In the deep south of Italy, surrounded by crystal-clear waters and 500 miles of Adriatic and Ionian coastline, is the enclave of Puglia that sits on the sun-baked heel of the Boot. I first visited years ago and fell in love with its sleepy whitewashed villages, colorful folk traditions, its unique trulli set amongst olive trees, endless plates of mouth-watering food and some of the most gracious people in all of Italy.
More than 800 of the gargantuan trees at the ancient olive farm, Antica Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni, are considered natural monuments. With their gnarled and knotted trunks, many are upwards of 3000 years old.
The city of Lecce dates back to Magna Graecia, but because of its exquisite Baroque architecture it is known as the Florence of the South. The architectural style in Lecce is so distinctive that it was given its own name – “Barocco Leccese.“ The city’s opulent palaces and churches are built with Lecce stone, which has been used since ancient times.
Food is a surefire way to get to the heart of a culture and makes travel to Puglia ever-rewarding. Puglia’s tradition of rustic “cucina povera” centers around freshness and simplicity. The cherries are amazing, as is the burrata, focaccia and the orecchiette con cima di rape (with broccoli rabe), just to mention a few.
Puglia has plenty of charming towns ideal for leisurely wandering including Martina Franca; the labyrinthine whitewashed streets of Locorotondo and Ostuni; and the hobbit-like trulli of Alberobello (along with the stunning seaside towns of Polignano a Mare, Otranto and Gallipoli).
The town of Polignano a Mare has dedicated a statue and waterfront to the great Italian singer Domenico (Mimmo) Modugno (popularly known as Mr. Volare) who was born there in 1928. Mimmo was a singer, songwriter, actor, parliamentarian and three-time Grammy award winner.
His song Nel Blu Dipinto De Blu, popularly known as Volare, became a huge international hit in 1958 and sold over 30 million records. It also won him his first Grammy award (and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show 😉
But what makes Puglia so appealing is its authenticity. Things move at a slower pace and people will always make time for you. Everyone is so proud of their region; they don’t mind when you take photos and are keen to help in any way they can.
Sardinia beckons with its crystalline blue waters and sun-soaked beaches, dramatic rugged landscapes, eclectic cuisine, and gentle, gracious people. It’s also a mysterious island filled with much to discover reflecting its unique history and geography.
Though the island is now part of Italy, Sardinia produced a culture distinctly its own over the last two millennia. The ancient Nuragic people were its first inhabitants, as far back as 1500 to 460 B.C., and their presence can still be felt in the 7,000 conical “nuraghe” megaliths they left behind.
And the island’s relative isolation has resulted in the development of native vegetation as well as animal species, such as the white donkey of the Asinara.
For those seeking distinctive gastronomic experiences, Sardinian food and wine offer culinary treasures galore. With over 1,100 miles of coastline and an abundant mountain interior, Sardinia features marvelous seafood (what would you expect, given its name!), rustic specialties like roasted pig, and unique breads and pasta preparations, including fregola – a cross between grain and pasta with a nutty flavor and texture all its own.
Moreover, Sardinia is known as one of the five locales in the world with the highest number of centenarians – those living 100 years or more. Why? In truth, there is no definite answer to this question. Some scientists believe that the secret lies in distinctive local DNA; for others, the answer relates to a lifestyle of pastoral simplicity along with Sardinia’s cuisine which epitomizes the healthful Mediterranean diet.
Another thing I especially love are the hundreds of murals, virtual open-air museums, that express Sardinia’s unique cultural identity, customs and traditions, daily life and even political discourse.
Renowned for their poignancy and immediacy, the murals found in the town of Orgosolo, painted in the 60’s, reflect the artistic verve of a group of feuding anarchists.
I hope this whets your appetite for Sardinia as you dream of and begin to plan a post-Omicron sojourn exploring the many cultural and natural glories of the Boot.