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Breathtaking beauty in the 'heel' of Italy's boot

Apulia

YOU HAVE TO TRAVEL ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE 'HEEL' OF ITALY'S 'BOOT', BUT ONCE THERE, YOU WILL BE REWARDED WITH RUGGED CLIFFS, WHITE SANDY BEACHES, SWEEPING VALLEYS, OLIVE GROVES, WINDING ALLEYS, LOCAL DELICACIES, AND STRIKING ARCHITECTURE.

When you think of a holiday in Italy, Tuscany and Umbria are usually the first regions that spring to mind. It's high time for a more thorough exploration of Italy's 'heel'. Head a little further south and discover the gently rolling landscape of Apulia. While most Italians love the contrasts and untouched natural beauty of this region, few tourists choose Apulia as a holiday destination. Those looking to stray from the beaten path this summer can get a head start with our top tips.

Ten things to do and see in Apulia

1. Visit the Trulli-huts

A must-see according to most travel guides, and for good reason: these whitewashed houses with conical caps known as trulli can be found in the Itria Valley, an impressive valley located in the heart of Apulia. The magical city of Alberobello – situated atop two hills, separated by a riverbed, and surrounded by olive groves – is an absolute must and features some 1,500 limestone houses. Most trulli have been converted into souvenir ships, while others serve as guest houses. These mysterious houses, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, have been the source many interesting stories. According to one such story, the sly landowner Acuaviva saw in these former farmers' huts a clever way to avoid taxes. After all, these are not considered houses, rather a heap of well-placed stones. Should an unannounced inspection take place, the huts could be demolished in no time.

2. Dive off the rugged cliffs

The charm of Apulia's seaside towns is impossible to ignore: white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, rugged cliffs, picturesque coves, and limestone cottages are just a few of the highlights. The famous commune of Vieste was built on the rocky peninsula of Gargano and features narrow streets and stunning views of the thirty-kilometre coastline. From here, you can book a day trip to the Trimiti Islands. Stroll down to the fishing harbour in Monopoli, or discover the attractive boulevard in Otranto, with views of the clear blue sea. No to-do list would be complete without a visit to Gallipoli, the pearl of the Ionian Sea, and Polignano a Mare, a picturesque village built atop rocky cliffs with a rich culture and history. Those looking for an adrenalin rush can dive off the rocks and into the azure blue sea below. This village has hosted the cliff diving world championships four times. The poets among us will appreciate the poetic notes inscribed on walls & doors in the narrow alleys.

3. Stroll through Castel del Monte

Let your imagination run wild at the mysterious Castel del Monte, a medieval castle located south of Barletta. This octagonal fortress features a central courtyard and an octagonal tower in each corner. The original purpose of the castle remains a mystery. Some say it was used as a royal hunting lodge, while others claim it was the king's secret love nest and had its own harem and hammam.

4. Pampered by la mamma

Whichever route you take, you will be surrounded by impressive vineyards and olive groves. According to one census, the region boasts some sixty million olive trees with an ancient root system and trunks with a circumference of up to two metres. Here you can enjoy authentic real olive oil and a good glass of wine with your meal, such as the regional Salice Salentino or Primitivo.
In terms of cuisine, Apulia is known for its cucina povera, or the 'cooking of the poor'. But don't let the name fool you: this cuisine is rich in flavourful vegetables, homemade pasta, antipasti, burrata, and fresh fish. Pizza lovers can also get their fill in this area, as a pizzeria can be found on virtually every street corner. Whatever you do, don't hold back: a large pizza only costs eight euros! Also worth a try is panzerotto, a stuffed and deep-fried mini-pizza that's tasty but tricky to eat. One last delicacy that you shouldn't go a day without: gelato.

5. Go city tripping

City dwellers will enjoy Bari and Lecce. Bari is the capital of Apulia and has a bit of a rough reputation. At its core, however, Bari is an authentic harbour town that features a maze of piazzas and alleyways, a delightful boulevard with simple and affordable restaurants that serve fresh fish, and a lovely square called Piazza Mercantile, which transforms into a bustling hotspot by night. Fresh orecchiette (shell-shaped pasta) can be found virtually everywhere, as can the local speciality focaccia barese (Italian flatbread with fresh tomato, oregano, and olive oil).
Lecce is known by many nicknames, such as 'The Athens of Apulia' and 'The Florence of the South'. This city is impressive, to say the least. The old city centre has more than forty churches and cathedrals made from the yellowish-white limestone found in the area. Piazza del Duomo, with its bell tower, bishop's residence, and cathedral, is a popular photographic spot.

A charming place

6. Spend the night in a masseria

A masseria is an ancient fortified farmhouse built around 1600. This complex contained a living area for the landowners and farmers and areas for storing harvests, housing animals, or making wine or cheese. These days, many of these historical buildings have been converted into charming and unique accommodation.

7. Reach the top of the white town

Ostuni, or 'the White Town,' is a striking white village situated atop three hills, with breathtaking views of the Adriatic Sea and the valley below. Climbing is the keyword: stroll past Piazza della Libertà and scale steep medieval alleyways with their quaint cafés, souvenir shops, and terraces until you reach Piazzetta Cattedrale and Palazzo Vescovile. The old city wall offers a stunning view of the long stretch of olive groves.

8. The perfect sunset

The Gallipoli peninsula, which means 'beautiful town' in Greek, will seduce you with its azure blue sea and impressive coves. Sunset casts the area in a perfect evening glow. The hours before sunset can be spent in the city itself. Admire paintings by local artists in the cathedral or visit the city palaces and the fortress, which is a popular gathering point for local fishermen. Stop by to see whether their day on the water paid off and book a table at one of the trattorias or osterias to sample the catch of the day.

9. Sample local delicacies at the market

No holiday is complete without stopping by a colourful market to sample the local produce. Monopoli does not disappoint: at this Italian market, stall holders tout their impressive wares. Here you can find stacks of sun-ripened fruits and vegetables, as well as clothes, shoes, bags, scarves, and jewellery. Make sure to visit the town itself, which has a tomb containing the mummified remains of ancient priests and Castello di Carlo V, which offers stunning views of the harbour.

10. Hire a bicycle

If you're looking for more than just a stroll, a swim, and a bite to eat, you can also hire a bicycle and explore the gently rolling landscape of Apulia. You don't have to be a trained cyclist – the undulating hills are accessible to pretty much everyone. Just enjoy the ride and admire the natural beauty.

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