it.gaikokujin on flickr

Just an hour by air from Rome, Puglia is an oasis of vineyards, olive mills, castles and cathedrals.

A sea of green was all I could see for miles as we drove from Bari
International Airport to the city center. Forests of olive trees, with
winding branches crawling from an intricate trunk, covered the side of
the highway. Every so often the forest would break to make way for
grapes growing in a vineyard. What a pleasant surprise to board a plane
in bustling Rome and — within an hour — land in a coastal area so rich
in agriculture and history.

I had been told Puglia is the “Tuscany of the South.” I would tell
others I was going to the heel of Italy’s boot. To be perfectly honest,
I did not know what to expect. Puglia, the land between two seas,
proved to be everything I could have imagined — without the tourists.
Its mouthwatering cuisine, crystal-blue seas, diverse architecture and
passionate locals eager to share their homeland make this area nothing
less than perfect.

As I explored Puglia, stopping at wineries, olive mills, castles,
cathedrals and artistic towns, I was blown away time and time again.

Ostuni, zuccsim on flickr

The town of Ostuni stole my heart. I first caught a glimpse of it as we
drove from our hotel, the Grand Hotel Masseria Santa Lucia, which was
on the coast just a few miles from town. It was about midnight and,
without streetlights, the glow of Ostuni in the distance was the only
light breaking through the darkness. Ostuni sits high on a hill
overlooking the Adriatic Sea. This walled city was once a fortress
inhabited by the Messapi, built to stop approaching attacks. The old
town of Ostuni is whitened with lime-wash and its streets are a narrow
maze with arched walkways. Luckily, I was with a local who knew the lay
of the land. It was a Friday night, but the pathways were completely
silent and the lights dim. It seemed as if the town was deserted —
until we arrived at a small but chic nightclub, crowded with young
couples cuddling in the cave-like structure. Paris may be the “City of
Love,” but Ostuni is at least as dramatic and romantic.

On one occasion, I caught a glimpse of tourism. I was in Alberobello, the land of the trulli. Puglia is the only place in the world where you will see trulli; small structures built from stone with cone tops and limestone knobs at the peak. Each room in a trullo
has a coned top, so outsiders can determine the numbers of rooms by
counting the cones. Some of the roofs are painted with zodiac or good
luck symbols to protect inhabitants.

At only 5 feet, 2 inches, even I had to duck as I walked into a converted trullo;
now a bar, restaurant, souvenir shop and home to a family of six. The
owner was kind enough to welcome me into her home and give me a tour.
It was an ongoing theme while in Puglia: Everywhere I went, locals
welcomed me with open arms.

Alberobello,jujuly25 on flickr

It was here, in Alberobello, that I tried liver and tripe for the first
time. I must admit neither was half bad, but knowing what I was eating
made it hard to swallow. After dinner, Alberobello seemed no different
from Ostuni. The streets were dark and quiet. It seemed as though I was
the only person still awake. Puglia was so peaceful on the outside,
but, once pointed in the right direction, I could see it had a great
nightlife. The key is knowing which door to open.

While the trulli are by far the most unique structures in Puglia, the Baroque architecture of Lecce, which flourished from the 16th century through the 18th
century, is a true work of art. There are many churches in Lecce, each
one its own masterpiece. Elaborate carvings cover churches and
buildings; some incredibly beautiful and some so realistic, it’s
frightening. The detailed faces of the gargoyles left me with chills.

Gravina,> luigi scorcia < on flickr

I had many feelings while in Puglia. I was in awe of its beauty and
historical roots. However, one thing I never felt was hunger. On the
first night I was told I was going to “eat and drink my way through
Puglia,” and that is exactly what I did. Every day, I stopped at
wineries to taste wines specific to Puglia, and every night, I ate
authentic, fresh vegetables, pastas and seafood. I ate food I never
imagined eating — sea urchins, octopus the size of my fist and more.
Not to mention, everything was drenched in extra virgin olive oil.
There are more olive trees in Puglia than people, and they are put to
good use.

By the end of my journey, I was exhausted and sated. I hadn’t
encountered any bustling, camera-toting tourist groups. I felt as if I
had Puglia, an enchanted place, all to myself.