Italy’s heel region of Puglia is full of fairy-tale towns, great wine and wonderful food

I’M not usually one to revisit places – there are too many exciting destinations to discover once this pandemic finally does one – but I have a particular soft spot for Italy.

Out of season in October, Puglia (AKA the heel of the boot) offers balmy temperatures in the mid-20s and incredible value.

You can kip in a beaut of a trullo – a fairy-tale white-stone, cylindrical hut with a conical roof – for a third of the price of a pretty Tuscan farmhouse.

Having first visited on a road trip for our babymoon over two years ago, we’d already ticked off the incredible sights in the city of Matera.

It’s technically in the neighbouring region of Basilicata, but just an hour’s drive from Puglia’s most iconic town, Alberobello, with more than 1,000 trulli peppering its hillsides.

Matera, like Alberobello, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it is built on natural caves, with churches carved into the rock and adorned with incredible ancient frescos, sitting among cave dwellings where people have lived for over 9,000 years.

If you’ve seen the trailer for the long-awaited James Bond flick No Time To Die, you’ll have already spied its beautiful vistas.

But in a city oozing history, there are contemporary gems, too – like the modern sculpture museum MUSMA, entry £7 (Musma.it) – so hop over for a day trip or overnighter if you can.

The beautiful Puglian cities of Ostuni and Lecce should also be plotted into any first timer’s break.

Villa life

We set up camp at Tenuta Montanaro, a villa eight minutes’ drive from the pretty walled town of Locorotondo.

Our quaint, traditionally decorated trullo sleeps six, so with three of us (husband Andy, toddler Poppy and me), it felt a treat.

Rustic crockery, a barbecue, a gorgeous (if nippy) pool, and fresh figs and walnuts growing in the garden that overlooks the owner’s vineyards made it a special find.

Even more so when we were greeted with homemade wine, fruit tart and Now TV.

With a toddler in tow, exploring is slower-paced.

There are gorgeous beaches like Torre Canne, half an hour away and blissfully empty from October.

But Poppy adored running through the narrow maze of streets in white-washed towns, climbing huge stone stairs draped with trailing plants and having her hair ruffled by the nonnos (grandfathers) still running their family eateries.

After exploring the cute ceramics and textiles shops in Cisternino, 20 minutes’ drive away, we grabbed an alfresco table at Rosticceria L’antico Borgo.

Arriving just before the 1pm lunch rush, we couldn’t resist the platter of local speciality bombetta – meat “bombs” filled with cheese, £10 – as Poppy tucked into tomato orecchiette (the region’s pasta, £5, which is shaped like ears), and tried to pinch our very drinkable house red, £7 a carafe (Rosticceria-lanticoborgo.it).

Having spotted a hipster ice-cream shop, we asked the waiter for his tip on the town’s best scoops and were directed to the slightly tired-looking Bar Fod 1951 in the little square nearby.

Appearances, as is often the case, were deceiving.

The home-made balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomato gelato, from £1.75 a scoop, was incredibly moreish – the unusual flavours were surprisingly sweet!

Pastries and primitivo

A favourite morning came when we hopped on two wheels with Damiano of eBike Puglia, in nearby Martina Franca.

Poppy loved spotting horses from her seat as we toured the surrounding countryside dotted with trulli, learning about Puglian traditions.

Having hardly worked up a sweat, despite the undulating lanes, we stopped for lunch at a farm where they make fresh ricotta each morning and serve it up with capocollo, the local cured ham, and divine focaccia.

A four-hour tour, including lunch with wine costs £52 per person – kids’ bike seats are free (Ebikepuglia.com).

Popping back to Alberobello may have been mostly for the pasticciotto – little pastry pies filled with custard, chocolate, cherry and pistachio – at renowned Martinucci patisserie (Martinuccilaboratory.it), but we also soaked up the normally heaving tourist spot with far fewer crowds. 

Visiting Italy is always about the cuisine.

As wine tasting at a local vineyard seemed too optimistic with Poppy, we popped into I Pastini’s wine shop in Locorotondo instead and discovered delicate whites faraone and cupa, from £6 a bottle, to balance out the heady primitivo reds most famous in Puglia’s south (Ipastini.it).

We then put our new knowledge to use at Bina Ristorante. Stepping inside, with its glitzy wine displays and white linen tablecloths, I panicked – it seemed too fancy for a toddler tantrum.

Yet family is at the heart of the community here, and soon the place was alive with kids and our dishes of courgette flowers with ricotta, £9, wild rabbit, £14, and Nonna’s (Grandma’s) jam tart, £4.50, were great value and served with love.

Another tomato pasta, along with a basket of taralli (crispy bread rings), £8, went down a treat with the little one (Binaristorante.it). 

Soon our last night was upon us.

Casa Pinto is a buzzing, family-run pizzeria you’d want on your doorstep – order the cured meats starter and house speciality topped with tomato, mozzarella, bacon and rosemary, from £10 (Pizzeriacasapinto.it).

Then wander through the moonlit streets while plotting how to buy a holiday home in a place that’s as enchanting as it is delicious. 

FYI

A week’s stay for six at Tenuta Montanaro costs from £1,380 (Oliverstravels.com). 

Oliver’s Travels has a “book with confidence” guarantee so you can move dates free of charge if Covid-19 travel restrictions prevent you from travelling.*

Return flights to Bari (a 50-minute drive from Locorotondo) cost from £54 (Skyscanner.net).

  • *T&Cs apply. Visit Oliverstravels.com for details

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