The inland area to the southeast of Bari is one of Italy's oddest enclaves, mostly flat terrain given over to olive cultivation and interspersed with the idiosyncratic habitations that have lent their names to
the district. Looking like igloos constructed out of pure stone, the beehive-shape trulli have origins that hark to the 15th century and maybe further. The trulli, found nowhere else in the world, are built of local limestone, without mortar, and with a hole in the top for escaping smoke. Some are painted with mystical or religious symbols, some are isolated, and others are joined together with common roofs. Legends of varying credibility surround the trulli (for example, that they were originally built so that residents could quickly take apart their homes when the tax collectors came by). The center of Trulli Country is Alberobello in the enchanting Valle d'Itria: it has the greatest concentration of buildings. You'll spot them all over this region, some in the middle of desolate fields, and many in disrepair, but always adding a quirky charm to the landscape.
This far south, the mountains run out of steam and the land is uniformly flat. The monotony of endless olive trees is redeemed by the region's most dramatic coastline, with sandstone cliffs falling fast toward the sea. Here you can find a handful of small, alluring fishing towns, such as Otranto and Gallipoli. Taranto and Brindisi don't quite fit this description: both are big ports where historical importance is obscured by heavy industry. Nonetheless, Taranto has its archaeological museum, and Brindisi, an important ferry jumping-off point, marks the end of the Appian Way (the "Queen of Roads" built by the Romans). Farther south, Salento (the Salentine Peninsula) is the local name for the part of Puglia that forms the end of the heel. Lecce is an unexpected oasis of grace and sophistication, and its swirling architecture will melt even the most uncompromising critic of the Baroque.
Venture off the traffic-filled highways and explore the countryside of Italy’s boot, made up of the three separate regions—Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria—each one with its own character. This is Italy's deep south, where whitewashed buildings stand silently over three turquoise seas, castles guard medieval alleyways, and grandmothers dry their handmade orecchiette, the most Puglian of pastas, in the midafternoon heat.
At every turn, these three regions boast dramatic scenery. Geographical divides have preserved an astonishing cultural and linguistic diversity that's unequaled elsewhere on the Italian mainland. Southern Italians are extremely proud of their home towns and will be glad to direct you to some forgotten local chapel in an olive grove, an unmarked monument, or an obscure work of art. The Greek city-states of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) once ruled here, and ancient names, such as Lucania, are still commonly used. It's here also that you’ll find long-isolated hill communities where Albanian and Greek are still spoken by the descendants of 16th-century refugees from the Balkans.
One of southern Italy's most popular vacation destinations is the Gargano Promontory, where safe, sandy shores and secluded coves are nestled between whitewashed coastal towns and craggy limestone cliffs. You’ll also find many beautiful stretches of sandy beaches along the coast of the Salento peninsula and the Mediterranean shoreline of Calabria and Basilicata. There are cultural gems everywhere, including Valle d'Itria's fairy-tale trulli (curious conical structures, some dating from the 15th century), Matera's Sassi (a network of ancient dwellings carved out of rock), and the Baroque churches in the town of Lecce, the jewel of the south. Beyond the cities, seaside resorts, and the few major sights, there's a sparsely populated, sunbaked countryside where road signs are rare and expanses of silvery olive trees, vineyards of primitivo and aglianico grapes, and giant prickly pear cacti fight their way through the rocky soil in defiance of the relentless summer heat.
Occupying the instep of Italy's boot, Basilicata formed part of Magna Graecia, the loose collection of colonies founded along the coast of southern Italy whose wealth and military prowess rivaled those of the city-states of Greece itself. More recently it was made famous by Carlo Levi (1902–75) in his Christ Stopped at Eboli, a book that underscored the poverty of the region. (The title comes from a local saying that implied that progress had stopped at Eboli, some 60 miles to the west, near the coast, and that Bascilicata had "been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.")
Basilicata is no longer desolate, as it draws travelers in search of bucolic settings, great food, and archaeological treasures. The city of Matera, the region's true highlight, is built on the side of an impressive ravine that's honeycombed with Sassi, rock-hewn dwellings, some of them still occupied, forming a separate enclave that contrasts vividly with the attractive Baroque town above.
The coast of Puglia has a strong flavor of the Norman presence in the south, embodied in the distinctive Apulian-Romanesque churches, the most atmospheric being in Trani. The busy commercial port of Bari offers architectural nuggets in its compact, labyrinthine old quarter abutting the sea, while Polignano a Mare combines accessibility to the major centers with the charm of a medieval town. For a unique excursion, drive inland to the imposing Castel del Monte, an enigmatic 13th-century octagon.
Italy's southernmost mainland region may still be poorer than the rest of the country, but it also claims more than its share of fantastic scenery and great beaches. The accent here is on the landscape, the sea, and the constantly changing dialogue between the two. Don't expect much in the way of big-city sophistication in this least trodden of regions, but instead remain open to the simple pleasures to be found—the country food, the friendliness, the disarming hospitality of the people. Aside from coast and culture, there are also some destinations worth going out of your way for, from the vividly colored murals of Diamante to the hiking trails of the Pollino and Sila national parks.
The drive on the southbound A3 autostrada alone is a breathtaking experience, the more so as you approach Sicily, whose image grows tantalizingly nearer as the road wraps around the coastline once challenged by Odysseus. The road seems to have been under reconstruction since his time, with little sign of completion.
Forming the spur of Italy's boot, the Gargano Promontory (Promontorio del Gargano) is a striking contrast to the Adriatic's flatter coastline. This is a land of whitewashed coastal towns, wide sandy beaches interspersed with secluded coves, and craggy limestone cliffs topped by deep-green pine and scrubby Mediterranean maquis (underbrush). Not surprisingly, it pulls in the crowds in July and August, driving up the prices considerably. Camping is almost always an option, as plentiful and pretty campgrounds dot the Gargano's curvy, cliff-hugging roads. The beaches and the Foresta Umbra national park are great places for kids to let off steam.