Story and photos by Helen Hewetson
Long overlooked in lieu of more well-known regions such as Tuscany or Umbria, Puglia has finally started to be recognized as the beautiful, friendly and laid-back region it is.
And, this past September, after years of running very successful culinary tours with my friend and colleague Massimo Bruno, the time finally came for me to check it out for myself. I went in search of an authentic experience, some delicious food and a taste of the experience our travellers have on Massimo’s trips.
In an effort to see a little more of the countryside, I decided to take the train from Rome to Bari – Puglia’s largest city. Travelling by train is one of my favourite ways to go – not only does it offer more scenery than a domestic flight, but it can be more convenient too: in Europe the train stations are almost always in the city centre, close to the action.
This was no exception – I enjoyed the brief stop in Rome, hopped on my commuter train (a surprisingly straightforward experience) and after a night in Bari, headed southeast towards Lecce; one of Puglia’s best-known cities.
Lecce is an ancient city, home to about 100,000 people and a stunning variety of Baroque architecture. It’s a popular place with visitors for a reason: small enough to be friendly and laid-back but large enough to offer a taste of city life.
Here, I stayed in a delightful bed and breakfast right in the old quarter. Fully equipped with a very comfy bed, strong WiFi, effective A/C, and double-paned windows, I was comfortable and had a great night’s sleep. The next morning, fortified with homemade bread and cheese and several espressos, I headed out to wander the old town, which was full of reminders of the past.
In the main square I marvelled at an ancient Roman amphitheatre – apparently older than Rome’s much more famous Colosseum – where gladiators fought to the death. The most fascinating thing to me was that it was just simply part of the scenery: there may have been a plaque describing it, but I didn’t see one – and the only thing keeping me out was a small gate barring my way. This casualness was a delight when compared to our North American obsession with safety – and our unrestrained excitement with anything even slightly older than ourselves.
The day, however, was not just an opportunity to marvel at Lecce’s history – I was there to check out accommodations and meet with Giovanna, my effusively friendly local contact. Ever patient, Giovanna is the owner of Cooking Experience Lecce. Her beautiful studio is located in the heart of Lecce’s historic old town and she regularly hosts groups from around the world. Her friendliness and passion for food are a recipe for success, and as we drove around the city and surroundings she didn’t once laugh at my crazy questions about the food or culture of Puglia. She showed me around and gave me inspiration for many trips to follow.
As one of the region’s main cities, Lecce is a favourite destination for tourists of all types – and things really start to get busy on the weekends. There over a Saturday evening, I found the streets buzzing with excitement and life: restaurants were packed and the pedestrian-only streets could have used some foot-traffic control. Local people from all walks were there, including families with small children, groups of gelled and coiffed Italian pre-teens and the occasional camera-toting foreigner. Older people sat in their doorways or outside on white plastic chairs, jiggling babies on their knees, watching the world go by at a dizzying pace.
My stay in Lecce was far too short, and before long I was back on the train to Bari.
Bari is a big city – the main city of Puglia – and much of the downtown core is laid out in an easily navigated pedestrian-only grid. Here there’s an excellent shopping district, where shops range from the affordable to the impossibly glamorous. Although many familiar brands from North America are in evidence, it was good to see that local businesses are thriving too. There are many bars and restaurants – I ate gelato and espresso, pastries and pizza, cheese (so much cheese) and pasta, drank more wine than I care to admit, and generally made a glutton of myself. But, I also walked everywhere, and that’s how I justified all of it.
The commercial area of town is popular with Italian tourists, but Bari’s old town is the draw for many foreigners. The old town is a winding, narrow labyrinthine part of the city – too tight for cars but easily traversed by foot or the many bicycles and mopeds driven by locals. The Puglia tourist authority has put a great deal of effort into promoting this area – and their efforts seem to be working. There’s free WiFi in the old town (!) and local businesses are enthusiastically welcoming, often with signs or pamphlets translated to English – I saw a lot of tourists in the main square, drinking wine and eating pizza and gelato with gusto. But, as I wandered through the tiny streets there were fewer people around and my pace began to slow.
Every few steps I found myself pausing to take yet another picture of a pretty alleyway or a balcony covered in laundry or flowering vines. The city is not just a tourist trap – it’s full of life and regular people: almost every doorway is covered in a net curtain or hanging beads, behind which there is a TV buzzing or a radio crackling – a clatter of dishes or a loud conversation.
Here people go about their lives in much the same way they have throughout history: buying fresh pasta and cheese from local producers, shopping for the day’s groceries one day at a time; gossiping across balconies as the laundry is set out to dry.
Wandering alone I wanted to avoid the busy, touristy pizza places in the main square, looking instead for a small restaurant with local people where I could try something authentic. After working up an appetite, I found what promised to be the ideal spot: a tiny doorway with a small sign above and no visible English menu on the outside.
As my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside, I saw a small room full of heavy wooden tables, a large selection of antipasti and groups of Italian people enjoying themselves enthusiastically. Perfect.
I settled in and examined the short menu (entirely in Italian) and decided on something I recognized: pasta alla ragu. Yum! Meaty pasta. I wasn’t disappointed: it was delicious. The tender meat had been simmered in a rich tomato sauce until it was falling apart and the fresh pasta was, of course, cooked perfectly.
After the filling meal, I was presented with another menu (in English this time) and asked about dessert. Espresso was really the only thing I could manage, but I hung onto the menu for a minute – looking for more detail about my delicious lunch.
As I scanned the menu I was suddenly wide awake: the pasta alla ragu was made with HORSE. Yikes! As a westerner, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that horse would be on the menu – and while I probably wouldn’t have chosen it had I known, it was a bit late now! All I could do was laugh at myself. I’d wanted an authentic experience and that’s what I found.
Puglia is a wonderful place and we’re looking forward to hosting people again this year. Just call or email if you’d like to learn more. And yes, Massimo is always happy to help interpret the menus!