I’ve read countless articles about Puglia over the last few years. It’s been pitched as the hottest new destination, most instagrammable location or my personal favourite Italy’s best kept secret, but recently one piece, written by Avril Mair for Elle UK, stopped me in my tracks. It began “There’s no reason for Puglia to be fashion’s favourite new destination. It has neither the flashy glamour of Amalfi, nor the rustic charm of Tuscany.” Feeling unusually defensive of the place I call home, I read on. She talks about the size of the region, the difficulty of navigating it, the lack of guidebooks and almost complete absence of international hotel chains, how most of the tourists are Italians visiting their holiday homes from other parts of Italy, how it seems wild, underdeveloped, a relic from the past. “It’s not well set up for tourists”, she writes, “but this is a considerable part of its charm”. My guard lowered and was instantly replaced with that rare connection you sometimes feel with strangers on the internet. Oh, I thought, she really gets it.
When you consider all that Italy has to offer, it would be impossible to crown a most beautiful region, but Puglia is certainly the region ignoring the competition and playing hard to get. Puglia is that quiet, guitar-playing boy in high school, who is not really part of the popular group, but not an outsider either. Attractive, but not in an obvious way; a little gritty and ungroomed. He’s shy but there’s a depth to him uncommon in adolescence. You feel an immediate connection to him unlike any you’ve felt before. At least half of the attraction can be attributed to what you can see in him, but others can’t. Only you can really know him. You tell yourself this. Until one day it becomes difficult to ignore the lingering glances and whispers from others. You realise that everyone else isn’t as immune to his charms as you had imagined. There’s something about Puglia – you know it, Avril Mair knows it and if you’ve scrolled through Instagram lately, it’s pretty clear the whole world knows it.
Even the Italians hold Puglia on a pedestal. This country is bursting at the seams with beauty, from the majestic Dolomites to the glamour of the Riviera, the sprawling vineyards and olive groves and orchards, the fashionable metropolis of Milan and the historic ruins of Rome, the food and the fashion and passion of the people within it… Italy seems to have everything. Yet, when I encounter people from every corner of every region and reveal that I live in Puglia, I’m invariably greeted with exclamations of “Ma che bella!” There’s nothing for me to do but nod and agree that yes, how beautiful it is to live here.
Last Autumn, a friend of mine came to stay in Puglia. Having spent the previous six months in lockdown and sick of looking at the same four walls of his Dublin apartment, he took a month off work and rented a little apartment in Polignano. Unseasonably warm for October, he spent his days hiking and biking around, swimming in the sea, eating and drinking with the locals and generally marvelling at every little thing. It was lovely to see the therapeutic effect it had on him and energising to see our beautiful region with fresh eyes again. But I have to admit, I was a little jealous. Here he was, in the passionate throes of a new love, and with Puglia no less, which I had always considered mine. On his last day here, he turned to me seriously and said “Don’t get used to this Thelma, don’t ever stop appreciating it!”
I wouldn’t dream of forgetting how lucky I am to live here. If I’m not shouting it from the rooftops, it speaks more of my selfishness than of any lack of enthusiasm. I’m clinging to my Puglia because I’m not quite ready to share. But sooner or later I’ll have to accept that Italy’s best kept secret is out and realise that there’s enough of Puglia to go around. It still has something for me, and probably has something for you too.