Let’s face it: sipping a glass of vino rosso overlooking the Tuscan hills is possibly one of the best thing you could do on a sunny day in Italy. While plenty of people choose to visit Tuscany during the summer, the wiser (and the luckier) that can plan to visit out of peak season will be pleasantly surprised by the peacefulness of one of the richest region in Italy in terms of history and natural beauty paired with great food and wine – and friendly locals! Plenty of people from all over Europe (and the world, I would say) choose Tuscany as their second home, as well. And if you spend a few days in this corner of Italy it’s not difficult to understand why.
Up to a couple of years ago, quite sadly my knowledge of Tuscany was limited to Florence and Siena, two stunning cities that it is impossible not to fall in love with. It is only when I seriously thought of moving here that I started to explore a lot more, discovering some amazing towns, villages and hidden corners of a region that offers absolutely everything for everyone (I still haven’t tested its seaside yet….just waiting for the great weather to start!) Life goes at a much more relaxed pace than life in the north of Italy where I come from and I suppose that is another good reason that it attracts plenty of people from all around the globe, for just a few days or for a lifetime.
As for many regions in Italy, when to visit is the key. In some Italian regions most tourist related businesses completely shut down during the late autumn/winter months until early spring and then become unbearably busy and congested with skyrocketed prices during the peak summer months (mid-June to mid-September) making the whole travel experience less enjoyable and less relaxed.
Probably Tuscany will never feel too congested (with the exception of its main tourist spots) since it’s not too difficult to get out of the main towns and get lost in stunning countryside lanes where you barely meet anyone but it’s no doubt that part of Tuscany’s charm is to be able to enjoy its beauty without stress and without crowds.
Why should you choose to visit Tuscany now? Here are 3 good enough reasons why you should not wait for summer – if you can!
1. It’s very quiet. Unless you like visiting towns and cities surrounded by crowds of tourists, having almost to push to enter to any major tourist attraction, having to queue in any restaurant and having to book your accommodation months in advance to avoid disappointment…THIS (and the late summer too) is the perfect time to visit. Tuscany in general can get very busy but it is also true that – generally – people tend to concentrate in some specific areas: Florence, Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano or a bit further down in Pienza, Montalcino and Montepulciano. As soon as you leave these main cities/towns, you will be pleasantly surprised to notice how some charming and pretty villages barely get any visitors out of season. The big crowds will not arrive until mid June and if you plan smartly you may have a town or a village all by yourself (such as the tiny villages of Monteriggioni, San Quirico d’Orcia or in Bagno Vignoni). A great opportunity to enjoy the peace and the quietness that Tuscany should convey to any tourists.
The same goes for traffic. Whilst traffic in Tuscany is quite an overstatement compared to where I have previously lived (Milan, Madrid, London), during the peak months car parks tend to fill up pretty quickly, roads can get busy (particularly around the big cities, such as Florence and Siena) and make the whole experience less enjoyable, if you are planning to drive (which in Tuscany is undoubtedly the best option to reach some of the most fascinating places). Being quieter, generally also means that you will receive a better service in cafes, restaurants, hotels etc: staff are at the very beginning of their working season and they haven’t got the stress of the whole season on their shoulder – yet!
2. It’s more affordable. Visiting Tuscany in peak season (particularly July – August) can be obscenely expensive. In the main cities (namely Florence and Siena) most businesses that cater to tourists will be open all year round but in the small/mid size towns in the countryside, most businesses will generally close from November to March/April for lack of tourism. This is typical of many regions in Italy (including two other stunning regions like Puglia and Sicily) and unfortunately it is as a real limit of the Italian way of thinking: having more businesses and services open all year round would encourage more tourists to come off-peak, particularly in regions where the weather is reasonably good all year round. Anyway, it’s in this time of the year (March – May) that you should still be able to find good prices. Though it’s true that cities like Florence and Siena are generally expensive all year round, hotels and bed and breakfasts near the most touristy towns (San Gimignano, for example) have far more affordable room rates than the peak season. To save a bit of money, choose an accommodation to use as a base to explore near to the main tourist towns without having to pay the premium of sleeping in it.
3. It’s beautiful. Against this argument you could probably say that “it’s beautiful all year round” and that it’s absolutely true but its beauty is also in its peacefulness and, above all, its colours. Though autumn offers arguably a more interesting palette of colours, spring is the perfect time to visit: trees start to blossom, the air is crisp and clear and days are wonderfully bright. After a long winter (this year actually not so long and cold), sun is finally shining, swifts are out and about, days are getting longer and sunset are getting gorgeous. During day time temperature can go up to 25C, whilst in the evening you will still need a medium weight jacket. Overall: DIVINE!
For more information on accommodation, restaurants and places to visit, have a look at my other posts on Tuscany!
Every Italian region has its own characteristic food and every Italian region is extremely proud of its local cuisine. Puglia is no exception, having some of the most delicious and mouthwatering food that I have ever tasted (I mean devoured). In a land blessed with sun and sea, you can be sure that everything you eat will be local and fresh: delicious fish and seafood, scrumptious fruits and vegetables, luscious barbecue meat and tasty cheeses, yummy home made desserts… there is a bit for everyone’s taste.
Here is a list of some of the delicacies that I still dream of…
Invented in Lecce in 1745, Pasticciotto is an Italian pastry filled with custard (depending on the region, it may be filled with ricotta instead). The description can’t render enough the soft pastry and the warm custard heart. Eat as many as you can because it’s going to be hard to find one of them back home – wherever you are from.
Taralli, Olive e Burrata
Taralli are a typical snack of Southern Italy, sort of crackers. You will find them in different flavor but the most common ones are with onion, garlic or fennel. Olives don’t need any introduction. You will find them everywhere. Burrata (pictured on the back of the plate) is a fresh cheese made from cows milk similar to a mozzarella but with a texture ten times softer and stringer than its cousin. It’s original from Andria and it looks like a small sachet (but burrata can get up to 1 Kg) with an heart of “strings” (stracciatella) and cream. To die for.
Possibly one of the yummiest quick lunch you can have. All over Puglia you wil find different types of puccia that actually look all very different (some similar to an open sandwich, other bread with olives). The one above was in a deli store in Ostuni and it was fabulous.
Also, a quick mention should be made for the rustico: unfortunately, I devoured mine too quickly before even taking a picture! 😦 it’s a rounded puff pastry of 10-15 min diameter, filled with béchamel, mozzarella and tomato, to be eaten hot. It’s original from Lecce area and locals tend to eat it as a quick snack before dinner (!). You will find it in most delis and it’s worth a try.
Ricci di mare
I first tested ricci (sea urchin) a few years ago in Malta and, since then, I am officially in love. Best with pasta, in Puglia you will see people sharing dozens of these raw delicacies and extracting the juice as if it’s the last thing they will do. Quite aphrodisiac too, so go for it! Sea urchins hunting is strictly regulated in Italy and in Puglia it’s forbidden to hunt them between April 30th and June 30th (fishermen can hunt limited quantities throughout the year) so keep that in mind if you want fresh ones.
Possibly one of the fattiest thing you can eat in Puglia, pettole are balls of deep fried dough. People from Puglia eat them like an appetizer. Basically, we nibble on crisps, they nibble on pettole. Every town in Puglia (and not only Puglia) has its own tradition as far as when to prepare them and how to eat them. The picture above was taken when I attended the Liberation Day Lunch on April 25th with my friend’s family. I am from Milan and in Puglia I am considered as foreign as you (probably more). I can’t understand their dialect so I couldn’t interact as much as I’d like but once food is on the table, everyone speaks the same language!
Riso patate e cozze
It translates: rice, potato and mussels. More typical of Bari area, to be fair I haven’t found this dish very often in any menu and I actually only ate it twice, the first one being at my friend’s house but it was delicious so if you read it on a menu, you should try it.
Home made orecchiette and cavatelli
Fresh pasta is an Italian prerogative but orecchiette (“small ear”) is the most common variety of home-made pasta in Puglia. You can bet you will find them on every menu in Puglia, the most common being with cime di rapa (broccoli) or al sugo di cavallo (horse ragu with tomato based sauce) sprinkled with a variety of strong ricotta cheese. Delicious! Cavatelli (pictured on the left side in the pictures above) is another very typical home made pasta. I took the pictures above at 5 AM in the morning at my friend’s home: we had just come back from a night out and her mum had been awake preparing fresh pasta for all the family! I felt very bad for having been out all night (and morning!!) but we felt soooo good knowing that lunch would have been heavenly!
I have been in a few Michelin restaurants in my life but none in Italy. But, to be fair, who needs a star when you have got this? If you decide to visit Puglia, stick to the simple recipes, the local products and the healthy portions and you will be in heaven.
A separate mention should be made for 2 other star products of Puglia: oil and wine.
Oil is Puglia’s gold and you will see it by yourself: acres and acres of olives dot the whole region. When the land is so dry and the water so scarce, almost nothing else grows as good as olive trees. Don’t be shy and ask a small plate to dip your bread in: from a sparkling green to a beautiful dark golden color, olive oil will always be on your table.
Some of the best Italian red and full-bodied wines come from this region: Primitivo di Manduria, Salice Salentino, Negroamaro to name a few. We had an unforgettable wine experience in a beautiful place called Cantine Menhir in Minervino di Lecce. To be fair, I didn’t have any bad wine while in Puglia so it will be very difficult for you to go wrong.
For more information on the best wines of the region, you can have a look at www.vinidipuglia.com or www.lestradedelvinopuglia.it, both very well done websites with lots of information on the local wines and an event page to see what’s on in the region.
According to a recent survey, out of 1.300.000 people living in Milan, over 180.000 come from Puglia (or Apulia, as you may know it). Quite sadly, Puglia – one of the most beautiful region in Italy – has one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy and lots of people choose to move to the Northern cities to seek better jobs opportunities. When I was living in Milan, a large group among my friends was from Puglia and that’s how I got to know this amazing corner of Italy. All of them (with no exception) were truly homesick and deep down I believe they will never settle in Milan. They will “live” in Milan, but their heart will always be 1000 km south. Once you visit Puglia, you can’t really blame them.
I first visited Puglia in April 2012; a friend of mine living in Milan was going back to see her family and she kindly invited me to stay at her family home for a few days (her mum is a great cook, reason enough to go!). My conversion was immediate: I left Milan with just over 13 degrees, and I arrived in Puglia after over 10 hours car journey, with over 20. No need to say, I celebrated Puglia with an early swim in the gorgeous sea with my friends. OK, the water was still a bit chilly but…who cares with such a beautiful crystal water?? Oh… and an empty beach.
I have been back in April 2015 – this time as an independent visitor, without any local contacts – and my experience was equally great: people from Puglia are lovely and their region simply stunning.
Again, Puglia would need a few weeks to be properly visited and discovered but if you’ve got less than a couple of weeks, it’s a great destination (and very, very cheap). First rule: never, under any circumstances, visit Puglia in peak season (July-August). The region just can’t cope with the number of tourists in these 2 months unless you are particularly fond of traffic jams, packed beaches, overcrowded restaurants and – above all – ridiculous prices…. avoid it!
Here is a tentative itinerary for less than 15 days in Puglia. I visited at the end of the Spring and the weather was gorgeous. Locals will tell you that it’s still cold and Tramuntana still blows but personally I think that it was the perfect weather to visit the towns and enjoy the coast (a swim will solely depend on your braveness).
The region is well served by 2 airports, Bari and Brindisi. I choose Bari for being a bit cheaper at the time of booking our flights and because we wanted to start our journey from North to South. Some rental car companies will not charge you the one way drop off fee if you pick up your car in Bari and return in Brindisi (and viceversa), so that’s a good option.
Day 1. Fly to Bari. A car is a must-have to tour around this region, since you can’t rely on local transport. Rent a car in the airport and start your tour. We decided to base ourselves in Castellana Grotte, less than an hour drive from the airport and with a reasonably priced accommodation option. Grab a double room at B&B Caroseno (their restaurant is amazing as well) or at Masseria Capocaccia with countryside style rooms. I have to say, Castellana Grotte is not a particularly charming town (there are far more attractive towns in the area) but it’s an excellent base to explore the nearby towns and it does offer a true image of Puglia. Any of the towns you visit on Day 2 could be a very good base for a couple of days to tour the area, being Polignano a Mare probably the one with more sleeping and eating options (and being my favorite!).
Day 2. Castellana Grotte, Polignano a Mare, Monopoli. Castellana Grotte (as the name suggests) is famous for its caves so take your time to visit them (tours are available to discover this gorgeous natural attraction; have a look a the time schedule to arrange the visit). Then drive to Polignano a Mare (less than 30 mins).
It’s a gorgeous coastal town with stunning views, lovely narrow white streets and passages and an incredible blue/green crystal water. Stop here for lunch (strozzapreti with seafood would be a good option), a glass of white wine and enjoy the blue color of the sky and the water. For a quick lunch, try Pescaria. I parked my car in front of their restaurant and it looked busy and delicious. If the weather allows it, spend a couple of hours on the pebbles beach Baia Saraceni before heading to Monopoli.
The Bellavista B&B is on the right side, above the walls.
It’s another very short drive (just over 30 min) and once again you are in one truly typical town of Puglia. White narrow streets, baby blue doors and lovely restaurants and bed and breakfasts. We didn’t sleep here but if you plan to and you are not on a tight budget, I would go for B&B Bellavista with absolutely stunning open views on the Monopoli bay.
Drive back to Castellana Grotte to rest a bit before going out for dinner. We tried Locanda Romanelli and were not disappointed; for a while we were the only table in the whole restaurant, so we got all the attention and the chat of the young owner. If you are planning a night stopover in Polignano a Mare, try these restaurants: for the best fish-based dinner in a lovely atmosphere, head to Ristorante Antiche Mure, possibly one of the best seafood meals I have ever had (their fresh sea urchins were to die for!). For a romantic dinner in a unique setting, choose Grotta Palazzese; I shouldn’t spoil the surprise but…you will have dinner by candle light in an open cave, with the sea waves breaking under you. I heard mixed opinions on this restaurant food (and I haven’t tried it myself) but as far as views and location, everyone agrees: it’s unbeatable.
Day 3.Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino. Have a lay in (you are on holiday right?) and then head to Alberobello, less than 20 minutes drive from Castellana. Out of season is a quiet and unique town nestled on a hilly area with the characteristic “trulli“, a unique construction type original of the area.
It’s a dry stone hut with a conical roof, once built as temporary shelters for the farmer or used as storeroom or even as permanent dwellings. The Italian Government has tried to push the restoration of abandoned trulli giving incentives to buildings and owners and now you can even sleep in them. If the weather is good, have an ice cream at Arte Fredda: the owner is a lovely loud and smiling lady (we saw her on a BBC interview by chef Locatelli and decided to give it a go) and her ice cream (and flavours) truly unforgettable (pistacchio and mandorla are to die for!). Visit the town (you could do it in a couple of hours) and then head to Locorotondo. Again, another very small typical Puglian town to give you a good feeling of what is Puglia. If you can hang around until dinner time, go straight to Cisternino for a walk in the old town (very, very quiet) and then try their meat specialties for dinner. Cisternino is famous all over the area for barbecue meat (in huge portions) so it’s worth a food-stop.
Day 4. Castellana Grotte-Ostuni. Leave your accommodation and drive to Ostuni, the so-called white city (la citta’ bianca); white paint (lime) gave more light and brightness to the otherwise dark narrow alleys but it particularly helped to stop the spread of the plague during the XVII century. When I visited in April 2015, the streets where like you see them in the pictures below: empty. Can you imagine thousands of tourists roaming down the narrow streets, partying until late and basically trashing one of the best towns in Puglia? I can’t, so don’t make the mistake of going during peak season.
We decided to stay downtown, so I could get up early to take some nice shots. We chose a place called I 7 Archi Guest House. It was a good choice, cute and interesting accommodation on 2 levels in the very heart of Ostuni. Staying downtown gives you the opportunity to have a couple of glasses of wine without having to worry about driving back and gives you the chance to be on the street when they are still very quiet (though in April they never get busy). As far as dinner, have you ever eaten inside a cave? Well, if you haven’t yet or if you already have and want to repeat, try either Caffe’ Cavour or Osteria del Tempo Perso. We tried the first one and dinner was excellent (and reasonable) in a beautiful and enchanting setting. If fresh sea urchins are available, ask for fresh sea urchins linguine, I can still taste them now!
Day 5. The countryside near Ostuni.
Before exploring the countryside, head to New Life Caffe’ Fanelli (Piazza della Liberta’ 30) to start your day off on the right foot: best latte and pasticciotto! Even if you already had breakfast, you should make an “effort” and sit in their sunny terrace in Piazza della Liberta’ to enjoy the morning with locals.
The countryside near Ostuni deserves a day exploring. We did it and we followed an easy and beautiful drive through the countryside. Hundreds years old olive trees, dry and broken land, blood red poppy fields, blossoming cheery trees in the middle of a shining and warm spring. A blessing for the soul and the eyes.
Difficult to suggest the best route, but definitely go for the Parco degli Ulivi Secolari (Park of the secular olive trees) and try to get lost. You can get there following the provincial road Pilone/Rosa Marina – Ostuni and the provincial road Penna Grossa/Torre Guaceto – Serranova/San Vito. There are also organized cycling and walking trips in the area, worth to have a look at, if you prefer to be with a local tour guide (check if anyone speaks English, before). While you are in Ostuni, you also have the opportunity to drive down to the seaside to visit the wild and almost untouched Riserva di Torre Guaceto. Don’t expect to find any service here but if you want to see where Puglia countryside merges directly with the sea and have a good trek….it’s a good and peaceful place to do it. In the evening, have an earthy dinner at Casa San Giacomo in Ostuni (Via Bixio Continelli N. 4): friendly and homely atmosphere with all the family on show busy cooking and preparing simple and tasty dishes. With a plate of orecchiette you can’t possibly go wrong.
Day 6. Ostuni-Lecce. Just over an hour drive and you reach Lecce, the heart of Salento (the heel of Italy). We stayed downtown in a very reasonable B&B (B&B Antiche Volte, nothing exciting but it did its job). Lecce really has options for every budget and if you shop around you can easily get a very good accommodation without having to pay indecent money. Mantatelure’ has been recommended as a great accommodation but I haven’t tried it myself. Whatever you choose, make sure that the accommodation has a car park or can provide you with a pass to park freely within the city walls.
Lecce is a very young and lively town; there is a well respected University and the streets are busy with people at anytime, particularly in the evening. We really enjoyed it and after a few days in small villages/towns, we appreciated the buzz of a bigger city. For all its Baroque architecture, Lecce is often nicknamed “Florence of the South” and if you take a stroll downtown you will realize how spot on the nickname is. Don’t miss: the Santa Croce Basilica, the Duomo and its square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the Amphitheatre.
Day 7. Lecce. Spend a full day in Lecce. There is enough to keep you busy for a few days but I think the best you could do is probably just wander around its streets, getting lost, visit its less known churches and discover one of the cities I liked most in Italy so far.
Food wise, it’s as good as any other part of Puglia we have visited so far and you will find plenty of good (and cheap) eateries at every corner.
Day 8. Lecce – Otranto. Leave Lecce and in less than an hour you will arrive in the beautiful small harbor of Otranto.
The old historic town, protected by the walls of the Castle, is pretty small and it will not take you more than half a day to visit so take your time and once you’ve visited the most important sites (the Castello Aragonese and the Cathedral with the impressive Cappella Mortiri, where the bones of 813 Otranto martyrs are kept) just enjoy a pleasant relaxed stroll in the narrow streets.
If you have a bit more time on your side, choose the coastal road SP366 going through the Natural Reserve Le Cesine, San Foca and Torre dell’Orso. It is a slower road but definitely worth; the towns you will drive through are not particularly attractive but the scenery is stunning.
Unfortunately this was the only day we had cloudy weather but still it was absolutely worth. We happened to drive there at lunch time or let’s say at a good time to start eating 🙂 and we stopped at a place called Al Rifugio di Capitan Morgan, advertising fresh sea urchins. They haven’t got a website but their full address is Lungomare Matteotti Zona Ricci, San Foca. If you are driving the coastal road, you can’t miss it! Don’t expect fancy table cloth and posh plates but do expect excellent fresh seafood and friendly service. And delicious sea urchins…they don’t get any fresher than this!
Once near Otranto, we took the road to the B&B that we had prebooked; we stayed a bit outside town, in a tiny village called Casamassella at B&B Vigne Vecchie. While the town doesn’t offer almost any service other than the basic ones, this was undoubtedly the best value accommodation. The B&B is managed by a nice Italian lady; the rooms are spotlessly clean, the outdoor area is immaculate and breakfast is to die for. We were the only room in the whole B&B and still she laid a 2 mt. long breakfast table literally covered with everything you can possible want to start your day and more: savory homemade breads, selection of hams and cheeses, focaccia, yogurt, fresh fruit, home made cakes etc. It was enough for 10 people but we managed to eat a fair bit and breakfast kept us going for almost all day. In the evening, following the B&B owner’s recommendation, we booked a table at Cantine Menhir which was a fabulous experience, especially if you enjoy good wine!
Day 9. Coastal drive. The Salento coast from Otranto going South is stunning and it’s a lovely drive on a hilly coastline that stretches all the way down to Santa Maria di Leuca, where you can see both sunrise and sunset. You can’t go any further south than Santa Maria but before reaching it, take your time and enjoy the drive down. Start with a visit to the town of PortoBadisco. It’s a small and humble town so it will not take you long to have a walk around, follow the coastline and just prepared to be amazed.
Keep driving south and you will drive through Santa Cesarea Terme, possibly one of the ghostest town I have ever visited. Apart from a bus of older German people, we were the only people around. Not a soul was wandering in this town. Santa Cesarea must have had golden time, when the royalties in Lecce and Ostuni starting to convert it in a resort town, exploiting the therapeutic effect of the nearby springs but now it seemed irreversibly sad and abandoned. And it is a true shame because the location and the architecture of the town deserves a lot better.
On a side note, the Thermal Baths are open and they have got a webpage so I suppose that someone actually comes here. Follow the road south and before heading to the village of Castro and the Zinzulusa Cave, make a quick stop at Porto Miggiano. In summer it gets hard to find a spot on the rocks but if you have come out of season you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
Keep driving and a few minutes from Porto Miggiano, you will arrive in Castro, another lovely coastal town overlooking an emerald green bay.
We didn’t reach Santa Maria di Leuca since apparently there is not much there but if time is on your side, it could be worth the drive – now that you have arrived this far south.
Day 10. Otranto – Gallipoli. Head on the east side of Puglia, where the well renowned town of Gallipoli is located(less than an hour drive from Otranto). Hopefully you have chosen to not visit during peak season when moving around town is a true nightmare. I haven’t heard of anyone being in this area in July/August and enjoying it. Last summer, such was the number of people in town, the sewage system collapsed. Out of season is a charming quiet town absolutely worth a day visit (or more).
Day 11. If the weather is sunny and warm enough, I would just spend one day chilling out on the beach, having a drink in one of the Lidos (if they are open) enjoying the emerald water and the blue sky and getting ready to (sadly) go back home. We didn’t mind driving again from Casamassella to Gallipoli area and spend a day on the beach but another option is to sleep in Gallipoli for a night.
Day 12. Bari / Brindisi (depending on where you return the car). We didn’t stop in any of these two cities because we had run out of days but they could both be a good overnight stop with plenty of things to do and visit.
I’ve tried to suggest a few sleeping options but if you are looking for more detailed information on the accommodation in Puglia (apart from the usual booking.com, tripadvisor etc), have a look at Charming Puglia as well, to get some interesting and unusual sleeping options.
Food wise, Puglia variety of food is sooo delicious that I have listed my favorite food memories in a separate post. Don’t read if you are hungry!
I read somewhere that “for the Italians Puglia is like Cornwall for the English”. A lot could be said on this sentence. I love England but let’s be fair: you wouldn’t exchange Puglia with Cornwall in a million years!