Under the Pugliese Sun

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harbor_trani.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

Sure, the New York Times called it "the next new Tuscany" . But I still wasn't convinced that Puglia - the sun-splashed "heel" of Italy's peninsular boot - was a bona fide vacation hot spot until I heard about the celebrities. Reese. Jake. Coppola. And I know this one doesn't pack nearly as much star wattage, but what the heck (she's got an Oscar, after all): Helen Mirren .

They've all been here. And now, for six weeks between mid-May and late June, so am I.
Slowing Down...Way Down
Visiting Puglia is an incredible opportunity to explore a region that's not only popular with celebrity visitors but also home to some of the most interesting - and overlooked - countryside in Italy. Often referred to as "the land of two seas" thanks to its situation between the Adriatic in the west and Ionian in the east, Puglia is a place that beckons with grove upon grove of ancient, gnarled olive trees, undulating vineyards, dramatic hilltop fortresses and - perhaps my favorite part - a wonderfully slow pace of life. (Plus, prices in Puglia for everything from meals to lodging are some of the best you'll find in Italy - a boon for those looking to stretch today's leaner travel dollars.)

tranicath.jpegCities By the Sea
Comprising hundreds of miles of craggy coastline, Puglia is rife with charming seaside towns where simple but excellent seafood can be had at the many excellent trattorie (restaurants) that make use of local fishermen's catch. Recommended: Stop in for outstanding seafood paired with top-notch Pugliese rosé at harbor-side Gallo Restaurant in Trani , then take a short stroll to the city's much-photographed Romanesque Cattedrale di San Nicola - famous for its impressive situation just next to the sea.

Structural Significance
Puglia's precarious geographical position - surrounded by water on two sides and at the gateway between Europe and the east - means it's been home to myriad cultures (read: conquerors) over the centuries, including Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Norman and Spanish, to name just a few. As a result, the countryside is dotted with dozens of imposing fortresses, many of which are still in excellent condition and open for visitation. Recommended: Don't miss UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Castel del Monte , a gorgeous, medieval hilltop fortress that marries Moorish and Romanesque details to truly jaw-dropping results.  

seafoodgallo1.jpgComfort Food, Italia Style
Puglia's agricultural abundance means fare from both land and sea features prominently on the menu. Cuisine can be rustic - even simple - but is almost always delicious, with most dishes drizzled in olive oil and served alongside a glass of the region's sturdy wine. For the best of the vine, look for reds and rosés from Salento (the very tip of the heel) and Castel del Monte (yes, like the castle) along with whites from Gravino and San Severo.  Recommended: Be sure to try the region's rightly famous burrata cheese, a Pugliese specialty made from sheep's milk.  A creamy "cheese within a cheese" (the exterior is made up of mozzarella), I think it's heaven on a plate.

Fitting In In Puglia

Life in Puglia proceeds slowly, a fact put in evidence by the region's staunch adherence to the traditional afternoon siesta.  And while the closing of shops, restaurants and banks - indeed, most all signs of outward life - for several hours each afternoon may frustrate visitors, the habit points to a particularly leisurely pace of life that can only be found in a few remaining parts of Western Europe.

PuglieseLunch.jpgMy advice is to take the siesta in stride when you visit; after all, come 7pm, Pugliese towns come back to life with a particular vigor for the period known as the passeggiata - the evening stroll. This is when people of all ages come together in piazzas and cobblestone streets to gossip, get some exercise and reconnect with family and friends. So grab a gelato and join in: this is good living at its best.

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