Italy is such a popular tourist destination that it’s hard to escape other travellers, no matter wherever you go – unless you go to the south, that is.
The southern Italian region of Puglia is perfect for anyone whose idea of a holiday is settling in for a while to live like locals.
Here are my tips as to how you can do that:
1. Make Alberobello your base
The region of Puglia is ideal for travellers who like to get off-the-beaten-track and love countryside, beaches, food, history, and culture, and the UNESCO World Heritage listed town of Alberobello is the best place to base yourself as it offers all of those things.
2. Rent a traditional trullo*
Puglia is dotted with traditional trulli*, the whiteshaped conical-shaped houses that the locals have been living in for hundreds of years. There are many charming, rustic holiday-trulli to rent, many with outdoor pizza ovens and swimming pools, and staying in one is a real treat. (*Note: trullo is singular and trulli is plural.)
3. Hire bicycles
The countryside around Alberobello is made for bike riding with lovely lanes that snake through fields and olive groves. There are a few busy roads but the locals are used to bike-riders, including plenty of amateur pro-cyclists who zip past faster than the cars, so you shouldn’t have any problems. If your trullo doesn’t come with bikes (bici in Italian), ask the manager to hire some on your behalf so they’re waiting for you when you arrive.
4. Learn Italian
English is not as widely spoken in Puglia as it is in the northern regions of Italy, so take a phrase book and dictionary with you or load a language app onto your phone, and try to learn some language basics. At the very least, learn how to say buongiorno (good morning) and grazie (thank you) and when a local says grazie to you, make sure you say prego (please), as is the custom, in response. The locals will appreciate your efforts and help you learn more.
5. Take a stroll with a local guide
Alberobello has a long, rich history, so while you can wander about on your own and take a peek into some of the thousands of old trulli in the old town, you’ll gain a much deeper understanding of the culture and traditions, and get beneath the skin of the place, if you hire a guide. Ask your trullo manager for a recommendation or ask at the tourist office.
6. Make friends with locals
The produce in the local supermarkets and market isn’t very impressive, leaving us bewildered until Maria, the manager of our trullo, appeared with a bottle of her own olive oil and a bunch of pomodorini (tiny tomatoes) that she hung in our kitchen. We quickly discovered that most locals are self-sufficient, with their own olive groves and growing their own fruit and vegetables. To get the best produce you need to shop at the small stalls by the side of the road or make friends with locals. A good excuse!
7. Learn to cook with a local
When our trullo manager, Maria, offered to teach us how to make Orecchiette con Sugo al Pomodoro, Puglia’s quintessential dish, we jumped at the chance. When she offered to teach us how to make pizza in the oven attached to our house, we invited her to bring her family along for dinner. It turned out to be the best thing we did – the kids kept requesting their favourite pizza toppings, so we got to try them all! It was a very memorable evening.
8. Eat local
If you’re a foodie, Puglia is paradise. This doesn’t mean you’ll find Alberobello’s streets lined with restaurants. You won’t. What it means is that there is some fantastic produce around and locals know how to use it, but the best cuisine is found in private homes. Fortunately, one restaurant, Paradiso di Puglia (paradisodipuglia.it), dishes up home-cooked food, including hand-made pasta in a welcoming trattoria just outside of Alberobello. Say ‘ciao!’ to owners Maria and Michele, and daughter Anna, for us: we loved eating here and wished we didn't leave it until our last night.
9. Drink limoncello
When you think of limoncello, Italy’s fragrant lemon liqueur, you probably think of Italy’s Amalfi coast and islands, but the potent drink is also popular in Puglia, and Maria from Paradiso di Puglia (see 8.) makes a heady version. Ask nicely and she’ll give you the recipe.
10. Buy a trullo
When we visited, locals were renovating the cute white houses left, right and centre – mostly for themselves rather than re-sale. Our trullo manager, Maria, told us that it had become fashionable for newlywed couples to buy a dilapidated old trullo and restore it – because they’re affordable and eco-friendly: heating and air-conditioning are minimal compared to modern homes. Hmmm…could there be a better way to live like locals?