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April 23, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Spring 2015 issue

The pull of Puglia

Words: Jim Dunn

Helen Mirren seems to like Puglia, that remote area at the very bottom of Italy known as The Heel. She likes it so much that she rushes there every spare moment she has away from the cameras and has persuaded her husband, Taylor Hackford, to open a restaurant. She spends as much time as possible there away from the frenzy of the film world.

I must say I wasn’t over impressed with Puglia but I do think I have to give it another try one of these days, maybe next time renting a villa and, as you can see from the photographs on these pages there are some delicious homes with terrific interiors, not to mention pools and views, to be reserved for a summer break. Have a look at for some ideas.

The Mirren/Hackfords are not the only celebrities to join Russian and Chinese Oligarchs and we mere mortals in buying in the area. Helen and her husband have bought a 16th century farmhouse in Tiggiano, near Santa Maria di Leuca and Meryl Streep has a Masseria… a manor house… in Tricase Porto. French film star Gerard Depardieu has bought a holiday home in Lecce, the Baroque gem of Puglia and spends his Christmas’ there. British singer Paul Weller and the American actor Mickey Rourke have also purchased. Actors Siena Miller and Jude Law have spent holidays there in a villa in the province of Lecce and on the beaches of Gallipoli and Otranto with their children. Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall and film director Francis Ford Coppola have also bought. So the area must have something going for it. 

There’s even been a successor to the film ‘Mama Mia’ been produced in Puglia called ‘Walking on Sunshine’. I’m afraid the reviewers, sadly, haven’t been very kind.

So you’ll be in very good company if you holiday or buy there… indeed it’ll be like walking the Hollywood Red Carpet, as you wander the local markets, depending on the time of the year you arrive.

We all went in October, late in the season I know, but that’s when we like to organise a car tour. The weather was mixed but again we were prepared for that and we were also ready for the fact that a good friend who lives there warned us that we’d find a lot of cafes and restaurants closed. Which was true. Never mind, we did stay at some truly marvelous little hotels and one rather pretentious establishment, more later. 

I felt that the area, and we travelled and toured extensively, from Bari airport right down to The Heel of Italy, was as Noel Coward said of Norfolk in the UK ‘very flat’, only interspersed by little towns which in themselves are rather pretty and have plenty of restaurants and cafes, when you can find the centres. Most of the towns are surrounded, in many cases by outrageous, modern infilling development which is no doubt necessary to house the people but hardly conducive to attractive, picturesque tourism. 

What did impress me apart from the food and wine, was the thousands of gorgeous, ancient olive trees, silvery carpets of olive groves, all knarled and worn and producing some of the magnificent oil that is on sale as you travel around and is drizzled over some appetising dishes in the restaurants.

I truly don’t ever want to see another Trullo, those odd little circular, cartoon, ‘hobbit’ dwellings that seem to appear around every corner and particularly in the Itria Valley, many now converted into attractive weekend homes. Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all as someone once said. 

Our tour took in Leche, showcase of Baroque splendor, Ostuni one of the areas prettiest towns, where we stopped for a delicious lunch at La Summita, which as the name suggests is at the top of this charming town and is one of the many little hotels creating quite a stir in the area as the new generation of young hoteliers break out and update the hotel scene. We also visited the seaside town of Monopoli for yet another fresh fish lunch at the highly recommended Ristorante Lido Bianco.

The highlight of our visit to Puglia was undoubtedly our stay at the delicious Masseria Cimino near Brindisi with its whitewash walls and plain but stylish fabrics in the rooms. It was voted one of the top 101 hotels in the world by the UK Tatler magazine. And I agree!

The hotel is delicious in every way… its setting, only a ten-minute walk to the sea across open fields, service, ambience, lovely, charming staff with all the details of where to go locally at their fingertips and the food is some of the best. It’s served buffet style, course by course every evening, freshly cooked and straight to the table. We ate like overstuffed Lords… artichokes, fried and grilled vegetables, quiche with spinach and cheese, asparagus risotto, lasagna, chickpea and chicory soup, rabbit, aubergines, apple pie and crepes with cinnamon and orange. That was the first evening’s menu. Phew!

Our stay however at the Il Convento Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima was a disappointment. Now run by the widow of the late and wonderful Lord (Alistair) McAlpine, Lady Athena, it’s a bit pretentious. I long had a yearning to stay there having read Lord McAlpine’s regular and entertaining columns over many years on travel and collecting in Interiors magazine.

I found the Convento cold, there was a shortage of heat, the food was very ordinary compared to what is available elsewhere in the region, and as I have said before I’m not too keen on communal eating as we had to do at breakfast. Not at these prices. Around 350E a night B and B.

We were the only people booked in at that time and that was a plus but had the place been full I feel certain that it would have been more like being at a house party but with strangers, although there were plenty of shady private areas to tuck yourself away, if you felt the need.

The décor is certainly a one off. It’s like going to sleep in a bookshop and waking up in one of the most intriguing antique emporiums. You are surrounded by the results of a passionate collector of objet d’ art and his travels all over the world. Beads, pots, furniture, odd chairs, police truncheons, dolls, scraps of textiles and sculpture abound in this former Monastery with its square central courtyard. The building in itself is gorgeous.

Literally hundreds, maybe thousands of books some of them still in brown paper wrappers direct from the bookshops, are available to you to read on the terraces, by the pool, in bed or under a nearby tree in the garden. Lord McAlpine was a very keen gardener. He created lots of areas of the garden for cacti and orange and lemon trees among a host of others.

If owning a property is your quest in that area and prices are about 25 per cent lower than Tuscany up the road, then you will certainly find a lot in your budget whether it is a few 100,000s for unrestored wrecks or partially restored, or millions for that dream Masseria just like the Hollywood crowd. The less you pay the more you have to spend making it all habitable and the more you pay… well, we all know that you can just walk in and settle down.

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