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Sophie Elkus

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An Honest Review of Puglia, Italy

Ganni dress (similar), Hermes belt, Lele Sadoughi earrings

Let’s get something out of the way – before this summer of 2019, I knew absolutely nothing about Puglia besides that it was in Italy and getting a lot of buzz.

Christophe and I had 4 days available in between a June trip with friends to Sardinia and flying back to the East Coast for a wedding, and we really wanted to go somewhere we haven’t been. It didn’t seem like enough time to leave Italy, which is how I landed on Puglia. For the record – Puglia is not a secret; Italians and Europeans have been vacationing there (and Sardinia) for a long time. Us Americans were just a little slower to catch on. It’s in the southern “heel of the boot,” the opposite coast from Amalfi, which is why I think it’s taken longer to rise in popularity – it’s not near the “typical” summer spots.

We touched down at Bari airport, rented a car and drove into Puglia, and I have to admit I was a little let down by the initial landscape. You must know this: Puglia is not the Amalfi Coast, so don’t compare them. It’s not better or worse; it’s just different. One difference is your first impression. Memories of driving into Positano from Naples are seared into my mind, winding through those hilly roads and laying my eyes on the cliffside beauty of Amalfi – that initial view is just breathtaking. People literally pull over on the side of the road to get out of their cars and gape at it. You’re hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world that offers such a drastic initial view of ocean crashing against mountain, and colorful little buildings nestled between.

Puglia’s welcome is slower and more subtle – if you flew into Bari (more on airports later) you’ll take a big freeway inland toward the coast, peppered with uneventful gas stations and supermarkets. When we neared Puglia, I noticed the landscape was mostly flat and green and I almost felt like we were driving through Napa Valley. There wasn’t much to see on the way to our hotel and it all looked very spread out. I also didn’t realize the best Puglia views are by the water seen in daylight, so driving in at 11pm left me wanting more. This was a foresight: Puglia’s beauty doesn’t hit you in the face, and it’s not centered in one place… you have to dig a little deeper to find it, but once you do, you’ll feel like you had an authentic Italian experience.

 

STAY

There are two different ways to do Puglia: luxury hotel or “Masseria,” Puglia’s version of a traditional farmhouse. They’re opposite trips – one is resort life, one is more simple living.

We chose the hotel route, partly because we wanted to luxuriate and partly because the Masseria I loved most was sold out. We were lucky enough to have the Chase credit card points (Christophe flies a lot for work and racked them up) to book Borgo Egnazia, which is the crown jewel property of Puglia if you’re looking for luxury. I can best describe it as an ALL-white oasis (literally, everything is white) that looks like a village of old ruins, but the 5-star version. It’s an architectural masterpiece that while massive – 45 acres of land – doesn’t feel too big because every detail was thoughtfully considered. Can’t lie, I originally heard of Borgo Egnazia because Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel were married there 7 years ago, way ahead of the Puglia trend. I’ve also seen cheeky photos of Karlie Kloss playing ping pong with Richard Branson atop a Borgo villa. It’s clearly been a celebrity favorite for years, which was confirmed when we saw Kate Hudson and her kids hanging in the pool next to us, unbothered by other guests or staff. You get the feeling they’re used to VIP guests.

Borgo has some of the best service I’ve ever experienced. There’s no check in desk – upon entering we were greeted by our personal concierge with welcome bubbles. She whisked us away to one of the zillion white couches and took our passports, then walked us up to our room and was available by WhatsApp 24/7 for recommendations, dinner and spa reservations. It’s so nice to only deal with ONE person at a hotel, who remembers your schedule – she checked in often to see if we needed anything.

Borgo has the most delicious breakfast spread with made to order custom juices, an omelette bar with vegetables from their garden, fruits, cheeses, and an array of light fluffy cakes – it was heaven. The pools are gorgeous, the spa is beautifully designed, and Borgo also has it’s own private off-site beach club with a terrace restaurant and daybeds that’s a five minute bike ride from the main property. All in all, I can say that staying at Borgo Egnazia heavily influenced how much we loved Puglia.

Another luxe hotel I can recommend is Masseria Torre Maizza, a Rocco Forte property where a girlfriend of mine also stayed this summer. It has a similar aesthetic to Borgo Egnazia but on a bit of a smaller scale. The property looks so serene.

But the “real” way to visit Puglia is to stay at a traditional Masseria – essentially a farmhouse hotel. There are dozens of them ranging in price, but even higher ones on the spectrum are relatively affordable compared to resorts. Check out Masseria Moroseta (also their Instagram). A lovely follower of mine turned me onto it and it looks AMAZING, not to mention photographable! I would have 100% stayed here had it not been sold out all summer. It’s a boutique property with simple yet modern décor, two on-property French bulldogs and a chef to curate family-style dinners for your group. They also offer yoga retreats. If I come back to Puglia, I’d love to do our trip a different way and stay here. We actually drove by it hoping to be let in – but the Masseria had an on-site wedding that day.

 

DO

Walk around Polignano a Mare. This is the famous oceanfront view Puglia is known for (AKA what comes up when you google search “Puglia”). Lay out on the rocky beach during the day and when afternoon hits grab at drink at Fly. The best view is arguably from the water looking inward though, which can be seen from Aquamarea Hotel.

Go to Ostuni, a historical area of Pugia. Wear flats because it’s a steep uphill climb, passing an old church and little homes built on top of each other. With its white-washed buildings and narrow streets, Ostuni reminded me of Greece. Osteria del Tempo Perso is the best place to eat, although it’s without a view. It was packed to the brim and bustling, with checkered tablecloths and a simple interior. We also went to Porta Nova, which had big windows and beautiful sunset views but so-so food, confirmed to be a popular opinion after my Yelp search.

See Alberobello and it’s cone shaped “trulli” houses, which have a 14th Century history. Puglia is known for these funny looking little structures that were built without mortar to be able to quickly take down if government officials stormed the area – the residents were trying to evade taxes! This was the most touristy area we went to and I only lasted 30 minutes in the heat walking through it. The trullis are now little tchotchke shops and owners try to lure you inside and make a purchase, my travel pet peeve. Alberobello is overall worth seeing, also because the best pasta of our trip was found here at La Cantina, a hole in the wall family owned restaurant. It was also the cheapest meal, go figure.

Things to Note

Puglia weather is great from June through late September, so trip timing is flexible. I’m partial to June trips to avoid crowds and high prices.

You have two airport options, Bari (North of Puglia) and Brindisi (South). If you’re flying from the UK or through Heathrow as we did, Bari is the best choice, with more flight options and better prices.

You need to rent a car. Puglia is way more spread out than I imagined. It’s not the type of trip where you can walk to breakfast and get around town by foot. It was about 30 minutes by car from Borgo Egnazia to our day trips to Polignano a Mare, Ostuni and Alberobello, and about 30 minutes from Borgo to Masseria Moroseta, to give you an idea.

The famous “cave” restaurant might not be worth it – but decide for yourself. You’ve probably seen Grotta Palazzese on Pinterest, which is a hotel with a restaurant built into a centuries-old grotto. Our concierge recommended against it, saying it was known to Puglia residents as overpriced with disappointing service. We went anyway. The verdict: the view is absolutely stunning and a unique dinner experience, but she was right about everything else. They serve a pre-fix menu for 180 euro per person with zero flexibility (to give you perspective, the best pasta of our trip was 14 euro). If you’re in it for the ‘gram, it doesn’t disappoint, but definitely read Nicole Warne’s review first.

Not everyone speaks English. Nice resorts and most fancier restaurants will have fluent English speakers, but little coffee shops and gas stations might not (goes to show my ignorance expecting everyone to speak my language, but compared to places like Capri, I was a little surprised).

In a Nutshell

Puglia surprised me – overall it was a fantastic experience, but our trip vibe was heavily dictated by staying at Borgo Egnazia. I think had we stayed at a Masseria, our experience would have been entirely different. Clearly there are a few different ways to do Puglia, on both ends of the spectrum from total luxury to simple living.

I hear people compare Puglia to the Amalfi Coast in the same breath, but you simply can’t  – it’s apples to oranges. If I had to pick one, I’d probably choose Amalfi, simply because the landscape itself is so stunning. If it’s your first time in Italy I might send you there to check it off the list. BUT Puglia has so much to offer, and it really feels like an authentic Italian experience. The number of tourists alone felt noticeably less (although I expect it to rise quickly). I also noticed the majority of tourists were not American around us, which was a nice change.

I’d recommend Puglia for two good reasons. The first – if you’ve done the basics (Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany), you’ve enjoyed Amalfi Coast, you love Italian food and culture and are looking for something new. The second – if you are the type of person who doesn’t like following the herd and would rather skip the aforementioned places.

Puglia had a beautiful simplicity and subtle beauty that felt new to me, even though I’d been to Italy many times. We had a funny interaction walking through a residential part of Polignano a Mare, passing homes with laundry drying from balconies and barefoot elderly nannas gossiping in their chairs out front as they watched passerbys stroll by. They looked us up and down, me in my sundress and tall wedges that I suddenly felt silly in. It was an odd juxtaposition between us as tourists and them as locals; you get the sense that their hometown hasn’t always been this traveled through. They pursed their lips in a half smile, a look of bemused acknowledgement or maybe mild annoyance, and now, this little memory is perhaps as ingrained in my head as that initial Amalfi Coast view.

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