Jul 20, 2005
Outside Magazine

Puglia (pronounced POOL-ya), Italy's solid heel, hardly resembles the rest of the country. Facing the Adriatic Sea—which changes from teal to steel to peacock by the minute—the flat eastern coastline, nearly 300 miles long, borders centuries-old olive groves that produce 40 percent of Italy's oil. The architecture doesn't scream Renaissance: Trulli, ancient white-stone conical houses, and old farms called masserias dot the valleys. Wide-open Puglia attracted Greeks, Spaniards, and Arabs, who each planted new crops and left behind a layer of culture. Here I found Italy's best seafood, 15 medieval towns, historic inns with luxurious touches—like an olive-oil body wrap that left me happily marinated—and loads of sports to make basking in the Turkish bath that much more appealing.

Adventures: Torre Guaceto, a reserve north of Brindisi, has five coastal miles of sea-grass-spiked dunes, plus wetlands that draw migrating birds from Northern Europe and Africa, like the long-tailed jaeger. The visitor center (011-39-083-198-9885, www.riservaditorreguaceto.it) arranges hiking and snorkeling to see red mullet and sheepshead bream. For medieval-town hopping, start with Martina Franca (take a cappuccino break at Caffè Tripoli), baroquely beautiful Lecce, and Ostuni, which looks particularly Moorish when illuminated at night. Puglia's quiet roads are perfect for cycling; many of the hotels have bikes, or you can rent in Monopoli (Nardelli Sport; 011-39-080-937-2911) or arrange a customized guided trip (ABCycle; 011-39-085-969-410, www.urla.com).

Meals: Head to the revered Da Tuccino for raw seafood, or the cozier L'Osteria di Chichibio for antipasto featuring braised octopus and wine served in brightly colored ceramic pitchers. Both are in Polignano a Mare, which is also chilled-dessert central: Hit Il Super Mago del Gelato for exceptional coffee and hazelnut gelato, then try a refreshing lemon granita—a coarse, fruity ice.

Lodging: The bright-white compound of Masseria San Domenico (doubles from $398; 011-39-080-482-7769, www.imasseria.com), a 15th-century seaside watchtower once used by Maltese knights on guard for Turks, is south of Monopoli. The airy rooms, with wrought-iron beds, are ultra-peaceful. Just outside are paths through 250 acres of olive groves, two tennis courts, mountain bikes, a spa, and a sprawling saltwater pool—plus a private beach nearby. Pop into the bar for live piano, gracious Old World waiters, and homemade chocolate-dunked orange zest. Down the road, the working farm Masseria Torre Coccaro (doubles from $312; 011-39-080-482-9310, www.masseriatorrecoccaro.com) is more rustic, but it's still refined. The rooms have views of gnarled olive trees (some are 700 years old), and the old stable has been transformed into the dining room. The cooks gather cardoncello mushrooms, persimmons, almonds, and capers on the farm. There's an Aveda spa built into a cave, and a cooking school beside the pomegranate-pink chapel, while the beach and an olive-oil museum are a short bike ride away.