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A new dazzzle in the deep south of Italy

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Think the high-heel of Italy's famous ''boot'', and you have Puglia, Italy’s buzzing destination. This long forgotten region has been climbing the travel league table and is lately challenging Tuscany and Umbria as the chic new place to visit. Here are things to do in this tucked away region in the south.

Look out

Puglia (Apulia in Italian) is a land of vivid colours and rustic charm – all low hills
and broad red plains smothered in crops and gnarled old olive trees. The big
scenic feature is the long east-facing Adriatic coastline.
Dotted with pretty seaside towns and bays of clear water and white sand,
Italy’s SE extremity has been an invaders’ thoroughfare down the millennia. Its
early-warning system survives in ancient watchtowers along the Salento
peninsula. There are About 50 LEFT, some built by the Normans. Another
ancient feature is the string of 800 year-old churches and cathedrals. Finest
of all is in the seaside town of Trani. It’s a dazzling, chalk-white big impact
cathedral on a broad square, on the lip of the turquoise sea.

Floor show

One of the many casual (and little known) marvels scattered about Puglia is in
the little town of Otranto. This peaceful little place is on the clear, clean
Adriatic, close to the tip of the heel, where Albania is much closer than Rome.
The astounding 800 year old Tree of Life mosaic is in the Norman Cathedral.
Filling the entire floor of the nave and choir, it is arranged like the standard
family tree. The trunk rests on two elephants. Lose yourself in a fabulous and
dotty mix of images spread throughout the branches, depicting Creation, the
fall of Adam and Eve and Judgment Day. There’s a supporting role for Noah
and other biblical worthies, King Arthur, Alexander the Great, the Tower of
Babel, and assorted dragons, unicorns, and Norse gods.

Bold build

In the C17 the city fathers in little upstart Lecce commissioned their own
masterpieces to compete with the grand cities in the north. All that exuberant
Baroque architecture gave the town the unofficial title “Florence of the
South.” Six fine churches in the soft, yellow local stone are scattered through
the compact historic centre, alongside Piazza Sant''Oronzo , the main square,
the Roman amphitheatre, triumphal arch and shady courtyards under wrought-
iron balconies. Leading the over-the-top list is one of the most exciting
Baroque churches in Italy, the 16th-century Basilica di Santa Croce. Carved
cherubim, mermaids and wolves swirl around the lavish façade, and encircle
the gorgeous Rose Window. The place to eat in Lecce is the Trattoria Le Zie,
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The chic of it

One of the key words in Puglia''s current tourism boom is masseria.
These once-crumbling fortified farmhouses, with turrets and thick walls to
deter invaders, are being spruced up to boutique hotel standard. Rooms look
out over orange groves and shimmering sea. Now seaside watchtowers are
being converted, too. Expect sumptuous bed linen, swanky furniture and
polished antiques. Some rooms have their own private gardens, or a swimming
pool fashioned from an ancient water reservoir. Many have a spa. And there’s
usually a restaurant, provisioned from the adjoining garden. The new deal in
these places is cookery lessons from the chef, and wine and olive oil tasting.
Many masseria supply bikes, for delicious cycling possibilities in wide open (and
generally dry) region.

Power of eight

Castel del Monte, 800 years old, has the secret of eternal youth built into its
formidable ramparts. The exceptionally well-preserved, honey-hued fortress,
commanding a rocky peak near Andria, is more maths formula than fairy castle.
The perfectly regular shape is a homage to the figure 8, with octagons
everywhere. Experts are still trying to fathom what it all means. Built by Holy
Roman Emperor Frederick II, this unique piece of medieval military architecture
is unlike anything in Europe. This is one of two world heritage sites in Puglia.
The other is the forest of trulli, curious little stone houses with conical roofs in
and around Alberobello . Some are very old indeed. They were built without
mortar to an ancient technique in this once raw, wild land.

Smart chefs

Puglia chefs know how to make the land work for them.
The cuisine is simple and glorious, based around the local orecchiette (ear-
shaped) pasta, and a cornucopia of vegetables.
Tough times made cooks inventive with chickpeas, capers, green peppers,
aubergines, and basil. They even have their own vegetable, the barattiere, a
cross between a cucumber and melon. So how about orecchiette with a sauce
of turnip tops, garlic, anchovies and hot peperoncino (peppers)? Or fava bean
purée, with steamed wild chicory, drizzled with local extra-virgin olive oil? Or
burrata (a creamy mozzarella) scattered with pomegranate seeds? Look
around in the many little villages for small, extremely hospitable family
restaurants, cooking up something clever from the garden. My drink of choice
would be the local Primitivo wine, the colour of deep red ink.

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