Forming the graceful high heel of the Italian boot, Puglia is a strange and exotic region that looks and feels like nowhere else in Italy. Its landscapes are bright and elemental, with gigantic olive trees spiralling up from dark red soil, fragrant pine forests opening onto chalk-white sands, and stark rocks meeting crystalline turquoise water. Nature’s colours are bold and pure in Puglia, and so are the man-made shapes that dot the countryside: unique round cottages with high conical roofs (‘trulli’) and white foursquare houses (‘lamie’) dropped like oversized sugarcubes across the land.
In Puglia you often feel as if you’re on a Greek island. You’re washed in dazzling light, surrounded by low white buildings, and gazing onto an omnipresent blue sea. (The Mediterranean hugs Puglia from two sides, so it feels wrapped around you.) In fact, Greece lies just 70 miles across the water from Puglia. And the distinctly Greek features of Puglia’s cuisine, dialects, and architecture are no accident. Like the rest of southern Italy, Puglia was for centuries part of the ancient Greek world. Exploratory Greeks first washed up in southern Italy in the 8th century B.C., and for several hundred years their thriving colonies in Campania, Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia formed ‘Magna Graecia’ or ‘greater Greece’. Today, Puglia is not only physically closer to Greece than any other region of Italy, it remains the most Greek-seeming in appearance and temperament.
One of Puglia’s most-loved towns, Ostuni, looks for all the world like a village from the Greek Cyclades islands. It was founded by Greeks, of course, in the 1st century B.C. They called their new city ‘Astu-neon’ (literally ‘new city’), which two millennia of pronunciation has worn down to ‘Ostuni’. The Greek settlers built their homes in the style they knew, and even though many later generations of Italians re-built and re-modelled Ostuni’s buildings, the original Greek-village style has always held sway. These days, Ostuni modestly promotes itself to foreign visitors as ‘the white city’, but the town’s exotic look isn’t its only charm. Ostuni has a particularly lively calendar of public events, and a very long, convivial passeggiata. There’s always something going on here and every night the bars and cafés are humming with life.
You’ll probably have your first sight of Ostuni while driving along Puglia’s coastal motorway – a glorified dual carriageway quaintly lined down its central reservation with nodding oleanders. Four miles inland on a rise in the landscape, you’ll spy a bright expanse of white and cream. Is it a stone quarry? A gigantic marble monument? When you realize it’s a town, it takes on a fairytale aura – a mythical white city seen from afar, possibly a mirage, surely unreachable.
It grows ever larger and whiter on the landscape, and no less enchanted-looking, as you leave the tiny motorway and head towards Ostuni along country roads. As you enter the outskirts of town, you immediately meet exotica. Oriental crenellations wriggle across the top of a long pale building and tiny trulli-cottages poke their crazy conical roofs into the air. Through white townhouses you see a large, Indian-style folly. Then a vast white pile of higgledy-piggledy homes, with a bright majolica-tiled dome sprouting jauntily from the top of it all. Clearly, this is no ordinary town.
Ostuni divides into two main districts: the old and older parts of town. The merely old part sprang up in the 18th and 19th centuries, while the history of the older bit goes way, way back – at least two thousand years. In this labyrinthine oldest part of town, the Greek-island flavour is intense, but there’s an added element of the fantastical, too. The smooth-plastered homes sprout like an organic mass over a little hilltop, ranging up slopes and down staircases and wiggling round ever-intriguing corners. The moulded walls climb to private terraces and roof gardens, forming unnameable nooks and recesses, while the narrow alleys duck beneath random arches and periodically stoop to form short tunnels. Every wall is white and blindingly bright in the sunshine. And almost every door, shutter and window-frame has been painted Cycladic-island blue or turquoise.
The strangeness of the place is only amplified by its silence and emptiness, at least during full-daylight hours. Washing hangs profusely, so there are clearly people living here, but where are they? Do unseen eyes regard you as you stop to take another photograph? The only thing you hear occasionally is the cool breeze whisking round the alleys and under the cavernous archways. Being on a hilltop by the sea, Ostuni is almost always fresh and breezy despite its dense network of closely-huddled buildings.
Perhaps the oddest things in Ostuni’s tangle of ancient narrow streets are the incongruous Baroque flourishes. Elaborately-carved ornamental doorways in weathered yellow stone are inexplicably embedded into the flat white plastered walls. They stick out like sore thumbs on every lane and alleyway. It’s as if each house was once a florid palace that’s been sanded down and painted over except for its doorway. Or as if some historical loony once tried to ‘civilize’ the rustic Greek style by randomly inserting chunks of grand ornament. Other Baroque effusions crop up elsewhere in Ostuni – the bishop-topped obelisk overlooking Piazza della Libertà, for example, and a couple of imposing church frontages squeezed in amongst humbler buildings. But the disembodied doorways are strangest of all.
If you wander Ostuni’s ancient part of town for long enough, you’re sure to emerge onto the awesome vista it offers to the northeast. On flat land far below, a wide, unbroken expanse of olive trees stretches to the sea. These aren’t the tame and delicate olive trees you’ve come to expect from, say, central Italy. Puglian olive trees are different. Monstrous, shaggy things with fat, twisting trunks that make each tree look like it’s been caught in a private tornado. They live for centuries, and provide exceptionally high-quality olive oil. To add to the strangeness of the scene, all the trees below Ostuni have been cropped into a cuboid shape. So the view is of thousands of leafy cubes, tumbling towards the blue Adriatic.
Having marvelled at Ostuni’s oldest part and its vista, you’ll probably want to roam the newer streets too. You’ll find them straighter than the wriggling ancient lanes, but surprisingly similar in feel and architecture. Having established a local style, Ostuni seems reluctant to let it go. The whitewashed, vaguely Cycladic homes of the newer streets huddle close together and jumble round each other. There are cars, and a few people strolling the pavement, but other than this there’s little difference from the very oldest part of town.
Whatever route you pursue, you always seem to end up back in Piazza della Libertà. This wide, triangular space is surely the heart of Ostuni, poised just between its oldest and newer parts. If evening is coming down after your day’s wanderings, you’re sure to sense an air of excitement radiating outward from the piazza, as the whole town gears up for several hours of passeggiata. Take your pick from Ostuni’s remarkably good restaurants, then join the well-dressed throng on the pavements…
Many hours later, if you happen to leave Ostuni the way you came, you’ll see that the ‘white city’ is now just a blaze of orange light set on high in the darkness, like a vast lone beacon in the night. It very, very slowly grows smaller into the distance. Even as you leave it behind, Ostuni looks just as mysterious and enchanted a place as it did when you first laid eyes on it.
some recommended hotels in Ostuni
LA TERRA HOTEL
Via G. Petrarolo, 20
+39 0831 336651/2
Tucked down a little alley on a lower slope of the centro storico, this refurbished 18th-century palazzo offers serene and elegant rooms with arching white walls and ceilings set against simple yellow linen and dark wood furniture. The small on-site restaurant serves traditional Puglian fare, and the bar is a very cosy little bolthole. A fine hotel with a four star rating.
Double room €65 - €115
SOLE BLU B&B
Corso Vittorio Emanuele II
+39 0831 303856
Positioned in the lively heart of Ostuni, just a few metres from the central Piazza della Libertà, this tiny, family-run B&B has just two cute, appealingly cave-like guestrooms. The owners speak English, and keep a delightful cat. They also have a self-catering property nearby, Casa Colomba – a neat townhouse with a panoramic terrace, simply furnished and able to sleep up to five people.
Double room €60 - €80
Contrada Tolla, S.P. per Martina Franca
+39 339 333 2646 / +39 328 532 4101
One kilometre west of Ostuni, surrounded by olive trees and evergreen shrubs, this stately 200-year-old masseria forms an elegant and interesting building suggestive of a small castle. Inside, the attractive, airy rooms sport vaulted ceilings and half-moon windows, and have been fitted out with period furniture.
Double room €60 - €90
HOTEL LA DARSENA
Loc. Costa Merlata, Marina di Ostuni
+39 0831 304000
Set beside a stretch of clean, pale sand a couple of miles from Ostuni’s old town, this modern three-star hotel is perfect for those who want to combine a beach holiday with a bit of historical sightseeing. You can swim all day, then join Ostuni’s night-time passeggiata. The hotel restaurant is very good, and accommodation is on a half- or full-board basis.
Double room €45 - €115
Via Scipione Petrarolo, 7
+39 0831 305925
In a converted palace tucked behind Ostuni’s cathedral, this luxurious boutique hotel offers a very peaceful retreat. The design is exquisite – cool, clean lines; lots of off-white fabric and pale wood; and magnificent vaulted ceilings throughout. There’s a spa, a subterranean wine bar, and an excellent restaurant with dining indoors or outside in a walled Spanish garden. Ask for a room with a terrace and a sea view.
Double room €250 - €330
TAVERNA DELLA GELOSIA
Vicolo Tommaso Andriola, 26
(off Via G. Tanzarella Vitale)
+39 0831 334736
Meal for two about €40
Spread up and down a series of pretty terraces thronged with dappled light from the leafy branches overhead, this wonderful restaurant specializes in forgotten local specialities and centuries-old recipes. The menu is full of interesting and unusual things. For a primo,try barley with nettle and herbs, or black pasta served medieval-style. Secondo choices include some temptingly uncommon meats.
OSTERIA DEL TEMPO PERSO
Via G. Tanzarella Vitale, 47
+39 0831 303320 / +39 0831 304819
Meal for two about €70
Recommended by the Slow Food Society for the quality of its cuisine, this intimate little restaurant occupies an attractive, cavernous chamber in Ostuni’s old town. The menu consists of traditional dishes plus more creative things done with high-quality local ingredients. There’s an especially good selection of flavoured cheeses and desserts, so be sure to leave room for them!
Via G. Tanzarella Vitale, 61
+39 0831 306046
Snacks and drinks for two about €20
Probably the most stylish café in Ostuni, this chic cocktail-lounge-cum-nightclub spills its plush crimson chairs out onto a tiny centro storico terrace. Inside, the cave-like 13th-century interior has been slicked up with ultra-modern décor. The various rooms are small and intimate, and the drinks and snacks are very high-quality – if a little pricy.
OSTERIA PIAZZETTE CATTEDRALE
Via Arcidiacono Trinchera, 7
+39 0861 335026
Meal for two about €50
Just in front of Ostuni’s lovely 13th-century cathedral, in a building that was once a castle and later a monastery, this charming osteria offers high-quality Puglian fare with elements from elsewhere. The elegant, whitewashed interior has vaulted ceilings and tasteful curios placed in wall niches. There’s a fantastic wine selection and many surrounding shelves of gleaming bottles.
IL GIARDINO DELLE ROSE
Via Francesco Tanzarella Vitale, 26-28
+39 0831 338530
Meal for two about €28
This lively and well-attended pizzeria sits just outside the walls of Ostuni’s centro storico. It offers the chance to see one of southern Italy’s great culinary spectacles – namely, the cooking of pizza in a traditional wood-fired oven. Watch the chefs nimbly rotating the cooking pies with a broad-ended oar, then savour the results. There’s no better way to make a pizza!