If Italy is the elegant, over-the-knee boot plunged into the Mediterranean, then Puglia is the narrow peninsula that forms its spiky stiletto heel. The word that springs to mind regarding Puglia is trullo — miniature stone structures that look like igloos, and in my experience are the ideal devices to convince your kids to holiday with you. Why would they choose an eight-day party in Croatia when they can stay in cute white circular mini-houses, with an infinity pool in front? Even better, you could go for a trulli hotel, complete with that Puglian speciality, the beach pool.
And into these beach pools wade the Italians, with their indifferent attitude to bathing in public. They aren’t for exercise. They’re for lounging, lolling, chilling and chatting — and most probably smoking — while wearing jewellery, an impossibly deep tan, and coiffed hair. And that’s just the men. The women take it further, in neon-bright bikinis and a full face of make-up. To hell with beach-ready bodies, they’re here for the pool party.
While the Milanese would not be seen dead on any beach wearing anything but stark, convent black, the further south you go in Italy, the more colourful is the holiday attire. The highlight of 2015 was a model dressed as a mermaid in a scanty iridescent green top half, and a matching fish bottom with a full-length tail that she could swim in. Well, flap up and down, at least.
Why can’t we be more like that? Brits would say: ‘Ooh we found this marvelous cove, and not a soul in it!’ We congratulate ourselves on our isolationism. In southern Italy, a beach isn’t a beach without rows of parasols, a car park, sun loungers by the mile, a huge thriving café, loud pop music, and every few metres the obligatory pop-up clothes shop, with sarongs fluttering in the breeze. Yes it’s noisy and busy, but they seem to enjoy lying body to body, like sardines.
In the local restaurants, you have to look twice at the wine list. €2.30 for a half-carafe? What? That can’t be right. It’s not rubbish wine, either. It’s exactly what the Brits are attracted to: wine, olive oil, two-a-penny pizza, local fish and meat — and mashed broad beans. I still pine for the pecorino cheese flavoured with juniper, a hint of gin and tonic.
That’s one end of the scale. You could go upmarket and stay at a swish masseria — a converted farm complete with the obligatory spa. The first masseria I discovered had a pool the size of four football pitches and was surrounded by white leather day-beds that belonged in Miami. The waiters were dressed in scarlet Rajasthani outfits from head to foot. Bearing trays aloft, their costumes billowed.
I was the only person staying there. ‘Bella, we’ve just googled you,’ oozed the receptionist, ‘Come to the book launch tonight.’ So I did, and met the literati of Lecce, including a writer who decided to show me the coastlines of Puglia. You can drive bumpily across Puglia from the Adriatic to the Ionian coast in no time. The Adriatic is slightly more refined, the sea more cobalt; the Oxford bank if you like. On the Ionian side, the coastline has a paler, more translucent Cambridge hue. A heavenly beach there, I was promised.
‘Ohh,’ went my guide as we rounded a bend to a near-perfect bay. A breeze had blown it full of seaweed — up-to-your-knees-deep seaweed — that stretched out to sea for a quarter of a mile. A lot like Swanage, really.
So Puglia is cheaper than Chiantishire, and relatively unspoilt. No, there aren’t many beaches of a Côte d’Azur standard. But on the other hand, you can drive inland and inhale the sweetest herb-scented air I’ve ever experienced.