I hadn’t been on a strictly beach vacation in a long while. This year I promised my son I would reward all the hard work he put into finishing the 7th grade with flying colors, by taking him to the beach for a week. After considering Sardinia, Corsica and Cinque Terre––all coastal locations either of us had never been to––we decided on Puglia, an old love.
I found myself dreaming of staying at a gorgeous sun-parched masseria, napping in crisp linens and eating out of paint-spattered ceramics, lounging by a pool and dozing off to the sound of cicadas in the olive groves. But that would have meant breaking the promise made to my son, only seeing the beach maybe twice during the whole week. Given Puglia––with around 800 kilometers of coastline––is one of the Italian territories with the highest coastal extension, I started asking around on what could be a good beach destination. I immeditely received tips from my Puglia friends and followers. Thanks to Instagram, I got in touch with a guy who knew a guy, and who ultimately put me in contact with a girl in the Manduria area who sent me photos of her b&b via WhatsApp. The deal was sealed with a virtual handshake in a matter of hours. That’s southern Italy for you: hospitable, generous, friendly.
The train ride down to Puglia was 5 hours long and the on-board WiFi did not work (what’s up with that, Trenitalia/Italo?). We pulled into the Brindisi station at lunchtime, and our b&b host Chiara was there at the track to pick us up. As we drove by miles and miles of red soil olive groves planted with centuries-old, gnarly trees protected by low, dry stone walls, and rows upon rows of vineyards, we finally caught a glimpse of the bright blue Mediterranean horizon in the distance.
What stood between us and the sea was a lush green patch of pine forest and Mediterranean maquis shrubland, a local vegetation biome covering the area’s 20-foot sand dunes. We checked into our tiny air-conditioned room, and enjoyed lunch in the b&b’s pinetina, our own private little pine forest. Chiara’s mother had prepared a welcome lunch for us that included a large bowl of pasta salad made with their own land’s vine-ripened tomatoes (Slow Food Presidia “pomodorino di Manduria”), fresh cacioricotta cheese, olives, the area’s famous round cucumbers (locally called cocomero, which is what we Romans call watermelon), warm bread, a bottle of Primitivo rosé and a small canister filled with chilled espresso.
This all bodes very, very well, we uttered under our breath.
The rhythm of the days that followed was marked by lazy wake ups, cream filled pasticciotto pastries for breakfast, followed by beach lounging. All we did was swim in the crystal waters of secluded coves and drying off in the sun, on repeat. When it got too hot at midday we’d amble back to the pinetina for a snack and a nap. Caffè Leccese also played a big role in our days: hot espresso poured over ice cubes and a zing of almond syrup.
Inevitably after their shifts at work either our hosts, or their friends, would buzz at the gate suggesting to explore another beach. We’d never be back home before sunset.
Everything moves at a slower pace in southern Italy. People enjoy life and give importance to the little things, taking it all in slowly, gently, philosophically. Dinner plans were never made ahead of time, and we never ate in the same place twice. Whether it was the fancy orecchiette sabbiose at Vecchia Oria, or a paper-wrapped fried panzerotto oozing melted mozzarella and tomato sauce in a roadside fryery, we chewed on Puglia’s most authentic flavors, and we did it in great company.
My son––who is 13 and will soon tire of vacationing with his mom––had a fantastic time. We made great memories, laughed a lot, and still compete for who does the best water handstand. We enjoyed exploring Salento together, a new part of Puglia for both of us, that became our home for the week. We relaxed completely and loved every minute of our sun-soaked days. We tasted new flavors, we made new friends and plans to return, and gave in to the infectuous rhythm of pizzica, a local tarantella-style folk music of accordion, violin and tambourine that simply makes you want to get up and dance.
All things considered, I don’t regret avoiding the fashinable masserias in favor of staying at a small b&b, which saved us cash and made our stay all the more personal thanks to the warm welcome of the owners.
But there are a few things I would have done differently. Here’s what I learned from travelling to Salento, Puglia this summer:
1. In Salento, it’s wise to have a car. I live in Rome and I was scared my beat up 2007 Toyota would not have endured the 8-hour drive down to the heel of the boot. But in hindsight, the independence a car gives you in remote places like the one we were in, is priceless. Had we not had friends driving us around to beaches and other villages outside of the one we lived in, we never would have discovered this secluded slice of paradise, hidden behind sand dunes covered in Mediterranean scrub.
It turns out there are SITA buses that rattle up and down the highway, connecting coastal villages with inland cities, but the timetables are completely unreliable. It’s also inadvisable to walk or bike along the strada provinciale with soft sandy shoulders that dip into thick vegetation, and no sidewalks.
2. The best time to visit Salento is in June, at the latest the first week of July, and then September, skipping straight over mid-July and August entirely. Even on weekdays, popular beaches like Porto Cesareo and Punta Prosciutto––aptly named “the Maldives of southern Italy”––in July and August will be nightmarishly crowded. Hence the advantage of knowing locals who share their secret coves and empty beaches, away from the most popular destinations. The short video clip below shows how empty and calm our beach was, only a few kilometers from a more popular, insanely crowded one.
3. Being in the Manduria area (Primitivo wine country) don’t be disappointed if you won’t find wine bars at every corner, like you would in Barolo or Chianti. The sisters Chiara and Anna Lucia D’Adamo who run the b&b where we stayed are the daughters of a farmer who on his deathbed had them promise to take care of his vineyards. Their scant two hectares of land produce fantastic bunches of Primitivo grapes, but the sisters don’t own a cellar, they instead supply their grapes to the local cooperative. I booked a wine tasting there and was impressed with the wines, but wished small producers like the D’Adamo sisters had their own cellar with bottling facility, so that they could make wine naturally, in their own way, and not under cooperative directives.
4. This area is a carnivore’s heaven. In the Valle d’Itria and in Salento the concept of braceria – fornello pronto is widespread. Butchers here are not just butchers, they are also cooks who will fire-grill the meat for you and have picnic tables in the street set up with paper tablecloths for informal enjoyment of their meats. In addition to sausages, steak and gnummareddi (rolls of offal––liver, lungs and kidneys––wrapped in a casing of lamb or kid gut) fornelli pronti are where you can have bombette. These are delightful breaded slices of meat rolled up around a cube of caciocavallo cheese, which during cooking melts. The individual bombette are skewered together and carefully roasted vertically in a corner of a roaring wood-stoked and dome-shaped fornello oven, where they are evenly roasted. Where we were staying on the coast between Taranto and Lecce, the meat used was thinly sliced beef, or pork neck, but the next town over prepares bombette with veal meat rolled around a sausage; sometimes the breadcrumbs are on inside, or not present at all.
5. Do a fine-comb search of seafood and fish restaurants in the area beforehand. The one seafood restaurant 11 km from the small seaside village where we were staying was disappointing. In this part of Salento you’ll have to drive to find good seafood, which brings us back to point number 1.
6. Puglia––like many other big and small Italian regions––cannot be condensed into a single trip. In order to become one with the area, deeply explore it, and get to know the food, the people, the traditions and intricacies of a specific area fully––as opposed to trying to squeeze in too much, and ultimately doing a superficial skim––the best thing to do is focus on one area at a time. Next time I will go to Puglia, I will definitely visit other areas, but not by stretching myself too thin all over the map.
I will hit Peschici to dine on the area’s crazy trabucchi fishing machines. I will visit the “stirrup,” Gargano and the gorgeous city of Lecce. On yet another trip I’d love to return to Monopoli and Polignano a Mare, to have more of the best polpo and crudo I’ve ever eaten. I would also like to venture inland to learn more about places like Avetrana, Martina Franca, Ceglie Messapica and Cisternino, not to mention Grottaglie for the ceramics. If he will still be interested in travelling with me, I’ll eventually take my son to Castel del Monte for the 13th century architecture (and the burrata in nearby Andria). To Altamura for the bread, and to wolf down Dicecca’s lactose free mozzarella and their crazy blue cheese creations. And to Savelletri for the sea urchin… The list goes on.
What are your favorite Puglia experiences?
For more photos of this dream vacation in Salento (Puglia), head over to my instagram account, and tap the Salento highlights.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.