If you’re planning on going on holiday to Italy, you may be thinking of somewhere like Tuscany, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. But, if you want somewhere a little different, a little less well-known, but arguably as chic then you’d do well to consider Puglia.
This little corner of Italy (it is in fact the heel of Italy’s famous boot) is where Justin Timberlake got married (here), where Giorgio Armani holidays and where Helen Mirren owns a house – not that that means a jot to your own holiday experience, but it does show there is ‘buzz’ about the place. I visited Puglia some years ago (you can read about here), but having only been once I am by no means an expert, which is why we turned to Mel Massey, who owns Trullo Fico, a stunning 3-bed house (available to rent! yay!) set between Ostuni and Ceglie Messapica.
“We bought Trullo Fico in 2010 after both my aunt and beloved granny died leaving me with a deposit sized inheritance,” explains Mel. “My granny loved houses and it felt the right thing to do. We wanted to buy somewhere abroad, but as we have travelled extensively, it needed to be a place we wouldn’t get bored of. Culturally interesting and great food were key– not much to ask!”
After visiting Majorca and “frankly not having anywhere near the appropriate budget”, a friend of Mel’s suggested Puglia, where they visited six months later and fell in love, not only with the region but also with the 200-year old property which was to become their Italian home. Set in two acres with a grove of 90 olive trees interspersed with figs, almonds, peaches and huge cacti, it is pretty much idyllic. As well as 3 double bedrooms, there are 2 wet rooms, a living space with kitchen and dining area, a snug and an amazing outside terrace with pool and jacuzzi.
Still need convincing? Here’s another few reasons why Puglia should be on your travel hitlist…
What do you love about Puglia?
We loved Puglia from the moment we set eyes on it; the amazing architecture, history (it’s such a mishmash of cultures – baroque, byzantine, Romanesque), the Italian culture of family centred around the kitchen, the charming people and the amazing food – the meats, cheeses, seafood. All this in a beautiful countryside setting dominated by gnarled olive trees with that innate style Italy is famous for! And whilst August is busy with tourists, it still feels low-key, less commercial and un-English.
How does Puglia differ from the rest of Italy?
Puglia is the antithesis of the north. You won’t find ornate grand villas, the high fashion or Renaissance art galleries; what you will find are ancient hilltop towns, hobbit-like Trulli houses (small buildings with conical roofs that dot the countryside that only exist in Puglia) and the warmest welcome from the locals who are so glad you are visiting.
The food in Puglia is said to be the best in Italy. Puglia produces most of Italy’s olive oil, its liquid gold, so you will also find 66 million olive trees – beautiful, gnarly trunks, some centuries old and held up by bricks! And as a farming region with sea on three sides, locally sourced fruit and veg is as fresh as the seafood which supplies 80% of Italy. The food is quite simply low on airmiles and amazing.
How would you describe the decorative style of your home?
Historic, original with considered mid-century (modern) design with a twist. It was very important to keep the integrity and history of our Trullo. So we worked with the structure and materials in the building; the bare original 200-year-old stone walls, the vaulted and domed ceilings, the locally sourced stone floor which created a strong but simple palette. All furnishings had to be beautiful design with a practical (how I hate that word!) and comfort edge.
Did you have to do much to the house when you bought it?
We fell in love with the house for its history and location. It is a traditional, original stone Saracen Trullo with two newer lamia (vaulted rooms) attached either side. The simplicity of the materials belies the craftsmanship within the building. The stones have definitely got lots of stories to tell.
The house was a shell when we bought it, with no doors or windows. However, the structure was sound and the floor was in. The builder, with little design taste had added in some very ugly design features on the two newer sections of the house. There was plenty of tufo, a local stone, which is cheap and ugly like a breeze block –which wasn’t going to be plastered as well as a few dodgy arched walls which we got faced with local stone.
The biggest challenge was furnishing the house with almost no local knowledge of decent shops. In the end, with time not on my side and two small children, I sourced everything in the UK and shipped it out to Italy.
What inspired the design/decor of the house?
We were inspired by the idea of an eclectic clash of cultures and designers. With a canvas of Saracen Moorish design and a personal passion for modern design, we incorporated pieces from a wide range of designers and artists; Ercol, Tom Dixon, Kartell, a Sputnik light, graffiti art from Basher, cheeky art from Isaak and vintage Danish furniture. Items were sourced from an eclectic mix of Ikea and Camden Market to eBay and Rockett St George. Our aim was to create a décor which contrasted sympathetically with the traditional house and rural surroundings, but which was comfortable, modern, quirky, cool and with a wry sense of humour.
What are your top 5 things to do when in Puglia and why?
- Cliff jump in Polignano a Mare – a beautiful cliff side town with daring jumps into the sea
- Go and see olive oil being made – olive oil is Puglia’s liquid gold and tastes amazing
- Drive through the Valle D’Itria in spring – the colours of the flowers are stunning amongst the olive trees and Trullis are out of this world
- Watch the Tarantella – a crazy dance, music and folk phenomenon to exorcise the tarantula spider
- Visit San Michele sanctuary, one of the most sacred caves in the world (according to National Geographic)
What are your top 5 restaurants and why?
- Borgo Antico, Ceglie Messapica. This restaurant is famous for its meat. It’s where the locals eat. You’ll find an amazing array of antipasti already waiting when you arrive, wine in tumblers and amazing Tagliata (steak with rocket, parmesan and roast potatoes). Giovanni the owner is wonderful.
- Al Fornello Da Ricci, Ceglie Messapica. Chef Antonella Ricci shares her Michelin-starred kitchen with her mother, Dora, and her Mauritian husband, Vinod Sokar. The restaurant is very low key and rustic in its décor, but the food is truly amazing and the menu is never the same.
- Osteria del Tempo Perso, Ostuni. In the ‘centro storico’ (historical centre), we visit this restaurant every trip. Carved out of the limestone rock on which Ostuni is built, it is cave like and has a beautiful 17th century facade. The food is delicious and the building spectacular.
- Coccaro Beach Club, Fasano. This beach club is distinctly Ibiza stylee and one of a kind in Puglia. Perfect for a glamorous (expensive) bikini-clad lunch with great people watching!
- Osteria del Capitolo, Ceglie Messapica – A wonderful family run Osteria, which is basically an extension of the Barletta familyʼs front room. The simple, rustic food is freshly prepared (we’ve frequently watched the pasta being made by hand by Mama Barletta) and delicious, in a very low key, but quite bustling environment. This is where the locals lunch!
What’s a typically Puglian dish to order when eating out?
- Burrata is shredded mozzarella with cream and is unbelievably moreish, especially when served with rocket and pomegranate seeds
- Orecchiette or ‘little ears’ is the pasta which originates from Puglia – usually served with simple sauce of garlic, fresh tomatoes and mussels
Where do you like to shop?
- We have a wonderful fish shop called Nautilus in Ostuni, which is my favourite place to visit – it’s got the most wonderful array of fish and seafood, a full of crazy, shouting Italians and the loveliest staff. Last Christmas my remedial Italian let me down when order what I thought was a dozen oysters. I was watching the lovely Maria getting soaked by these troublesome lobsters, thinking that someone was spending a lot of money when she asked me if I wanted anything else – I’d confused my aragoste with my ostriche!
- The food market in Ostuni on a Saturday is amazing. The food is local, quality, fresh and cheap – what a combination! Leo and Antonio run a stall selling artisan meats and cheeses which we sample before we buy – we never need lunch afterwards and always leave with far more than we planned.
Where are the best beaches in Puglia?
- Pilone 1 and 2 are sandy coves lined with pines and have great snorkeling, set around an 18 century watchtower. It does get busy in the summer and you won’t find sunbeds to rent, but it is just a simple and lovely local beach. It also has the bonus of Cosimo who is there sunbathing 365 days a year in his little speedos!
- Torre Canne is another sandy beach. There are lots of cafés and restaurants along the beach as well s sunbeds and umbrellas. It also has a small fresh water lake on one part.
- Torre Guaceto Nature Reserve is a seven kilometre long horseshoe bay with a 16th century watch tower. No cars are allowed and you can find lizards, kingfishers, tortoises and sea birds in the summer
Where’s best to party?
Ostuni is great for partying. Have pre-dinner drinks and nibbles at Café Cavour, followed by a caipirinia at Gipas 111, dinner at Tempo Perso and dancing at Riccardo Caffe.
Where’s best for a family day out?
Lecce is great and you can get there by train. Often called the Florence of the South, it’s full of amazing Baroque architecture to discover – think intricately carved churches decorated with saints and gargoyles, palazzi and narrow alleyways leading to amazing restaurants, cafes and gelatarias.
Do you have any insider addresses you can share with us?
- Visit Gallipoli early to buy just caught lobster.
- Gipas 111 in Ostuni is run by the lovely Antonio who makes the best caipirinha this side of Brazil, all set in a beautiful courtyard outside the Cathedral or in winter in a funky cave.
- Mama Suma’s Puglian cooking lessons (these can be arranged through Mel) – her simple seafood pasta is amazing and easy. It’s a dish I recreate in London, which tastes almost as good as it does when in Puglia, but not quite!
What would you say the one thing everyone should do when coming to Puglia is?
Visit the town of Martina Franca on a Friday night for ‘passeggiata’. Passeggiata celebrates the end of the week and is an innate part of Italian culture – the Italians dress up and promenade. The Passeggiata in Martina Franca is particular beautiful by the Porta di Santo Stefano arch where suited and booted Italians go to admire and be admired!
GO: Trullo Fico sleeps up to 8/9 guests and is available to rent from £1950 per week. Click here for details.