Our hotel is the very Italian-chic del Levante, all white marble, with blue and white decor. Also, everything is very clean and airy, with plenty of floor-to-ceiling glass that brings the outside in. It has a large pool for grown-ups, plus a small shallow one for children, though there were very few of these when we visited in October. But, even better than a pool – to my mind – is that it's right on the sandy beach (with lifeguard), which has umbrellas and lounge chairs. And have I mentioned the poolside bar/cafe? Handy for a snack, cup of tea, cocktail....
What's Puglia? It's the region, made up of six provences that make up the heel of Italy's boot, pointing out toward Albania and Corfu. If you're familiar with Tuscany, forget about it and think more southern Spain with a little Greece sprinkled in. And think olive trees. In fact, think 60 million of them, as that's how many there are here. There are also a bizillion* churches and cathedrals, several thousand trulli houses and a good number of beautiful old towns.
We arrived on Saturday, with our first day out on Sunday and the perhaps unsurprising truth is, being driven around on a coach, with a jolly, knowledgeable tour guide, is actually very relaxing and a great way to see everything.
Things you don't have to worry about: transportation, parking, not speaking the language, not knowing the best places to go and not really knowing what you're looking at.
Our first stop was Lecce – tagline: 'The Florence of the south' – and arrived seemingly before everyone else, as we pretty much had the mellow karst-stone-built town to ourselves for quite some time. Highlights included the Roman amphitheatre, only excavated in 1938 when they started building nearby. Can you imagine? It was under the street and no one knew...
As beautiful as the water is, the town – like so many in this region – has known centuries of invasion, so it has imposing fortifications which, now that they're not needed, simply add to the city's beauty.
Even if the sea and the castle-like bastion didn't do it for you, the cathedral has one last gift: the largest, bar none, mosiac any of us had ever seen. It covers the entire floor of the building and depicts a tree with all sorts of people, creatures and animals on its branches. Everyone one from Adam and Eve to Alexander the Great gets a look in.
Back at del Levante, we ate a hearty dinner, played a bit of pool and listened to the man-and-guitar entertainment – and looked forward to day two...
I'm going to say something about the food here. Breakfasts at the hotel are very hearty affairs: eggs – scrambled, boiled or fried; bacon; croissants; pastries; at least three kinds of bread; yogurt; fruit – fresh and in syrup; cheeses; deli meats; tomatoes and, my new favourite drink: blood orange juice. I'm sure there's more out on that buffet, but I just can't remember.
Then there's dinner, also at the hotel, served Italian style. That is, a salad buffet, followed by a primo piatti – which means pasta, soup or risotto – and then the secondo, which is a choice of four things, including a fish dish and a vegetarian choice, and then dessert. It's always very good, but last night was the winner so far: a sea bass that was hands down the best I've ever had.
And so on to day two, which had us visiting three local towns, each with something unique to offer.
Martina Franca is not, as the name might suggest, a woman, but a town, named after both St Martin and the word 'franca', which, our guide told us, means 'tax free'. Well, not any more, but once upon a time. Now, it's simply terribly pretty.
Alberobello is the one stuffed with trulli houses, the little stone dwellings from circa 1400, from which you might expect Smurfs or, at the least, Hobbits to come waddling out of. They're UNESCO listed and you can rent one for a night or two, but very few are lived in full time.
Final stop of the day was Locorotondo. (Don't you love these names? They're all so sing-song and just roll off the tongue. No wonder we all wish we were speaking Italian...) The name means 'place that's round' (loco = place, rotondo = round), because the streets all go round in a circle around the – you guessed it – church.
By now we were ready for a day off, which was spent very happily by the pool and walking along the coast to nearby Torre Canne, where we watched a pair of fisherman reel in their net.
So, roughly halfway through the week and what have I gained so far? Fascinating information, well-thought out itineraries, beautiful memories (and photographs), a lot of fun and probably about 10lbs, but I'm not going to worry about that just yet...
*This is a rough estimate and not a figure to be quoted ;)