So you’re thinking about booking a summer holiday to Puglia. You’ve read all about that long coastline, the beautiful food, dwarf like dwellings with conical roofs and that urban renaissance gem called Lecce.
You want sun, sea and exceptionally good food. Puglia is perfect.
Puglia isn’t exactly the impoverished hinterland it once was. They’re used to tourists here now. That doesn't mean its necessarily tourist friendly.
Here are my top tips for making the most of Puglia:
1. A car will get you a long way.
Popular tourist destinations like Ostuni, Otranto and Gallipoli get a lot of good press (for good reason) but during the summer months prices inflate. Spend your money on a masserie or guest house in smaller town and travel around the region by car. The driving isn't half as bad as you’ve been told, the roads around the countryside are practically empty, and just think of all the olive groves you’ll get to drive through. Half of the fun of Puglia involves stumbling across villages which Lonely Planet hasn't mentioned. Plus it means you don't have to think about getting on that vehicle of nightmares, the 'pullman'
2. Get yourself to a festa
If you really want to experience authentic Southern Italy, make a note of all the festas taking place during your stay and join in the fun. Summertime is essentially party time in Salento - you’ll find a festival dedicated to everything from anchovies to small biscuits. Villages are decked out with lights, stalls are erected selling confectionary and savoury snacks, local bands play traditional fare and the elderly get out their folding chairs to watch it all unravel. It’s also the best way to learn the ‘pizzica’ - the traditional dance of Salento (similar to the Tarantella). Here's a complete list of the festas taking place throughout summer 2016
3. Visit in the summertime, but avoid Ferragosto.
Ferragosto is a national bank holiday in Italy, which usually takes places around the 15th August. Everyone essentially goes bonkers. It's not only international tourists who enjoy this part of Italy. Puglia is to the Italians, what Cornwall is to the British - hundreds of thousands descend to the southern regions for sun, sea and fresh food. During this week everything roughly doubles in price.
Puglia in the winter is best avoided; everything turns grey, cold and closes in the afternoon.
4. Try to speak Italian.
People do speak English here (though far less than the rest of the country) but attempting to speak some Italian will get you a long way. Particularly if you throw in a few deprecating comments about your home country and describe why Southern Italy is infinitely superior - they will turn into your best friend.
5. Follow the lead of the Italians
Don't expect everything to work like it does at home. Buses wont run on time, trains will be cancelled at the last minute, meals will arrive with different ingredients to what the menu stated. Yes, its madness that the whole region closes for half the day. But rather than getting yourself into a fluff about it all, do as the Italians do. Have a long lunch, have a little nap, and stay out late. You’ll just have to learn to treat your evenings like your afternoons and your afternoons like the night time.
6. But take advantage of their very predictable schedules...
Italians are predicable in their schedules. Take advantage of this. You know that there will never be much traffic between 1pm and 3pm because everyone is in their houses is preparing lunch. Ergo, the beaches, which are packed full of Italians in the mornings and late afternoons, will be empty from around 12.30pm until 3pm because Italians are so obsessed with lunch and digestion, they all retreat at midday for a long lunch and don't emerge until its all digested, for fear it will ruin their carefully regimented bowel schedule or that they'll get cramp and drown or something. If you want to get a table for dinner in the evening, get there before 9pm. That's peak dining time for the Italians.
7. It doesn't all look like Instagram
Lots of Puglia is undeniably pretty. Pretty conical roofs, artistically dilapidated houses, a general abundance of flora and miles of white sand. But Southern Italy took a real beating in World War Two and much of the outskirts of the bigger cities are a sprawling mess of haphazard post-war architecture. Just embrace the 'grittiness'