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Puglia's Moment

In Italy's boot heel, a coastal escape that's long on allure and short on crowds.

From Virtuoso Life, Jan/Feb 2015.   Photographs by Lisa Linder.

By Kim Brown Seely

 

"Allora! Shall we stop for Espresso?"

We were bicycling along a beach road on our first day in Puglia, having flown in from the States and checked into our hotel the night before. The ride was perfect: no cars, a blissfully flat route, and seas of red poppies blooming a few feet from the Adriatic beneath bright spring sun.

"Espresso? Now?!" I squeaked. We'd pedaled barely a mile and supposedly had 20 to go. Non c'e prob­lema, signora! our cycling guide was evidently thinking. This is Italia!

A few moments later my husband, Jeff, and I found ourselves seated outside a small cafe in the languid seaside town of Savelletri di Fasano, morphed from alpha Americans to pleasure-seeking Italians. Aside from locals buying fresh-off-the-boat swordfish across the square, the town was ours. There were no oth­er tourists - certainly no other Americans here or at our hotel, Masseria San Domenico - and it began to dawn on us, thrillingly, that we'd landed someplace rare in this well-traveled age: a sun-drenched part of the Mediterranean that felt way off the beaten path. Was it even remotely possible, we wondered, to find an undiscovered Italy?

FOR SIX DAYS LAST SPRING, my husband and I kicked around a sliver of Italy where - aside from a handful of chic hotels - it still feels as if the twenty-first century hasn't arrived: the heel of Italy's boot, Puglia (pronounced poo-lia), a salt-sprayed, limestone-rich region that reaches along the Adriatic and Ionian coastlines, across endless fields of olive trees, and up winding roads to whitewashed towns.

"Most people, when they think 'coastal Italy,' think of the other side, the Amalfi Coast," says Kristen Korey Pike, an Atlanta-based travel agency owner. "Puglia is perfect for travelers who are seeking something that's a bit out of the way or who may have already visited some of the usual suspects such as Florence, Venice, and Rome."

It's also perfect, I might add, for those who appreciate five-star hotels with top-notch service as much as they do rustic charm - and for people who long to be where everybody else is not. Although it's tradition­ally one of Italy's least-visited regions, a recent spate of hotel openings has made this Puglia's moment. Yet, in spring and fall at least, it's a blissfully quiet moment.

FLY INTO BARI OR BRINDISI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, drive 40 minutes to Masseria San Domenico hotel, and it feels like you've reached the end of the continent. Concrete sprawl soon gives way to wheat fields, then olive groves bordering the sea. Row after row of ancient olive trees extend as far as you can see, their massive trunks and gnarled limbs giving the landscape a stark, sculptural beauty. Part of Masseria San Domenico's dramatic impact is an arrival that leads you through the trees and into a timeless realm of privilege and civility. You follow a long gravel drive between magnificently trimmed jasmine hedges, wind around a bend, and, suddenly, what looks like a fifteenth-century Moorish palace looms into sight.

It's not a Moorish palace, though. It's one of Puglia's ancient masserie, fortified farm structures of brick, stone, and concrete dating from the Middle Ages. An estimated 2,000 masserie define the region; you see them anchoring broad fields and set between clusters of stone houses in the Itria Valley.

This one, once used by the Knights of Malta, dates to the fifteenth century. High-end travel in Puglia started here in 1996 when its owner, Marisa Melpignano, converted her family's crumbling masseria into Masseria San Domenico hotel. Stroll from one spacious courtyard to the next and you enter a world of extreme peacefulness: the soft chitter of birds in trees, the beguiling scent of roses mingled with citrus, the silent geometry of stone courtyards edged in rosemary. Gazing over the enormous free-form saltwa­ter swimming pool, it's almost impossible to fathom that this masseria once served as a defense against Ottoman invaders.

"The main tower was built by the Knights of Malta in the 1400s, then taken over by Benedictine monks...  Eventually the property went to Spanish aristocrats," Marisa's son, Aldo Melpignano, explains one night over dinner. It's been in the family so long he doesn't even know how long, he says, with a shy smile. Now, as managing director of San Domenico Hotels, Melpignano brings a modern eye, local roots, and deep pockets to the region.

In the dining room, northern Italian couples converse in low tones under a vast vaulted ceiling. Puglia is home to one of Italy's simplest, earthiest, least-known vernacular cuisines; we can't wait to try it. First up: tarallini, bite-size, comma-shaped breads made of flour,olive oil, wine, and salt. They're delicious, es­pecially when dipped in local olive oil. The rest of the meal- a brawny (but not heavy) salad of chicory and mackerel, steamed sea bass topped with fresh tomatoes and olives, and a refreshing prickly pear sorbet - is so simple you can taste every ingredient, even the ones you've never tasted before.

In our spacious traditional room, antiques and rich fabrics - the deep reds, golden yellows, and indigo blues of classic Italy - float on white marble floors. When we open the wooden shutters the next morning the view is all sun, stone, and ancientness. At breakfast we sit beneath lemon trees at tables set with corn­flower blue and yellow china, pots of dark bitter coffee, and warmed milk. The buffet is so lovely I have to get up a few times to take pictures: ceramics filled with homemade preserves, trays of sharp sheep's-milk cheeses, platters of plump peaches, rattan baskets stacked with flaky pastries, and no fewer than a half­-dozen cakes.

"Aren't you going to eat anything?" my husband mumbles.

"Yes, but it's so pretty'" I reply.

SOME PEOPLE MIGHT BE CONTENT soaking up masseria life by the pool, but Virtu­oso travel advisors can arrange local guides in the area, which is how we came to spend our first morning biking with a private guide. We cycled through the olive trees, which are some of the oldest in the world -1,500, 2,000, even 3,000 years old - and still producing olives. In fact, Puglia's estimated 60 million trees produce about 40 percent of Italy's olive oil. (I'd later spend a morning sampling oils with Corrado Rodio, whose family has made olive oil on their Masseria Brancati estate for more than 200 years, and, sepa­rately, undergo an olive-oil-infused spa treatment at the hotel.)

We reached a nondescript grocery store most people would ride right by and pulled over, donned white cheese-making caps, and slipped into the back room for private ricotta-, mozzarella-, and burrata­-making lessons. "Have you ever seen in your life?" Antonello beamed with his electric smile, as I gamely tried to shape freshly made mozzarella but made a sad little knot. He had a point.  We hadn't, not even close.  Nor had we known that luscious burrata cheese, still hard to find in the States, is a Puglian specialty.

The next day we arranged to tour the surrounding countryside's trio of historic towns - Cisternino, Lo­corotondo, and Alberobello -by vintage car.  We weren't sure what to expect, but knew it would be good when Antonello pulled up wearing a black Borsalino and driving a 1964 Fiat.

We sped along the ocean, salt air wafting through the Fiat's rolled-down windows, then chugged up into the hills, where the trees changed from olives to cedar and pine. After strolling the towns' narrow white­washed alleys, we motored quiet lanes through unspoiled countryside, checking out the region's iconic conical trulli - hundreds of small beehive-shaped dwellings with domed roofs of stacked stone (many are being converted to vacation homes these days). While the trulli were cool, lunch in the kitchen of Pierino and Cosima and their thirty-something-year-old sons, Mimmo and Lorenzo, upstaged everything.

"Mama is making the meatballs!" Mimmo yelled into the phone when our guide called to confirm. As you might imagine, lunch, accompanied by several carafes of red wine, was an experience we'll not soon forget. No wonder Italian men adore their mothers.

IF STAYING AT MASSERIA SAN DOMENICO calls to mind a refined old-world Italian weekend, checking into Borgo Egnazia, its younger cousin up the coast, is like landing at a much bigger, sleeker party. (In fact, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel took over the whole resort for their wed­ding a few years ago.) Wandering the courtyards of this photogenic hotel, with its soaring, locally sourced tufo-stone walls and inviting rooftop terraces, you're struck by how distinctly Puglian - but also sexy and contemporary - it is.

A vast complex, Borgo Egnazia sits back from the Adriatic, which is partially visible from many of its 63 hotel rooms, 93 townhouses, and 28 villas. The townhouses resemble the kind of dwellings you might find clustered in a traditional Puglian village, and the main resort looks like a masseria, but step inside and you'll see Aldo Melpignano's and architect Pino Brescia's hip sensibilities at work.

The artful use of indigenous materials - stone urns filled with grains of wheat; vintage masseria keys suspended in bundles; locally spun linen, cotton, and hemp - creates a thrilling sense of place. Bedrooms soothe with simple whites, creams, and taupes, accented by artful arrangements that evoke old Puglia: rustic farm tools, stacked manuscripts bundled in twine, and rows of apothecary jars displayed in modern configura­tions. Soft, gauzy canopies drape the beds; in the bathrooms, local Ostuni stone defines the sinks, tubs, and mirrors.

On our last day in Puglia, my husband tried the seaside 18-hole Borgo Egnazia golf course while I tried a seaside-inspired massage at the resort's cavernous spa. Afterward, we met up in Due Camini, the hotel's signature restaurant, filled with extended Italian families on holiday and a group of stylish young women from Rome, or maybe Milan, lingering over lunch.

After clearing away our bowls of pasta - classic Puglian orecchiette with peppery turnip tops, ancho­vies, and a dusting of fried bread crumbs - our waiter, Gitano, brought us two scoops of pistachio ice cream, drizzled with- what else? - olive oil.

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.