In Southeastern Italy, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas converge, lies the historical region of Puglia. With Greek, Roman and Turkish influences, the Pugliese peninsula is one of the richest and most diverse regions in Italy. Recently VBT’s own Marketing Assistant, Leila, had the opportunity to take her first VBT vacation. She called upon a fun, trustworthy travel companion, her mom, and set off for Puglia: Italy’s Undiscovered Coast. She has been kind enough to share her discoveries with us.
Though Leila and her mom had both spent a few years living in Italy before returning to the U.S., neither has spent much time in Italy’s south, and they’ve never visited Puglia. Excited to explore a new part of a familiar country, and maybe a bit anxious about her underutilized Italian, Leila wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What she found was a warm, welcoming region with beautiful scenery and tremendous food.
Number one on Leila list of highlights is, of course, the biking! She recalls numerous local encounters as she, her mom and her group pedaled their way through country lanes and along the gentle Adriatic coast. Riding through centuries old groves, Leila remembers being totally surrounded by trees budding with lemons, oranges, almonds and plenty of olives. To her left, to her right, above her on the branches that hung overhead and even below, speckled along the path, a scene abounding in olives was certainly an appropriate introduction to a region that takes olive oil quite seriously.
For example, on day 5 of her biking vacation, Leila and her group, visited Il Frantoio, a family-run masseria and olive mill. After meeting the proprietors, Armando and his wife Rosalba, the group was treated to a tour of the mill and then a decadent lunch. Each dish that was served was paired with a distinct type of olive oil, selected specifically to complement the subtle notes of the course. By the time the meal was over, four different varieties of olive oil were sampled. And though the group was served their lunch, Leila remembers the meal as being far from the typical restaurant experience, and much more like sharing a meal with a family in their home. However, lunch at Il Frantoio would certainly not be the only time that Leila would join locals in their residences.
Leila’s group met a Pugliese guide, Memo, on her sixth day of vacation. He showed the group around the historical village of Alberobello, which is primarily known for its unique architecture, cylindrical homes known as trulli. Having been raised in in the village, Memo is a familiar face around town. He invited the VBT group into a local family’s home to see the inside of one of the ancient structures. He was also well-versed in the town’s past, its Turkish roots and, over an almond liqueur, he imparted the importance that almonds have held throughout the region’s history.
Given that in Latin the name Apulia literally means “lacking rain”, Puglia is appropriately a relatively dry region. Over the years, this water scarcity meant that residents became heavily dependent upon almonds, which thrive even in very dry regions.
Leila looks back on a day she spent with her mom riding back to Savelletri from Monopoli. After a large lunch in town, Leila and her mother were the last to climb back on their bikes for their return to the masseria. Fortunately, this meant that the two got a chance to ride with one of their Trip Leaders, Debora. Along the way, Debora pointed out an almond tree and the three picked ripe almonds directly from the branches. An avid almond eater (she almost always has a jar at her desk), Leila has never truly gotten to taste all of the flavors that fresh almonds have. “I really got a sense of all the aromas; it was almost like marzipan.”
Of course, no discussion of Puglia is complete without a mention of the cuisine. Though there were many memorable meals, and an experience Cooking with Nonna, Leila’s favorite dinner was at Taverna della Gelosia, a rustic, family-owned tavern in the old town of Ostuni. With seven appetizers, two main courses and a decadent dessert, the dinner certainly satisfied her appetite for a traditional Pugliese meal. Even after having lived in Italy, and despite the fact that all of the dishes served had been passed down through generations, almost all of the food was new to Leila and her mom – the mark of true, local cuisine.
Dinner began with fried zucchini flowers, fish in blackened tempura, pumpkin tart with gorgonzola cream and a cauliflower tart with curry besciamella, to name a few starters. The main courses were a pasta dish in a black olive sauce with tuna and anchovies as well as veal made with Mediterranean greens and a wine-saffron puree. Topped off with a panna cotta and fresh fruit, and Leila’s traditional meal was complete.
Though she has been home in Vermont for a couple of weeks now, Leila’s biking vacation through Puglia: Italy’s Undiscovered Coast still seems to be at the forefront of her thoughts – proving that the meals that the she enjoyed, the memories that she made, and experiences that she shared with her mom and fellow travelers are guaranteed to stay with her for quite some time.
“My experiences in Puglia truly opened my eyes and made me realize that travel changes your perspective on the world. I saw how it allows you to develop human connections at another level. I really felt as though my trip allowed me to experience the essence of Puglia, through the guidance of our outstanding trip leaders, Giuliano and Debora, while at the same time developing close friendships with other travelers on the tour. It wasn’t only about the experience but it was also about sharing the experience with the people around you.”
Create your own bonds and lasting memories on our Puglia: Italy’s Undiscovered Coast vacation.