Sunday, 31 July 2011

Trattoria delle Ruote, via Monticello, near Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

With a cultivated rustic look and feel, revolving around wagon wheels, the Trattoria delle Ruote is a self-consciously old-fashioned restaurant. From the outside, it looks a bit naff, but the interior is more appealing, thanks to the conical stone roof and the jagged stone walls, decorated with ancient tools and faded photos of farmers. Only the checked table cloths seem a bit contrived. The very simple menus have pictures of the dishes and are listed in several languages, but don't let that put you off. This place does authentic food. The antipasti includes baby mozzarella, ricotta, vegetables, salami and meat balls. It is okay, but nothing special. More memorable is the excellent orecchiette pasta (6 euros) served with a local cheese and tomato sauce, as is the creamy butter bean mash in olive oil. Another standout dish is the mixed grill (12 euros), which includes spicy sausages, liver, lamb on the bone and other meaty morsels. Carnivores will also enjoy the big roll of beef in tomato sauce (12 euros), which is succulent and juicy. The house red wine is full bodied, smooth and very good for just 8 euros a litre. For just 2.5 euros a head, you can round off the evening with some liquors and almond biscuits. They arrive in four unmarked glass bottles. One seems to be limoncello, while the others are flavoured with coffee and cherry. Service is 10 per cent, but is smooth, serene and welcoming. Although it seems to be targeting tourists, Trattoria delle Ruote is justifiably popular with locals.  8/10

Pizzeria alla Panca, Via Principe Umberto, Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

Opposite one of Martina Franca's extravagantly-carved churches, Pizzeria alla Panca is a big, bustling restaurant with lots of atmosphere. Inside, white cloisters arc over venerable pews separated by elegant wooden partions.  Outside, there is a large terrace in the street and the tables soon fill up with big Italian parties. To start, the antipasti is a seemingly endless stream of small tapas-style dishes, including carpaccio, meat balls, fried vegetables in batter, cured ham and baby mozzarellas. It's pretty good and pretty generous. There is also a broad selection of big, filling pizzas priced between 4 and 7 euros. The carpaccio pizza with rocket, served on a good base, is a winner, while the calzone is massive and packed with meat and cheese. The house red wine, served in carafes, is cheap and chilled, but quite drinkable. Understandably, the waitresses can get rushed, but they do a good job managing the crush. Pizzeria alla Panca is a deserved hit. 8/10

Ostuni, Puglia, Italy

A gleaming white-washed hilltop town high above the plains below, Ostuni is an alluring and easy afternoon trip from the nearby sandy beaches. Extended across several hills, it is a big place and it can be difficult to find its ancient stone citadel. But it is worth the effort. You should aim for the piazza della Libertà, a bustling meeting place overseen by a bishop on an ornate obelisk that towers above the bars, cafes and striking baroque church below.  From here, a stone-paved street winds it way through the old city gradually up to Ostuni's biggest attraction - the cathedral with its spectacular rose window - a wheel of incredibly-detailed carving at the centre of a grand facade. On the way up, you pass too many souvenir shops and under an attractive archway bearing an elegant eighteenth century gallery. From the streets near the church, there are far-reaching views over the surviving city walls, far below, and across the olive groves to the distant sea beyond. Tumbling down from the cathedral are stone lanes and terraces, many of which have been lined with flowering pot plants or commandeered by slouchy chairs from cool bars and restaurants. On summer evenings, you'll find plenty of foreign and Italian tourists in Ostuni, but this picturesque and charismatic town also draws in the locals. 8/10

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Scacciapensieri, Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

Not the place for a refined meal, Scacciapensieri is a no-nonsense pizzeria and trattoria down a side street off Martina Franca's main square. There are two large, well-lit and crudely-decorated rooms, plus a kind of conservatory with a glass roof. The Italian-only menu has a massive list of pizzas, costing between 3 and 7 euros, baked in a wood-fired oven. The quattro formaggi pizza (5.5 euros) is rich, filling and delicious, thanks in part to a generous covering of blue cheese, while the ham pizza is topped with piles of salty meat, which will have you reaching for the water or a large Moretti beer (66cl for just 3 euros). There are plenty of other Italian dishes, but the pizzas, which have light and large bases, are top notch. Still, on a week day evening, Scacciapensieri may only attract a smattering of diners, mostly Italian families, and can lack atmosphere.  The cover charge of 1.5 euros a head pays for a bowl of salty olives, while the service is friendly and efficient. 7/10

Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

On the edge of Martina Franca's new town, a leafy square leads to a venerable stone gateway, flanked by chic cafes, that heralds the beginning of the town's historic core. On the other side is a smaller square, overlooked by an imposing neo-classical town hall. A narrow alley, shaded by stately nineteenth century townhouses, leads to another square where you will find the relatively-restrained, yet magnificent, baroque facade of the massive eighteenth century church Chiesa di San Martino, which towers above a much older bell tower. On summer evenings, the timeless and atmospheric wood-panelled bars and restaurants around these squares buzz with Italians of all ages. Elsewhere in Martina Franca's maze of old streets, you'll find more extraordinary baroque churches and the occasional elaborate wrought iron balconies and ancient archways. Beneath your feet, the aged paving stones are smooth and shiny, while souvenir shops are noticeable by their absence. From one section of the surviving stretches of Medieval walls, there are distant views across a trulli-studded landscape to the compact white hill top town of Locorotondo. Some distance from the sea, Martina Franca is a fine and refreshingly untouristy town. 8/10

Friday, 29 July 2011

Lecce, Puglia, Italy

Heralded as Baroque's answer to Florence, Lecce is a glistening jewel of bizarre architecture in the sun-drenched deep south of Italy.  You can park cheaply quite near one of the grand gates to the seventeenth century heart of the city - an atmospheric maze of narrow, stone-paved streets with a wealth of well-preserved buildings. At Lecce's heart is Piazza Sant'Oronzo. One side of this yawning square is dominated  by a sunken and substantial Roman amphitheatre, which has about a dozen rows of stone terraces overlooking a pit, still used for performances.  The square also has what looks like a modern reconstruction of a medieval tower, ornately carved and fitted with large glass windows,  plus a very substantial statue of a bishop blessing his flock atop a column towering over the buildings. Unfortunately, the garish facade of a branch of McDonalds mars the historic harmony. Not far to the north is the Baroque masterpiece Basilica di Santa Croce, which has an extraordinarily lavish facade with just about every inch carved with flowers, fruit, mythical creatures, cherubs and much else - the stonesmiths have taken full advantage of the local, malleable stone. Both the overall effect and the many, many intricate details will hold your gaze. The stately white interior is also worth a look. Anywhere else, the adjacent Palazzo Della Provincia would be a landmark, but it is totally overshadowed by the Basilica. Behind the Palazzo, across a busy ring road, is a pleasant park, which fills up with local families in the evenings.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Polomo 1 beach, near Ostuni, Puglia, Italy

About 8km from the gleaming white hilltop town of Ostuni, Polomo 1 is a well-run beach with fairly fine sand and plenty of space, even in the high season. You pay five euros for a space in the shaded car park, which is equipped with toilets and showers.  You can also shell out for an umbrella, but the dunes provide pockets of shade, if you need it. The beach is made up of a series of small sandy coves, some with only a couple of sunbathers on a July weekday. What's more, the water is clear, the waves are gentle and most of the litter is in the bins. Polomo 1 would be perfect for kids, except the sea gets deep quite quickly and there are some rocks to negotiate near the shoreline. 8/10

Palazzo Guglielmo, Piazza Umberto, Vignacastrisi, Puglia, Italy

A real find, Palazzo Guglielmo is a substantial and handsome nineteenth century house in the heart of the small town of Vignacastrisi. Through the impressive front doorway, a large archway leads magically into an enormous walled garden, complete with an outdoor swimming pool, lined with wicker sun loungers, plus mature citrus and palm trees, shading sitting areas and elegant pathways. The 150-year-old house has cloistered ceilings, and an airy living room downstairs with comfy seats, mellow music and stacks of books about Salento. Unusually, there are also several fine communal rooms upstairs leading out to a series of roof terraces, the largest of which is lined with padded benches, cushion and drapes, and shaded by a bamboo canopy. Another terrace is equipped with a hot tub and yet another terrace offers views over the garden and the town’s rooftops. There is also free Wi-Fi and some adult bikes available for guests.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Castro, Puglia, Italy

With a charming historic heart high above a more prosaic marina down below, Castro is essentially two very small seaside towns. You can park on one of the narrow roads leading to the picturesque pedestrianised square that acts as the gateway to old Castro. Overlooked by the sombre castle that dominates the town, the square has a laid-back, good-value bar and public benches with far-reaching views over the sea and the resort of Santa Cesarea Terme embedded into the hilly shoreline to the north. Some atmospheric side streets, lined by restrained craft shops, lead down to another fine square with a handsome church, elegant town houses and distinguished four-armed period lamp-posts. It is also worth hunting out a paved vantage point, abutting the castle walls, from where you can survey Castro Marina and the coastline running south.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Castro Hosteria Vecchie Maniere, Via Roma, Castro, Puglia

With a dozen or so outdoor tables abutting Castro's castle walls and enclosed by a high hedge, Castro Hosteria Vecchie Maniere's restaurant has an appealing al fresco ambiance.  Unfortunately, you have to sit on white plastic chairs and eat on bright orange table cloths, while the waiters can be surly and unsmiling. The menu of the day also tends to be very limited, offering just one starter and three primi courses.  Still, the seafood platter (13 euros) features an array of tasty morsels spread across two plates, including a couple of very fresh king prawns, octopus bites, mussels and other shellfish, plus some salad and a tangy dressing. It is very good, but not huge. To follow, there will likely be a delicious seafood pasta dish (12 euros) and some tasty pasta in tomato sauce, with cheese, for 8 euros. The menu will also include several secondi dishes, typically plates of seafood and maybe a cheaper grilled meat dish. The house wine is cheap, but can be rough. The cover charge of 2 euros per head gets you some good bread, which is useful for mopping up the fine sauces. Castro Hosteria Vecchie Maniere's tends to attract a lot of Italian tourists and the service can get very slow as the restaurant fills up with diners. 7/10

Otranto, Puglia, Italy

A deserved tourist trap, Otranto’s heavily-fortified old town overlooks a picturesque bay containing a handful of small beaches. A narrow, but pleasant, park connects the new town to the historic centre hugging the shore line. If you pass through the ancient stone gateway to the old town in the early evening, you’ll likely join a steady stream of tourists going up and down the narrow streets lined with ho-hum restaurants and souvenir shops. Still, there is plenty of history and atmosphere to soak up – the cathedral, dating from the eleventh century, has a beautiful rose window above its massive doorway and an eyecatching mosaic floor. Otranto also boast a forbidding Aragonese castle encircled by a deep moat, now with a grassy base. In the summer of 2011, the castle hosted a Dali exhibition promoted by a stream of seemingly flying chairs strung from the parapets.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Alle due Corti, Corte dei Giugni, Lecce, Puglia

Creating an almost-ecclesiastical atmosphere, Alle due Corti has a cloistered ceiling and austere, white walls, sparingly decorated with crucifixes and Catholic prints. Although there are no outdoor tables, this restaurant draws plenty of locals and tourists, thanks in part to its listing in the Rough Guide. The menu, featuring a photo of the owner, promises authentic Salentino cooking, but choose carefully. You might want to skip the stingy starter of cheese and chorizo, served with a selection of juicy, but salty, olives, (8 euros) and the "vegetables" (7 euros), which turns out to be a small bowl of green beans. The tough grilled meat, accompanied by a single sausage, is also disappointing. A better choice is a bowl of fresh and tasty pasta in tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese. The cannelloni, filled with veal, is succulent and delicious (9 euros), while the lamb on the bone, served with onions, (11 euros) is very moreish. The respectable house white wine is also good value at 3 euros for half a litre. You pay a cover charge of 2 euros a head for the basket of reasonable brown bread. Service can be a little dour, but is quick and the waiters will sometimes chat to kids. 6/10

Beach of Regional Natural Park of Isola di S. Andrea e litorale di Punta Pizzo, Puglia

Isola di S. Andrea e litorale di Punta Pizzo nature reserve protects one of the few sandy beaches in the Salento region of Puglia that doesn't get over-run with crowds. To reach the fine white sand, you have to park on a busy road and thread your way through some attractive sand dunes next to the grounds of a hotel. After a hundred yards or so you reach the beach, where the sand is probably among the best you'll find in Italy. Better still, there is plenty of space, even in July. The sea is shallow with small waves - ideal for young kids to play in. The only downside is some mounds of plastic bottles and other rubbish, as there are no bins and the beach isn't patrolled by lifeguards. Even so, this picturesque beach is well worth a visit. 8/10 

Musta Fa restaurant, via Roma, Vignacastrisi

An unassuming restaurant serving local food, Musta Fa is the place to go for a substantial meal, especially if you aren't in a hurry. The ten tables, covered by green cloths and surrounded by green plastic chairs, in the unremarkable garden are patrolled by only two waiters, meaning the polite service can be very slow when the restaurant fills up on a Saturday night in July. The shortish menu, which features simple Salentino dishes,  may also be accompanied by a couple of specials.  To start, the antipasti platter, featuring lots of fried vegetables (peppers, carrots, zucchini), local cheeses, chorizo, sausage balls and potato balls is quite heavy and filling for just 7 euros. Among the first courses, the generous sea food spaghetti (10 euros) comes with plenty of shellfish and is pretty tasty, as is the tagliatelle, served with meat and cheese (about 8 euros). The aubergine Parmigiana, which may be one of the specials, is also good, but can be cold in the middle and in need of reheating. You can get half a litre of the house white wine in a jug for 2.5 euros. But the wine may be rather yellow and have a strong, almost Sherry-style flavour, which isn't very appealing. Musta Fa serves hearty, filling food at low prices, but won't be to everyone's taste. 7/10

Saturday, 23 July 2011

La Pagghiara, near Torre Suda, Puglia, Italy

A few miles inland from Torre Suda, south-east of Gallipoli, La Pagghiara is in a small group of holiday homes with a communal swimming pool, a well-tended garden and a sizeable paddock, home to several horses. The most atmospheric (and expensive) option on the site, La Pagghiara is housed in a venerable nineteenth century trullo. It is a rough-hewn building with a flat, but cordoned-off, roof terrace. Inside the extraordinarily thick stone walls, a narrow little corridor leads from the spacious and rustic kitchen to the first in a series of three bedrooms, each with their own patio door, protected by a sturdy wrought-iron frame. The master bedroom isn’t much bigger than the double bed, but the conical roof, the connecting corridors and the distressed wooden furniture give this villa plenty of charm. Moreover, everything is spotlessly clean. Although it lacks a dishwasher, the kitchen is well-equipped and is decorated with eye-catching fittings, such as an ornate cast-iron, wood-burning stove, a massive stone sink with bronze taps and a blackened fireplace.

Da Sergio, Via Garibaldi, Otranto, Italy

One of the many restaurants competing for the tourist euro in Otranto's old town, Da Sergio has rows of smart tables on an attractive leafy, two-tier terrace overlooking the busy Garibaldi thoroughfare. The waiters aren't very welcoming, but they are efficient and attentive. To start, you can pay 15 euros for a disappointingly-small sea food platter - you get one plate of cold morsels and one plate of hot morsels. On the cold plate, there may be a couple of prawns, some octopus bites, a handful of anchovies and perhaps five mussels, while the hot plate features a few mussels covered with Parmesan cheese, a couple of skewers of folded squid, some fried prawns and onions. To follow, there is the standard selection of pasta dishes and meat and fish dishes. The seafood risotto (about 10 euros) is a bit peppery and doesn't have a huge amount of flavour or seafood. The seafood linguini (at 11 euros) is more tasty, but skip a side salad, which can be pretty bland and boring.  Da Sergio offers a succinct selection of Italian wines from about 13 to 20 euros a bottle: The Prosecco is pretty refreshing for 13 euros. For the cover charge of 2 euros a head, which includes service, you get some passable bread. Although Da Sergio is recommended by the Rough Guide, you'll probably get better value outside Otranto's city walls or by heading to the popular pizzeria at the gateway to the old town. 6/10

Friday, 22 July 2011

Galatina, Puglia, Italy

In the heart of Galatina is a large square dominated by the fourteenth century church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria. Its striking cream Romanesque facade is inset with beautifully-carved statues, gargoyles, cherubs and many other religious symbols.  Inside, the extraordinary nave is covered in fading medieval frescoes. The old town behind the church, which is still paved with original flagstones, boasts rows of well-preserved golden town houses with huge windows and cast-iron balconies. Some are lavishly carved in the Baroque style. Galatina doesn't have many sights, but it is a pleasant town to wonder around in the late afternoon sun, before devouring an ice cream at one of the al fresco tables belonging to the cafes in the main square. 7/10

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Gallipoli, Puglia

A town of two halves jutting out into the Ionian Sea, Gallipoli straddles a sixteenth century stone bridge connecting an island to the mainland. In the labyrinth old quarter, elegant nineteenth and eighteenth century stone-paved streets are partially enclosed by medieval walls with views across to the incongruous glass skyscraper in the new town and a picturesque old stone gatehouse on a pier in the middle of the wide bay. At Gallipoli's heart, is the cathedral of Sant'Agata (from the seventeenth century), which has a graceful and incredibly-ornate Baroque façade. It is surrounded by fine old town houses with wrought iron balconies and period lamps. There are stalls selling tourist tat, but old Gallipoli also has plenty of real shops, plus some decent restaurants and coffee shops.

Al Pescatore ristorante, Riviera Colombo, Gallipoli, Puglia

Despite being recommended in the Rough Guide to Italy, Al Pescatore is an unpretentious and uncompromising seafood restaurant that meets the high-standards of Italian diners. What's more, its appealing outside tables, dressed with white table cloths, have sweeping views across Gallipoli's harbour. In July, you probably need to arrive before 8.30pm to be sure of a table, as people end up queuing along the wall opposite the restaurant. When you sit down one of the burly, old-school waiters will bring you a basket of very good olive bread, complete with pips. On the menu is a broad selection of almost-entirely seafood dishes. To start, the seafood platter (just 7 euros) is a great option.  You might get mussels with smoked cheese and capers, octopus, sardines, strips of fennel and carrot, potatos and anchovies, plus some fried fish. It is all good. Among the primi dishes, is a near-perfect risotto pescatore (9 euros), containing lots of mussels, clams and other shellfish mixed with fat juicy grains of rice in a lovely sauce. The seafood spaghetti is awash with mussels and small prawns, or you can prefer spaghetti with fat king prawns. Both are excellent. A good secondi choice is octopus in a spicy tomato sauce, served in an attractive terracotta pot. In almost every case, the ultra-fresh ingredients are expertly cooked, making for startlingly good food. Moreover, you can get a massive jug of the dry and refreshing house white wine for only 6 euros. Al Pescatore is extraordinarily good value. 9/10

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Lido Marini, Puglia

One of the few sandy beaches in this corner of Puglia, Lido Marini's public stretches can get very crowded in July. Still, it is quite easy to park for free in this non-descript town. The disorderly swarm of parasols has a regimented section in the centre, where you must be able to rent a sun lounger. While the sand is coarse and broken by rocks, the sea is fairly shallow and the waves can be pretty big and fun for kids. Near the beach is a cafe, where you can get decent gelatos for 1.5 euros each, and a small line of market stalls selling tourist tat at negotiable prices. Lido Marini is cheap and reasonably cheerful. 6/10

Monday, 18 July 2011

Lido Pizzo, near Gallipoli, Puglia

A privately-owned beach flanked by a bar and a volleyball court, Lido Pizzo is reached via a bumpy track leading to a shaded car-park. You pay 2.5 euros to park and then there seems to be a charge of 1.5 euros per adult to access the beach, while kids go free. You walk through some pleasant pine trees and, if you haven't paid extra for one of the regimented parasols and sun loungers,  you then need to head north along the shoreline to a clear stretch of the sand where you can lay down your towel or mat. However, it isn't clear what the rules are and vocal disputes can break out between the life guards and visitors who try to erect their own parasols on the wrong stretch of beach. Still, the sand is fairly fine and fairly light and the water is shallow enough for young kids. You can see the port of Gallipoli in the distance and there might be a few yachts berthed in the otherwise featureless bay. An unremarkable, but fairly uncrowded, beach. 6/10

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Merry Farriers, Hambledon, Surrey

A suitably rural period pub in an unusually bucolic corner of Surrey, the Merry Farriers is a good choice for a Sunday lunch with the kids. The big beer garden has an impressive wooden climbing frame and other apparatus, plus plenty of signs warning children about various hazards. Parents can keep a watchful eye from one of the sturdy wooden tables sheltered by sunshades. The respectable roasts are about £13.50 each. You get a decent slab of meat, roast potatoes, a passable Yorkshire pudding, green beans, spicy carrots, and cabbage swimming in salty gravy.  Other choices might include battered fish and chips with peas or a tartlet with goats cheese, peppers and olive bread, which is pretty tasty. Children can have a smaller portion of the adults meals for £7. On tap is Addlestones cider, London Pride and a changing selection of real ales. Despite the Merry Farriers' seeming preoccupation with health and safety, the young staff, overseen by a middle-aged barman, are both warm and chilled. 7/10