shadow in the lobby, as well as elsewhere in the hotel. Puglia, which takes up the sand-fringed heel of Italy’s boot, has many beautiful beaches, but the one at Kalidria is special.
The recently renovated resort is located within the Stornara Nature Reserve, one and a half miles from the Ionian Sea. Most of the staff speak excellent English and have been well-trained as part of the Bluserena hospitality group, whose marketing director is Elisabetta Disante ([email protected]). Lakes, walkways, woods and pools surround the hotel. Like many Puglian properties, Kalidria closes for the season from October to around Easter.
Shuttle trains run back and forth through the Aleppo Pine woods to the private beach, which is reserved for hotel guests. What makes this beach special is that, except for the Kalidria stabilmente (a reserved beach concession providing umbrellas, lounge chairs, towels, food and restroom facilities), there is empty beach for miles in either direction. It’s rare in Italy to find long beaches without one stabilmente after another, with multicolored umbrellas everywhere you look.
A casual beach restaurant serves up excellent fresh seafood for lunch. In the evening, there is fine dining at the hotel, where Executive Chef Giuseppe Quinzi creates gourmet versions of local specialties. Seafood, such as Bari oysters, mussels, shrimp and a variety of local fish, highlight the menu, which also offers meat and vegetarian courses. A stay at Kalidria includes a full breakfast and a three-course à la carte dinner (excluding wine). Guests may opt to dine at an adjacent four-star resort or enjoy casual dining on the Kalidria bar terrace.
For a longer stay (two weeks or more), the junior suites can be a good solution. There is a large bedroom with king-sized bed, a living room, and a broad terrace. The double bathroom is enormous — one part has a sink and a whirlpool bath, while the other side has a sink and large shower. The toilet facilities are in the middle.
The superior rooms include a large terrace, single or king beds, and a marble bathroom with a tub and shower. All décor is clean and contemporary, accented by the ceramic roosters that are the symbol of Puglia.
The Ethra Thalasso Spa at Kalidria is enormous, at almost 40,000 square feet. There are two seawater pools and a Kneipp walking path, which takes one on a stroll through hot and cold salt water, with pebbles beneath and water massage stops along the way. There is a wide variety of rooms for massages, facials, mani-pedi and treatments using warm sea water or mud.
The Ethra Thalasso Spa at Kalidria has an indoor seawater pool, seawater tonifying path, saunas and Turkish baths.
Across Italy’s narrow heel, on the Adriatic side of the sun-soaked Puglian landscape, we found two sister properties near the coastal town of Monopoli.
The unassuming driveway into La Peschiera suddenly reveals a little piece of paradise: 13 luxury rooms that literally sit right on the water. Built around an evocative cream stone courtyard that contains both a sparkling large pool and several small ones attached to the suites, the resort has its own private sandy beach, as well as private outdoor spaces. Its name recalls its centuries-old history as a fisherman’s hatchery.
Junior Suite 111 is one of 11 sea-facing rooms, where the Adriatic laps gently against the covered terraces, and breakfast includes a dreamscape across miles of the limpid water. Slip into the air-conditioned suite and out the other side to find one of six pools, or, take the suite’s private outside staircase to the roof terrace, where guests may enjoy cocktails or simply gaze at the horizon. This suite has a bedroom, a living room with a sleeper sofa, and two full bathrooms.
All seafront rooms have two terraces: One overlooking the water and the other near the swimming pools; several suites have their own private pool. The décor includes traditional white walls, with handmade silk bedding and antique furniture. Many guests return again and again.
Other suites include Master Suite 108, which is 1,200 square feet and has a huge sea-level terrace; Suite 109 (650 square feet), which offers a very large roof terrace; and Room 102, which is spacious and comfortable.
La Peschiera’s seafront rooms have two terraces. Shown here is the back terrace of the Sunrise Room overlooking the Adriatic.
Although there are dozens, if not hundreds of restaurants along this coast, the hotel’s Saleblu ristorante is a satisfying choice for a wide selection of fresh fish and Puglian specialties, such as orecchiette, the “burned” ear-shaped pasta. Guests are offered free transfers to La Peschiera’s sister property, Il Melograno, where they may use the full spa and restaurant. There is also a private driver available.
The hotel closes from October until Easter, but reservations may be made during that time by contacting [email protected]. The manager is Maria Rita Stama (011-39-366-695-3908), who can also be contacted regarding Il Melograno. Both hotels are members of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Il Melograno sits in the middle of an ancient olive grove, less than 10 minutes inland from La Peschiera. The two hotels share the private beach located at La Peschiera and the Petramare spa and tennis courts at Il Melograno. There is free shuttle service between the two for hotel guests.
A classic masseria (a collection of old farm buildings), the hotel occupies property that was originally built by the Knights of Malta in the 17th century and features a fortified tower. It was the first of many masserie turned into hotels in Puglia, opening in the 1980s. The 200 olive trees, many more than 500 years old, are the central element in the décor, both inside and out. Winding paths through archways and courtyards lead guests to whitewashed buildings shaded by olive, fruit and pomegranate trees (melograno in Italian). The Mùmmulo ristorante, built around an enormous ancient olive tree, offers local Puglian specialties featuring fresh local produce.
The 40 rooms and suites are all different, as usual in a renovated historic property. Like La Peschiera, the bed linens at Il Melograno are handmade in silk. The suites range from 750 square feet to 1,200 square feet. Some have private patios and most can accommodate up to four people.
Suite 214 is a first-floor walk-up and has a working fireplace and antique furniture that sets off the green and white décor. The suite has a living room, an arched entry into the bedroom, and two bathrooms, one with a Jacuzzi tub and the other with a large shower.
Junior Suite 121 is located in a quiet, shady spot with its own private patio. With white-tiled floor and walls, the suite is about 600 square feet.
Room 115 has an attractive outside entrance, with a semi-private front terrace lined with pots of lemon trees. The décor is lime and white, with white terra cotta floors. There is a tub with shower in the spacious bathroom. With three windows, Room 201 has an entry foyer leading into the bedroom, which is designed using floral prints, cream and white. The bathroom has a combination tub / shower.
Il Melograno’s wellness center and spa, which is also open to non-guests, is large and offers treatments for face and body, sauna, and hammam, along with indoor and outdoor pools, tennis and paddle tennis, and jogging trails. The indoor pool opens to an outside garden, where guests may relax under the olive trees. Sara Trani ([email protected]) is the spa manager.
Il Melograno has 40 unique rooms and suites. Shown here is Suite Melograno that comes with two bathrooms.
The locations of these four properties combine to make a square-shaped itinerary, which can be easily driven. Flying into Bari brings visitors only an hour’s drive away from Matera or Monopoli; flying into Rome (a five-hour drive from Fiumicino airport to Matera) or Naples (a three-hour drive to Matera) requires more time, but the roads are good. It’s possible to fly into Bari from Rome in an hour.
Central Puglia and Matera
Seeing Matera and the towns in the Bari and Taranto provinces of central Puglia (Apulia) are easily doable by rental car or with a guide and driver. The provinces are small, with well-kept provincial roads lined with age-burnished olive trees.
Matera, European City of Culture 2019
The pre-historic sassi (caves) in Matera were once called the shame of Italy because of the poverty they represented. In the 1950s, inhabitants were moved out and the caves sat empty for decades until historic preservationists began to restore them. There are two cave districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso; in each, dozens of dwellings carved into the rock dot the hillside. Today some sit empty, while others are occupied by hotels, small businesses and private apartments. The town is almost entirely built from cream-colored limestone. Osteria al Casale, in the center of town, serves unusual pizza and local dishes. Le Grotte della Civita, while it does not have a restaurant, will prepare and serve private dinners for hotel guests upon request.
Trulli, Alberobello, UNESCO World Heritage site
Trulli are small limestone houses topped with conical roofs, built using prehistoric techniques. They are still used today for homes, hotels, restaurants and farm buildings. The trulli are typical of Alberobello, and can also be seen in Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Cisternino and Fasano. In Alberobello, the trulli have been turned into shops, galleries, pensions and restaurants. Il Poeta Contadino is recommended by the 2019 Michelin Guide for its excellent wine list — the setting is evocative and they serve orecchiette di grano arso (the essential Pugliese pasta, made from toasted wheat).
Ceramics are sold all over Puglia, as they are in much of Italy. Grottaglie, in the Taranto province, is considered the “ceramics town” of Puglia. The ceramics makers are hidden among winding streets, in between weedy patches and rusted gates. Nicola Fasano is probably the most well-known purveyor, with a multi-leveled shop featuring contemporary designs, roosters (the symbol of Puglia) and some plainer pieces that work well with the more complex designs from other Italian centers, such as Deruta.
Polignano a Mare
On the coast just north of Monopoli and known for its beautiful small port, Polignano a Mare is full of churches, narrow streets and charm. It’s also full of tourists, so ask your concierge to make a booking in advance for lunch or dinner at Antiche Mura or Grotta Palazzese.
Primitivo is the best known of the wines produced in central Puglia. The area between Gioia del Colle and Acquaviva delle Fonti is reputed to have the best primitivos, as well as excellent local breads, black chick peas, grass peas and sweet onions. Tenute Chiaromonte and Polvanera are among the leading wineries in the area. For lunch, stop in at Trattoria Pugliese in Gioia del Colle, where the wine list is as satisfying as the traditional food.
Castello del Monte, UNESCO World Heritage site
Built in about 1240 by Federico II, the castle sits on the peak of an isolated hill in Andria. Shaped liked an octagon, it has octagonal towers at each corner. This very unusual structure was featured in the movies, Wonder Woman and Tale of Tales. (Part of Wonder Woman was shot in Matera).
Grotte di Castellana, near Monopoli
Located about 25 miles from Bari and very close to Monopoli, the 90-million-year-old Castellana caves are simply amazing (and a great place to spend an hour out of the summer heat). The complete tour of the cave, which extends almost two miles and descends almost 200 feet underground, takes about two hours; the short tour, about 50 minutes, visits spectacular, huge caverns.
Olive trees in Itria Valley
Puglia has more olive trees and produces more olive oil than any place in Italy. Driving down country roads lined with stunning, twisted trees, many hundreds of years old, is the best way to understand the importance of olives to the region. Look for handwritten signs offering olive oil for sale at small farms; always taste before buying.