Issue 106 is out now
Melissa Corkhill

By Melissa Corkhill

10th January 2016

Nichola West took her three children to Puglia in Southern Italy for a week of exploration and simple family fun

Melissa Corkhill

By Melissa Corkhill

10th January 2016

Melissa Corkhill

By Melissa Corkhill

10th January 2016

Italy is a country I love and feel a real connection to. We have visited as a family a number of times – to Tuscan hilltop towns and to take gondola rides through the backwater canals of Venice. Yet here we were in Puglia in the heel of the boot, and this Italy felt different, filled with silver and green pungent olive trees – shimmering in the sunlight for miles around. There were towns filled with strange beehive-style dwellings and acres of vegetables laid out in incredibly neat rows as farm labourers bent over to tend to them. This was an Italy unfamiliar to me and filled with plenty to explore. Travelling south from Bari we were taking a family trip to Italy’s olive growing country, and would be staying in a luxurious, yet simple former olive farm known locally as a Masseria. Masseria are unique to this part of Italy and are farmsteads or olive mills, converted to provide accommodation to the growing trickle of tourists heading south to explore this beautiful area. As we walked across the old farm courtyard of the Masseria Torre Coccaro, to the converted barn which was now a family apartment, it reminded me of the old films of the Wild West, with sandy roads surrounding the tranquil spot; cacti sprouting deep green spikes into the blue sky and buildings painted burnt red. There is a peacefulness here, which goes hand-in-hand with the simplicity of life in Southern Italy and is totally infectious.

“There is a peacefulness here, which goes hand-in-hand with the simplicity of life in southern italy”

Family Paradise
The Masseria Torre Coccaro was an ideal base – luxurious with sunken baths, a spa and an indoor and outdoor pool but also true to its roots, home-pressed olive oil and vegetables fresh from the grounds served by staff who felt like family. We relished the chance to retreat from our normal existence and to allow the children freedom to run through the kitchen gardens keeping their eyes out for the lizards that scuttled out of their way. We’d stumbled into our own private paradise and it was hard to leave it. But we love to explore and even in such a spot of total and simple relaxation we couldn’t resist the urge to uncover what the surrounding area had to offer. We took a drive out through field after field of gnarled olive trees. Olives are vital to Puglia, they are literally part of its very fabric and with around 60,000 trees they are quite simply everywhere. There’s something about an olive tree, particularly the varieties that are hundreds of years old, that seem so steady in all their crooked form.

Friendly welcome
About forty minutes away from the masseria we were staying in, we discovered the quirky UNESCO World Heritage town of Alberobello where the bee-hive shaped dwellings dot the landscape. These homes, or trulli, are hundreds of years old and no one is sure why they are built the way they are – whether to save on taxes or to house an itinerant work force. But they are intriguing to look at and seem perfectly child-sized. Many of the trulli are now shops or restaurants and in Alberobello where the largest collection of them line the hillside the children loved exploring them, diving through the doorways and being greeted by the friendly shopkeepers inside. We bought ice cream and sat amongst the buildings to eat in the warm Puglian sunshine, nodding to the locals who passed us by, each with a smile for our children. We also explored Lecce, a town with medieval streets, a Roman amphitheatre at its centre and so many Baroque architectural gems it has become known as “The Florence of the South”. We drank the strong, smooth coffee of the region while the children played in the large green square near the centre, mixing with the Italian families who had come to burn off some energy. Italy is a friendly country but here that seemed to be elevated and even though English isn’t as well understood as it is in the north, people were keen to connect. We felt so welcome.

Discovering new places
We also took a trip just outside of Puglia and into Bascilitata and to another UNESCO World Heritage site, this time one of the world’s oldest inhabited towns of Matera. We felt like we’d gone back in time a few thousand years, here houses sit higgledy piggledy on top of each other and we wandered streets that are actually the rooftops of the homes below. This was the perfect place to explore and the children loved climbing the twisting and winding steps to see what they would discover at the top. The town is also famous for its cuccù, small hand made ceramic whistles which were traditionally thought to hold magic powers. You will find these cockerel shaped souvenirs in many shops and stalls in the labyrinth of streets. But we found ourselves being called back to the welcoming embrace of the masseria time and again, to spend our days as families have done here for centuries, enjoying the land and the food it offers up. Food in Puglia, as in all of Italy, is important and they have the freshest ingredients with crops growing in amongst the olive trees and lemons and oranges dotting the skyline with colour.

Cycling through the countryside
The masseria we stayed in had bikes to borrow to meander through the countryside and enjoy the fragrant air. We visited a nearby olive mill to learn about the differences of the various olive trees and also a local dairy farm to find out all about the techniques of making mozzarella. The children loved this, watching the stretchy cheese being paddled and pulled and plunged back in to the scalding water – and the tasting afterwards went down very well. One of our favourite memories was spending a morning covered in flour and learning how to make pasta – the Puglian way. The chef of the masseria taught us his techniques and we mixed, rolled, stretched and shaped. Unlike the wealthier towns of the north, Puglia makes its pasta with simply flour and water and their signature shape is the orichiette. Looking like an ear there is a real skill to pulling the dough just so in order to create this shape which seems so perfect for holding just enough of the sauce in its centre. All the children joined in with the cooking, making pizzas, calzone and long spaghetti. And it’s something we have brought home with us – the technique as well as two big bags of flour – to keep making it in England. Nowhere has pasta tasted more fresh or delicious and the sauce made from locally grown tomatoes and other vegetables will ensure you’ll never settle for the jar version again. Puglia may not have the tourist infrastructure of the north or the glitz and sophistication of some of the big cities but its soul will keep you coming back for more. This is a region that enjoys and celebrates the simple pleasures.

GET THE BEST OUT OF SOUTHERN ITALY

  • Hiring bikes and heading out amongst the olive groves as a family is a wonderful way to explore the area. Unlike much of Italy this region is largely flat, so cycling is a great way to get out and see it and there’s much to visit from a sandy coastline to plenty of olive-tree lined paths.
  • Don’t forget your hats, water bottles and suncream in the summer months, as it gets very hot and it’s best to be prepared.
  • Remember everything shuts between one and four each afternoon and meals can go on late into the evening. Children often join family meals so be prepared to change your schedule and go with the flow.
  • Stay in a masseria or farmstead. You will experience the real heart of Puglia, with a fantastic family welcome on these former working farms.
  • Consider visiting out of season. You can explore without the heat or crowds of the summer but still see the main towns.
  • Brush up on your Italian before you go. Not everyone speaks English in this more remote region and you will be greeted with even more warmth if you at least try a couple of words in Italian.
  • Be adventurous with the food – vegetarians will enjoy the fresh vegetables and pizzas stacked with courgette and even potato. Fish in this area is a staple and sea urchin is a particular speciality.
  • Children are adored in Puglia and we were stopped repeatedly by people wanting to talk about the children and stroke their hair – be prepared for what could be seen as over-familiar but what is simply a real love of family.

HOW TO GET THERE: SLOW TRAVEL
The train journey is epic but takes just a little over 24 hours to travel from central London to Italy’s southern region in the heel of the boot!

  • Travel from London to Paris by Eurostar
  • Then take an overnight train from Paris to Bologna – the Palatino
  • Finally the Eurostar from Bologna goes direct to Bari or Brindisi
    Thanks to Mark Smith of seat61.com

MORE INSPIRATION
STAY Nichola and her family stayed at masseriatorrecoccaro.com/en/home. Read more of her adventures at globalmousetravels.com
EAT For the best gelataria in town, try artefredda.com in Alberobello to find amazing traditional flavours.
EXPLORE The beautiful landscape of the nature reserve near Ostuni – parks.it/riserva.marina.torre.guaceto – where cycling, trekking and snorkeling trips can be organized.

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