Barring a short visit to baroque Lecce and seeing the wonderful Tree of Life on the floor of Otranto Cathedral I had never had the chance to explore Puglia properly and was itching for an excuse. We had already enjoyed taking Australian cousins to Spain and Greece so when they suggested another Mediterranean beach holiday we didn’t hesitate – one thing Puglia has in abundance in the summer is great beaches, food and weather. But what else was there to see and do?
We opted for a two centre visit so started out in the gorgeous Gargano promontory in the north, the spur on the heel of Italy. On the way to our base in Peschici we passed through the extraordinary and spectacularly located mountain-top pilgrimage town of Monte Sant’Angelo before crossing the Parco Nazionale del Gargano with its enchanted Foresta Umbra. This ancient forest, with its thickets of epic trees and dappled glades, was not what we were expecting in southern Italy, neither were the high pastures filled with dairy cows wearing alpine bell collars. That’s the Gargano for you – a wonderful active playground inland and stunning coast with blue waters and sandy coves.
Peschici was a charming cliff-clinging town with Arabesque style houses tumbling down to the harbour. Its narrow streets were jam-packed at night, parking was an art-form. We were based just outside (1km) in the Locanda della Castellana, a lovely rural retreat with views down the valley to the sea and surrounded by its own fruit trees and vines. We loved the views and the pool area however it was the dining terrace and the personal, friendly staff that made the place. The canopied terrace, where we had drinks and meals, was delightful and the food…all local with as much as possible from its own land. We were in fig heaven for breakfast with local honey and jams – not only was the bread all home-made but each morning the pasta was prepared for the following day and left out to dry in the sun. Dinner was a fairly simple 4 course menu, all quite superb, and the owner Marino was a trained sommelier and insisted on a fine selection of very local wines.
And then the beaches & food – where to begin. With an endless series of rocky coves with beautiful sandy beaches you took your choice. There we beach clubs aplenty to choose from and our favourite was probably San Nicola, one of the closest to Peschici and a short 10 minute drive from the hotel. The sea and sand were as fine as anywhere however it was generally reckoned that lunch in the chilled, Caribbean-style, La Paranza, was the best we had – with the Octopus beating the mussels. We fine dined at the Eden in Peschici’s sandy harbour and loved the home cooked meals at the della Castellana – especially eating the orecchiette we’d had breakfast with the day before.