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While there’s something to be said about visiting places like the Roman Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and the Venice canals, I generally prefer to stray off the well-beaten tourist path. Being stuck in big tourist crowds is just not my idea of fun, and as someone who is rather vertically challenged, it can be a real nightmare.
That’s why I decided to head to the southeastern region of Italy, a less-traveled area often referred to as the “heel of the boot.”
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Driving the narrow winding roads through the countryside brought one postcard-perfect scene after another as I made my way to Ostuni, the “White City.” Similar to southern Spain and the Greek Islands, dazzling white-washed villages like Ostuni, Gallipoli, Otranto, Cisternino and Locorotondo all dot Puglia’s heel.
When it came into view, it was like seeing Mount Rainier emerge from the clouds on a rare sunny day in Seattle. I think my jaw literally dropped. The walled, medieval hilltop town is five miles from the Adriatic, towering above an olive tree-dotted landscape. Inside is a rather confusing web of streets, alleyways and staircases.
The buildings, constructed right atop one another, were not well marked. That made it a challenge to find my apartment at Palazzo Altavilla, but once inside, the sounds of the church bells drifted through an open window and the anxiety of the search faded away.
It wasn’t long before it was time to get lost again. But on purpose now, spending the afternoon wandering through the glistening white structures, highlighted by green and blue wooden doors, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Turn one corner, there might be a dead-end, but at the next, the endless blue of the sea.
At the highest point in the city a Gothic-style cathedral sits, a rarity here with most Baroque or Romanesque.
Along the streets, there are great local markets, shops and boutiques with many items a steal, from the beautiful sweater I scored for under $10, and wine for only about $4 a bottle. I visited the Saturday Ostuni Street Market, picking up ingredients to make my own meal among the endless fresh produce, herbs, dried figs, walnuts and caciocavallo cheese. It was the little things I mostly enjoyed – one of the store clerks greeted me with a song. I chatted with many locals, dined on incredible Puglian cuisine, and sipped a little too much of that inexpensive Italian wine – without getting a hangover.
How was that possible? The soil, the grapes, something else? I’ve still never figured it out.
The next destination on the itinerary was Alberobello. It was less than a 45-minute drive, but with GPS failing big time here, I seemed to be driving in circles. Becoming increasingly frustrated, I saw an attractive woman along the side of the road, screaming into her cell phone with no pants on. I’ll always wonder what her story was.
Eventually, I stumbled into the village, but at this point, there wasn’t much light left in the day to explore. Still, it felt like I was in the middle of a Disney movie among the unique stone cone-shaped cottages called trullis. Puglia is the only place in the world where you’ll find them.
Polignano a Mare, a beautiful city by the sea, was much easier to find. Overlooking the aquamarine Adriatic, with a number of little coves and beaches, while it draws crowds in the summer, on this early fall day, there were relatively few people, even on its most famous stretch of sand.
I crossed the town’s ancient Roman bridge, located along the Via Traiana, to look for a place to enjoy lunch and found a perfect table with a gorgeous view at Donna Gina Ristorante.
As it turned out, the food managed to rival the view. The appetizer alone was more than enough for lunch, but the waiter delivered course after course, and the wine continued to flow.
While Puglia may not be the place to go if you’re on a diet, it’s fabulous for getting lost in and enjoying the moment.