It's the middle of the week and our Inghams tour group has started to gel. I'm on my own this particular day and a number of the others kindly take me under their wing, so I don't actually feel alone at all. Some folks are now sitting together for dinner, we've all made contact with one other and there's plenty of chat and laughs inside our coach – helped along by our very jolly guide.
What's that? You can't see any caves in these pictures? The reason for this is that, as the inhabitants excavated the soft rock, they would use it to fashion house-like fronts. Inside, where thousands of people lived until the 1950s, the rooms were most definitely caves and quite small – think your front room plus a couple of alcoves – in which lived families of up to a dozen, plus the family donkey (transportation), pig (meat), goat (milk), chickens (eggs), dog and cat, with no running water or sanitation. Hence, for better or worse, a forced evacuation took place mid-20th century into social housing elsewhere in town. Nowadays, a number of the cave houses are available on long leases from the government and part of the deal is that leasees must – at considerable cost – do them up to strict building codes. So, you can stay in one overnight if you like and there is also one which we visited that shows how people lived in them (so, in case you weren't sure, that horse-cum-donkey is not real...).
After our very knowledgeable local guide let us loose for lunch, I found a fabulous terrace restaurant, Il Terrazzino, with a spectacular view. And the food was good too, though I stuck to a simple primo piatto rather than a full meal.
Our final guided day was to Ostuni, another beautiful, whitewashed, fortified, maze-like town. Why such a confusing street layout? To flummox invaders, of course!
From here we were taken to the idyllic, family-run, small production (only 200,000 bottles a year) Vetrère vineyard and winery. Two very beautiful sisters explained how it all worked – their mother and aunt, also sisters, run the place and both families live in the picturesque main house.
We were served a wonderful wine tasting in a shady glade accompanied by homemade focaccia, pasta and a range of delicious fruits, all grown on the premises, for dessert. I can now cross 'try a prickly pear' off my bucket list...
From here, all slightly jollier for the refreshment!, we were taken off to Il Frantolio, where they produce olive oil – and olive face creams, shampoo, conditioner and a few other olive oily things. The energetic and entertaining owner did a wonderful mime for us on how to taste olive oil and what to look for. It was so good, in fact, that we were all laughing at the jokes before our guide even translated.
Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel but, as a special treat, we were taken out into the olive groves so that we could photograph these extraordinary trees. Because by now I didn't just like olive trees – I love them. They're like people, each absolutely an individual and some in this region are up to 1,000 years old.
Friday is a 'free' day and, while most of the others in our group have decided to take it easy by the pool and beach, we're going to do a little exploring. To this end, we hire a car through the hotel, as it turns out a number of rentals are kept in the parking lot, which makes it all very easy. Our goal? To get over to the Ionian Sea side of Puglia.
It doesn't take too long, especially once we put the city-like Taranto (which we nicknamed Tarantula for absolutely no reason) behind us. We're glad we took the trouble. Soft white sand, Caribbean blue water and gorgeous summer-type weather, so that we stop and have a swim.
A further drive down this western coast and we come to a seafood restaurant on the water which – along with delicious, crispy, flavoursome squid – has the best paper napkins I've ever seen. A map! And the restaurant name. If you come down here, stop at Sant Isodoro and head for the corner table overlooking the sea.
By now we were on a mission to get to the very tip of Puglia, where the Ionian meets the Adriatic sea by the lighthouse at Leuca. Would there be a difference in the waters' colours? Would we see the join where they met? Do I let you in on the answers to these questions...?
I can tell you this: by the end of our guided week, I felt as if I really knew Puglia, had met its people, tasted its produce straight from the land and seen how varied and beautiful a place it is. I certainly wasn't ready to leave, so I guess that means I'll be back!