Among whitewashed seaside villages, glowing golden hill towns and the pink and yellow blossoms of a million never ending orchards, food is life in the Itria valley of Puglia. Miraculously, tourism is just taking hold in this agricultural heartland. The warm Southern Italian people still embrace outsiders like prodigal sons; inviting them to homemade meals and pausing to show off their prized local foods; Creamy Mozzarella, smoky Capicola, delicate hand-made pastas, and the bright bounty of the sea. If you are considering a trip to Italy, want an unbeatable mix of luxury and culture, and you have any interest in the cuisine (Why else would you go?), skip Como and its ranks of tour buses, skip Tuscany and her repetitive gastro-gift shops and head for the southern coast to experience an Italy full of smiling faces, inspired food and pale turquoise ocean views that are the stuff of daydreams.
Step 1: Check-in, full-body aromatherapy massage and Aperitivo at the five-star Borgobianco†Resort and Spa
At Bari or Brindisi airport, Guiseppe the Borgobianco driver will be waiting patiently with a wink and a smile and a tilt of the cap to greet you as you emerge from the tarmac. A thirty minute drive skirts the port towns; glowing gold and tan in the low sun, whisking you along the sea and ultimately through winding white farm roads flanked by the gnarled trees of olive and almond that are the backbone of the regionís cuisine. Modeled after the palatial Masserie farm houses the dot the hillsides, Borgobianco rises out of the surrounding orchards like an oasis of gleaming white turrets and rooftop terraces. From the warm greeting at the gate, you know you are in for royal treatment and luxury in abundance.
The resort is built around an open plan anchored by a sun-filled courtyard of shade umbrellas and comfortable lounge chairs. To the east lies a sparkling blue swimming pool with a dedicated bar set among fragrant hedges of rosemary and lavender. A gentle coastal breeze brings the freshness of the ocean.
The rooms at Borgobianco are white on white, with heavy wood furniture, tiled floors and tall glazed doors that open to a private patio looking over the gardens, the farms beyond and ultimately to the hazy blue horizon of the Adriatic sea.
Drop your bags, freshen up, fill out your room service breakfast card (the house-made filled pastries and fruit tarts are not to be missed) don a robe and head down the stone stairs to the tranquil calm of the spa. Besides a perfectly temperate indoor pool, a wood plank sauna, and a trance-inducing hammam steam room, the spa offers up a multi-page menu of hands-on body treatments that will melt your senses. Deep tissue and Swedish massage are on offer as well as Aromatherapy massages designed around essential oils of local herbs.
Once you are reborn and feel thoroughly unwound, slip into deck shoes and head over for an aperitivo at the smartly appointed cocktail lounge. Italian drinks are made to wake up the appetite and refresh the senses and the picture-perfect bar-tender in chalk stripes and peaked lapels will whip up a textbook version of your favorite or entice you with his bracing invention of the day (Ask him about the Ginger Pineapple martini). The small foods accompanying Aperitivo are an introduction to the bright olives, almonds, and crisp flour friselle that define the region.
Step 2: A morning wander through white-washed Polignano a Mare and a seaside brunch of urchin and fresh focaccia.
In the morning, rise with the sun, pull back the shutters and take in the near silence and serenity of the ocean view. Stay in your robe and take your cappuccino and cornetto breakfast on your veranda in pale light, bird-calls and faint farm-smoke of early morning. When you feel motivated, call up for the car and enjoy the breeze of the ten-minute drive into the nearby sea-side Hamlet of Polignano a Mare. The clutch of white washed buildings sits precariously over crumbling lime cliffs with spectacular views of the chalky blue water. Centuries of history have left a variety of architectural styles on display in the churches, battlements and ornate ocean view patios. Stroll to the quiet waterfront on the north edge of town past the brightly painted rowing boats. If youíre early, youíll catch the industrious day boat fisherman shuttling in wicker baskets brimming with impossibly fresh sea urchin. Grab a wedge of fresh bread from the Focaccerie at the end of the point, haggle for a basket of trimmed urchin and sit on the creaky wooden pier with your brunch picnic. Plan ahead and grab a cold bottle of sparkling prosecco to wash it down.
Step 3: Wine and Craft Ale Pairing Dinner at Infermento,†a bustling localís wine and ale bar
After a day spent chatting with old fishermen and wandering through every narrow alley and crevice of the old town, grab a light early dinner at the Infermento wine bar. Run by a husband and wife team with a dedicated local following, Infermento features low arched dining rooms with a soft glow and wooden wall cases displaying a proud collection of vintage wines under lock and key. The menu features clean, rustic dishes inspired by the seasonís fresh produce (wild chicory in goatís cheese and dried grapes, Spaghettoni with porcini mushrooms, grilled lamb Turcinieddhri). Ask for a pairing of local craft beers to complement the flavors and you have a complete taste of what this region is capable of. The knowledge and suggestions will awaken senses you never knew you had and introduce tastes you never knew were possible.
There are dozens of quaint hill towns to explore in the coming days and the highlight of your stay may very well be a mellow bicycle ride along the flat, bleached farm roads carpeted in pink cherry blossoms. No matter what you envision, once you make the decision to get there, the magic of Puglia and the Itria Valley will leave you with cinematic memories that will trump any other vision or experience youíve had in Italy.
Sage Russell is Editor of†Food Pilgrimage.