Wonderfully empty and a different Italy, but with some of its most unique towns, stunning scenery and remarkable historic legacies.
Selected departures April to October 2017
You should arrive at the airport to take your flight to Bari. On arrival you will be met and transferred to the four-star Hilton Garden Inn in Lecce for two nights. This fine hotel is very modern in style, with the normal facilities you would expect of such a property, plus roof-top swimming pool and is just a short walk from the old town. Some dates will stay at the Grand Hotel Tiziano. Located just a short walk from the old town, modern and purpose built with an atrium restaurant and outdoor swimming pool (open June to Sept) with seasonal bar service, surrounded by a tasteful patio and sun loungers, the ideal spot to relax after sightseeing. The rooms are superior category and your comfort is assured.
Lecce dates from ancient Greek times, flourished under the Romans and boasts an amphitheatre which once held 20,000 people. The Normans built a castle here, but Lecce entered a Golden Age during the 16th century when it was embellished with a host of splendid Renaissance and Baroque churches, monuments and one of Europe’s highest bell towers completes a kaleidoscope of cultural wonders. Today Lecce is referred to as the ‘Florence of the South’ and with good reason as its architecture is outstanding and around every corner is a photo opportunity of real beauty. During our guided tour this morning you will see the pinnacle of this remarkable example of man’s creativity at the Santa Croce basilica. Its stunningly crafted detailed interior decoration and multi-coloured, marble columns are outstanding, as is its facade of highly intricate, carved stonework. This afternoon, you are free to explore as you wish. You will love just wandering where your feet take you. Along this theme, this evening we dine in an excellent restaurant, once an ancient Roman granary, serving superb local food in the true tradition of regional Italian cuisine.
During our drive this morning, the view to the horizon is a carpet of olive trees studded with the occasional white-washed village underlining Apulia’s historic connections with Greece and North Africa. Arriving in Matera where we have a guided tour of this remarkable ancient town thought to be one of the first inhabited places in Italy. Originating as a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, astonishingly, even today people live in the same cave houses that their ancestors probably occupied thousands of years ago. An entire town is here, with churches, shops, workshops, all hewn from rock. Is there anywhere else where you can walk along a street which is the roof of the house below?
We stay two nights with breakfast and dinner at the nearby four-star Hilton Garden Inn Matera. This contemporary hotel is set in landscaped gardens with a lovely pool benefiting from panoramic views over the rolling countryside. All in all a very tranquil and relaxing setting. Outdoor pools generally open for use June – Sept, weather permitting.
DAY 4 ALBEROBELLO This morning we visit the unique village of Alberobello, famous for its Trulli buildings. As we travel, the countryside becomes more undulating and open with patches of oak forest, bisected by dry-stone walls, incredibly scenic it is rather reminiscent of Tuscany. You’ll begin to notice the distinctive whitewashed stone huts with conical roofs dotted across this bucolic landscape; these are Trulli, traditional local houses unique to Apulia. Extraordinarily Alberobello, is completely comprised of Trulli and we explore this fascinating townscape, learning all about their construction and intriguing history. Many are adorned with large symbols, some religious, some pagan and some celestial: you really are stepping back in time. We return to our hotel this afternoon to relax or you may wish to re-visit the ancient town of Matera. This evening we will dine in a local restaurant in the historic old town of Matera where we will sample the local cuisine.
This morning we have a guided tour of Bari’s old town, nestling beautifully on the Adriatic, a thriving walled port even before the Romans, capital of Byzantine Italy and as important as Venice during Norman times. There is much to see: an imposing medieval fortress dominates the old town and the massive Romanesque cathedral has some stunning 11th century frescos. Bari’s highlight is the Basilica di San Nicola, whose beautiful 900 year old vaulted crypt is the final resting place of Saint Nicholas – Patron Saint of Russia but better known to us as Father Christmas!
Leaving Bari we call at delightful Trani, an important port during medieval times with extensive trading networks and some lovely Romanesque architecture but most of all is today a picturesque fishing port.
The countryside changes as we climb the deserted yet spectacular Gargano peninsular coastal road. The warm air is heavy with that unmistakable Mediterranean aroma of pine and wild flowers and we soon arrive in charming Vieste staying three nights with breakfast and dinner, at either the Palace Hotel Vieste or Hotel Degli Aranci, both ideally situated about 250 metres from the beach next to the atmospheric old town.
The Palace Hotel is the tasteful conversion of a 15th century noble’s house into a lovely classic hotel. All rooms are individually decorated, spacious and of course air-conditioned. There is a bar and restaurant, plus free use of the private beach with two sun beds and an umbrella (June to Sept) per room.
The Hotel Degli Aranci is again four-star rated and has been the lifelong project of its professional owners and whilst a modern hotel, it generates a very homely feel due to the genuine warmth of its staff. The rooms are very nicely appointed, well maintained and air conditioned. Again there is free use of the hotel’s private beach plus two sun beds and an umbrella (June to Sept) per room.
Vieste, almost an apparition, is a beautiful village of white flat-roofed low buildings, dominated by its simple 13th century cathedral. Originally Phoenician, but as you amble through its haphazard, maze of alleyways, surrounded by hallmarks of Apulia’s historical pedigree, you are hard pushed to decide where in the world you are; it really is a uniquely fascinating place.
Today is a free day to just relax, bury your head in a good book, perhaps enjoy a leisurely lunch of succulent local seafood or just wander through one of Italy’s most attractive coastal towns.
This morning we arrive at Monte Sant Angelo, a gorgeous hill-top village with superb 360 degree vistas of the surrounding forest. Here, the Archangel Michael appeared and in the 8th century an outstanding abbey was built. What appears to be medieval on the surface, as we descend, you notice the air cools and in the magnificent crypt below is an astonishing display of marble carvings and multi-coloured frescoes from the past 1,200 years. This was one of the most important of medieval pilgrimages visited by Popes, Monarchs and especially the Crusaders many of whom scratched messages of hope on the walls which can still be seen.
Our journey continues driving inland into the mysterious Foresta Umbra, a “Dark Forest” and natural wonderland of ancient trees and one of Europe’s finest orchid habitats. The road soars, twists and turns, as slivers of bright sunshine pierce the dense canopy, casting intriguing shadows on the forest floor below. We return to Vieste along the Gargano Peninsula, much of which is a National Park, with breathtaking coastal views and a green carpet of aromatic pine and oak forest shielding a kaleidoscope of colourful wild flowers. Arriving back in Vieste with time to relax before dinner.
This evening we dine in a local restaurant, set in a renovated natural cave located directly under the Duomo in the heart of Vieste, run by a local family serving traditional dishes of this region of Apulia.
At the appropriate time you will be transferred to Bari airport for your flight home – don’t tell too many friends or the magic will be gone!
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 more wine than the whole of Germany. 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!
The price of this holiday is per person, based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are subject to availability at a supplement of £165 per person. The price includes seven nights with breakfast and dinner, all tours as mentioned, return flights, airport departure taxes, guided tours of Lecce, Bari and Matera and the services of a Riviera tour manager throughout. Where hotels feature a swimming pool, this will be open during the summer months - weather permitting.