Puglia. Italy’s heel. Known for its sunny weather, whitewashed hill towns, centuries-old farmland and hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline but, surprisingly, less travelled. Gabrielle Sander remedies that…
It was a sommelier that first put Puglia on our radar. Adam and I were regaling him with tales of our favourite beverage-inspired trips to Champagne-Ardennes, Rioja and Islay, and pondering where to go next. He suggested Puglia, the strip stretching along the heel of Italy, blessed with limestone coasts lapped by the Adriatic and Ionian seas, colourful fishing villages selling their freshly-netted wares, beautiful maze-like hilltop towns to get lost in, vineyards and olive trees in abundance, and long, hot summers.
Two years later and here we are, pootling along in our hired Lancia on the SS379 from Monopoli, heading in the direction of Brindisi, on the look out for Savelletri di Fasano, the destination of our hotel. Google Maps has been a friend to us thus far, but is clearly unaccustomed to this particular area. When it announces triumphantly, ‘you have arrived at your destination!’, we see a beach on one side and field upon field the other; the grand Masseria San Domenico I’d perused online was either much smaller in real life, or nowhere in sight.
After a few back and forths along the road, with the sea whispering for us to jack it in and hop on over for a dip, we finally spot the sign for Masseria San Domenico, fashioned out of what looks like an old olive press wheel. It’s clear why the Apulian monks chose here as their hiding spot from Moorish attackers all those centuries ago, as however hard I squint, there are only trees in that direction.
It’s a long way up an olive tree, flower and prickly pear-lined track until we pull up into the gravel entrance way. Having announced our arrival at a gated intercom further down, we’re met by a charming man who quickly takes care of our luggage and car and directs us towards reception, where more warm welcomes await us.
Masseria san Domenico is a grand stone estate that befits its 5 star Leading Hotels of the World status, oozing the wisdom that only a structure this old can. Whitewashed, garnished with leafy climbers in deep green and red, and surrounded on all sides by well-tended gardens, 60 hectares of olive trees, some over 2500 years old, and orchards, it’s in immaculate nick for a 15th century abode, once used by the Knights of Malta as a watchtower against Saracens’ attacks. Beneath the surface lies a series of caves, the largest, once used to store olive oil, the stone pressing equipment still in place, is accessible next to the outside terrace. The smaller ones once provided a safe haven for those aforementioned monks in the Middle Ages.
After a morning in the 32 degree Apulian heat, our Junior Garden Suite is a welcome 20, with stealthily quiet aircon. The king size bed is plump and inviting, dressed in regal tones, but the sun-blessed private terrace looking out on to olive groves and dotted with scatty lizards, is even more so. A bowl of fresh figs, nectarines, peaches, plums and grapes, harvested from the hotel’s land, makes for a juicy lunch, while we plan how best to spend our swift 24 hours here.
There’s an hourly shuttle bus that sweeps guests to and from the hotel’s private beaches – the white sand La Fonte, 700 metres away, and the rocky Spiaggia – as well as an 18 hole golf course looking out to Adriatic, and a spa and tennis courts to play in, but it’s the sea water pool we have our eyes on – the biggest in Italy, we’re told. Freeform, perfectly tempered, with little waterfalls, and an offset Jacuzzi, it makes for a dreamy swim. There’s a 38 degree thalassotherapy one inside, mineral rich from the underground natural thermal springs, but no amount of healing promise was going to tempt us in on a day as hot as this; made for cool beverages, a book, monosyllabic chit chat and little movement.
The afternoon whiles away in silence, bar the therapeutic twittering of little birds, chatty cicadas, and the occasional splash of someone jumping in to cool off. We sleep, read, swim, eat and drink – ‘these are a few of my favourite things’ – a glass of local Linfa beer, and some punchy tomato and palma ham bruschetta from the kitchen, later some aperol spritz sundowners, accompanied by olives and hazelnuts from the grounds, followed by a call to reception to push our dinner reservation back an hour and a half.
Dinner in the San Domenico Restaurant is under the 16th century arches in cooler months, or out on the terrace next to the pool, during warm summer eves such as this, with candles dotted around and an intimate amount of people. Because of the five stars and LHW status, I expected a lengthy menu of tasting offerings and a lot more pomp. Instead we’re presented with a modest selection with a huge emphasis on local traditions and flavours, suiting the hotel and surroundings much more.
A smoked swordfish amuse bouche, is followed with homemade spelt roll and some tarallini, the little ear-shaped breads, typical to the region and moreish dipped in tapenade. The Masseria House Red: Rosso Primitivo is light, tasty – similar to a pinot noir – and a palatable friend to the next three courses: a carousel of Adriatic fish (octopus, scorpion fish, lobster, swordfish and dentex fish); sea, salad and root vegetables plucked from the hotels’ land or near vicinity; and homemade pasta, cooked in various ways to produce fresh, punchy flavours the Italians so perfectly create with the most unassuming and simple of dishes; the sort that give you a bear hug and inspire you when you’re wondering what to cook back home.
The comfort and quality continues at breakfast, where a sunny terrace provides views over the land and the selection that tests restraints is spread over the length of a large table: smoked, pecorino and fresh ricotta cheeses; smoked meats, homemade, cakes, savoury croissants – a revelation! – and bowls of freshly picked fruit.
Everything from the peppery olive oil, jams, bathroom toiletries to the house wine and limoncello is produced from the fruit of Masseria San Domenico’s land, all adding to the experience. Being a private estate, with the owner residing there and the abundance of home-grown fare, there’s more of a manor house feel, than hotel. You can roam freely, to the lounges, across terraces, up garden levels, across quite possibly the thickest, lushest grass in existence, and down paths between mature fruit trees, without bumping into another soul. When Adam declared sweetly, during our afternoon beside the pool, ‘this is the quickest I’ve ever felt instantly relaxed at a hotel’, I was in complete agreement. Masseria San Domenico is quite magical in its ability to untie the knots, restore the soul, leaving you limber and in love with life, and in our case, excited to explore the rest that Puglia had to offer…
Masseria San Domenico Spa-Thalasso & Golf Resort. Rooms start from £209 for a deluxe room with dbl or twin bed. Bookings can be made via www.lhw.com.