Puglia might only be the heel at the bottom of Italy’s boot, but it’s an area that delivers a big kick with beautiful towns, unique architecture, a gorgeous coastline and of course, fabulous Italian food.
There are many different variations on road trips around Puglia in terms of where you go and in what order. Our itinerary was determined by the places we most wanted to visit, a desire to keep the daily driving distances fairly short and the available flights. Being late season flights were only available from London to Bari, the region’s capital. So our first stop was Ostuni, Puglia’s beautiful white city, surrounded by olive groves and only a few miles from the sea.
Ostuni is just over an hour’s drive from Bari airport which was ideal after leaving home at 4.00am and considering the Italian roads can take some getting used to. Our hotel, the Relais Sant’Eligio, was also ideal being just on the edge of the town with its own parking.
You need to walk uphill to get into the town, but it’s not steep and we were soon in a square where we pounced on Nepenta, a nice cafe-bar with outside seating. Pucces were on the menu, which are round sandwiches made from pizza dough.
That was our first taste of Puglian food and later that evening in Ostuni we had what would turn out to be the best meal of our trip. We’d booked Osteria Ricanatti in advance and were very glad we had as while they have a great a la carte menu they also do tasting menus including a vegetarian one.
There were many courses including a glass of Prosecco to kick things off and each one was delivered to our table by the chef and owner Gianni Zaccaria. Every dish was beautifully presented and even the glassware and crockery were lovely.
After dinner, we walked up to Ostuni’s main square, Piazza della Liberta, which was teeming with life. Bar Casbah has a great position right next to Colonna di Sant’Oronzo, a stone column that honours the patron saint of Ostuni. It’s an excellent place for a drink including classic cocktails. I wasn’t sure I’d get many Manhattans in Puglia, so to get a really good one served in a gorgeous glass on the first night was a great start.
Ostuni really is a lovely place to spend time day or night. The white streets and houses stretch across three hills with the cathedral rising in the centre. The next day we went exploring, starting with the cathedral which is well worth a visit. It feels a bit squeezed into the narrow streets, but if you walk up the street away from it you can turn back to get a good look at the unusual facade and then go inside to see some impressive art, including on the ceiling.
Once you’ve been to see its main visitor attraction, the real joy of Ostuni is meandering around its labyrinth of small back streets away from the main thoroughfares. That’s where you get a glimpse of where people live and I think it’s always where you get to see the real character of a city.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself at the ancient city walls. Two of the city gates are still there including Porta Nuova. We went through it and down the steps to walk around the walls and found a market selling all kinds of interesting stuff and not just your usual tourist tat, which was a nice change!
There are plenty of shops around the town too and while there’s an inevitable number selling souvenirs and packs of pasta and olive oil, there are plenty worth popping into. We both picked up a Pumo at Il Botteghino. The Pumo is a traditional Puglian ceramic that is a symbol of good luck and as we’d already seen lots of them on shelves, balconies and terraces around the town, it felt like an appropriate keepsake.
It was a pretty busy afternoon in the main square with a motorcycle event underway, but we stopped off for a look at the Commune d’Ostuni (town hall) and to pop inside the beautiful church next door to it, the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi.
Then after an alfresco lunch with an excellent view at Bloom, a nice cafe-bar on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, we went back to the hotel via another church, the Chiesa della Madonna della Grata, which had caught our eye in the distance as we walked into town earlier. It’s an imposing building but there was no indication of when it would be open so we didn’t get to see if the interior matched the exterior.
Once we’d explored Ostuni close up, we could go back and see it in its entirety from the excellent rooftop terrace at our hotel. It’s worth staying there for that terrace alone with views of both the beautiful white city and of the Adriatic coast about four miles away.
It was so nice on the terrace we decided to go back before dinner and have a glass of Prosecco while the sun went down. Watching that fantastic view slowly change as all the city’s lights come on was quite magical.
The town was definitely much quieter on Sunday evening so we easily got a table at Pizzeria Regina, which was down some steps just below Bar Casbah. Here we went for the full Puglinese experience and shared a Bagna Frise before having some of the local orecchiette pasta.
When the Bagna Frise arrived we had no idea what to do, but you simply soaked the bread in the water and then spooned on the tomatoes and cream cheese. We came across it lots more times on the trip, though sometimes it was called Bagna Friselle and sometimes it came with burrata or just tomatoes. The main tip is if they give you the water, don’t soak the bread for too long!
Needless to say, we headed back up the steps to Casbah for a nightcap and to be entertained by a brilliant crooner who was clearly singing some popular Italian crowd-pleasers. We had no idea what he was singing but it was the perfect end to the first stop of our Puglia road trip in beautiful Ostuni.
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and check back soon for more posts about my adventures in Puglia.