We arrived in Puglia on 10 April, catching a flight from Trieste to Rome, then a second flight to Brindisi. We were visiting the Salento, which forms the southern part of this long narrow region that takes up the heel and spur of the boot of the Italian peninsula. This is all part of a long trip to Italy to research my next book, Adriatico, discovering the traditions and foods and taking photos of locations along the Adriatic coastline.
When planning for the trip and looking at Puglia, I hadn’t realised how long the coast line is – it would take two weeks to explore the area properly (quite a nice prospect!). Our starting point for the southern part of Puglia was Brindisi, which is where my former myotherapist in Australia, Antonello, is from. He used to tell me about the amazing street food on the waterfront, so that is where we headed on our first night. It wasn’t actually street food weather, but we rugged up and ate some rather fine warm panini (and drank beer).
The next day we rented a car, which we were planning to drive all the way to Venice in. As parking in the centre of Brindisi was problematic, we took the opportunity to drive north to Ostuni, also known as the “white” town and to Polignano a Mare, renowned for its stunning tiny bay with houses perched right on the edge of it. As we were driving it struck me how much of the Salento is covered in olive trees, often with massive trunks. There is a long-standing tradition of olive oil in the whole of Puglia, back to when the Greeks occupied it, many many years ago.
I had rented an AirBnB apartment in Otranto, close to the very tip of the heel, in actual fact not that far from Albania on the other side of the Adriatic. We were staying within the old town walls, at a gorgeous apartment. It had white-washed walls, green shutters and heavy antique furniture. Enrica, the owner, was also a plate collector (judging from the number of artisan ceramics both in the cupboards and on the walls). She was delighted that I said I would be using the kitchen quite a bit – she loves to cook and reeled off a couple of recipes she makes at Easter time (we would be staying over the Easter weekend) while I took notes. Very handy when you are writing a book! We asked about traditional religious processions over Easter and she told us of the one in the town of Maglie, on Good Friday, when a life-sized Madonna (dressed in black) is carried between three churches in the town accompanied by a band dressed in dinner jackets (!).
Enrica gave us tips on where to buy fish and other fresh produce (including the freshest fava beans and chicory, local olive oil and creamy sheep’s milk ricotta) and the names of a couple of local restaurants where they cook traditional food. We opted to eat in the apartment quite a bit as things were hectic with it being Easter – a notoriously busy time on the roads and in restaurants, as many people eat out, especially on Pasquetta (Easter Monday). We did manage to squeeze in a few good meals out: a visit to Fedele in Santa Maria di Leuca (where the food was fresh, delicious – don’t even think about believing what you read in Tripadvisor for this one) and to la Polperia in Otranto where I had some astoundingly good octopus cooked in a wood fire oven, with stracchino (a type of cheese) and cherry tomatoes on a bread roll. Otranto was buzzing on the weekend we were there – church bells were competing with beachside dance parties. Visitors seem to be mainly Italian rather than from elsewhere, which made us feel quite at home.
I was sad to say goodbye to Otranto. I even tried to book Enrica’s apartment for a few days at the end of May, at the end of our trip, just so I could enjoy the beaches the way they should be enjoyed – swimming and soaking up the sun. But it was sadly booked out. So we took to the road (and unfortunately found a faded parking ticket on the windscreen of the car as we were leaving) – next stop: the Gargano peninsula in the northern part of Puglia (via Monopoli with its pretty fishing port).