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Head to the heel


FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: It may not be Rome but Puglia has its share of sights to see. There are centuries-old cathedrals and Roman amphitheatres

Italy has many regions of beauty and charm. Most Indian tourists however still limit their visits to Rome, Venice, Florence and Tuscany with a few brave ones making a foray to Capri. Yet other areas are well worth the trip. If you like good food and wines whose names you won't recognize but which you will love, mile after mile of deep green olive forests, architectural wonders including the conical stone houses called 'trulli', lovely beaches, picturesque fishing villages and the romance of mysterious monuments like the octagonal Castel del Monte, you will find a few days in the Southern region of Puglia well spent. And what is even better is that the prices for food and hotels in Puglia are 25 to 40 per cent less than you would pay in Rome or Tuscany!
My wife and I spent 10 days last June in Puglia which is in the "heel" of Italy on the Adriatic coast facing Greece. Puglia, the ancient Roman province of Apulia, was a major centre in classical times containing Brindisi a port for ships bringing wheat and barley, oil and textiles from Alexandria in Egypt. These items were transported by the Via Appia, the Regina Viarum (Queen of roads), which extended from Rome all the way across the peninsula to Brindisi.

Since we were coming by car from Rome, we decided to start our visit at the southern most point and work our way back north. So we went the first day to Lecce about 650 km from Rome though the Italian autostradas (expressways) make it a manageable day's drive. The historical centre of Lecce is remarkable - a collection of 16th and 17th century Baroque palaces and churches. Walking in the evening in the Centre after a typical Puglian meal 'enhanced' as they say by local wines, and gazing at the lovely illuminated palaces, you can see why Lecce is called the 'Baroque Florence'.

You can end the evening at one of the cafes around the Roman Amphitheatre in the main square watching the 'passegiata' the locals taking the air after the heat of the day. I expected Lecce to be rather provincial but far from it. The town is the centre of a prosperous province and has an important university so it is full of young people. The young women, my wife assured me, were very well turned out with quality shoes and bags. They were also among the prettiest in Italy where standards are generally pretty high!

After a couple days in Lecce, our next stop was Alberobello with its Trullis. On the way however we made a detour to have a lunch stop at Gallipoli a fishing village on a little peninsula jutting into the sea with beautiful views of the sea in every direction. My wife and I thought Gallipoli would make a lovely place to spend a few days but then we thought that of so many places in Puglia!

Alberobello is a World Heritage site with a three star Michelin attraction mainly for its trullis. These strange dwellings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries have a round base mounted with a conical roof made up of slabs of local stones. Alberobello has more than 1400 trullis. Originally peasant dwellings you can now eat in Trulli restaurants, pray in trulli churches and love, or at least stay, in trulli hotels. They are really quite beguiling. When you see these dollhouse-like structures, you expect to see a dwarf or gnome emerge from them for the evening air! Their fame has spread far - Alberobello was the only place that we saw in Puglia which was full of tourists including large groups of Japanese but even there we didn't see a single Indian family.

Two days in Alberobello and we moved further north to the coastal town of Trani which was far more attractive than we had expected. Curving around a little bay with a magnificent 11th century Cathedral and an impressive castle, full of picturesque cafes and restaurants, Trani is everything a Mediterranean fishing/port town should be. Its second advantage is that it is about a 40 minute drive from the Castel del Monte. Most of the cathedrals and castles along the Puglia coast were built by the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and his son Manfred. Among the most strange and interesting is the Castel del Monte.

This castle, located on a hill, is octagonal with eight towers which are also octagonal. There are many theories about it. In mediaeval Europe the square represented Earth while the circle perfection or the divine. So the octagon combines the union of man and God. The Castel del Monte probably inspired the octagonal shaped fortress, the Aedificium, which lies at the heart of the mystery in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Perhaps during the turbulent 13th century Frederick built his magnificent castle to show his power and supremacy. As such it had a tragic destiny. Manfred was defeated by the French Charles of Anjou and his sons - Frederick's grandsons and heirs - were imprisoned in the Castel del Monte for most of their lives. But the castle remains in all its beauty and mystery to fascinate the modern visitor.

Our Puglia trip was now nearing its end. For our final stop we chose the Gargano, a promontory that lies at the northern end of Puglia containing lovely beach towns on the coast and a Forest Reserve in the middle. Puglia's beaches, (relatively) uncrowded, with clear blue seas and golden sands are a treat. Passing inland we went through the Gargano Forest and spent a couple of hours in San Giovanni Rotondo - a pretty mountain town that is the sanctuary and burial place of Padre Pio. This Capuchin Monk is considered by many Catholics as a modernday saint and the impressive church Padre Pio built in the town draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from all over the world. Anyone who visits the sanctuary is said to receive the Padre's blessings.
The Gargano Forest was lovely, dark and deep but remembering that we had miles to go back to Rome we hurried through the Forest to regain the bright coast and the road back to Rome - vowing that we would return to sample Puglia's delights again.

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