Commonly referred to as ‘the high heel’ on the boot of Italy, Puglia is located on the southern-most tip of the Italian peninsula. It is a region of interesting architectural heritage, and no other city typifies it more than Lecce, which is popularly known as the ‘The Florence of the South’. And in no small measures the city lives up to the appellation. The labyrinthine lanes of the walled city showcases many fascinating facets of Baroque architectural legacy with Moresque influence. Before entering the fortified walls of the ancient city, the most striking landmark that greets the eye is the towering white obelisk. The walled city itself is home to many residential palaces and almost every corner throws up fascinating architectural features. Lecce is reportedly home to a hundred churches, some of the best known being Church of the Holy Cross, Lecce Cathedral, and the Church of San Niccolò and Cataldo. One of the interesting facets is the ubiquitous reminders of Lecce’s patron saint – Saint Oronzo, whose blessings had kept the plague away. The city recently got back the restored painting of Saint Oronzo stepping on a man who represented the Black Death.
The second century Roman amphitheatre that has partly been excavated is yet another interesting landmark. A large section of the amphitheatre still lies beneath the streets and buildings and cannot be excavated. A few logistic essentials – in Lecce independent travellers have to leave their car at the checkpoint and take the shuttle bus into the city (for one euro). This arrangement has been made by the city authorities to avoid parking problems. Buses have to also take special permission to park in the city, however if the bus just passes through, no permission is needed.
Apart from its distinctive architectural legacy, Lecce is a well known centre of paper mache craft, the miniature figures ranging from nativity scenes to depiction of everyday life of common people, show life-like perfection. For most visitors, these paper mache creations are a must-have momento to be showcased in their homes to relive the memories of their visit to Lecce.
A short drive away from Lecce is the sleepy little township of Galatina that is famous for, not surprisingly, its Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. Maintained by Franciscan monks, the basilica is a great draw for tourists because of its fascinating frescos that cover the walls and ceiling. The facade of the structure has Greek/ Islamic architectural influence. Among the culinary highlights of the region is the Pasticciotto, the famous pastry of Salento, which is the favourite dessert of locals and visitors alike.
Salento is at the southern-most part of Puglia. It is a flat land, dotted with some hills. The geological characteristic of Salento is made up of new stone, which is softer, but brittle. Surrounded by sea on three sides, it is touched by two seas – the Adriatic on the right and Ionian on the left. Both coasts are very different. There are many caves on the coastline and innumerable creeks.
Otranto is the eastern most city of Italy. The seaside, walled city has great historical significance from the time of the Romans who made it the departure port for Africa and other destinations. The Byzantine later arrived here followed by the Normans. In the 15th century when the Ottoman Turkish fleet captured the city, the 800 Catholics who were beheaded have recently (May 2013) been bestowed sainthood. Their remains are displayed in glass cases in the Cathedral of Otranto, which is built on the highest part of the city. The most distinctive aspect of the cathedral is its mosaic flooring of 1160 that depicts the Tree of Life. Different scenes are depicted on different branches, including pagan and symbolic elements.
A panoramic drive along the Adriatic coast takes one to Santa Maria di Leuca, which is the southernmost tip of the Salento peninsula, where the waters of Adriatic Sea merge with that of the Ionian. The basilica and lighthouse are the two most important edifices in this picturesque little town. The region is also home to the enigmatic pizzica and tarantella folk dance forms.
The trulli houses of Itria Valley draw visitors from across the world to explore its quaint towns like Alberobello. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the dry stone huts have a conical roof. A walk through the lanes offer an interesting insight into the lives of the many residents who continue to live in these huts, a few of which also provide B&B accommodation to tourists.
The white city of Ostuni rests majestically on its ramparts overlooking the large green stretches of olive trees that merge into the horizon. The landscape of Puglia is in fact synonymous with olive trees. Also known as the land of extra virgin olive oil there are reportedly over 60 million olive trees here, many of which can date back to two millenia. Primarily an agricultural economy, Puglia region’s wine has been gradually gaining in popularity. One of the largest wine producing regions in Italy, the grape varieties that produce the best wines are Negroamaro and Primitivo. A visit to a winery is an essential inclusion in the itinerary of every tourist – to understand the true ethos of the land.
Puglia’s capital Bari is an education hub attracting mostly students from other European countries like Spain and Poland. Not surprisingly, it is also the most bustling city and an interesting shopping destination, where you would not be deprived of a good bargain. The important buildings in the city include the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, Bari Cathedral and the Swabian Castle. The old town is a fascinating melange of sights and sounds that would remain with you long after you are back home.
Turkish Airlines has daily flights to Naples via Istanbul. Bari is a little more than three hours drive from Naples while Lecce takes almost five hours to reach.