As CEO of a major tour operator, I took few summer holidays over the last 20 years. My responsibilities were across the business, so from May through October I worked closely with our teams as we knuckled down on the tough but intoxicating mix of developing and finalising the following year’s programs: the routes, guest experiences, final accommodation choices, brochure designs, itinerary content and proofing, pricing, conferences, launches, and world-wide sales trips.
The thought of entertaining anything more than a long weekend over that period was pretty much ‘un absolu non-non’, as an expatrié (like me) with so-so French might say in my home town of Geneva.
Feel bad for my family, not for me. I loved the job. My work creating premium and luxury escorted journeys for our guests was an absolute privilege and always brought me great satisfaction, so the idea of packing the car, bundling the kids in the back and heading south for two weeks in mid-July never crossed my mind. Until this year, when my change in career allowed it.
We decided to go to Puglia. I know the Italian region pretty well as my two older girls are half Italian with family in Castellaneta, near Taranto. So we rented a villa at the Lido Silvana near Pulsano on the Gulf of Taranto, and invited them them to join us too.
I love Puglia. It is not yet spoiled or over-run with tourists, apart from a couple of hot-spots, so it’s a pretty cool place for more ‘adventurous’ holiday-makers. As you might expect, the hotel infrastructure is slightly limited compared to areas further north or on the west coast, due to supply and demand, but recent interest in Puglia has opened the door to a plethora of alternative accommodations including villas, unique conical trulli homes and masserie. A masseria is usually a working farm with lodgings that produces fragrant olive oils, rich wines, or other local produce. They’re mainly in countryside settings, often very scenic and many have a restaurant serving typical dishes of the region. A few have cooking classes for guests. More about masserie and trulli later.
It has to be said that agriturismo and farm-to-table (along with sea-to-table) are big in Puglia. And I love that fact. Yum.
The province is also rich in culture with a heritage going all the way back to the Greeks and the colonies of their Magna Grecia (Great Greece). The main Greek city was Taranto, settled by Spartan exiles, but their impact is still felt across the province today through language and culture. One can also see and feel the influence of numerous invaders and rulers over the subsequent two and a half centuries, each adding their special twist to the panoply of Puglian life. Every town and village is proudly different and there are multiple local dialects, but you can always fall back on your trusty Italian dictionary if your Google translator can’t help you with Baresi, Salentino or Faetar. Despite all this multiculturalism, stunning coastlines, amazing beaches and dramatic scenery, to some degree much of Puglia remains a well kept secret. Fortunately.
My wife flew to Brindisi with our three-month old baby but the rest of us drove down using a route loosely linked to Hannibal (crossing the Alps) and Appius Claudius Caecus (along the Appian Way).
Remember Eric Idle’s Stan and the cast of revolutionary characters in The Life of Brian? When asked by their leader: ‘What did the Roman’s ever do for us?’, they grudgingly replied: ‘Well there were the aqueducts, sanitation, irrigation, medicine, education, baths, public safety and health… oh and the roads…’
…indeed, we mustn’t forget to thank the Romans for the roads. You can travel the length and breadth of Italy on roads originally devised and built by the Romans. We have to acknowledge Mussolini too, because he gave the world its first motorway: the Milano to Varese autostrada, completed in 1926.
Back to our car. Now, Range Rovers are great for big highways, they go like a train and are like a fortress on wheels. Unfortunately, while they may be big and can eat up the roads, they frankly they don’t have much useful space. Our’s only has seats for five and a small luggage capacity. Not so good for my large family! Anyhow, with suitcases and sundry packed tightly into every corner of the vehicle, off we went.
Unusually for me, we didn’t book hotels ahead because we weren’t sure where we’d be when tiredness set in. To sort this important detail, my eldest pulled out her smartphone each afternoon and booked best available. The first night we found a handy three-star hotel (the Excel Milano 3) set on a pretty man-made lake (watch out for mozzies at dusk) in the satellite town of Basiglio just south of Milan, at just the point we needed a stop.
Next day, further south, after a stop at the beach for a swim and lunch, we got a twin and a triple with breakfast at a great four-star property, the Hotel Gran Paradiso in San Giovanni Rotondo, on the dramatic Gargano peninsular, for €109. Sorted.
As it turns out, San Giovanni Rotondo is the town of S. Padre Pio. Francesco Forgione was a poor peasant boy with an early calling, who took the name Padre Pio when he trained as a monk in Assisi. After a lifetime of piety and service to the church, he was recognised a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Padre Pio was, and remains, hugely popular in Italy and across the world. He spent 51 years at the Franciscan monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo and the town today virtually lives on the pilgrimage aspect of his legacy.
Our hotel gift shop told the tale. Every item was a Padre Pio souvenir of some sort or another. From real and imitation gold medalions, to statues and leather covered prayer books. Oh, there was an exception. Quite bizarrely, we saw one Barbie doll set complete with hairbrush and make-up mirror. One presumes this item was definitely not associated with Padre Pio but instead had been placed there in a moment of entrepreneurial madness by the gift shop owner. Even my six year-old daughter was somewhat taken aback by this anomaly, so instead chose a Padre Pio rosary set as her gift.
But hey, we are now in Puglia proper with 10 days of exploring, eating and swimming to come…
Next stop. Alberobello – read more in Road to Apulia 2, coming soon.
Tip: If you are driving to southern Italy from London, know that Milan is only halfway between the UK and Lecce, a journey of some 2,300km. A trip of that length is best done with at least two or three nights on route if you want to make it less arduous. We were only travelling from Switzerland and didn’t want early starts so we allowed two nights to break it into kid friendly and more comfortable chunks.
Postscript: It turns out that Range Rovers are one of the most stolen vehicles on the roads in Europe… as we found out to our great inconvenience on the last day of our vacation. There’ll be more about that in the final installation of this ‘Puglia’ blog series!