Arrive at the airport for your flight. On arrival, we transfer to the four-star Hilton Garden Inn in Lecce for two nights. This fine modern hotel is a short walk from the Old Town and features a restaurant, bar, outside terrace and spa. Its elegant rooftop swimming pool (open in the summer) has panoramic views over Lecce. Some of our tours stay at the four-star Grand Hotel Tiziano. Also 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 while 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.