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Puglia, Italy: readers’ travel tips

Winning tip: Thermal Santa Cesarea

Drive two hours from Ostuni, or 20 minutes south along the coast from Otranto, and you’ll find hot thermal springs gushing from four caves – Gatulla, Solfurea, Fetida and Solfatara – along 500m of dramatic coastline near the pretty town of Santa Cesarea Terme. On the sea front, there are a couple of pizzerias and a year-round thermal bathing pool. Terme di Santa Cesarea health spa is also nearby. The whole coastline is rugged, with lots of undiscovered coves to swim in.
Catherine Woodruff

Swimming off the Zinzulusa grotto

Zinzulusa cave.

Head to the little town of Castro, south of Lecce on the Adriatic coast, and hire a boat from one of the companies at the marina for a tour of the nearby natural caves. The biggest and most spectacular is the Zinzulusa grotto, which resembles a rocky mouth opening onto the sea. It is a maze of colourful stalactites and stalagmites and there’s an internal lake. You can take a guided visit or just swim and snorkel off the boat outside the cave.

Pezzetti te cavallu in Lecce

If my favourite, the local speciality pezzetti te cavallu (a slow-cooked dish of tender horse meat in a tomato sauce) isn’t quite your thing, Lecce osteria Alle Due Corti (Corte dei Giugni 1) also serves incredible stuffed aubergines, pasta and spring lamb. Wash it down with a drop of primitivo di manduria, Puglia’s answer to zinfandel. They call Lecce the Florence of the south, but everything is more feisty, fleshy, scorched and fragrant.
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Cattedrale di San Nicola Pellegrino, Trani

Cathedral in Trani.

Trani, 50km north of Bari, is home to one of the most beautiful buildings in southern Italy. The cathedral, built of soft white-pink limestone at the edge of Trani’s marina, is a spectacular sight, perfect for photographers. Despite being relatively plain (by Italian ecclesiastical standards), the exterior rewards close examination with lovely decorative details – see if you can spot the elephant corbels. The interior is astonishingly bright and airy. After visiting, head to the marina for spaghetti scoglio and a glass of wine.

Spumone, a Puglianese treat, Otranto

Enjoy spumone, a Puglianese treat combining ice cream with sponge cake and liqueur. The best place we found to try it was Martinucci Caffetterie in the coastal town of Otranto (Via Lungomare 59). Next door is Dal Baffo, one of the best restaurants in town. They have special evenings with a set menu, paired with local wines and live music. Try local specialities such as smoked swordfish carpaccio, stuffed squid or the chef’s orange cake.

Light festival in Scorrano

Santa Domenica festival.

In the first week of July (5-7) the rural village of Scorrano showcases breathtaking structures, some 36m high, which light up in honour of the town’s patron, Santa Domenica. The festival has earned the title of Capitale Mondiale Delle Luminarie and is very popular, so it’s a good idea to arrive early to avoid traffic queues – the city organises huge parking areas outside the village.

Otranto jazz festival

Artists at Otranto Jazz Festival.
Artists at Otranto Jazz Festival, Puglia, Italy. Photograph:

The historical walled town of Otranto is worth visiting in its own right, to walk through cobbled streets, chill out on the beach or stroll around the harbour with a local panzerrotti (a sort of cheese-and-ham mini pizza) but it really becomes animated and lively during the week-long summer jazz festival, a not-for-profit affair held in the grounds of the castle overlooking the town (from 24 July in 2015). Open air and candle lit, the atmosphere and setting are amazing.

Martina Franca old town

Martina Franca.

Martina Franca’s outskirts may look grim but head to the Centro Storico (old town) and you’ll find a delightful and fairly tourist-free, by contrast with Lecce, baroque centre that’s lively of a summer evening. For a more interesting wine choice here, try negroamaro rather than primitivo.


The beach at Monopli.

Monopoli doesn’t get the same attention as other nearby towns like Polignano, Alberobello or Ostuni. It’s perhaps less spectacular than those places – a town adored far more by knowing natives than by the tourist guides – but is well worth visiting for its narrow streets flowing around its delightful port and offers some truly outstanding seafood restaurants, as well as a beautiful cathedral.


Exploring by car


Stay in the hilltop town of Ostuni, a good base for exploring the region: it’s attractive, has good restaurants and is central. Hill towns are rightly considered one of Puglia’s glories, but the best are difficult for tourists with a car because of parking. Unforgettable (and easy to get to) is Egnazia, on the coast road near Monopoli. Egnazia was ancient when the Romans came, and it is well preserved in a sprawling site as evocative as Pompeii.

Puglia by train


With a bit of forward planning, it’s possible to do a pretty comprehensive tour of Puglia by train. The peninsula’s network takes in the unmissable ports of Otranto and Gallipoli, Bari and Brindisi, as well as the splendid inland towns of Lecce and Ostuni. Don’t miss the line connecting Martina Franca, Locorotondo and Alberobello, which winds through flower-filled valleys where untouched Trulli houses are scattered through the olive groves. Trains rumble along in an unhurried fashion and some destinations are served infrequently, so allow a few days to make the most of this diverse region.


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