Top things to do in Puglia in the off-season
Festivals and parades, long days at the white-sand beaches, and sultry nights — these are a few of things that make the Puglia region of Italy a popular vacation destination for Europeans and others seeking summertime la dolce vita. But, as you may know, Mr. TWS and I are fond of discovering the best of top travel destinations during their off-seasons, too. With great memories of our trip to Puglia in summer a few years ago, we set out to explore more about this region we love.
In late fall, one can expect cool temperatures and some rainfall in Puglia and we were prepared for this. The weather can also be very nice in November, which it was the week before we came and the week after we left. However, we experienced an unusual number of overcast days and rainfalls for Puglia during our visit. This meant carrying an umbrella and donning the raincoat for much of our trip, but it did not detract from our enjoyment of experiencing new as well as familiar activities and sights.
Located in Italy’s “heel of the boot” and areas along the Adriatic Sea north of it, Puglia is a region for all seasons with hiking, biking, historic sites, compelling art and architecture, museums, crafts shops, food, wine, and cultural surprises. There will be more to share about our favorite experiences, but in this post let’s get started with a quick look at what we found and enjoyed, to help with your plans to visit Puglia in any season.
Fall in love with the hillside towns
Some of my favorite memories of Puglia were and continue to be just walking around and dining in the many beautiful hillside towns. I like to step inside the cathedrals to admire the frescoes and have a few moments to reflect. I also like to visit the museums, galleries, and small family-owned shops in the towns. We revisited Cisternino, Martina Franca, and Ostuni — enjoying the familiarity of the winding streets and whitewashed buildings (including the trulli which continue to fascinate and delight us), noticing new alleys and passageways, people-watching, and dining in new restaurants.
Feel romantic on the seaside
In summer, Polignano a Mare is vibrant, busy, and filled with sun-loving crowds. In fall, we found a quiet piazza for a romantic dinner al fresco and reveled in the dreamy views of the city lights from the shore (shown below).
You might be surprised to learn of the extensive network of caves in the Puglia region. I know that I was. We were thrilled to tour the amazing caves of Grotte di Castellana less than one hour from Ostuni and near other towns of the Valle d’Itria such as the trulli village of Alberobello.
The caverns are enormous, beautiful, and accessible. We took the two-hour tour that takes you underground to about 60 meters deep through the caves which began to form 19 million years ago! I was a bit apprehensive about this activity since I’m a bit claustrophobic. But I was told it wouldn’t be a problem and I had no trouble at all. The caves are huge and the few closer spots are short. This is a must see for Puglia even if you’re there during the high season, but be prepared for crowds. After all, 15 million people from all over the world visit the caves.
We had a unique experience with a performance in the cavern at night, Hell in the Cave. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It’s an excellent, intense program based on Dante’s Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, in a stunning and perfect venue. I was not particularly comfortable when cast members portraying the tormented of Hell moved around us in the audience from time to time. In fact, I uttered the only shriek we heard in the entire performance as one of the actors startled me by crawling among us during our entry down into the cave along a long stairway illuminated with red lights. But that’s just me. It seemed that everyone else, including kids, seemed quite calm about it.
Explore and respect the land and sea
Before my first Puglia visit when we had the chance to drive through Gargano National Park in the Foggia province of Puglia, I didn’t think about there being such diverse parks in southern Italy. There are two national parks and 19 regional parks in Puglia.
During this visit, we had a fantastic tour with Gianfranco Ciola, Mari Pinto, and Valerio Palasciano of the Coastal Dunes Regional Nature Park that exposed us to the area’s natural beauty, agricultural bounty, recreational activities, and historic and archaeological sites.
We had a full day of seeing sights within the park visiting the coastal dunes, organic fish farms, working mills and farms that respect the location’s environmental and cultural resources. The park has also opened an Albergabici, a hostel with 18 beds and bike rental and repair services for bike tourists on the area’s extensive trail system. The park system promotes appreciation of and cooperation with nature by producing education, marketing, and tourism programs. We were impressed by the array of things to do and see and even with a full day just got to the highlights.
Mr. TWS has a special affection for the sea in any season in any place. On this trip to Puglia, instead of sipping cool drinks under the hot sun on the beach as we did in summer, we contemplated the beauty of the sea as brisk breezes brought waves crashing to shore.
Indulge in Regional Food
We were told that traditional thinking in Puglia was that a woman could not get married until she knew how to properly make orecchiette, an ear-shaped pasta that I remembered fondly and looked forward to indulging in more on this trip. I was not disappointed. Mr. TWS was also able to get some of the fantastic fresh seafood for which Puglia is famous, but orecchiette is the highlight for me!
Part of the tour with our Coastal Dunes Regional Park guides was lunch at Nobile Tradizione Pugliese, a family-run agricultural company, at Masseria Difesa di Malta. Vita, the family matriarch founded the company in 1994 with her husband and has since been using natural foods and recipes handed down through several generations. Two generations of the family currently own and operate the business preparing and selling traditional Pugliese dishes and food products grown on their 25 hectares of land. The special methods for preparation take place in the masseria’s “laboratory” and produce not only delicious but beautiful products distributed narrowly among local restaurants. Our lively lunch with our tour group consisted of orecchiette handmade by Vita and other olive, vegetable, and fruit specialties.
Tour and taste at an olive mill
Also with our Coastal Dunes Regional Park guides, we strolled the olive groves of Antica Masseria Brancati, where ancient trees (like the gnarly, twisted one over 3,000 years old supported only by huge stones shown below) still produce olives alongside the younger trees on the property’s 30 hectares. We were able to visit the masseria’s ancient underground mill where the remnants of olive oil production methods from Roman times through present day are on display. The stables and workers’ sleeping quarters of centuries ago were also located here.
Not only did we get a tour of the groves and olive mill at Antica Masseria Brancati, we sampled their delicious extra virgin olive oils. It’s interesting how similar to wine tasting this process can be, with each oil having its own aromas and flavor — some subtle, others quite pronounced.
Take a side trip to Matera
Matera is a fascinating city of ancient cave dwellings in the Basilicata region and is a must-see side trip easily reached from many places in Puglia. It was about a 1-1/2 drive from our place in Ostuni. Expect to see this newly designated European Capital of Culture for 2019, once under the radar of many travelers to Italy, become a much more high-profile destination.
Our tour of the town by expert guide Nicola Taddonio was arranged by Agenzia Viaggi Lionetti. Nicola provided a fascinating walking tour of the city, describing the history from ancient days to current times, brought us to key sites and structures, led us to many of the amazing vistas within the city, and even discussed the movies made in Matera. We’ll share more photos and information about our day in Matera in a future post.
Stay in a masseria
Masserias are countryside lodgings in former farm houses and farmhouse communities (often fortified for protection from attacks during the 16th – 19th centuries) that are unique to the Puglia region. Many provide accommodations and dining while still being working farms with olive groves, vineyards, gardens, and sometimes farm animals. Other have been restored solely as holiday rentals.
Our EsteVillas Elena Retreats masseria accommodations were in Ostuni, about 15 minutes from the city center in the Contrada Lamatroccola neighborhood. It’s a great location for exploring much of Puglia’s Valle d’Itria, coastal towns, and attractions farther afield. The serene property has beautiful olive trees and gardens. It is located in a very quiet location in the hills, accessed by a long road lined with old stone walls. The masseria sleeps up to 8 people in four apartments (ours had a kitchenette) with a separate main kitchen accessible to all. We loved the country chic touches of the decor in our apartment and other areas of the masseria. It was a great place for our stay and will get even better in the near future as plans are in place for a beautiful swimming pool and a new larger common activity area to be added in time for the 2018 summer season.
Get to know the people
Another reason to visit Puglia is the opportunity to meet its warm people. We are fortunate to have met many wonderful people there who were open, sincere, enthusiastic, charming, and consistently passionate about their region. Time after time, we found helpful assistance from locals as we took wrong turns on the roadways or who patiently tried to understand our minimal Italian phrases as we asked questions in shops and restaurants. No matter the particular situation, we felt welcome in this region making it a place to which we hope to return again.
Thanks to Elena, our host in Ostuni, for her hospitality and enthusiastic assistance in organizing many of our activities. Thanks also to our wonderful guides at Parco Nationale Regionale Dune Costiere and in Matera.