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  • Writer's picture5 Senses CulinaryTours

Heading down to the heel…

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

National Geographic has awarded the "Best of the World" to the heel of Italy! For the second year running, Puglia has been confirmed as the most beautiful region in the world.

And Italy is blessed in so many ways, totally surrounded by water except for very short stretch of a thousand miles below the Alps. This means that Puglia is especially blessed with both the Adriatic and Ionian seas, it has a mild climate, turquoise water views, great breezes even in the summer and big white stone masserias stay cool in the countryside. Even the center of Puglia that consists of hilly landscapes, verdant valleys, mile after mile of olive groves, vineyards and fruit orchards, and quaint whitewashed towns is a great choice to explore.

Puglia has a long list of agricultural products to take home. My suitcase became increasingly heavier at each closing. Obviously with 60 million olive trees – olive oil is highly prized. I found and fell in love with Peperoni Cruschi (peppers from Senise, a fried and dried sweet pepper), eaten as a crisp or topping on focaccia, delicious. Another local gourmet treat was Puccia - a traditional bread from Salento, really meaning “stuffed cheeks.” It’s a street food classic made with pizza dough baked in a wood-fired oven and used to make sandwiches filled with local produce. Between that and Pasticciotto, which are unresisitible, it wasn’t just the suitcase that was getting heavier. This traditional Pugliese pastry features a shortbread pastry filled with sweet custard cream that melts in your mouth when you take a bite. Said to have been created in 1745 by Chef Andrea Ascalone of Galatina near Lecce as the results of a baking mishap, it’s beloved throughout Puglia.

Fly into Brindisi or Bari easily from Rome. The musts are Valle d’Itria, an area famous for its ‘trulli’ especially the charming town of Alberobello and the hilltop town Locorotonda. The houses have pitched roofs called ‘cummerse’, a typical feature. But don’t forget to stop at a café and sip on a famous Locorotondo DOC white wine! Other towns not to miss are the Baroque and Roman town of Lecce, the “white city” of Ostuni, and another Italian gem called Nardo, so beautiful yet so undiscovered by tourists. All of these can be discovered on day trips.

There are several places to base yourself - I like those with history and character, I want to feel the place, sense those who have come before. An ideal property is the newly lovingly restored fortress Palazzo Ducale Venturi, the palace was built in the 1500s for the Duke Venturi of Minervino de Lecce. Outside is quite austere as it was built for protection from invaders, but stepping through the small door into elegant interior full of light, valuable antique furnishings, paintings and artwork with music playing from an antique RCA phonograph, it sets the tone. The original Leccese Chianca floors shine brightly reflecting more light (the term chianca has a medieval origin, it means “stone slab”).

The place oozes character, there are 20 unique high ceiling guest rooms and is surrounded by gardens. On one side, a centuries-old citrus grove where a well of the 13 century dominates and where the scent of orange blossoms fills the air. There is an underground grotto with a heated pool and spa in the ancient oil mill, up to the courtyard there is large outdoor salt water swimming pool, which can be reached by walking under the pergola covered with beautiful antique white roses. And even one of the rooms, boosts its own rooftop terrace. There are also two antique salt ovens that now produce bread for the house. Plus a hidden cove that doubles as a whiskey bar. All of this equals the luxury bestowed with five stars.

Which brings me to the Ducal bedroom suite on the first floor, the bedroom has a frescoed vaulted ceiling of the legendary life of Giorgio who slayed the Dragon and saved the town of Alimini, thus he married the Princess and they rode off to the “happily ever after.” The Duke and his wife were so inspired by that story they had it fresco painted above their marital bed. Keep this in mind as I move forward, because there is another relationship that follows; history hasn’t given us a precise timeline but…. it seems from good authority that the Duke had a great love affair with the Abbess of the nearby Convent. The story goes, in fact, that the Duke had such a long time liaison with the Abbess that he built an underground tunnel that connected the palace to the monastery so she could come to his home for their trysts.

But alas, the Duke’s head was turned by a beautiful young Novice from Naples and again he “fell in love”. The Abbess, eaten up and mad with jealousy, she got revenge by drugging the young girl and buried her alive walled up in the tunnel with a dungeon door from Otranto and forced the Duke to have the door of the alcove walled up as well. The Abbess lost her faith and put a curse on the Duke’s bedroom saying “here love died” --- as the legend goes it was removed years later by Saint Eligio returning from a pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

Tradition, legend, true or false??? Well during the meticulous renovation two years ago, lo and behold, the door was found 3 meters underground while excavating for the underground pool. The new owners decided that was proof enough for them and decided to recreate the cursed room by putting the door back to its original place. So today it is on the second floor – as I said, I love a place with character.

And even better the young and highly trained General Manager, Martina Provenzano, couldn’t be a more charming and proud hostess. She looks out for every detail. So proud of all the “treasures” of the building, the glorious kitchen of Chef Antonio Russo, and the multitude of experiences offered to guests: from a private romantic dinner under the stars in the citrus garden; to whiskey pairings, wine tours, art tours, cooking classes of the classic regional cuisine to the guaranteed fun of learning the Pizzica – and this has nothing to do with pizza. According to legend, the fast pace of the pizzica pizzica (which translates to “bite bite”) was a way for peasants to rid their bodies of venom if bitten by a spider while working the local fields.

An Oasis of elegance calls --- book Palazzo Ducale Venturi Luxury Hotel Minervino de Lecce.

Italy My Way – DMC extraordinaire -

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