A journey discovering a fascinating and unspoilt collection of cultural and scenic gems. There are some impressive statistics on Apulia: it is one of the most fertile regions of Italy producing more olive oil than the rest of the country combined, most of its fish, 80% of Europe’s pasta and is Italy's top wine-producing region. We mention this because this very fertility and resultant wealth has attracted attention from a host of envious invaders from throughout history, with all leaving remarkably evident footprints and it is this which makes Apulia delightfully different. As you may know, in Italy, ‘dialect’ is almost entirely different languages that are still in everyday use and here in Apulia the language is full of Greek expressions. During our tour of Bari, the tall narrow streets, lined by a host of traders whose wares spill onto the ancient cobbles, carry a huge Moorish influence.
In Lecce an imperial column marks the end of the Appian Way, one of the greatest of Roman roads and at nearby Cannae the empire suffered its greatest ever defeat, courtesy of Hannibal and his Carthaginians. Every town seems to boast a Norman cathedral, and they are some of the most beautifully ornate you will ever see, decorated with intricate stonework, colourful medieval frescos and fine art. Huge Spanish-built castles dominate the rolling countryside whilst picturesque, now peaceful fishing ports once hummed with activity as devout Crusaders embarked for the Holy Land. Lecce, a gem of a baroque city, boasts 100 churches ranging from Romanesque and Gothic to Rococo. Its centre is a labyrinth of tiny alleys where Romans, rich medieval merchants and finely clad bishops once roamed.
Today despite its stunning classical architecture, staggeringly the city remains almost devoid of tourists. Around Alberobello is a huge number of Trulli - unique houses whose instantly recognisable shape has become Apulia’s unofficial symbol. Moving on, we visit Matera where an entire medieval town was hewn from solid rock and remains inhabited to this day. Wander round Bari’s old town and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Moorish times, so intense is the sense of history. As we explore Apulia, it is evident this is not the Italy of the north, the tiny villages studding the olive tree carpeted countryside are flat roofed and white, resembling Greece or Crete from where the first settlers of this biscuit coloured land once came. All this makes an eclectic mix, but Apulia is not just about the past; the Gargano peninsula provides one of Europe’s most unforgettable seascapes, standing comparison with the Amalfi coast and the sheer natural beauty of its forest equally so.
Here in the deep, south-east of Italy, nature and history are powerful influences, the locals still wink cheekily at authority and the relaxed and communal way of life is in harmony with the sunny dry climate. There remains a deep rooted and historic suspicion of rule from afar, engendering a relaxed atmosphere perfect for ‘getting away from it all’ so why not join us and explore this hidden gem, just in case the masses do discover it!
Arrive at the airport for your flight. On arrival, we transfer to the the four-star Grand Hotel Tiziano within walking distance of the Old Town, this contemporary hotel has an atrium restaurant and outdoor swimming pool (open June to September).
Lecce is known as the ‘Florence of the South’ for good reason – its architecture is outstanding and around every corner are buildings of beauty and interest waiting to be discovered. Our walking tour begins at the imposing Porta Napoli gate, where we meet our local guide, and from there we explore the vibrant Jewish quarter before taking in the Basilica di Santa Croce. A remarkable example of creativity, this Baroque church has an intricate facade, while inside we can only marvel at the gorgeous decoration and multi-coloured marble columns. There are so many beautiful details in the stonework you could lose hours gazing at them. The tour continues through the Old Town, rich with history, and we pause at a bank that has more to its history than money – it was once used to store olive oil. Another surprise awaits at the picturesque Piazza Sant’Oronzo, a bustling square set on the site of a partially exposed Roman amphitheatre. Built in the 2nd century, the amphitheatre seated over 25,000 people and it’s possible, looking down across the sweeping bleached stone seating, to envisage crowds gathering two millennia ago to enjoy all sorts of entertainment. We then amble down shop-lined streets to the elegant Piazza Duomo, where Lecce’s cathedral awaits. Built in 1144, its imposing exterior is only matched by its breathtaking interior featuring 12 side chapels containing paintings by a variety of artists.
This afternoon you are free to explore. Lecce hums with life with a distinctly southern Italian feel, so soak up the ambience of its streets, relaxed cafés and refined boutiques while taking in all its baroque magnificence. In the evening we dine in an excellent restaurant, once a Roman granary, where you can enjoy the local cuisine.
During our drive this morning, the view to the horizon is an ocean of olive trees, studded with the occasional whitewashed village, a landscape underlining Puglia’s connections with Greece and North Africa. Soon you’ll begin to notice whitewashed stone huts with conical roofs – these are trulli, Puglia’s signature dwellings. In this corner of Puglia, the countryside blooms with patches of oak forest bisected by dry stone walls – almost reminiscent of rural Tuscany.
We arrive in Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Remarkably, some parts of Alberobello are almost exclusively composed of trulli, creating an otherworldly feel – no wonder some compare it to a ‘hobbit’ town. For many, this is a highlight of the tour and we have time to explore, discovering how trulli were built, their intriguing origins and why many are adorned with Christian, pagan or celestial symbols.
We then continue to Matera, where we stay two nights with breakfast and dinner at the four-star MH Matera Hotel.
This morning we have a guided tour of Matera, which is notable as one of the first permanently inhabited places in Italy and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its heart are the original troglodyte cave dwellings dating back over 9,000 years; astonishingly, people still live in them today. Everything you would expect in a conventional town is here, with churches, shops and artisan workshops all hewn from the naked rock. Is there anywhere else you can walk along a street that is the roof of the house below?
We return to our hotel this afternoon to relax – the perfect opportunity to sun yourself by the pool. Or you may choose to stay in Matera and visit its many fascinating buildings – the 13th-century Romanesque cathedral is well worth your time. This evening, we complete a memorable day enjoying regional dishes at our dinner in a restaurant in Matera’s Old Town.
Nestling on the Adriatic, Bari was a thriving walled port even before the Romans arrived and was briefly the capital of Byzantine Italy. During Norman times it was thought to be as significant as Venice. This morning we have a guided tour of the Old Town where there is so much to discover, such as the imposing medieval fortress and the massive Romanesque cathedral with its 11th-century frescoes, while opera-lovers may know that Bari is home to the magnificent Teatro Petruzzelli. For many, though, the focal point is the Basilica di San Nicola, whose 900-year-old vaulted crypt is the final resting place of Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Russia – better known to us as Father Christmas.
As we explore Bari’s tightly knit streets, look down its side streets to take in other aspects of traditional life, from shops displaying freshly caught sea bass, cuttlefish or lobster to stalls creaking under the weight of locally grown olives, tomatoes and peppers, and families eating meals with their windows and doors open. Here and there, you may come across chattering matriarchs sitting outside their doorsteps making, hand-rolling and cutting different types of pasta, a practice unchanged through time.
Leaving Bari, we call at the picturesque fishing port of Trani, then the landscape changes as we climb the Gargano peninsular coastal road. The warm air is heavy with Mediterranean aromas of pine and wild flowers, and we soon arrive in the coastal town of Vieste. We stay for three nights with breakfast and dinner, at either four-star hotel – the Palace Hotel Vieste or the Hotel Degli Aranci, both situated a short stroll from the beach next to the Old Town.
Phoenician in origin, Vieste is one of Italy’s most attractive coastal towns, situated on a rocky promontory overlooking turquoise waters with beaches either side. An enchanting jumble of white, flat-roofed buildings perched on cliff edges and dominated by its simple 13th-century cathedral, it’s an ideal place for your free day to relax. You may choose to amble through ancient alleyways, walk barefoot along the beach past the giant chalk stack – a remarkable geological landmark – enjoy a lunch of local seafood or just find a quiet spot to wile away the hours with a book. In the evening, we dine in a restaurant set in a renovated natural cave directly under the cathedral in the heart of town; run by a local family, it serves the traditional dishes of this corner of Puglia.
This morning we arrive at Monte Sant’Angelo, a striking hilltop village with 360-degree vistas of the surrounding forests and the sea. It is one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites, where it is said that Saint Michael the Archangel appeared on several occasions in the days of early Christendom. The Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo, a complex of religious monuments and a striking octagonal tower, now stands on this hallowed site. On our tour, the air cools as we descend into one of the crypts cut into the limestone rock below the Sanctuary and discover marble carvings and multicoloured frescoes, some 1,200 years old. Here you are following in the footsteps of illustrious pilgrims, including popes and monarchs, not to mention throngs of crusaders, many of whom scratched messages of hope on the walls, still visible today, on their journeys to and from the Holy Land.
We continue inland into the mysterious Foresta Umbra, roughly translated as ‘Dark Forest’. This atmospheric area is a natural wonderland of ancient trees, considered one of Europe’s finest orchid habitats. Heading towards the coastal town of Peschici, we enjoy a light lunch of local specialities, and discover the art of hand making pasta in a short demonstration by an expert.
We arrive back in Vieste with time to relax before dinner at our hotel.
Transfer to the airport for your flight home.
The price of this holiday is per person, based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are subject to availability at the relevant supplement. The price includes seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast and dinner, all tours as mentioned, tour of Lecce by Andrew Graham-Dixon, return flights and transfers, airport departure taxes, all local accommodation taxes and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
Renowned art critic and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon took us on a cultural adventure on TV’s Italy Unpacked, introducing the world to the country’s less-explored gems and whetting our appetite for its artistic wonders. He has also presented numerous series on art for the BBC, such as the acclaimed A History of British Art and Art of Eternity.
Join Andrew when he makes an appearance during our guided tour of Lecce, and shares his thoughts and infectious enthusiasm for one of Italy’s finest towns. Known as the ‘Florence of the South’, Lecce boasts an astonishing array of outstanding art and architectural gems, including splendid Renaissance and Baroque buildings.
All transfer times listed here are approximate, and dependent on the number of hotel stops and traffic. If you have a question regarding transfer times please don't hesitate to contact us.
|Arrival airport or train station||First hotel location||Transfer time||Final hotel location||Departure airport or train station||Transfer time|
|Bari Airport||Lecce||2 hrs 30 mins||Vieste||Bari Airport||3 hrs|
|Brindisi Airport||45 mins||Brindisi Airport||4 hrs|
We want to ensure you make the correct choice before you book your holiday with us. If you have any concerns regarding the suitabilty of the holiday due to reduced mobility we would encourage you to call us to discuss these concerns. General information on mobility in connection with our tours can be found here.
Trudy & Alex Lafferty
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