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Friday, September 13, 2013

Puglia | August 19 - 26, 2013

We had an early flight from Gatwick to Bari, and picked up our rental from Europcar without any difficulty. A brush fire along SS16/E55 snarled traffic and made the normally one hour trip to the hotel into two. The Masseria San Domenico, located on Strada Provinciale 90, was a bit difficult to find; it had no real address to punch into the navigation – still we got there without much fuss.
On the Puglia coast, washed by the Adriatic, the Masseria is very grand, located on a 150 acre estate of olive groves, vines; ripe pomegranate trees and beautifully cascading bougainvillea. Dating from the 14th Century, its original use was that of a watchtower for the Knights of Malta. It was lovingly restored and expanded in 1996, 53 rooms and suites, a massive free form pool 180 feet in length, a nice spa, tennis, golf; as well as a secluded private beach.

The food in a word or two: fresh and simple. The morning buffet breakfast was a bounty: lovely cakes and pastries, the best yogurt I’ve ever had, made locally; fruit, including the most fabulous figs; wonderful juices and cappuccino. The staff was friendly, professional and helpful.
It was ditto to the lunch buffet. Fresh fish, daily pastas, burrata, focaccia, vegetables sautéed and also slow cooked; an out-of-this-world smoked tuna with capers; cakes, more fresh fruit – I must stop before my saliva ruins my keyboard. One of our lunches was had at another pleasant buffet, at beachside, a more modern trendy spot; whitewashed, minimalist expansions of shade, splashed here and there with blue-themed dabs of color.  
Dinner was also simple but elegant, served outside; the menu changing daily – a delight. The local wines were reasonably priced; two reds were standouts: 2006 Cantine Due Palme Selvarossa Riserva, a blend of negroamaro and malvasia, local to the region; and Rivera Puer Apuliae Nero Troie, nero di troia. These were big and rich, Rhone-like, but with very soft tannin finish. A white of note: 2012 Polvanera Fiano Minutolo. And I cannot adequately describe the scrumptious white peach Bellini aperitifs.

We took a few day trips, pulling ourselves away from the hedonistic grip of the pool. We visited Lecce, about 90 miles south of us. This ancient Roman town of Lupiae reached its zenith in the 16th to 18th centuries with splendid Renaissance, Rococo and most especially Baroque monuments. The Baroque façade of Santa Croce was the highlight; its central rose window looking like it was fashioned of lace. We had a good lunch at Osteria Degli Spiriti, near the Public Gardens.

Another outing had us to Alberobello to see the unique trulli; curious square houses with conical roofs covered with small slabs of chiancarelle, a local grey limestone, all held together without mortar. 

From there we travelled to Poglignano a Mare; a picturesque seaside town. This ancient junction for Arab, Byzantine, Spanish and Norman cultures is reflected in its varied architecture. The near vertical shoreline cliffs are studded with caves, the beach inlets dramatically tucked between; speared generously with the multicolored parasols of throngs of summertime bathers. An easy lunch was at Osteria del Mulini.
There was also a lunch visit to a nearby and much larger sister property, Borgo Egnazia, adjacent to their golf course. The San Domenico has a “no children under twelve” policy, so Engnazia is much more focused on family. The lunch was raucous and loud; adult couples looking for a peaceful break should keep this place off their shortlist. The location is a bit contrived; too large to fit its surroundings; fake is too harsh a word, but not by as much as I would like to admit.

Puglia was a very nice surprise. The spur and heal of the Italian boot is mostly a flat plain; the region is relatively poor and not splattered with the luxury resorts like the Amalfi. So the San Domenico stands out, but subtly; lavish, nevertheless respectful of its place. It was a good fit for us, authentic, simpatico; I’m sure we will return next year.  I can recommend it without reserve.