It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Italy.
I spent last spring and part of the summer eating my way up and down the peninsula, speaking a language I thought I had long forgotten, and visiting new places and old favorites. But when I ended up traveling for a few impromptu weeks through Puglia, the Southern region that makes up the Italy's “heel,” I became bewitched in an entirely different way.
What was it about the place that drew me in? Maybe it was the carefree, unplanned nature of my time there, and the way that the trip itself seemed to embody the cheerful, leisurely pace of Southern Italian life. Or maybe it was the way Puglia oozed authenticity and lacked pretense.
Regardless of the reason, I fell hard for Puglia. Here’s why you need to visit.
You’ll Feel Like You Just Stumbled Upon Italy’s Best-Kept Secret
Puglia is one of the country’s poorest regions--and consequently one of the most unspoiled. The public transportation is pretty terrible, English isn’t widely spoken, and the South has a bad rap about being unsafe (FYI, it’s perfectly safe). It might be tempting to stick to Italy’s “big 3,” but if you head down to Puglia, your patience and persistence will be greatly rewarded.
You’ll leave behind the arrogance of Venice, the chaos of Rome, and the traditional beauty of Florence. In exchange you’ll get craggy, mediterranean shores, clean air, miles and miles of farmland, and whitewashed hill towns devoid of the crush of tourists found elsewhere in the country.
I’m a self-proclaimed city girl, but I adored the open spaces and country atmosphere found in Puglia. And did I mention the lack of tourists? At times I almost felt like I was back in Korea by the way I was being ogled as I walked around with my giant backpack. I think I saw only two or three other backpackers during the entire duration of my time there! There's no doubt this was also in part because of the timing of my visit in May, a month before the official beach season kicked off in Italy. So, pack your bags and get going. Like, right now.
Your Pulse Will Noticeably Slow
Puglia is a huge agricultural region, which means priorities are a little different. People spend a lot of time outdoors. You’ll often look around and see more olive trees than buildings. Work hours are flexible, and you won’t spend a lot of time stuck in traffic, waiting in lines, or trying to ward off vendors hawking tacky souvenirs. In other words, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time a few decades.
You Might Not Be Able to Stop Eating (and that’s ok)
When in Puglia, you should follow my lead and make eating ALL THE THINGS a top priority. Don’t worry about calories, and definitely don’t bother trying to keep track of how many gelati you’ve had on any given day. Just. Keep. Eating.
Not only are meals less expensive in this part of Italy, but the locals practically pioneered the farm-to-table movement. Regional dishes are made from simple, earthy ingredients--a concept known as “cucina povera,” or “poor kitchen.” This type of cooking was once necessary for peasants, but nowadays people love it because it renders fresh, wholesome dishes. A few ingredients you’ll see everywhere are fava beans, fennel, rapini and almonds.
Excuse the poor quality of the photos. I would have used something other than my iPhone camera, but I was too busy drooling over everything.
Here’s a short list of what you should keep an eye out for:
Taralli: Round, crunchy crackers that are Italy’s answer to bar pretzels. You’ll find them everywhere, especially as an apperitivo snack, and they come in an array of flavors. You won’t be able to eat just one!
Sagne ‘ncannulate: Super long, spiraled pasta served with a multitude of sauces.
Orecchiette: Another type of pasta typical to the region, meaning “little ears.” It’s usually served with rapini, the slightly bitter, green vegetable common in many local dishes.
All the seafood: Sea bass, oysters, prawns, octopus and everything in between--you can’t really go wrong eating the seafood here. It’s fresh, delicious and inexpensive!
Pasticciotto Leccese: a pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese. Also try the many desserts made with honey and almonds. But sticking with plain ol’ gelato is completely acceptable as well. I found the pistachio flavor to be particularly good down south.
Caffe in Ghiaccio: Espresso over ice with a sweet almond milk. This is a special coffee drink that’s hard to find outside of Puglia, and very refreshing after a hot walk. The almond milk, or latte di mandorla, tastes a little different than the U.S. hipster variety.
The Beaches Are Kind of a Big Deal
You’ll need to carve out some serious beach time if you plan on trekking down to Puglia, as the hundreds of miles of coastline are spectacular: transparent waters, white, jagged cliffs, and beaches that are free of the pricey umbrellas ubiquitous to so many of Italy’s shores.
I spent the majority of my time in the area of Salento, the southernmost part of Puglia (and the country!) where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet. The ocean views in this region were some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in the country.
The Architecture is Diverse and Stunning
Puglia has something for everybody in the way of architecture. In the countryside you’ll find trulli--traditional white houses with striking conical roofs--and in the city you’ll find ornate cathedrals. Lecce, dubbed “the Florence of the South” because of the insane amount of Baroque architecture there, even has its very own half-standing Roman amphitheater smack dab in the middle of its centro storico.
You Can Actually Use Those Italian Phrases You Practiced
If you don’t speak Italian, you’ll definitely need to dig out little phrase book you tossed aside when traveling in Rome. That’s right--you get to chat with the locals in your mediocre Italian without being shushed or receiving apathetic replies in perfect English! The locals were not only willing to stand by patiently as I attempted to put my rusty language skills to use, but they actually wanted to converse--about half the time they struck up conversations with me!
There Are Endless Outdoor Activites
The mild temperatures and sunny skies make Puglia the perfect hub for outdoor exploration. From beaches and coastal trails to rippling fields of grass and orchards of olive trees, this region is best enjoyed outside. The remarkably flat terrain means exploring by bike is a dream.
Southern Hospitality: Not Just an American Thing
The locals here are simply lovely. Shop owners didn’t rush to complete a transaction and move me along, but seemed genuinely delighted to have me as a visitor in their corner of the country. I had many wonderful conversations that began with “Why are you here?” (a question I often received when traveling in rural Korea), as if they couldn’t believe I simply wanted to explore Puglia. I still can't decide if Puglia or Western Sicily is home to the warmest and most helpful Italians I've ever met. Maybe it's a draw.