Passion Points: Escape
When the UK’s low-cost airlines introduced routes to Italy’s Bari and Brindisi in Puglia, it seemed like the death knell was sounded for the country’s previously undiscovered heel. Undiscovered is, of course, a great misnomer for the region of three-seas that has been ruled by Greek, Turkish, Roman and Saracen invaders (to name a few) and displays its ancient history in the elaborate Baroque churches, signature trulli houses and exquisite meals perfected through generations of multi-cultural chefs.
With a warm Southern Italian climate and miles of beautiful beaches tracing two distinct coastlines, the Adriatic and the Ionian, it is surprising there remain pockets of the region so blissfully undeveloped—and unexplored. On my recent trip, I lived like a local in a converted masseria (a type of fortified farmhouse) surrounded by ancient olive groves, walking distance to nowhere. At the other end of the scale, I also spent time among London families and golf aficionados at the region’s newest and most luxurious development, Borgo Egnazia.
Arriving on a predictably awful Ryanair flight from London’s Stanstead airport, I left my fellow passengers behind and drove 25 minutes to the small town of Mesagne, known for its beautiful centro storico and impressive castle. Turning off the main road, Villa Pizzorusso, my six-bedroom home for the week, appeared in a flash of pink nestled between fields, vineyards and olive groves. Lovingly restored over three-years by its Italian-American owners, the Villa now features tasteful modern touches and flawless furnishings, which blend seamlessly into the Moorish and neo-classic design. With parts of the house dating to the early 15th century, there are also spectacular original features, including frescoes—one was ‘found’ the week before I arrived—beautiful arched ceilings and stone floors softened by five-centuries of wear. Outside, the long pool is positioned next to an enormous vegetable garden, an aranceto (orange grove) and uneven stonewall, which changes from cream to burning orange as the sun sets. An even better spot at dusk is the enormous rooftop, ideal for cocktails. (The Villa Pizzorusso can be rented by the week; contact Indagare for an introduction and details.)
With as much or as little handholding as you need, the wonderful host, Michela Moliterni arranges housekeeping, day trips and with the help of her mother and father, exquisite five-course dinners; better than anything else I ate during my trip. Puglia is known as the California of Italy, thanks to its abundant fresh produce, and visitors should seek out one of the weekly food markets, where the delicious (and outrageously cheap) products are well worth the inquisitive (but not unfriendly) stares from local shoppers. One farmer eventually asked me, “What are you doing here?” To which I answered with an elaborate “cooking” mime, but he shook his head and asked again, “What are you doing here?” It is a question you wouldn’t hear in the rest of Italy, where the tourist-trails are well-trodden and exploited. On Torre Guaceto beach on the Adriatic Coast, the only “hawker” I encountered was a young boy with coco fresco (fresh coconut milk), and while the beach at Campomarino on the Ionian Sea was packed, it was all local families celebrating a holiday weekend.
In Lecce, the 2,000-year-old city known as the Florence of the South, thanks to its stunning Baroque buildings, I joined an evening wine festival inside the centro storico with an empty glass and bag of bread, the reason for which became clear as I enjoyed the gauntlet of wine stalls lining the cobbled streets. At 2 a.m., children were still playing and eating gelato while the twenty-somethings danced to techno music beneath the famous Rose window of the 14th century Church of Santa Croce. Ostuni, by contrast, was almost deserted when I mistakenly visited during the daily siesta from 2pm, but was rewarded with a private walk through the narrow cobbled streets to the hilltop and beautiful views of the Adriatic.
Leaving the ancient behind the next day, I drove an hour north to experience the brand-new. After five years and $190 million, Borgo Egnazia opened in May 2010 close to the seaside town of Savelletri di Fasano on the Adriatic Sea. Avoiding the roaring superstrada, I drove through narrow back roads, past one or two houses, a few farmers and groves of knotted olive trees. A small sign eventually directed me to the resort’s monolith, Moorish-inspired façade, cleverly dressed with abundant landscaped gardens to look fresh without jarring against the ancient landscape. ‘Borgo’ is the Italian word for village and the sprawling 250-acre resort has the architectural detail and sensitive interior design of a classic Apulian village, plus a luxury spa, access to a private beach club, Bambù and reduced rates at the adjacent 18-hole San Domenico golf course.
While evidently popular with families, it is an immensely romantic resort with lights mimicking a candle’s flicker behind glass boxes, peek-a-boo glances between the arched and columned hallways, enormous Ibiza-style day beds and an al fresco dining terrace. Like all full-service resorts, you are there to be there, and exploring alone is made difficult by the small but busy road I was warned not to walk down (“Besides there’s nothing to see but fields,” I was told.) Archaeologists may take exception to this advice since the ancient city ruins of Egnazia run alongside the hotel and were, until now, the area’s great attraction.
This shift and the immense buzz the resort has already received in the international press, highlight Puglia’s growing popularity and ongoing transformation, but not its ‘discovery’ or undoing. The region’s tantalizing history and sheer natural beauty should be experienced by a new wave of visitors, especially if it is in a long-abandoned masseria brought back to life, or at a new resort so thoughtfully influenced by the ancient land it rests upon.
~ Nikki Ridgway
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