Exploring Italy’s Boot Heel

While it may seem as if there are no undiscovered destinations left in Italy, there are still some that places that have managed to stay mostly untouched, retaining their old world charms by staying off the radar. The region often referred to as the “heel of the boot,” enjoys a breathtaking whitewashed coastline against the turquoise waters of the Adriatic, endless olive groves, few crowds, and some of the best food in the entire country.

To experience the best of this region, explore these charming villages, stop into food markets and make time to interact with the locals, known to be some of the most welcoming in Italy.

Ostuni

Ostuni Italy Photo

 

This “White City” is a hilltop town set just minutes from Adriatic Sea. Step into its web of streets and maze of alleyways, staircases and arches, and it’s easy to see that this medieval walled city was built without a plan. The buildings were constructed right atop one another, while archways support the houses they connect to make up for a lack of strong foundations. Wander through them – simply getting lost within the strikingly white structures that glisten in the ever-present sunshine, brightened by the vivid blue and green wooden doors, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Turn one corner, and you may hit a dead end, but turn another, and discover a glimpse of the sapphire sea.

At Ostuni’s highest point is the Gothic-style cathedral, a rare gem in a place where the majority of churches are ornate Baroque or austere Romanesque. Nearby, are all sorts of independent boutiques and clothing retailers that sell all sorts of fashions at a bargain price, as well as gourmet food stores featuring local olive oil, $3 bottles of wine, and all sorts of other delicious finds. Every Saturday, the Ostuni Street Market opens up to sell fresh produce and other foods straight from local farms.

Lecce

Lecce Italy Photo

 

Lecce, sometimes referred to as “The Florence of the South,” is renowned for its exuberant Baroque buildings, including churches that are lavishly decorated with griffins, cherubs and gargoyles, along with delicately carved columns and cornices. Many were built from “Lecce stone,” a kind of limestone that’s perfect for sculptures thanks to its soft, impressionable texture. While this is one of the Puglia region’s bigger cities, it’s manages to be rather walkable, as well as being both relaxed and lively. It’s easy to explore many of the major sights in a day, such as the Government Palace and the Church of the Holy Cross, which are within short walking distance.

Matera

Matera Italy Photo

Tucked along the cliffs of the Basilicata region near the border of Puglia, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site and village of Matera. This is one of the world’s most unique towns, with cave-like homes and other structures carved right from the limestone rocks. Aside from Petra, Jordan, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in history. There are two neighborhoods, referred to as “Sassi,” that showcase these stone dwellings that date as far back as 15,000 BC. Italy’s oldest continually inhabited dwellings, as UNESCO notes, are considered to be “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean.”

While today Matera is considered one of Italy’s most spectacular towns to visit, it was once a source of shame. It was a place of poverty, high rates of infant mortality and malaria, with residents living in the caves with no electricity, running water, or sewage. After a book thrust it in the spotlight, raising awareness of the inhabitant’s plight, people were moved out, gradually abandoning their cave homes in the 1950s and ‘60s. Some 20 years later, the abandoned caves were no longer considered scandalous, but a fascinating reminder of the past, and a number of wealthier people returned to renovate the old cave houses. It was named a UNESCO heritage site in 1993, and since then, has become an increasingly popular tourist attraction, with many of the caves transformed into stylish eateries and hotels.

A warning for those who don’t like stairs, or are unable to climb them – you may want to visit on a day trip, as they’re necessary for getting just about anywhere throughout the city.

Alberobello, Italy

Alberobello Italy Photo

The village of Alberobello, with its unusual trulli structures, makes it appear as if it stepped out of a Walt Disney movie. The conical, white limestone cottages are dotted across the town, and the Puglia region of Italy is the only area in the world where they can be found. If you’re so inclined, you can even rent one for a unique overnight stay. You’ll also discover an abundance of shops selling all sorts of almond-based foods and local olive oils, as well as museums and lively tavernas that serve up some of the most delicious antipasti you may ever taste.

Presicce, Italy

Presicce Italy Photo

This small town in the sunny Salento region of Puglia, enjoys a setting that’s filled streams and springs. In fact, it was the presence of so much water here that attracted people to move here in the 4th century BC. Today you’ll discover narrow, winding, streets that meander by grand mansions with arched windows, wrought iron and carved columns. It even has an interesting cave system that sits below the streets. Some of the underground chambers are former ancient olive mills, with their remnants still seen today. Presicce also houses the only hanging garden in Salento, a castle, an elegant Baroque church, many other impressive sights.

Polignano a Mare

Polignano Italy Photo

 

Polignano a Mare is a lovely town that overlooks the sparkling Adriatic. While you won’t miss the crowds here, especially in the summer, it still offers a wonderful authentic ambiance, not to mention a jaw-dropping setting. Little English is spoken, locals gather around the central piazza, and there are far more small food markets and mom-and-pop eateries than souvenir shops. The historic center is rather small, meaning, while you will find a few museums and cultural sites to experience, it’s also an ideal place for just relaxing on the sand, located just a short walk from the town itself.

In order to experience a trip with a minimal amount of bumps along the way, before getting those bags packed, be sure to visit to a Travel Clinics of America location to ensure that you’re up-to-date on routine vaccines and required travel vaccines and to discuss other vaccines you may need, like hepatitis A. Outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world, even in places with a low risk, like Italy, where it can be contracted through contaminated food or water.