I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t love Italy. It just seems to tick all the boxes — history, culture, architecture, landscapes, its people and above all — its glorious food. It’s also hard to believe that prior to 1861 Italy didn’t exist! Prior to that date, it was little more than a collection of city states and principalities in effect. The problem with Italy nowadays is that a few ‘jewels in the crown’ seem to get most of the column inches in the travel magazines and guides and in the process, leaving a lot of prospective travellers under-served by not telling them the whole story of what the rest of Italy has to offer — the ‘hidden’ Italy.
The region of Puglia (or Apulia as it is known to the locals) is located more or less in the heel of Italy in the far south. Unfortunately, you cannot fly to it directly but rather have three options:
- Get connecting flights via Milan (which is what I did)
- Fly via Stansted with Ryanair
- Fly directly to Naples, if you don’t mind the 4-hour drive/transfer when you arrive.
The regional capital is Bari and it, along with Brindisi more or less act as bookends at either end of the region. Bari is a relatively large city and is about the size and population of Belfast. It is also a popular stopping off point for many of the cruise lines that sail up this part of the Italian coastline. I must admit that prior to travelling to Puglia, I had formed the impression in my mind that this part of Italy was quite poor and arid so was more than surprised when I found that it was neither. The landscape was quite green (probably due to the time of year admittedly) but the soil was rich and dark — the kind of loamy soil that virtually anything will grow in — and it does! Olive trees, lemons, oranges, artichokes, vineyards; the region is a veritable garden of Eden when it comes to all things horticultural.
Having arrived into Bari around mid afternoon, I still had some time to undertake a short tour of the old city centre before heading off to the Masseria (farmhouse) that is going to be my base for the next few days. You may be surprised to note that the city of Bari has a strong connection with Santa Claus — more specifically St. Nicholas. You may also be surprised to note that the same St. Nicholas was of a dark complexion and is rumored to have been Turkish. Now there’s a bit of trivia you don’t pick up every day! Here, in the old town (Bari Vecchia) you can wander around the winding streets and lanes for hours with every other corner revealing yet another church, historical curiosity or hidden courtyard or square. In one laneway, located just across the road from the old Norman Swabian castle that dominates the landscape near the waterfront with its impressive ramparts, massive sloping walls and huge dry moat, I came across woman rolling and shaping fresh pasta that they sell for just €5 per kilo.
Check out more reports from Puglia over the course of the next few days.