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Travel Guide Puglia: Get our Ultimate Insider Tips

The geography is fairly simple. The uplands are in the Gargano promontory in the north-east and the Alta Murgia national park in the west, while the rest of the region is flatter, often pockmarked with small hills topped with a settlement of some sort. There are several hundred miles of Adriatic coastline to the east, a chunk of Ionian Sea to the south, and a brace of large, wildlife-rich lakes in the north (Varano and Lesina), which are separated from the sea by low hills and sand dunes.

Since Puglia is basically the shape of an upturned hockey stick, finding a way to see all this is an uncomplicated affair. Hug the coast from Vieste in the north-east to Brindisi in the south, before turning inland to take in the città bianche. Then strike west to Alta Murgia, north to the mysterious hilltop Castel del Monte to experience one of its wonderful sunsets, west to Foggia and then back into the Gargano to complete the loop.

Beyond Puglia’s crowded hotspots, there are nature reserves, dramatic caves, medieval quarters and several hundred miles of coastline to enjoy, not to mention the region’s star attraction: fantastic food

There are several hundred miles of coastline

Microclimate

Alternatively, take the train – the main line passes through Foggia before heading for the coast – to visit Trani, Bari, Polignano a Mare and Brindisi. The branch lines that crisscross the region are great for inexpensive day trips to places such as Altamura, Gioia del Colle or the città bianche.

Almost as numerous as San Pio sightings are Puglia’s trulli. Most abundant in the Valle d’Itria, just north-west of Salento, these small beehive-like stone dwellings give the landscape the appearance of having been scattered with upturned ice-cream cones. While most can be seen in the midst of plots of mature olive trees made square through decades of judicious pruning – the town of Alberobello boasts 1,400 trulli in a maze of narrow streets. The ancient settlement is so well preserved it’s been given Unesco World Heritage status. Oh and don’t tell them that Trulli remind you of Smurf-houses – they’ve heard it before.

Alberobello is just one of Valle d’Itria’s string of città bianche or white towns, each on their own little hilltop rising up from the plain and each staring out defiantly at the rest, as if the days of petty fiefdoms were still with us. The white historic quarters of CisterninoMartina FrancaCeglie MessapicaOstuni and Locorotondo are all worth a gander and are within easy striking distance of one another, making a day’s medieval hilltop città tour pretty much obbligatorio if you’re in the neighbourhood.

North up the coast is the Sentiero Airone nature reserve, home to those pink flamingos. The reserve is squeezed between the forest and peaks of the Gargano national park, which spreads over the eponymous northern peninsula, and the Alta Murgia national park, a high limestone plateau where, in one particular cave, are no fewer than 30,000 dinosaur footprints.

That’s not even the region’s most dramatic subterranean feature. Castellana Grotte (about 12 miles south-west from Polignano a Mare) is a two-mile-long labyrinth of passages and caverns – making a particularly welcome diversion on a hot summer day.

Back above ground, while there’s no classic cycling route through the region, seven miles have so far been opened of the Ciclovia dell’Acquedotto, a cycle path through the Valle d’Itria which will eventually form part of a 155-mile route through Puglia. Walkers, meanwhile, should head for the Alta Murgia national park where wardens lead day-long hikes taking in castles and prehistoric tombs, falcons and sinkholes.

Among the latter is Trani, a slow food city (do try a moscato di trani, the local dessert wine) whose pièce de résistance is a magnificent Swabian fortress and a Romanesque cathedral.

The region’s star attraction is the food. Relatively impoverished though Puglia may be, the Pugliese take their alimento very seriously indeed. As might be expected, seafood dishes predominate, with squid a favourite ingredient, but there’s also a host of local specialities. The inland town of Altamura produces bread prized all over Italy. It’s baked in wooden ovens to a recipe unchanged since the Middle Ages, with the u puène muedde loaf cheekily mimicking a priest’s hat. Gioia del Colle is the place to go for mozzarella and burrata cheese; while in Murgiacardoncello mushrooms and lampascioni (wild onions) abound. And wherever you are, you can order fave e cicoria, a traditional peasant dish consisting of a warm broad-bean pâté mixed with the local olive oil and served with bitter chicory. Washed down with a carafe of an Apulian primitivo, of course.

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