Rome: “The way to enter Ostuni is the same way that you go into Alberobello,” said Francesco, my guide
through the villages of Puglia as we crept up the stairs and over rooftops in the back of the town.
This region in the heel of Italy’s boot has been discovered the last few years by travellers looking for a new rustic region to explore so to escape the tourist shops that now line the street at the entry to this now famous town, you have to get creative. And then you get the full effect—a UNESCO designated maze of semi-deserted alleyways around a walled medieval core of whitewashed buildings and intricate arches.
New Hotels in Puglia, Italy: It may have the most dramatic setting – high on a hill, its white walls gleaming in the region’s predominant sun—but Ostuni is hardly the only charmer of a town in the region. The similarly UNESCO anointed Alberobello is admired for its cone shaped stone houses called trulli, and two other
whitewashed hilltop towns with historic centers, Locorotondo and Cisternino, have narrow labyrinths of
streets perfect for strolling. Among the prettiest towns in the country, they’re also completely authentic—so
authentic that vegetarians might have to look away while sitting at an outdoor café in Cisternino, a town
known for its butchers, as they head to their shops, the day’s product on their shoulders.
Where to go in Puglia, New Puglia hotels: Driving the countryside surrounding these towns, you’ll see hills
covered in olive trees, fields dotted with apricot colored stone farmhouses called masseria, more of the stone
trulli, the crystalline water of the Adriatic. But the overall tone of the region—genial, gentle, nurturing—is
what expats who’ve been drawn to the region—actress Helen Mirren, a homeowner and co-owner of the bar
Farmacia Balboa in Tricase among them— say drew them there.
Palazzo Maritati e Muci, Guy Martin, Puglia: Mirren isn’t the only one who bought a house after vacationing
in the region. Michelin three star chef Guy Martin of Paris’s Le Grand Vefour and his wife Katherina Marx,
producer and host of a French lifestyle TV show, were so taken with the area from their holidays that they
bought two 18th century palazzi in the village of Nardo in the southern Puglia region of Salento. They then
spent three years restoring and decorating; they opened them as a hotel Palazzo Maritati e Muci in May.
The design in the ten rooms is a mix of contemporary and vintage, chic but comfortable as overseen by Marx
whose exquisite taste is also in evidence in the design/concept shop Appia Appia that she opened a few
blocks away shortly after opening the hotel. The town itself is totally off the tourist track so when you sit at a
café in the nearby town square people-watching, the ones you’ll see are locals—there are no souvenir shops in sight. And guests will be there because even though Martin produces exquisite food in Paris, he isn’t
producing it here. When he’s here, he’s on holiday. But the manager will point guests to a trattoria in town
that the chef approves.
Another hotel in the region that opened in May has a famous hotel name behind it. Last year, the Rocco Forte
Hotel Group took over Masseria Torre Maizza, a collection of stone farmhouses with some buildings dating
back to the 16th century and spent six months renovating. The 40 rooms including a new suite located within a medieval tower showcase new, fresh designs created by Director of Design Olga Polizzi utilizing local
ceramics, rustic patterned fabrics, contemporary furniture, light local stone and wood and bespoke light
fixtures. Several have private pools, most have terraces and several have the original 16th century fireplaces.
Puglia is known for its earthy, rustic food and the interpretations here are top notch. The main restaurant
serves luscious versions of the local ear shaped pasta orecchiette and milky mozzarella burrata plus other
dishes such as red prawns, avocado and Stracciatella cheese, suckling lamb and oven baked sea bass in salt.
Even the breakfast buffet with various cheeses, ripe fruits, smoked meats, pastries and other breads and sweets is a gourmet affair. The casual restaurant by the olive tree ringed pool turns out simpler fare that is no less delicious including vividly flavored pizzas and pastas.
Also on the property: a nine hole golf course and a small spa. A few minutes away, the hotel shares space with another hotel at a beach club fronting the Adriatic. And for those who want to go farther afield, the concierge
can arrange tours ranging from ceramics and burrata workshops with artisan producers to a tour of the
UNESCO site Matera with its layers of cave dwellings just across the border in Basilicata or yacht trips to
view the coastal towns of Otranto, Polignano a Mare with its towering cliffs, Gallipoli and Monopoli.
Sixty miles away in the baroque city of Lecce, another hotel that opened earlier this year is an offshoot of one
of my favorites in the region, La Fiermontina. Palazzo Bozzi Corso by La Fiermontina is a noble 18th century
palace in the center of town with ten individually themed suites, each a masterful combination of color and design. Several like the Suite Fernand Leger, owner Giacomo Filali’s favorite artist, are dedicated to artists
given the family’s connection to art—grandmother Antonia Fiermonte, the inspiration for La Fiermontina, was the muse and wife of two artists and items from Filali’s personal collection are exhibited in both hotels.
Other suites have a more direct family connection including one dedicated to Lady Madeleine Astor who was married to their granduncle Enzo Fiermonte, a boxer and actor. A more surprising one for that setting honors John Lennon and Yoko Ono, friends of their mother Anne who created Strawberry Fields, the memorial to Lennon in New York’s Central Park, with Ono. Within the 1970’s style décor are artifacts from the couple including a gold record for their album “Double Fantasy.”
Every detail in the rooms and the salons is worth examining and every aspect of the experience is elite,
starting with breakfast in the garden—a selection of perfect pastries, perfect cheeses, fruit, tomatoes served on linen under the trees. Dinner can be a special order, a simple three course set menu. But given its central
location, it’s easy to walk to a restaurant in the city. And it’s only a few minute walk to La Fiermontina where
young chef Simone Solido creates modern spins on classic regional dishes with rich ingredients that in one
bite express the essence of Puglia but also excite in a totally new way.
How to best experience Puglia: Ylenia Sambati runs a cooking school that teaches the flavors of the region as
they should be—by mamas. She also runs YLTOUR DMC and unlike others who cover the entire country,
specializes in Puglia so she knows everything from the famous sights to the secrets. Her guides are also
skilled and knowledgeable and she’s flexible, thorough and charming.