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Before I forget the details, here is a very brief report about my recent late-September week in southern Puglia. I am going to omit most of the historical detail and focus on the food, which was one of the delights of the trip. I have made countless trips to Italy and visited many of its regions and Puglia ranks up there at the top level on the food scale. With only a week and a companion who avoids lunch, I had only 7 dinners, which I will report in detail as we progress.

As per my usual, I debated endlessly about the “best” base for a brief foray. With only one week, I could not hope to cover this entire long and narrow region at the heel of the Italian boot, so early in the planning process I decided to omit the Gargano and Trani as well as Matera which, while in Basilicata, is often included in Puglian sojourns.

However, so much did I love the area that I have already decided to return, this time to the last two towns, perhaps as early as next year.

Another dilemma was the amount of time to allot to Lecce; I vacillated between one and two nights eventually settling on the former. I was pleased with the itinerary which was as follows; note that my hotels, particularly the last one, were in the splurge category. But this area appears to be rife with excellent accommodations in all price brackets. There were so many great-looking properties that I had a very difficult time selecting just four.

This was our basic plan; the trip lasted 7 nights:

Fly Alitalia RT from JFK to Brindisi via Rome

2 nights outside Otranto (Masseria Montelauro)

1 night Lecce (Risorgimento Resort) (despite its name this is a city hotel, not a resort)

1 night outside Cisternino (Villa Cenci)

3 nights between Fasano and Savelletri (Masseria Torre Maizza)

We were very pleased with all four hotels and would give each one a good recommendation.

One detail to be tackled after booking hotels was renting a car. Because we need an automatic, we were prepared to pay a fairly high price. But with quite a bit of sleuthing I found what I consider to be a good rate, with reimbursement of the deductible in case of accident, on AutoEurope’s Italian site, I then phoned AutoEurope here in the US and asked them to match the price which they did, although it took some persuasion. Car rental is a minefield and my advice is to keep looking if the initial price seems high. We paid 388EUR (with tax) for an Opel Insignia, which proved to be an excellent car.

More details here:

This was the first time I have flown to Europe taking only carry-on luggage. My bag was a 20” Eagle Creek Tarmac and it was a good choice. I liked it so much that I have decided to give it to my usual travel partner and purchase a companion bag in the 22” size for myself. (For those living in New York, or planning to visit, I recommend Altman Luggage on the Lower East Side for good service and very good prices; they ship mail order but you may get a better price in person.) The only downside is that shopping had to be reined in severely. This turned out to be fairly easy on this particular trip, however, although it would have been more difficult had our trip come after the olive oil harvest when I would have wanted to bring a bottle home with me.

The Alitalia flight was on time and uneventful, although we flew on an older airplane that did not have personal entertainment systems in the seat backs. This bothered certain passengers, but I rarely watch airplane movies, preferring to read, instead. (We did have these tvs on the return flight, though). Both trans-Atlantic flights were full. Many of our fellow passengers appeared to be elderly Americans embarking on, or returning from, cruises out of Civitavecchia.

Without checked luggage, we breezed through arrivals at Brindisi with smug looks on our faces as we passed the baggage carousel with its eagerly awaiting huddled crowds.

After exiting the arrival area, we walked to the left, though the sparkling new terminal building, to another building housing the car rental desks.
Very convenient. Our vendor was EuropCar, the first counter to the left as you face the rental desks. (AutoEurope also uses SicilyByCar, which has another desk). Within minutes, we were on our way south, on the highway to the Salento.

I had been concerned about driving in Puglia but this concern proved to be unwarranted. Apart form one or two frustrating moments of navigating the traffic in the town centers, one failure on my part to read the map correctly, and one instance of taking a couple of wrong turns in the dark, we found the driving to be easy and the roads extremely well marked. As in much of Italy, you barely need a map but, instead, need only to follow the directional signs to your intended destination. (Watch out when there is more than one route to that destination, however!) Also, do not rely too much on Google maps for this region, as I found them to have errors.

We had no GPS, no cell phone, and only one map—the Michelin Red 564 Italie Sud. Rather than this map, I would recommend using a map of Puglia, which would have more detail than the Michelin. We found the local people uniformly kind and willing to go out of their way to assist us when we needed help finding a road or destination.

The 110 km drive from Brindisi Papola Casale airport to our hotel outside Otranto, almost all of which was on the main north-south SS 16/SS694, took about 80 minutes or so. The highway was lined with flowering oleander.

Masseria Montelauro, our first hotel, is an example of the hotel masserie that are found throughout Puglia. These are self-contained fortified farms that were originally an integral part of the Spanish and Bourbon feudal system that dominated the region and protected the coast from the Turks and from Saracen pirates. The word derives from the Latin “massaricius,” meaning a farm complex surrounded by grazing land and olive orchards, with attendant buildings including olive-oil mills, cellars, food storage structures, and living quarters that functioned as a self-contained community in case of attack.

Today the masserie of Puglia still produce much of the regions olive oil but many have also turned to the business of housing the increasing numbers of visitors to the area, in accommodations of all levels of comfort. The masserie that we visited were striking in appearance, with whitewashed walls, some with crenellations, and geometric shapes which I found reminded me somewhat of the white towns of Andalucia, although references to Greece are rife in Puglia.

Masseria Montelauro took my breath away. There are photos on the website but these do not do justice to this 27-room hotel, located on a rolling hill just a 5 minute drive from the port of Otranto: in fact, each of our three rural hotels were so handsome that I found myself taking many photos of each property. These hotels were an attraction in themselves!

We had opted for the least expensive room and, while it was small, it was incredibly charming, with stark white walls enclosing a graceful iron canopy bed and basic furnishings. The stone-walled bathroom was large and handsome. The entire property was so beautiful that it would make an ideal setting for a wedding. The complex consists of the main masseria building and several former farm buildings. all whitewashed with pale blue wood trim. There is a stable of horses and a number of friendly dogs. (The first question we were asked upon arrival was if we liked dogs; if we had said no, they would be confined to their own fenced area during our stay.) The property is studded with gnarled olive trees, as well as citrus and laurel trees and lush rosemary and lavender bushes. One of the reasons that we chose this particular hotel was the large, rectangular pool, for we are both avid lap swimmers.

After check-in, we took a rest of a few hours and then set out to explore the seaport town of Otranto, a picturesque walled seaport with a long and bloody history that today seems to draw many Italian tourists while retaining its local identity. The main draw here is the 11th-Century Romanesque cathedral paved with a fabulous mosaic floor created ny a local monk in the 12th Century. The church was later used as a stable by the Turks, whose rampages included a mass beheading of local martryrs whose skulls are stacked by the hundreds in a glass-fronted niche to the right of the altar. Gruesome but riveting! Unfortunately a large part of the mosaic floor was covered by plastic at the time of our visit but we could still spy a large tree-of-life details and get the gist of the workmanship.

More history and photos:

After a walk through the main gate and along the narrow stone streets of the historic core (now lined with many tourist-oriented shops), we strolled along the waterfront and the lovely little cove which serves as the town’s beach. After a couple of hours, we set out for a quick swim at the masseria and continued on to our long-awaited dinner at a masseria in the nearby town of Uggiano La Chiesa.

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