The greeny-black seaweed slathered all over my body tingles pleasantly as I lie in the bright room patterned with turquoise tiles. Is it true then what they say? That seaweed minerals are seeping straight through my skin and into my blood cells? Even if it isn’t, it’s certainly very nice to lie here wrapped in cling film, looking forward to my caviar facial and then to a long, relaxing float in the heated seawater pool. I’m in one of Italy’s finest thalassotherapy spas, at the Masseria San Domenico hotel in Puglia. A wide range of purified seaweed and seawater treatments beckon. If I’m feeling game, I can choose to be steamed in brine, or blown around a shower cubicle with a high pressure hose. Or I can ignore saltwater and algae altogether and opt for one of twenty different kinds of massage. Yesterday I was led down a candlelit corridor to a dim womb-like room and expertly rubbed and pummelled with fragrant oils until I was nearly too limp with relaxation to hobble back to the shower.
One of the most charming aspects of the spa is that each of the treatments takes place in its own bespoke room – styled and even lit in an appropriate manner. I glimpsed a serene Oriental space with a futon on the floor for Shiatsu, and a cool, minimalist haven of marble and wood for Stone Massage. An instinct for aptness underpins the details of the entire hotel. In particular, local elements are deftly incorporated. For example, the hotel is surrounded by 100 hectares of olive groves – centuries-old trees twisting in fantastical shapes out of the chocolate-brown soil – and so naturally all soaps and shampoos in the rooms are made from the oil squeezed here, scented with lemons from the hotel’s citrus groves. The spa’s signature treatment (and bestseller) is a lavish own-estate olive oil massage. Beyond the trees, and visible from the hotel, the bright blue Adriatic inspires and supplies not just the spa’s thalassotherapy treatments but also the hotel’s centrepiece – a magnificent, irregularly-shaped pool edged by rocks and plants and filled with purified seawater.
Any detailed map of Puglia reveals dozens of names prefixed by ‘Mass.’ scattered about. It stands for ‘masseria’, a kind of stout, massy farmhouse which served in medieval times as a watchtower against Saracen raids. Almost as distinctive as the region’s conical trulli buildings, Puglia’s many masserie poke proud and bulky from the brightly-coloured landscape, starkly whitewashed and crowned with intricate chimneypot covers. The Masseria San Domenico, which kept careful watch over the sea in the 15th century, was transformed into a five-star hotel in 2006 – more or less coinciding with the birth of serious tourist interest in Puglia. It set the standard for luxury hotels in the region and spawned a handful of lesser imitations.
The hotel’s unassuming and approachable owners live in the main masseria, while guests stay in pretty two-storey buildings built in bone-pale local tufa stone and arranged round a flower-decked courtyard. Peaceful, uncrowded, and slightly sprawling, the atmosphere is very much that of a private country mansion. You feel like a visiting personal friend of the owner, excellently accommodated in a private wing, perhaps here for an aristocratic party or a wedding. The back door of each room gazes out onto an infinity of olive groves – private enough to sleep with the door open every night if you like. A notoriously bad sleeper, I amazed myself by doing exactly that, secure in the knowledge that no noise would ever come from that tame, leafy wilderness to disturb me. In the daytime, I’d grab one of the freely available hotel bicycles and pedal through the fields of trees, amazed at the freakish sculpture of their lichen-blotted trunks.
Meals are always a delight at the Masseria San Domenico, whether taken at shaded tables by the main pool, or in the impressive dining room – a high vaulted chamber dating back to the 1700s. The menu is an education in traditional Puglian cuisine, making each lunch and dinner a contented blur of superb fish and seafood, intensely flavoursome vegetables, succulent rice and pasta dishes, and mouthwatering local exotica such as favé (pureed broad beans). The ever-attentive staff didn’t bat an eyelash when I said I preferred not to eat gluten, and immediately furnished me with delicious buckwheat rolls and pasta.
It was with reluctance that I ventured beyond the gates of the hotel, but I wanted to witness the things that have been making Puglia one of Italy’s most fashionable regions in recent years. I travelled a dozen miles along the coast to the ‘white city’ of Ostuni perched on a hillside. Its old centre looked astonishingly like any village in the Cyclades – brightly whitewashed homes punctuated by blue or turquoise shutters, all set on narrow lanes wiggling up and down steps and around ever-intriguing corners. I carried on twenty miles inland to Alberobello, crossing a rolling landscape dotted with the mad, moon-gazing cones of loveable trulli – all in slightly different shapes and states of decorative decay or smart repair. Alberobello itself is a whole town of the round, pointy-roofed little buildings and is best summed up by a friend who said, “It looks like Smurfville.”
As sunset approached, I headed back towards the coast, stopping at Polignano a Mare on its cave-riddled cliffs rising straight from the sea. A lively evening passeggiata was already underway in the pretty main piazza, and I’d have loved to linger if a desire for dinner wasn’t summoning me back to the hotel. When the driveway gates clinked gently closed behind me, and I imagined the endless groves of olives folding protectively round me, I felt I’d been embraced again into the private little world of the Masseria San Domenico, and all that lay ahead was pleasure and ease.