This is a guest post from Denise Ostuni who lives with her family in Puglia, Italy. I’ve never been to this part of Italy but it has been on “my list” for years. Denise rents a villa called Torre dello Scarparello to travelers visiting Puglia. We haven’t interviewed anyone who has stayed there, but it looks lovely. Many thanks to Denise for providing this wonderful introduction to Puglia!
We have been lucky to have Italy’s heel of the boot, Puglia, right in our backyard for the past year. Angelo decided to move back to Italy after living in the US for sixteen years. We met in New York City in 1999, got married in 2003 and had two children Isabella and Carlo now ages 3 ½ and 5. We moved to Milan in 2009 and now we reside in the seaside town of Monopoli in the region of Puglia.
Often times I’m asked the question “why did you leave one of the greatest cities in the world, New York, for Puglia?” My response is simple: “Why not?” Coming from a metropolis you appreciate enchanting locations such as Puglia even more. Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to experience a part of Italy so invigorating and still undiscovered?
Puglia is a region in southern Italy often overlooked by first-time travelers to Italy – especially ones with children. It is a place where ancient and deeply rooted traditions have been passed down for generations, dictating the rhythm of life. Time stands still for those who immerse themselves in its beauty.
Puglia’s eno-gastronomic offering is quite unique. The food and cooking is fresh and simple (cucina povera) and every bite has a story that takes you back to the origin of its ingredients. High quality olive oil and distinct wines are everyday staples.
A vast region, it has the longest coastline in Italy marked by pristine beaches. Exploring the seas and its grottos is just as important as discovering the generous land bearing citrus fruits, figs, almonds, pomegranate, cherry trees to name a few. It boasts beautiful architecture, design and local artisans influenced by the proximity to Turkey and Greece and the invasions that have marked it throughout the centuries. A canvas of secular olive trees and hills on one side and a long crystal clear coastline on the other all brought together by blue skies and bright stars. Its warm summers and mild winters make it an ideal destination all year round. There are numerous possibilities for customized itineraries.
If you only have a few days to discover Puglia with your children, here are some highlights not to miss:
Alberobello has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1996 and is a town where you’ll find the majority of the famous trulli construction clustered together from the 17th century. They are limestone dwellings constructed using prehistoric techniques (mortarless). Some of them still have mythological symbols painted on their roofs.
My kids have described them as upside down cone shaped houses. Speaking of cone shapes, there is a wonderful gelateria to be visited during your exploration of the city called Arte Fredda. Unique flavors and the freshest ingredients (try date-flavored gelato)! Children of all ages will have a wonderful time creating their own fairytales and stories about the trulli as they work their way around the town. Nearby there is a masseria offering cheese making lessons as well as tastings.
Cisternino is another medieval town typical of the area. You can visit the historical center, walk around the squares, take in the views of the Itria Valley and have a wonderful lunch. They are known for their fornello. It is a butcher shop with a restaurant next door. You can select your own meat, it is cooked to your liking and served to you at the restaurant. La ‘bombetta’ is a stuffed rolled meat that is typical of the area. Try Macelleria Demola Vincenzo and Arrosteria del Vicoletto. One of the many kid-friendly restaurants my children enjoyed.
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Ostuni is known as the “white city”, it is a lively hillside, fortified medieval town with breath-taking views of the Adriatic Sea. It is a great place during the day but even more extraordinary at night. Just wander around the town, stop at a café by the hill-top Romanesque Duomo and soak in the impeccable scenery.
We went to one of the best beaches around Ostuni: Cala dei Ginepri near the beautiful natural reserve of Torre Guaceto. In the peak of the summer season, it was surprisingly quiet, clear and clean. We went to the beach that had a snack bar on the premise. Lunch was mainly sandwiches, hotdogs and salads. Plan ahead and you can pack a really good picnic too. It’s best to buy a beach umbrella and bring it along. You will want to spend all day there. The area is near a Nature Reserve. They have a Visitor Centre where organized guided tours, nature walks, cycling, trekking and snorkeling trips can be scheduled.
On your way back north to Monopoli, you can stop at La Marea (+39 080 482 9415) for dinner. They recently moved locations from Piazza Roma to Via Accademia di Livorno in the fishing village of Savelletri di Fasano. It is a fantastic place to try the local seafood. Depending on the season, you can get fresh sea urchins, oysters, octopus, cod fish to name a few. It is an upscale-family run restaurant.
The beautiful and talented wife/chef comes from generations of chefs. Her charming husband was a great host and will make sure your children sample the local flavors. The appetizers and specials of the day were incredible. I closed my eyes at one point and could taste all the ingredients that make up each bite.
Monopoli and Polignano a Mare are both seaside towns near Bari. Monopoli has a historic center right by the town square. The kids will love to watch the fishermen repair their nets at the harbor, see the cannons along the walls of the ancient castle and play on the playground before splashing into nearby family friendly beaches – many within walking distance! Polignano a Mare’s historic center is perched on top of a cliff with breath-taking views. It has incredible sights and caves that can be reached by renting a boat (see HelloApulia below).
Aside from the spectacular towns Puglia has to offer, it also has other main attractions that kids will love. There is a zoo safari in Fasano with an incredible drive thru safari full of lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, giraffes etc. The amusement park with mostly pay-as-you-go rides is next door. The caves of Castellana are perfect for the little explorers. For more information you can check out Grotto di Castellana. In Castellana there is an outdoor activity park with rope climbing and different courses for all ages called Indiana Park. Near Ostuni there are masserias offering olive oil harvesting and tasting as well.
Monopoli and Savelletri di Fasano are good central bases to visit the sights. In Monopoli you can rent a whole house (weekly – monthly rentals) such as the Torre dello Scarparello. In the surrounding countryside the friendly and gracious owners live on the property in a separate villa. There is a beautiful garden that the kids can explore as well as olive tree groves and fruit trees spread throughout the property. In between day trips you can spend the afternoons relaxing at the beautiful pool in the nearby gardens. For more information contact tour operator HelloApulia located in Monopoli. They offer apartments, villas, masserias and trulli homes for rent as well as guided tours and excursions.
If you want to be pampered, Borgo Egnazia is the place to go: a luxury hotel, part of San Domenico Hotels and the Leading Hotels of the World. Hotel rooms and villas with pools are available – perfect for families. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to the owners and their two lovely daughters as they gave us a tour of the kids club and the teen club. It was an incredible sight to see.
Children of guests have a private club with impeccable services catering to children from 8 months to teens. At the moment, the clubs are free for those 3 years and above as a promotion. The space has an indoor and outdoor area. There is a well- designed playground near the kids club with a performance area, a zero entry pool perfect for the little ones, a hands-on children’s garden area and a restaurant. The staff is certified and well trained. Children can enjoy golf, tennis, swimming and cooking lessons. There is a wonderful babysitting service should the parents want a romantic night out.
The region is served by two major airports, Bari (BRI) and Brindisi (BDS) and by the Italian railway system connecting it to the rest of Italy and Europe. Once you get here, I would recommend renting a car if you have children. Car hire services with a driver are available and can get you to places at reasonable prices. Be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes for you and the kids for those cobblestoned streets; a beach towel, S.P.F. lotion and hats are a must if you come in the summer.
I have barely touched the region of Puglia on this article. There are places deeper south such as Lecce, and Otranto, Altamura in the west and as far north as the Gargano Peninsula that would take days to describe. It’s a part of Italy waiting to be explored not just by adults but by children as well.
Let time stand still and enjoy an unforgettable family vacation, one filled with good surprises, great sites, friendly people, good food and wine and incredible beaches. Once you’ve discovered Puglia, it’s difficult NOT to plan your return.
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