It wasn’t long ago that travel guidebooks ignored Southern Italy, but the regions of Puglia and Basilicata have long been top travel destinations among Italy’s domestic travelers. Why let them have all the fun? In Puglia, white-sand beaches, a booming culinary culture, and an old style of hospitality—the kind Italy is famous for—is the norm, while Basilicata offers the beautiful cave-dwelling town of Matera, a place so old school that Mel Gibson used it to film the Passion of the Christ.
With cultural traditions intact, these destinations offer a different style of travel than Italy’s more visited towns and cities; indeed, each town and city in these Italian regions fiercely guards its identity, holding on to the old way to doing things. Here is an introduction to key destinations in Puglia and Basilicata.
Located in Puglia, Lecce lives up to its moniker the Florence of the South, but don’t expect Renaissance-style museums and buildings: Lecce is a Baroque city of ornate churches. Just under 100,000 strong, the city has a university vibe, and located on the Salento Peninsula, also known as the heel of the Italian “boot,” it is surrounded on three sides by white-sand beaches, making it ideal for late spring, summer, or early fall travel.
Entering the Old Town, Lecce’s limestone buildings glow bright white beneath the hot Mediterranean sun, and many feature intricately carved facades so bizarre and magical that you may feel as though you’re suffering from heat stroke. Santa Croce is the most ornate church and features a griffin, dragon, Hercules, and more, all supporting a massive circular window in a frame of stone roses. Lecce has many ornate churches, several dating from the 11th century, and its businesses and homes also hold troves of carefully carved embellishments. For this reason, touring the cobblestone streets of this old city comes with endless surprises. Other important sights include an expansive 16th century castle; one of the most beautiful duomos, or city cathedrals, in the Italy; and a well-preserved 2nd Century Roman amphitheatre.
The local culinary scene is another reason to visit, especially since many of the traditional dishes haven’t changed in the past 200 years. Puglia’s vegetable-centric cuisine has been and likely always will be farm-to-table, and a traditional meal comes in the form of a dozen small plates, allowing you to sample the most famous recipes. Two top restaurants in Lecce are Le Zie – Trattoria Cucina Casereccia and Trattoria Nonna Tetti, both of which serve traditional Pugliese cuisine. Try orecchiette with broccoli rabe; polpette, which are mini fried meatballs; and ciceri e tria, a hearty pasta dish incorporating chickpeas, broth, and fried pasta.
Puglia also produces excellent wines, and near Lecce, the wine regions of Copertino, Salice Salentino, and Manduria specialize in making primitivo and negroamaro wines. The wineries are all budget-friendly and easy to access, but note that most require wine-tasting appointments at least 24 hours in advance. Leading wineries include Cantele, Apollonio, Leone de Castris, and Taurino.
Also in Puglia, Alberobello is a tiny town of 11,000 that nobody would think twice about if it weren’t for one thing: the jaw-dropping trulli. On the UNESCO World Heritage list of sites, trulli, pronounced like “truly,” are little stone houses that feature such Martian-like design that you may think hobbits live inside. Dominating the Alberobello townscape, trulli are reminiscent of whitewashed yurts; the roofs are shaped like cones; and each is topped with a pinnacle, often a long stick with a ball on the end. Owners paint symbols onto the roofs, too—whether Christian emblems or simply a heart with an arrow through it.
Thanks to its originality, Alberobello has attracted artists, restaurants, and, of course, travelers, and the town bustles with galleries full of local art and restaurants serving traditional Pugliese fare and wine. Make sure to visit the St. Athony trullo church (trullo is the singular form of trulli), which is a massive structure, at least in comparison to most trulli. You can also stay inside of a trullo, and prices are very reasonable.
The best way to get to Alberobello is by car. The roads are small but reasonably well maintained, whereas local Ferrovie Del Sud Est trains are few and far between unless traveling from Bari or Taranto. If daytripping to Alberobello, expect to spend an afternoon, and if you’d like more to explore, consider visiting the nearby town of Ostuni: a large hilltop town about 45 minutes away by car, with lots of pretty white-washed alleyways for strolling. Alternatively, Matera lies just over an hour west just over the border in Basilicata.
During the warmer months, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect Mediterranean coastal town than Otranto for the off-the-beaten-path traveler: it’s small, private, and cute; it has a long promenade, parts of which run along the ramparts of an Aragonese castle; and it’s great for shopping and dining. Moreover, beautiful beaches run up and down the coast in either direction, and the town beach, Porto Badisco, is great for snorkeling.
In particular, during the summer months, Otranto is ideal for partaking in the Italian aperitivo: a tradition similar to happy hour, in which a huge buffet of hot and cold traditional dishes is offered for the price of a single drink. Restaurants place their tables right on the castle ramparts, so you can sip a negroni sbagliato (a cocktail of sparkling wine, sweet vermouth, and Camapri served with an orange slice) while watching octopus dart beneath the rocks below. Find fabulous offerings, including those at Ristorante Al Giro di Boa, along the street, Via Padre L. Scupoli
Aside from swimming, eating, and relaxing in the sun, Otranto’s main attractions can be viewed in an afternoon. At the forefront is the Cathedral of Otranto, located in the center of the town. A large 12th Century mosaic covers much of the floor. Most striking is the chapel to the right of the main alter, where the walls are paved with the skulls and bones of hundreds of citizens massacred by pirates in the 15th Century.
Otranto is also the beginning of one of the most beautiful drives in Italy, which runs from Otranto south to the tip of the heel of the Italian boot to the town of Santa Maria di Leuca, whose architecture has a decidedly Middle Eastern influence. On the drive, you’ll pass a series of ancient coastal towers that once spanned the entire coastline of Puglia. These towers were a warning system against pirates, and upon sighting an enemy ship, fire signals would rapidly send notification northward. For the drive, make sure to pack a swimsuit, as the beaches along this stretch of Puglia are particularly pristine.
At the dawn of the Western world, Puglia and Basilicata were a part of Magna Graecia, where some of Ancient Greece’s wealthiest cities and most influential thinkers, such as Pythagoras, lived. For the most part, the ruins of these cities have disappeared, but the feeling of ancient times is still pervasive today.
One of the earliest sites of habitation in Italy, Matera is home to humble stone buildings that blend into the rocky terrain, and the entire city is built into the edge of a dramatic rock ravine with sheer drops. Roughly 9,000 years ago, the earliest inhabitants of Matera started the practice of living in caves hewed from the sides of this ravine called sassi, and the practice continues today to some extent; for instance, many restaurants, churches, and homes are remodeled sassi with exposed rock walls and ceilings. To walk into the sassi is to walk into an artless period in our history, and it’s easy to see why Mel Gibson chose this city for the Jerusalem set in The Passion of the Christ.
Most of Matera is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Park of the Ruprestrian Churches, and among Materia’s most exciting sights is the Sasso Caveoso, an older portion of the city that is full of traditional buildings, including rock churches. Madonna de Idris, Chiesa San Giovanni, and Convincino S. Antonion are three of the most stunning churches, and in particular, Convincino S. Antonion features extensive ancient subterranean passageways for exploring. If traveling by car, another church that should not be missed is the Cripta del Peccato Originale, a large, easily accessible rock church with informative audio tours in English less than three miles away.
Also while in Sasso Caveoso, make sure to stroll along Vico Solittario and Via Madonna delle Virtu for stunning views of the ravine and the many sassi on the far side. You can take a hiking trail to see these sassi, which have more or less be left undisturbed except by the elements, but either use the expertise of a guide or strike out with a love of adventure, sunscreen, and plenty of water: These sassi are fun to explore and the view of Matera from the far side is fantastic, but the trail covers a bit of uneven terrain.
With all this rustication, it’s nice to know that Matera may look old, but its hotels, restaurants, and cafes are modern. Find restaurants on the main Piazza Vittorio Veneto and indulge in luxurious pastries at Café Schiuma. For local fare at a good price, visit Trattoria del Caveoso, or for a more elevated version of traditional dishes, head to L’abbondanza Lucana. An inexpensive city overall, Matera, with a population of 60,000, serves up many great hotels. One of the best is Antica Locanda di San Martino, a centrally located hotel with stylish rooms in remodeled sassi as well as a spa replete with a pool hugged by exposed rock walls.
Read more about the regions of southern Italy
Photos courtesy of Mattie John Bamman.
– Mattie John Bamman