Puglia - The good life
With the azure blue Adriatic as a backdrop, mile upon mile of olive groves and a scenic countryside dotted with trulli houses, Puglia has all the charm of Italy paired with one of the country’s finest golf courses...
In addition to golf, Formula 1 racing is one of my great interests. The speed that the racing drivers manoeuvre around race tracks is breathtaking. I mention Formula 1 because the sport involuntarily enters my mind during a speedy transfer from Bari airport to the small Apulia hotel where my husband and I are staying for a few days on a leisure and golf break. Never have I held my breath or kept my eyes squeezed shut as long as during that everlasting 40 minutes’ drive. Within minutes of landing in Bari and having jumped into the hotel transfer mini-bus, I am convinced the driver can be no other than Lewis Hamilton in disguise. Yes, I do enjoy watching high-speed racing – but not actually participating in it. And no, I will never, ever get used to the way Italians drive, no matter how many tens of visits I make to this captivating country. However, looking on the bright side, a speedy transfer does give me extra quality time at the destination.
Wine and olives. My terminus is Apulia, or Puglia, a highly fertile and almost flat region which is located on the ‘heel’ of Italy in the Southern Adriatic, which boasts around 495 miles of coastline, two seas and consequently a great variety of fish dishes. Northern Apulia is known for its splendid architecture (churches and castles) while the central region is famous for its traditional dry-stone houses with conical roofs called trulli (singular = trullo), originally built as storehouses or homes for farm workers. Being very much an agricultural region, it is also renowned for its wine and olives. The Apulian province of Foggia has been cultivating the bella della Daunia olive variety since around 1400. There are 65 million olive trees in Apulia and 65% of the oil production in Italy comes from here. The coastline around Bari is mostly rocky, but near Brindisi are miles of sandy beaches such as Marina di Ostuni.
In the middle of nowhere. From Bari airport to the hotel, the road is a straight dual carriageway until maybe two miles from our 18th century Italian guesthouse, Masseria Cimino, and then we wind through a series of narrow lanes. Eyes now open, no longer clutching the seat, I wonder where on earth we are heading (it seems miles from anywhere, no street lights, no sign of other cars, silent) and whether I’ve made a big mistake in choice of accommodation. We stop at a gate, the night pitch black. The gate is opened remotely and we are dropped at the end of the drive, still dark, lots of trees, and there’s a pleasant fragrance lingering in the night air which I later learn is from a fennel field nearby. Someone in an electric golf cart welcomes us and collects our luggage, and we gingerly follow him around the corner.
A stunning place. We find ourselves in a small courtyard subtly, simply yet stylishly lit. There are lights in two wall alcoves adorned with hanging dried flowers and an ancient, huge, illuminated olive tree. Interior lights glow through small windows and there’s a covered terrace at the back of the building with candles flickering on small wooden tables. The door to the reception is open welcomingly, and inside – WOW – the chic high-ceilinged interior and soft furnishings are all white, and candles are burning just everywhere. I instantly love the place. WOW again. The ambiance is amazingly relaxing, and the walls are cleverly adorned with a variety of old farming tools and several bunches of prickly-pear cladophylls that look artistically stunning on the white walls.
Intimate dining. Salvatore, the maître d’hôtel, is waiting for us. Dinner is routinely set at 8.30pm for guests, but he’s stayed late to fit in with our arrival. We check in to our room – suite more like – and then we eat in the intimate candlelit dining room where huge bunches of realistic tomatoes hang from the ceiling and doors open out onto a terrace. Every evening, Salvatore informs us, there are two starters (antipasti and fish, for example), one main, and one dessert. We start with antipasti: aubergine and red peppers, green beans in garlic butter, Mozzarella and tomato, grilled aubergine with mint garnish, sautéed courgettes with Parmesan, roast peppers with capers, and stuffed squid. Main course is moist roast chicken and potatoes, followed by apple tart and ice cream plus a selection of fresh fruit: apricots, cherries, apples and pears. Because of its basic ingredients, Apulian cuisine is generally considered rather simple, but if all the meals are as delicious and healthy as the first, we’ll be very satisfied.
Gorgeous accommodation. We drop into bed immediately after dinner as our tee time at San Domenico Golf is at 9am. This isn’t a problem as it’s just a half mile walk down a country lane; in fact, the golf course backs onto Masseria Cimino and the bedroom in our ‘suite’ overlooks it. Two bathrooms; a small lounge; stone floors; comfortable, stylish furniture; dimmable lighting; lots of cubbyholes and shuttered windows make up our accommodation. It’s no less than gorgeous, and there’s even a tiny outdoor courtyard with table and chairs off the bedroom. Each of the 15 rooms at Masseria Cimino has a Mediterranean-style character of its own, we later discover, and the serene gardens feature a small swimming pool and a shaded chill-out lounge area.
Magnificent clubhouse. After a buffet breakfast where we meet our co-guests – German, French, English, and Italian couples – we stroll down to San Domenico Golf. It’s a pleasant walk down a quiet lane flanked on both sides by dry-stone walls, agricultural fields on one side, lots of olive trees and the golf course on the other. As we are combining golf with leisure we have decided to hire clubs rather than have the hassle and expense of flying them out with us, so they are waiting at the clubhouse. Style is never lacking in Italian culture, no matter what. San Domenico Golf clubhouse follows the pattern and is magnificent – marble floors, high ceilings, swish changing rooms – all very grand. There’s a large casual dining terrace, an even larger formal dining hall, excellent changing rooms and hire clubs of reasonable quality.
Water hazards. San Domenico Golf is a par 72 course (5,993 metres from the yellow tees, 5,158 from the red) and water comes into play on only two holes – the 1st and 5th. It is cruel to be faced with a long carry over a lake for your very first shot. In fact, there are two menacing lakes to contend with, as the lake which borders the 5th fairway also comes into play. One lake cuts into the first narrow fairway quite a bit, a threat we couldn’t see from the tee. Wicked. So a wise decision would be to hit a few balls in the driving range to warm up before playing and, even wiser, buy a course planner and read it before starting.
Tough rough. After the first hole, as long as our aim was straight, we didn’t run into many problems. The rough, however, is not forgiving; just don’t go there – it’s quite tall in places. The course is flat with gently rolling fairways and there are constant views of the sea in the background, so walking the round is really pleasurable – no need for a golf cart. The wind, we soon discover, varies considerably and we have to count every par-4 into the wind as at least a par-5. Memorable holes are the first two; the 5th (where the lake sneaks well into the fairway just in front of the green); the 6th par-5, which plays like a par-7 when into the wind; and the 14th, our favourite hole with its fairway split by a gigantic bunker and tricky, narrow approach to the green. Yes, we could very happily play two or three rounds on this course over our short break, especially as it is so near Masseria Cimino. And – a big bonus – there is no queue of golfers waiting to play, so golf here is as relaxing as golf can get. No pressure from behind and no slow play to contend with.
Splendid cuisine. Slow food, rather than slow play, is obviously savoured by many at San Domenico Golf as lunch on the clubhouse terrace overlooking the 18th green was typically Italian – very leisurely and delizioso. For me, a glass or two of sparkling ice-cold Prosecco, a generous helping of Parma ham and juicy sweet melon, followed by the freshest of fish and salad. The regional cuisine is splendid. After lunch we decide to explore the area. Once away from the olive tree strewn plains by the coast, the countryside is very scenic. We pass vineyards and orchards and trulli can be seen dotted around in every direction. The small town of Alberobello is considered the trulli ‘capital’ and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Itria Valley. In the old part of this hilly town the narrow streets are lined with trullo after trullo, intriguing and attractive, their grey, conical roofs providing a most unusual skyline. Many of the trulli roofs are topped with different shapes such as a ball or hemisphere and feature white painted roof ‘logos’ depicting a number of primitive, magic, and zodiac symbols.
Tourist attraction. The historical town centre of Ostuni is next. On approach from the coast, the old hilltop town makes an impressive picture from a distance and its labyrinth of narrow, ancient alleyways are intriguing to explore. It’s a popular tourist attraction and is busy during summer months, so for anyone who wants to miss the crowds, visit in the spring and autumn. During the summer months when it’s popular with Italians, stylish bars and a variety of restaurants are buzzing with activity. Restaurants are hidden in the tiniest of corners and bars in the deepest of alleys. You can enjoy aperitifs and far-reaching views over olive groves to the sea sitting on one of the oversized lime green bean bags on the steps outside the trendy Mela Bacata Lounge Bar or, literally a few steps away, savour a pizza at cool, contemporary Il Bellavista, with its snug, cave-like interior and intimate dining areas, glass floors and see-through tables and chairs.
Boutique hotel. The following day we call in at Masseria San Domenico, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and sister hotel to Masseria Cimino. What a contrast – the 47-room boutique hotel sits in large gardens in the middle of a vast olive grove. Facilities include a seaside leisure area a short distance away, an outdoor swimming pool, a state-of-the-art Thalassotherapy Spa, two tennis courts and a modern gym. The general ambiance and traditional Italian interior furnishings are much more formal than our intimate guest house, but all very classy.
Lunch on the terrace. Lunch we enjoy on the sunny terrace; there are several typical Apulian seafood dishes on the menu. First course is a choice of smoked swordfish on fennel carpaccio with orange petals, Martina Franca dried cured pork, or melon with Port wine. Next there is a seafood risotto, spaghetti with mussels, soup or a pasta dish, followed by sea bream with olives, boiled cod, thin sliced beef in red wine sauce or grilled Apulian sausages – savoured with superb white wine from the region. The pièce de resistance is the lemon dessert accompanied by a small glass of limoncello – very moreish.
Olive oil aromatherapy. Having sampled the Apulian wine, how can I possibly resist sampling the olives? So I head off to check out the Spa at Masseria San Domenico. I quite fancy wrapping myself in local produce, so I decide on the olive oil aromatherapy with olive oil scrub and full body massage. It promises to leave my skin more silky and smooth to the touch and is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Spa. On that blissfully relaxing note, I must end. There can be no better ending to my stay in Apulia than a relaxing hour or two of pampering. I look on it as preparation work for our imminent Formula 1 race-like return to the airport. However, for me it’s not the treatment that is the jewel in the crown, it is Masseria Cimino – chic and beguiling – a tranquil oasis in the Apulian countryside.
Masseria Cimino: www.masseriacimino.com
Masseria San Domenico: www.masseriasandomenico.com
San Domenico Hotels: www.sandomenicohotels.com
Italian Tourist Board: www.italia.it
FLIGHTS & CAR HIRE
Airline carriers to both Brindisi and Bari (equidistant): British Airways (Bari summer only), easyJet, Ryanair, Alitalia
Hire a car to make the most of Puglia: collect from the airport but check prices and book prior to arrival in Bari/Brindisi (e.g. Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget etc)
Good idea to take or hire a Sat Nav if not fitted in the hire car.