Intrepid Italy: Go Off-the-Beaten-Path in Puglia
Hidden wonders await in the heel of the boot.
When you're crowded shoulder-to-shoulder against throngs of English-speaking tourists in Rome's Colosseum or Florence's Uffizi Museum, it's difficult to imagine an Italy untouched by hordes of American tourists. Yet, that world does exist and is easily explored by intrepid travelers willing to head to Puglia, the region better known as, "the heel of the boot."
Popular with Italian tourists, Puglia sees minimal international tourists compared to other popular hubs like Venice and Tuscany. Best explored by car, the region's mountainous center is marked by intriguing hill towns, while its coast is bordered by both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, making its beaches and coastal towns must-visits, as well.
Nestled into the heart of Puglia, the town of Martina Franca rises from a hill in the Valle d'Itria, Martina's centerpiece is its historic center, where visitors lose themselves in a twisting maze of stone streets, and colorful flowers draped across wrought-iron balconies lend splashes of color to whitewashed buildings.
Martina Franca lies in the midst of Italy's trulli region, with most visitors stopping by the tourist-filled streets of nearby Alberobello to admire the conical, stone structures. But the outskirts of Martina Franca are well-worth a drive, and offer a glimpse of the trullis in their more natural state, far from the maddening crowds of tour buses.
Before entering the centro storico, stroll through Piazza XX Settembre, a small park outside the city walls, before entering the Porto Santo Stefano. Don't be afraid to lose yourself inside the labyrinth of streets, and admire the crumbling -- and still jaw-dropping -- architecture of 17th- and 18th-century palazzos, and ornate churches, like the Chiesa di San Domenico.
Stop inside the Basilica di San Martino, the town's main church, and admire the rococo style of the building. At the base of the basilica's steps Piazza Plebiscito unfolds; after dark the square springs to life with locals out for an evening walk, known as the passeggiata. Stop for dinner at Gaonas restaurant; it's a challenge to find the restaurant in Martina's historic center's maze of streets, but well worth the journey to dig into plates of hearty meat stews, gnomorelli (intestines), and Angus carpaccio with creamy burrata cheese. Wash it all down with a remarkably tasty bottle of Nero d'Troia wine, made from local Pugliese grapes.
Puglia's crown jewel is undisputedly Lecce, a Baroque masterpiece of a town that winds along the Adriatic coastline. Lecce's distinctly ornate architecture has made it beloved by Italians on vacation, as well as by wannabe photographers, who will never lack inspiration in the 17th-century buildings' curlicues, cherubs, gargoyles and gremlins. In fact, Lecce's specific style of Baroque design inspired a style known as barocco leccese, which flourished due to the sculptable quality of the soft, white local stone used to construct its buildings.
When you're not gazing skyward at the details of palaces and churches, take time to explore the sights of the so-called "Florence of the South." Snap photos of the remains of an ancient Roman amphitheater in the town's center, then make your way to the Basilica di Santa Croce, which boasts Lecce's most extravagant designs. Spend an evening people-watching in the Piazza Sant'Oronzo, which overlooks the Roman ruins -- perhaps sip an apertivo at nearby Caffe Alvino as you watch the world go by.
While it's quite possible to wander Lecce's streets at a slow and steady pace, if you're not quite up to the walk, a small, hop-on-hop-off tourist train rolls through town, passing the major sights. History buffs will want to visit the Museo Provinciale, which details the long history of Puglia and its Grecian influences.
Don't expect to accomplish much during the afternoon hours in Lecce. The afternoon sun sends the locals toward the shade and comfort of their homes, and most stores do close for the pausa. As the sun sets, return to the town's historic center for the evening passeggiata, and cool down with a pistachio-flavored gelato at Natale Pasticceria.
After a heavy dose of history and architecture, unwind in the sparkling white, seaside town of Otranto, a laid-back bastion for Italians on holiday. The great irony is that Otranto's history is anything but relaxing. The townfolk were famously massacred by the Turks in 1480, a bloody scourge that is commemorated in the town's Romanesque cathedral where you'll gaze upon the enormous, glass-enclosed collection of bones from 813 martyrs who refused to convert to Islam and were killed in the attack.
Once you tear your eyes away from the bones, gaze upon the famed, 12th-century mosaic floors. Carved by a monk named Pantaleone, the mosaic details religious tales like Noah's ark, as well as historical and pagan figures, including Alexander the Great and King Arthur.
Stretch your legs with a walk up Otranto's twisting streets and into the heart of the old town, where you'll stumble upon the Byzantine Chiesa di San Pietro, and eventually encounter the Castello Aragonese, a fortress that once served as Otranto's defense.
Otranto lies near the southernmost tip of Italy's heel, and if you're visiting on a clear day, you can stare over the twinkling blue waters of the Strait of Otranto right into Albania. When you've had your fill of touring, kick back on one of Otranto's popular beaches, including the stunning Baia dei Turchi and Laghi Alimini.