Right off the bat I'll say we were desperate to fall in love with Puglia - it sounded like everything we'd ever wanted from Italy... winding roads leading to clifftop towns, eating seafood pasta to die for, overlooking crystal sea. And while it was spectacular, I'll admit it took us a little time to get under its skin.
Puglia has been toted the "new Tuscany" by some, which I think starts it off on the wrong foot. Firstly there is nothing wrong with the "old Tuscany" if you are looking for rolling hills, sunflower fields, beautiful villages and plenty of picturesque vineyards - that is what Tuscany does best and it's flatter, hotter and wilder cousin is hard pushed to live up to the comparison. Nor does it need to.
It was a real place of contrast - at times the scenery was so unexpected and spectacular, and at others it was industrial and soulless. We envisaged zooming through beautiful landscape (no idea why as our dusty old Shogun can't zoom anywhere!) and finding beauty at every turn... but that is the thing we came to love about Puglia. While there is plenty of beauty, charm and magic... you have to earn it. You have to travel.
And travel we did! We spent a night mostly trying to park in the harbour town of Trani while a festival sashayed around us. A few days eating our way around the bustling Polignano a Mare. A week in a trullo in the middle of nowhere visiting the local towns of Locorotondo, Martina Franca and the famous Alberobello before taking an unforgettable Orecchiette making class with a wonderful family who welcomed us like old friends. Travelling through Ostuni to reach the "Florence of the South" - the beautiful city of Lecce before heading south to Otranto and the southern most tip of the heel in Santa Maria de Leuca with it's striking lighthouse. We covered some ground which will definitely feature in a future post...
But it was not until right at the very end of our travels that we found the place that really struck a chord... the charming and highly unexpected town of Nardo in the South West.
Travelling out of season always gives you a real sense of a place. Sometimes towns that would be teeming with travellers in the summer, we had all to ourselves. Sounds great, but when you think you may have inadvertently missed the apocalypse and just need to grab some lunch then it's not so wonderful. In others we were just another number on the tourist train. While these place all had their charm, they missed that balance. You need people and that connection to create an atmosphere and make you feel welcome - something that today we are all too aware of.
The sun was shining, so when a friend (who just happens to run a great site full of charming, eclectic properties Further Afield) suggested we contact Vince at Nardo Salento to check on last minute availability in this town, not far from the coast, we jumped.
On first impressions it was similar-ish to many of the places we had visited, but all the detail seemed somehow heightened. The central square was more beautiful and bustling; the density of beautiful churches that seemed to appear at every turn; the warm inviting restaurant and store fronts; the pretty backstreets... it all just seemed to fit.
And you know when you go somewhere and you want to eat in every restaurant because their tucked-away charm is just how you pictured, or every bar is a cosy little den with a passion for product... yea...that.
Let's start at the top. We parked up and met Peter who helped us lug our stuff (by this point we were 7 months deep into out travels and still shit at packing!) from the car to the house. No traffic in the old town was a pain in those first 10 minutes...but paid us back in spades for the rest of the time.
We've been lucky enough to stay in some nice places on our various travels - we're not posh 5* hotel people (not our thing) and while standards had to slip a little bit on the road, we got that same feeling when you absolutely nail a holiday when that beautiful glass door opened to this gorgeous little oasis.
Modern luxury mixed with stunning style bought together under a 17th century roof. I would have moved in. A lovely light quiet living space flooded with natural light, opening into a gorgeous kitchen overlooking the garden. Our bedroom with vaulted ceiling, beautiful bedding and poured concrete en-suite completed the perfect space for the two of us. An outdoor staircase lead to a separate bedroom suite with kitchenette - perfect for holidaying with friends or family.
The terraces, orchard garden and pool were something else. Yes we've stayed in places with bigger pools and views and all the usual stuff... but somehow this little oasis garden hidden behind it's thick, high walls was almost more magical. You would never image that you are just steps away from the town square.
Peter (who was a hero with our broken laptop and one of the most chilled, helpful hosts!) showed us the house next door too, which can be rented separately or alongside our smaller house to create the ultimate holiday pad for up to 14, was equally as stunning. It's already on our post-lockdown list!
The thoughtful and extensive list of recommendations in the house (this list should form the basis of an official Nardo guide BTW) was super helpful, but not so great for our budget (or waistlines) as we wanted to eat everywhere.
The town is dotted with plenty of great restaurants and there is a bustling central square where the locals meet for markets and coffee... but it is very far removed from the typical tourist spots we've seen before. This is a town for the townspeople and is kept just far enough back from the tourist trail to keep its character - where everyone is made to feel welcome whether they order a coffee or a 4 course lunch.
We spent a few days eating and drinking our way round the town and some favourites included
The Cardinal for an aperitif or excellent charcuterie
Antica Trattoria Salandra - a true hidden gem visited by the Hairy Bikers for superb value home cooking
La Bottiglieria for a little glass of something
Schola Sarmenti - a winery and restaurant
There were so many places we didn't get to try - there is a fabulous sounding place outside the town where they just keep bringing incredible food until you can eat no more... or some of the smarter looking restaurants that would definitely be on the hitlist when we go back.
We filled our days wondering through the town with it's churches, palazzi, courtyards and gardens and just enjoying the house and garden. The beaches on the west coast are 10/15 mins away and are some of the best we came across on our tour of Southern Italy - great to combine with a seaside lunch or a stop in Gallipoli. Some of the more famous towns and sights (Lecce, Otranto) are within 40 mins and the famed trullis of Alberobello or streets of Ostuni are easily reachable on a day trip.
Nardo was so unexpected in so many ways - it wasn't what we imagined at all when we pictured Puglia. We thought we would fall for one of the more famous cliff-top towns perched above the sea... or a quaint little village tucked into the countryside... but from our off-season experience it was a real highlight. We will go back for sure, undoubtedly to the same house, probably in the Spring when we can also revisit some of the places we were a little dismissive of to see their undoubtable charm in the warmer weather.
* Nope didn't get paid, bribed or otherwise to write this. We loved Nardo and the house - just wanted to share :)