Undiscovered Italy: Apulia and Italy’s Road Less Travelled
When anyone thinks about or mentions the country of Italy, several images immediately come to mind. One first might think about pizza, pasta, wine and other culinary delights stemmed from the heart of this beautiful country. Others may think of the beautiful coliseum towering high above Rome’s busy streets or maybe the rolling hills of Tuscany, spotted with the most picturesque and ancient vineyards. Who would exclude the winding canals of Venice, the remarkable art of Florence, or the storied ruins of Pompeii...the list goes on and on! What would definitely be left out is Apulia, a lesser-known region of Italy that is jam-packed with just as much history, architecture, and top-notch cuisine as any more well-known region - without the tourist traps and crowds. A little over a year ago, in September of 2019, I was fortunate enough to host the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia’s tour to this beautiful, undiscovered part of Italy that I deem Italy’s “road less traveled”.
Apulia, or Puglia (pronounced poo-li-ya) in Italian, is a somewhat untouched region of Italy located in the “heel” of Italy’s boot. Apulia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Ionian Sea to the southeast, and both the Strait of Otranto and Gulf of Taranto to the south. In fact, this is the defining geographical feature of the area, as the region prides itself on its coastline and beautiful beaches, which total nearly 500 miles in length! The region comprises 7,469 square miles and is inhabited by roughly four million people. It is the eighth-most populated region in Italy and is well known worldwide for its olive oil production.
I have to admit, I knew very little about this mysterious region in Italy prior to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia’s tour last year. Looking back, I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to have Apulia as the last international trip I would be able to take for more than a year, due to the travel restrictions that have been in place because of the pandemic. It fills my heart with so much joy to reminisce on all of the special parts of this incredible tour. While these last nine months in quarantine have done nothing but fueled the wanderlust inside me, our Apulia tour was jam-packed with the perfect combination of architecture, history, local culture, and cuisine. In fact, as someone who has traveled to several other regions of Italy, if I could try to describe this tour and our experience in Apulia in one word, it would be: authentic.
Our tour began upon a short airport transfer from Bari, the capital city of Apulia, to Hotel Covo dei Saraceni in Polignano a Mare - our “home base” for the entire length of the tour. Hotel Covo dei Saraceni truly provided the most picturesque backdrop to our travel experience as it was uniquely positioned atop the awe-inspiring cliffs of Polignano. In fact, one of my favorite memories of the tour was getting the chance to stroll the quaint and endlessly bustling streets of Polignano with my fellow travelers. After a busy day touring this incredible region, it became almost a nightly tradition for us all to slowly walk the sleepy streets of Polignano, mixing in perfectly with the town’s locals and visitors who were out on “passeggiata” - the Italian tradition of taking a leisurely evening stroll. While on passeggiata, some of us would return back to our favorite gelateria, shop, or local pizza restaurant, and others of us would just head down to the Cove to watch the waves and gauge what their temperament they had, depending on that day’s weather and wind report. The most enterprising of our group even took it upon themselves to have an almost daily swim in the cove - something we quickly noticed was almost a daily activity for the locals. Indeed, you could not ask for a more perfect backdrop, and daily starting point for this particular tour.
Each day on this one-in-a-lifetime experience was really another adventure, unlike the day before. We discovered the most beautiful and unique places in the region - from the Renaissance architecture of Martina Franca to the Baroque style found in Lecce. The history of the region was definitely highlighted throughout our daily tours, most of which were all just a few hours driving distance from our home base in Polignano. Each day we set out to leave Polignano, we truly stepped back to some particular point in Italian history with our tour stops and it was interesting to hear from our tour guides how Apulia played such a pivotal role. It was also quite incredible to see how so many parts of this region are still untouched, in some way.
In fact, some of the most memorable parts of this tour included getting the chance to visit and learn about some of the region’s remarkable history and architecture. One of the most spectacular destinations was by far the Trulli houses of Alberobello. These dome-shaped houses are instantly recognizable from a distance and represent a mysterious, almost fairy-tale like, architectural feat. As our tour guides indicated, the Trulli houses are made of limestone, feature cone-shaped roofs, and are traditionally painted a stark white. There is no type of mortar to hold the stones of the Trulli house together, and legend has it that this was done intentionally so that the peasants that inhabited them as early as the 4th century could easily take them apart to avoid paying taxes!
I would be remiss to not share that the highlights of my experience on this unforgettable tour definitely include the food and cuisine of the region. The Puglian region prides itself immensely on a kind of holistic, farm-to-table approach to dining. Most if not all of the ingredients for a typical Puglian meal are completely locally sourced, and thanks to their lengthy coastline, seafood is almost always highlighted. Our tour director also told us about how important local wheat is to creating the “Tipo 00” flour in Puglia and used widely throughout Italy for bread, pizza, and pasta. Apulia in particular uses this locally milled flour to make its famous Orecchiette pasta. The name comes from the shape of the pasta which resembles a small ear. There is a bit of a process to making the Orecchiette and I remember one of our first walking tours included watching Puglian matriarchs quite artistically, and swiftly make an entire pallet of hand-made Orecchiette within a matter of minutes.
We had far too many incredible meals to count, but I know that myself and my fellow travelers would agree that our trip to the Galantino Olive Mill was an experience that many of us will never forget. As I mentioned earlier, Apulia is well known for its olive oil production, and while at Galantino, we learned that Apulia actually produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. We experienced a top-notch lunch experience at Galantino, complete with an endless array of traditional Puglian dishes accompanied with Galantino’s incredible assortment of olive oil varietals. Most of us ended our day at Galantino placing orders to ship back to family and friends back home. Thanks to their informative lecture on the olive oil making process and business, I simply cannot bring myself to buy olive oil that is not made with olives that are 100% single-sourced from Italy. In fact, if you are ever in the Italian Market, I highly suggest a visit to Claudio’s because that is where I have been picking up my 100% Apulian olive oil and Tipo 00 flour ever since!
To close, I know that my fellow travelers would all agree how fortunate they feel to have had the chance to deeply immerse themselves in such a unique and fascinating part of Italy, especially as international travel will begin to resume more widely sometime in 2021. Since our tour, we had the amazing chance to get back together with our tour director in June for a Zoom reunion. While most reunions are occasions to celebrate, this virtual gathering was especially impactful because, at the time, Italy was one of the countries that had experienced some of the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We explained that while our trip felt like a dream in retrospect, we all felt such a strong connection to the region and were eager to hear and understand how this tiny piece of Italy was faring through a nationwide shutdown. One of the enlightening parts of our conversation was how Italy’s approach to combatting the pandemic at the time compared so starkly to that of the United States. A few weeks later I had the chance to reconnect with a fellow traveler on the tour who lives in Texas, and we both shared our fond memories of our time on tour in Apulia and how eager we were to return to international travel when it is safe to do so. She and I shared trip photos and agreed that throughout quarantine, it has been a great help to be able to reminisce on our adventure to this undiscovered part of Italy. I know we all can’t wait for the chance to go back, and stroll the sleepy streets of Polignano as there are so many more undiscovered, special moments that patiently await our return.