Puglia: The overlooked region of Italy that's like an 'enchanted land'

There is, in the heel of Italy's famous boot, a marvellously gnarled olive tree held (sort of) upright by a chunky pile of brickwork. It's just one of the more than 50 million olive trees in this unspoiled rural region of Puglia but it has one outstanding claim to fame – it's said to be 3000 years old.

It sits on more than 12 hectares of the Antica Masseria Brancati olive farm, just off the Adriatic coast between Bari and Brindisi, with 1000 other trees. Of these, 800 have been designated as national monuments and many are said to have been planted 2000 years ago at the height of the Roman Empire.

It's quite a thrill to touch something that's been growing for so long. It is, quite simply, living history.

It's an idea which sums up Puglia (pronounced Poolia) to a tee. It's a palimpsest on which the names, beliefs and cultures of successive historical conquerors – Greeks, Moors, Barbary pirates, Turks, you name it –  are writ large. Here is history you can touch, and taste.

Here you'll find ancient Game of Thrones-style castles perched on the edge of glassy seas, golden baroque cities crafted from buttery sandstone and medieval cathedrals filled with the skulls of Christian martyrs.

And yet tell people that you're off to Puglia and they get that puzzled look. Where?

We fly into Brindisi airport from London and are met by Alison Pike, of Southern Visions Travel. Pike is an Englishwoman who came here with her husband and loved it so much that she stayed, joining Puglia native Antonello Losito in the business of designing bespoke holidays in 2011.

They cater, she explains as we drive south towards the coastal town of Otranto, for travellers who are "perhaps a little bit more curious".

"We design holidays for people who love Italy but have seen all the touristy places and want to experience something new – and that's certainly true of Puglia," she says. "It's very much off the beaten track, with so much to explore. We also have a great Mediterranean climate so it's pretty warm all year round."

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Otranto, where we lunch on a typical Puglian raw fish tasting plate and a monkfish pasta, is a town with a small harbour, a big castle (Castello Aragonese) and an interesting history. Originally Greek, it was an important city under the Roman Empire as a stepping stone to the east. After that the Byzantine emperors got their hands on it until it fell to the Normans in 1068.

Four hundred years later, in 1480, an Ottoman invasion force took the city and beheaded 800 locals when they refused to convert to Islam. The skulls and bones of these Martyrs of Otranto are, in a nice gothic touch, stacked up neatly behind glass around the high altar of the Romanesque cathedral. 

Today, the meandering lanes and alleyways of this pretty old town are enclosed within the 15th century castle's monumental walls – along the top of which a post-prandial stroll is de rigueur. Even if skulls aren't your thing, the cathedral is worth a look for the impressive 32-metre Tree of Life floor mosaic which takes up the entire nave.

Puglia is essentially poor man's Italy, a previously ignored but now increasingly admired region where the dubious high-rise hotel excrescences of contemporary tourism have so far been eschewed and where they are proud of their cucina povera, a style of frugal peasant cooking that makes do with what's at hand and in season – and without formerly ''expensive'' items such as meat, salt, butter, eggs and cheese.

And where Tuscany has its villas, Puglia has its masseria. These are old farmhouses that, thanks to the constant marauding from pirates and other invaders, were transformed into easily fortified redoubts behind which the owners and their farmworkers could retreat in times of trouble.

After falling into disrepair for many years, the masseria are now being restored and turned into restaurants or boutique hotels.

One such is the 16th century Masseria Trapana, which sits among 60 acres of olive groves not far from the beautiful baroque city of Lecce. It looks – as it was supposed to – like a small fortress from the outside, the entrance a forbidding four-metre high wooden door set in thick brick walls.

Inside it's another kettle of Puglian sushi. There is a large central courtyard, off which extend the sun-filled main lounge, restaurant and 10 luxurious suites with four-poster beds, a yellowy shortbread-and-white colour palette punctuated with burnt orange splashes and typical Pugliese vaulted ceilings. Beyond this are numerous walled gardens containing, among other things, a citrus orchard, games garden and swimming pool.

It is beautifully, luxuriously, tastefully done – and it's all the work of Australian hotelier Rob Potter-Sanders, who rescued it from rack and ruin and spent years bringing it back to life.

This is only the Trapana's second year of operation but it has already garnered accolades aplenty, with Conde Nast Traveller including it in its prestigious 2016 Hot List.

We also stay at Masseria Montenapoleone, a quirky confusion of 15 stylishly renovated rooms where flowers, cacti, repurposed furniture and home-grown organic produce take centre stage. Sitting in the heart of Puglia, it produces its own olive oil, fruit and vegetables. If you go, take the cooking class and try to book the remarkable 50-square-metre underground cave suite.

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Big Mimmo, our driver for part of the trip, is a former professional basketball player who moved to Puglia from Naples with his family and is a confident cheerleader for his new home. "This is," he says, "a slow-motion region. Here, people ask ''can we do it tomorrow?'' and then ''can it be done next week?'' Living in Naples I felt I was losing time; here, you make time.

"It's an area that was totally undiscovered only 15 years ago but today it has two airports and really good roads so it's easy to get around. Another reason we moved was that it has no earthquakes – I know because my wife Googled it before she'd let us move."

It also has manageable cities such as ancient Lecce, famous for its Roman amphitheatre, baroque architecture and the pale beige, easily sculpted limestone that's one of its main exports and which graces so many of the creamy coloured churches and cathedrals in the old section of the city. 

This is a place for strolling – making time and taking your time – or sitting with a sweet Caffe Leccese (iced coffee with almond milk) and watching other people stroll (la passeggiata is big here).

Or perhaps wander off to the blindingly white hilltop town of Ostuni (the Citta Bianca) where, from the terraces, you can see the flat plains of hundreds and thousands of olive trees stretching out all the way to the coast, punctuated here and there by the squat squares of masseria.

Here, under cloudless blue skies, we walk the layers of whitewashed streets, beguiled by random splashes of purple bougainvillea, working our way upwards to a cafe just off the unostentatious main square for a simple alfresco lunch of octopus, tartly fresh anchovies, marinated vegetables, crusty bread, burrata and a crisp local rosé.

One of our next stops is the town of Alberobello, a little further west and famous for its inimitable trulli houses. Looking at the number of camera-toting tourists here, you get the feeling this is where pixels go to die. You could close your eyes and click away and still get an Instagram-worthy shot of these queer but fascinating huts.

Trulli (singular trullo) are traditional dry stone huts with conical, limestone tile roofs and were originally built as temporary shelters and storehouses. They dot the countryside in the province of Bari but the greatest concentration is in Alberobello.

Here, there are trulli still inhabited by local people on one side of the town and others that have been taken over pretty much by the tourist industry and contain souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. Both are worth a visit.

Standing on the more domestic side of the town and looking across at the massed ranks of trulli opposite you realise that there's something of the fairytale about Puglia. Plunging seaside castles, glorious ancient amphitheatres, golden carved cathedrals, blisteringly white towns piled on hilltops and now these serried ranks of conical houses, some with odd, esoteric signs painted on their tiles in white.

It's like some enchanted land that, as with the castle and countryside that surrounded Sleeping Beauty, is slowly waking up after slumbering for a thousand years.

Go now, before the spell is broken.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

southernvisionstravel.com

STAY

Masseria Trapana is a 30-minute drive from Brindisi airport and about 15 minutes from Lecce. It has 10 luxury suites and one private villa. See trapana.com/en for more details and prices.

Masseria Montenapoleone is just inland from the Adriatic coast near Torre Canne (midway between Bari and Brindisi) and a 20-minute drive from Ostuni. See masseriamontenapoleone.it/en 

FLY

Puglia has two international airports at Bari and Brindisi. If you are starting your trip in the northern/central part of Puglia and finishing in the south, consider arriving into Bari Airport and departing from Brindisi.

Alitalia offers several connecting flights per day from Rome Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa or Linate. Other scheduled carriers include Swiss Air, British Airways, Lufthansa, Easyjet, Ryanair, Volotea, Vueling and German Wings.

TRAVEL

If you prefer to see the countryside you can make your way to Puglia by train. The trip from Rome Termini to Bari Centrale takes four hours or five-and-a-half hours to Lecce. Visit trenitalia.com for more information.

If flights to Naples are more convenient, the driving time from Naples to Bari is three hours. There are ferry connections between the Puglia coast and Croatia and Greece.

TOUR

Southern Visions Travel are experts in creating bespoke travel experiences in southern Italy. They specialise in culinary and active experiences, especially cycling, but will design a holiday around your wants and needs.

In May next year they are partnering with Australian TV personality, author and cook Lyndey Milan for a week-long journey through the cuisine of Puglia and neighbouring Basilicata. Prices start at $4999 a person, twin share. For more details visit southernvisionstravel.com

Keith Austin was a guest of Southern Visions Travel.