November 16th 2015

The Wayfarers’ Stephanie Crabb shares her diary of our Italian Walk in Puglia:steph in puglia 2 After a night in the eastern coastal town of Bari it was with much excitement that I met The Wayfarers’ experienced Italian guides Paolo Santioli and Alessandro Tombelli and my fellow walkers at the designated rendezvous point. En-route to our hotel we passed acres of olive groves and made a welcome detour to the lovely hill top town of Ostuni, famous for its white buildings and wonderful viewpoints. After a pleasant stroll and compulsory gelato we were back on the road. Alessandro was waiting to welcome us in Lecce, bags all safely deposited in our wonderful rooms at the beautiful Patria Palace. After a bubble bath and time spent on my balcony overlooking the Basilica Di S Croce, I felt truly relaxed and ready for our welcome dinner and introductory talk for the week ahead.

Day 1 After a delicious breakfast - Italian food is so good! - we made a transfer to Otranto for our first day of walking. Our hike started near the furthest point of the ‘‘heel of the boot’’ on a beautiful coastal path that took in a green lake and an ancient watchtower before reaching the settlement town of Otranto.

Wcactuse met up with Ale, visited an ancient church and had time to ourselves for sight-seeing and shopping before a wonderful seafood lunch at Restaurant Miramare, located right next to the turquoise waters and harbour area of Otranto.

In the afternoon we visited a botanical garden famous for its collection of plants that thrive in Puglia’s unique climate. Alessandro’s knowledge and expertise shone through during our visit: he is also an experienced agriculturalist/horticulturalist and historical garden expert.

We headed back to Lecce for a   guided tour of the historic centre, learning about its baroque architecture and exquisite churches.

Day 2 and we were all revived and excited. We checked out of the Patria Palace Hotel and made the short transfer to Locorotondo, where we started the day’s countryside walk close to Ceglie Messapica, along the water conduit route of the Sele river, a huge project dating back to 1906, which brought fresh water to Puglia. This is where we got our first up-close experience of trulli houses: enchanting circular stone cottages with cone roofs. The trail was tranquil, unspoilt and abundant with olives, grapes, fresh walnuts, almonds, figs and prickly pears. The trulli are wonderful, some untouched and abandoned long ago; some refurbished second homes and in thriving small communities with a rural, yet enviable way of life. We passed small farms along the way, and watched grapes being picked. Paolo explained the process of the imminent olive harvest - Puglia is the largest supplier of olive oil in Italy. olivesWe stopped for lunch at a cafe, which although at first sight looked like a modern store had a lovely veranda terrace and bakery, serving the most delicious bread, antipasti, salad and lasagne. In the afternoon we walk on to our trulli hotel ll Palmento. OMG! It did not disappoint. We received a warm welcome and our keys from the staff who are clearly very proud of this beautiful establishment. We had time to explore the grounds and facilities before heading off to our gorgeous, circular rooms, where Ale had our bags safely waiting. We enjoyed another wonderful dinner together before adjourning for the night. After breakfast on Day 3  we set off directly from the hotel grounds. We walked through the village lanes enjoying another day of warm sunshine and the slow pace of country life in this region. Along the way (not a planned part of the walk) we stopped at a lovely trulli home, where the owner, an elderly man, was fermenting grapes using a very old and traditional method that Paolo said he had not seen in a very long time. The man explained his wine production process, handing out samples to try and showing us his well-kept smallholding. Along the trail we found a mid-morning welcome from Ale, who had refreshments, fresh fruit and treats awaiting, before we all headed out for the jewel of a trulli town, Alberobello. cookingWe were guided to a charming trullo in the heart of the town, for a pasta and mozzarella-making demonstration. We all had fun trying our hand at the art of making pasta shells followed by a delicious home-made lunch of pasta with meat and cheese balls, fresh mozzarella with roasted peppers, Puglian wine then homemade baci (ladies’ kisses) and almond cookies with coffee (bliss!). After lunch we enjoyed a very interesting history lesson and guided tour of this unique town with local celeb ‘Mimmo’. We had time for shopping and meandering before our return to II Palmento and a swim before dinner. Day 4 – In heaven and the waistline now completely blown, we sadly checked out and made our transfer to Sassi di Matera. At the visitor centre we met local guide and geologist Mario for a guided tour of this unique landscape. I have never experienced anything like this extraordinary place: it is truly biblical and immediately obvious why it was used as a film location for recent remake of Ben Hur and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. sassi Thanks to Mario we entered tiny cave churches and homes not normally shown to the public, some dating back more than 1,000 years, the faded frescos in the tiny churches still beautiful to this day. The evolution of the town is right before you, starting with the prehistoric caves on the outer-rim, followed by extremely primitive, yet effective cave homes used right up until the 1950’s, followed by the central historic town, which is split into three sections. We learned about Matera’s geology, water system, history, people and way of life before arriving at our final hotel destination, Hotel Santangelosassi, a beautiful boutique hotel made from a network of caves overlooking the landscape vista and the town church. It was a delightful stay, experience and again, excellent cuisine. After dark the old town looked like a nativity scene, I loved it. Day 5 already and for our last day of walking together we met up with Mario and explored the oldest, eastern part of Matera which led us into the countryside, with further cave dwellings, gorges and prehistoric sites en-route.

We had our first dose of rain today, but nothing dampened our enthusiasm. We even had time for a comical selfie while huddled in a small cave.cave

Later in the morning after Ale’s welcome refreshment break, we joined Matera’s pilgrim route, stopping at the hidden cave monastery, where we were lucky enough to gain access, a first even for Paolo. Normally locked and sacred, it too had recently been used for film-making. What a privilege, what lucky Wayfarers! We took a quick transfer to Montescaglioso for lunch in a small bistro, normally only open in the evenings. I can honestly say it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. A succession of seafood dishes, cooked freshly at the pass made their way to our table: Fresh calamari with cream and lemon, tuna and sesame seeds, fresh prawn salad, tempura cod with crispy peppers followed by semi- freddo with freshly made chocolate cookies and coffee. Before heading back to Matera we enjoyed a tour of Montescaglioso Monastery, before time out and our farewell dinner at Santangelosassi. A brilliant last day and a very happy group of now very good friends. Walking with the Wayfarers is such a privilege, from start to finish you know you’re in for a very special trip, going to the very best locations and staying in wonderful accommodations. The guides are always local, knowledgeable, well educated, caring, thoughtful and good humoured. Nothing is too much trouble and there are always unexpected extras and unique experiences along the way. History, culture, nature and cuisine are also a huge part of each trip. Find all the details of our Walk in Puglia here - I hope you will join us very soon!

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