IT'S 8PM on a quiet summer evening, and in the small seaport town of Trani in Italy, the sky's as bright as mid-afternoon, the gorgeous Adriatic coastline marked by a line of historical buildings that speak to the town's antiquated charm.
Fishermen hawk their catch on the piers, suited workers linger along the water's edge and young lovers take in the sunset hand-in-hand. This is Puglia, one of the most stunning yet lesser-known regions of Italy, located in the south-east of the country, on the very heel of the boot.
The region is far from large but, like a dreamy Fellini film of the '50s, it acts as different things to different people. To the luxury set, its time-warp setting and pristine beaches are a welcome respite from the now-thronging tourist hordes of the Amalfi Coast. To gourmands made health-conscious by the meat-heavy feasts of the north, the vegetables, seafood and olive oil of the region's cucina povera (peasant cuisine) put a distinctive spin on the Mediterranean diet. And to wine connoisseurs, its light, native grapes and passionately independent winemakers offer a fascinating alternative to the heavier wines of Tuscany and Abruzzo. I came to Puglia for the last reason, the region's tourist division having organised a culinary tour for journalists – but really, I was here for it all.
Flying into Brindisi in the region's south, one can easily be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of disappointment at the initially flat, dull landscape. But Puglia's gems have always been hidden, and for the affluent escaping busy lives, a short drive takes them from nothingness to one of the most wellto- do destinations in the region: Borgo Egnazia.
You may have heard of the resort or seen its impressive facade in the tabloid rags: hot Hollywood couple Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel tied the knot at this very spot a couple years back. But this isn't some nouveau riche playground or escape for bored celebrities. Far from it: the Egnazia's immense white-and-cream structures set against the Adriatic Coast give off the feeling of a warm, welcoming palace.
Built near the fishing village of Savelletri in 2011, the Egnazia sprawls over an impressive 16 hectares, with only its 18-hole championship golf course separating the main hotel from the translucent Adriatic waters. The Egnazia is rare in the region in that it sets steps in motion for Puglia's newfound luxury comforts, while simultaneously paying homage to its rich history.
The main borgo (hamlet) has been designed in the style of a Puglian village, and much care has been taken to ensure it doesn't resemble the tacky, faux-Italian town look prevalent in many hotels. Rooms, too, are designed in a classic Puglian style: spacious, with bright white walls and the simple amenities of country life.
While the hotel is popular with overseas tourists, the majority of the guests are in fact Italian; for the country's natives, Puglia is about as far from Italy as you can get while still remaining within its borders.
Geographically, much of the region is closer to Greece than to Rome, while historically, it's been invaded by everyone from Turkey to Spain. Driving through Puglia – really the only way to experience it – you notice that mishmash of different cultures, with every kilometre from the highest point of the heel to the very tip characterised by its own distinctive charms.
But it all comes to a virtual standstill, however, when you reach the small town of Alberobello and its trulli: more than a thousand circular white-painted houses that look ripped from the pages of some peculiar children's book. With their conical roofs, they were designed to keep inhabitants cool in the summer and warm in the winter and they're easily Puglia's most defining landmark, etched on every souvenir in the region. But that never takes away from their fantastical, dreamlike appearance.
Alberobello's status as a Unesco World Heritage site undoubtedly makes it a tourist-heavy town, especially during the summer months, but the silver lining comes through a surprising side effect: the finest restaurants often flock to where the crowds gather, and it's no different here.
Everyone recommends L'Aratro, with good reason: a modern country-style restaurant that takes full advantage of the area's freshest produce, it has an ever-changing seasonal menu that's almost always heavy on the roasted vegetables and such rare-for-the-area specialities as lamb and veal.
But Puglia is famous for its fish, and one of the finest places to sample it is at the one-Michelinstar restaurant Il Poeta Contadino. The owners aim to recreate the medieval dining experience complete with ornate chandeliers and immense candles, while dishes are rustic platings such as mullet or monkfish served alongside simple potatoes and vegetable sides.
The problem in Puglia, though, isn't so much what to eat, but what to pair it with. The region's status as a wine area has grown over the past 20 years to the extent that wines that were once fit only for keg consumption are now being appreciated as high-quality offerings – and with superb price-to-quality ratios to boot.
Puglia's terroir favours such native grapes as Primitivo and Negroamaro, their closest cousins being Californian Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. They make for easy blending and offer plenty of leeway, meaning Puglian winemaking is more of a personal, creative expression than anything else.
Take two wineries in particular: the first, Duca Carlo Guarini can trace its family roots to the Normans of the 11th century. Its current owner uses similar oenological methods to those of ancient times: subterranean tanks keep the wine cool, allowing fermentation to proceed naturally rather than by artificial means.
Up until the 1980s though, they weren't even bottling the stuff. Now, Puglia – and larger parts of the world – can't get enough of it. On the near-opposite end of the spectrum is Castel di Salve, a winery whose owner is best known for being the brother of Italian filmmaker Edoardo Winspeare.
But Francesco Winspeare is trying, even if he doesn't know much about the technicalities of wine: like his country's fashion brands, he markets it in line with the modern world, his labels being commissioned from the designers of Versace's ad campaigns.
Each winery has its merits, but they couldn't be further apart: one has spent almost a thousand years focusing on its drink with little thought of how better to approach the market, while the other focuses as strongly on the surface-level style as on what's inside the bottle.
Thus winemaking in Puglia acts as a metaphor for tourism in the region: through any means possible, the industry is selling the area as a less visited alternative to the north – but whether it's working remains to be seen.
Visitors will naturally flock to places that have become the destination du jour, and in that, maybe we should be grateful for a place like Puglia, a perfectly preserved corner of the Italian Mediterranean, where luxuriant surrounds, authentic culture, nourishing food and fascinating wines are all easily at hand.