Explore the Chic Shores of Puglia

Puglia: part car park, part poetry. Part agricultural flatland, part trulli-struded settlement.  Also,  fashionable or, at least, the stylish summer secret is now bellowed across cyberspace thanks to Instagram.  It seems that everyone in the know hide here in the summer months - from supermodels and super writers to super designers and Hollywood superstars - avoiding the well-trodden charm of Tuscany to experience the rawer allure of the south of Italy, deep in the boot.

A civilised 45-minute drive from Bari airport, through winding dry-stone-wall-lined lanes, past nipple-topped huts and ancient olive groves, sits the town of Monopoli.  It is utterly Italian with an unexpectedly ravishing church and picturesque port. Elegant little piazzas for a cocktail, a gelato (morello cherry: sounds repellent, is celestial) and some viciously fattening antipasti. Stalls hawking cheap and delicious pistachios and crunchy, biscuity taralli rings. A terrible weekly market that sells - among the tat - really rather cool, vast knickers for €1 a shot. 

But there are other markets well worth a trawl - most notably the antiques and odds and sods trove that springs up in Martina Franca on the third Sunday of every month. Four of us went. One bought a tortoiseshell clutch bag and an A-line, lace-collared, linen shirt - for peanuts. Another bought a difficult 19th-century pot that looks like a naive Picasso (this purchaser is a picky aesthete). The third artfully stumbled upon a stash of pleasantly bashed monochrome tiles - enough for a bathroom - for about a quarter of what they might cost in a more metropolitan European town. 

And the last shopper stumbled across two pink ceramic angels, as charming as they were cheap. There were glasses and paintings and many, many pots and platters, and sculptures ranging from the rustic to the patrician to the eye-poppingly kitsch.

Down the road in the ancient picturesque white town of Locorotondo, the Friday morning market is an excuse to tramp the cobbled streets, but there are also - among the bath mats and batteries - stalls piled with vintage linen and groaning with wheels of delicate trimmings. As well as more big pants. Despite the touristy tea towels, I heard not a word of English.

If you want a taste of the tourist trail, then head to the Grotte di Castellana where the queues are testament to the wonder of the vast complex of underground caves a glitter with stalactites, stalagmites, crystals and alabaster. At odd moments sunlight breaks through the rocky roofs like the gaze of God. But the wait is long and the tour is chilly. Less subterranean but equally Disney is the hobbit town of Alberobello, which is studded with surreal little limestone trulli. But frankly there are plenty of these conical dwellings peppered along every road.

And when we weren't sunbathing and paddling and shopping and snoozing, we ate. Oh boy, did we eat. Hearty orecchiette with fresh tomatoes and piquant basil, sea bass baked in salt, unbelievable tiramisu (very slightly salty, not at all boozy), squishy mozzarella, courgettes soaked in vinegar and dried in the glare of the sun, and pecorino dipped in local honey.

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