The heel of the boot, otherwise known as the region of Puglia, is a very beautiful and somewhat undiscovered region of Italy.
While most of the tourists who stream into Italy each year can be found wandering the streets of Rome, shopping in the boutiques of Milan, or sojourning on the gondolas in Venice, it is less common to find them sleeping in a round stone pointy roofed house (a ‘trullo’) in the mountains and valleys of Puglia. So this makes it also a great region to visit.
Plus, there are some fabulous places to practice yoga!
You feel like a local, and can blend in fairly easily among the locals in the città bianche, the small white towns of Ostuni, Martina Franca, Alberobello, Locorotondo and Cisternino, built almost entirely from the luminescent limestone of the region.
Sipping an aperitivo in the afternoon in Locorotondo as the sun glints spectacularly off the glasses of campari and soda, you can very easily feel like you are the star of a Fellini movie.
It is all so very elegant and everyone is so well dressed, yes – even the dogs, and the conversation flows so easily, even if you have broken Italian!
I came initially to the region to work as a volunteer at the Kaliyoga retreat, a yoga retreat that comes to life each summer for six months of the year, from April to October / November. Housed in the Masseria Pavone, a beautifully restored and imposing Masseria (country house) and a set of equally beautifully restored trullis near the town of Martina Franca in Puglia, Kaliyoga hosts week long retreats during the season each year, taught primarily by Ashtanga yoga teacher Tashi Dawa.
If you are looking for an elegant southern Italian yoga holiday, with thorough and detailed teaching of some key parts of the Ashtanga yoga sequence, scrumptious vegetarian (but still with the Italian touch) food, delectable breakfasts (homemade granola, fruit salad, nuts, seeds, spices, honey and three kinds of milk), a lovely pool in a stony garden, an equally lovely resident donkey and beautiful Abruzzan shepard dog, and a host of local and international holistic therapists on hand to cure your aches and pains, then this is your place.
My favourite town nearby Kaliyoga is definitely Locorotondo. As it is named, it is a round place (and not a fat crazy person as I initially translated it in Spanish!), where the streets wind slowly round and round past many a church up to the top of the hill where you end up in a charming piazza where you can join the aperitivo set every evening, after watching the sunset over the Val D’Itria from the park where Locorotondinos young and old come to chat and play soccer in the afternoons.
If you happen to be here on a Friday morning, you can even catch the market, where there is a table of second hand clothes, many of them of quite eclectic and charming Italian designers, for just one euro. Be quick though because if the Italian nonnas spot something they just whip it out from under you indecisive hand.
Spend a couple of euros on exactly the right outfit and waltz into the aperitivo bar after yoga looking a million dollars.
A great way to explore this region of olive groves, figs, trullis and masserias scattered along old and little trafficked roads is to get on a bike. There are very well signposted bike routes that take you along the smaller backroads, where you will rarely see a car, and where you will be privy to the life of the local farmers who live with their families and cultivate their land just as generations of Puglians have done before them. You can stop at the water fountains and the mysterious saintly grottoes along the way. There is also a newly inaugurated bike route that runs along the top of the Aqueduct, which is now partly complete and eventually will run all the way along the Val D’Itria to Salento.
Click here to download a handy guide with detailed info on cycling in the Puglian region.
For a cycling break, it’s a great idea to stop in I Giardini de Pomona, a botanic garden dedicated to the preservation of wild and little known plant species native to the region. Paolo, the host and founder of the garden (a former photographer from Milan), will give you a guided tour of all of the plants in his care, the whole spectrum of herbs from oregano, thyme, sage through to wild fruits and vegetables. Afterwards you can sample some of the garden’s produce including nuts, olives, funghi, figs, which have been dried, pickled, preserved or turned into delicious jams and marmalade.
Another town close by Kaliyoga is Alberobello. Translating as beautiful tree, the town is more famous for the concentration of the trullo houses found here. Yes, this is the capital of TRULLILAND.
And yes, it does looks like a town for smurfs. And yes, they have heard that one before. Smurf in Italian translates as ‘Puffo’. So cute!
This is mecca for trulli lovers; a place to worship these ingenious houses built by Puglians of ages past. There are many different and interesting stories about why they chose this curious and intricate way of construction, that uses only stone (no mortar) and requires quite a lot of skill and patience. One of my favourite stories is that the Spanish king, Ferdinand I who governed Naples in the 15th Century decided to introduce a new tax on each roofed structure in Puglia. So the Puglians decided to build the kind of house where the roof can be quickly and easily dismantled whenever there is rumour of an impending tax collection round.
Tourists flock here, attracted by the trullis, and you may be drawn into one of the shops on the main street I was, lured in via a photocopied print out of the meanings of the signs painted on the rooves of the trullis. The ancient Puglians were very spiritual (some may even say – supersticious) people. On the trullis rooves they painted astrological signs, the sun, the moon and christian symbols (a cross, a heart pierced by and arrow representing Our Lady of the Sorrows, a dove symbolising the holy spirit) among others. These symbols were to protect the trullo and its from misfortune.
If you fall in love with Puglia (as I did) and choose to stay for a longer time, you may even want to find your very own trullo.
After leaving Kaliyoga, I stayed for a week at Trecasiedde (‘three little houses!’), the trullo of my Puglian friend Nicoletta. A family project, Nicoletta’s sister and brother in law bought the original trulli group in the 1990’s, and since then the family has restored the trulli to the very welcoming and stylish houses that they are today. Inside, you notice little personal touches everywhere, from the leadlight bedside lamps brought back from Istanbul, to the hand-embroidered (by Nicoletta’s nonna) sheets, and the colourful painting of a marketplace in Tanzania (brought back from Nicoletta’s time spent as an aid worker there).
If you would like to do your own private yoga or meditation retreat, Trecasiedde is the perfect place.
Though only about ten minutes drive from one of the Città Bianche, Cisternino, it is nestled in the gentle rolling Puglian hills, surrounded by olive groves, and blessed with an abundance of flowers – in the spring it is a veritable floral festival, with crimson poppies dancing in the breeze above a beds of daisies, camomile, wild thyme and lavender.
The exterior white stone paved spaces are perfect for yoga and meditation early in the mornings (before it’s too hot and the insects come to life). And if you are there in the cooler months, there is an open fire where you can burn the olive roots into the night as you snuggle up on the couch with your favourite book.
For a seaside break, head to the charming popular Polignano a Mare. Perched on the clifftop and looking straight out to sea, Polignano a Mare looks like it has been carved out of the rocks, a monument to the stone masons and builders of the baroque period. There is a cove right in the middle of the town where you can jump into the waves, or just like back and soak up the energy of the the Southern Italian sun.
For a more rustic stay in the Trulliland, take a course at Casina Settarte.
Between Ostuni and Cisternino and perched on a hilltop, Casina Settarte is the realisation of a dream for founders Germana and Franco, who wanted to establish a centre where people could connect with nature (they run on the permaculture principles of respect for all life) while practicing movement arts like tai chi chuan, contact improvisation, capoeira, yoga and more.
Taking a course at Casina Settarte is a way to connect with new friends, with nature, and with yourself. At Casina (meaning ‘little house’) you are welcomed as part of a family and everyone shares their gifts and everyone pitches in, washing their own dishes and cleaning up after themselves.
Franco hosts some of the workshops here and then visiting teachers from around the world also regularly host workshops here. If you feel like you would like to stay longer at Casina, there is also the opportunity to do Seva, or selfless service, as a volunteer here (minimum stay two weeks).
Yoga in Salento
Jump on the train in Ostuni (heading south) and in just an hour, you are in the beautiful town of Lecce.
Get on a regionale train from Lecce to Zollino station, and then walk about ten minutes to the Agroturismo Samadhi, that hosts Yoga in Salento.
Set on twenty hectares of land, Yoga in Salento is a dream come true for any yogi wanting to spend time practising in the deep peace and quiet of a natural setting, while enjoying the abundant fruits of the earth provided by the orchards and veggie gardens of this agroturismo, and the bouyant company of Italian and international yogis.
I was amazed at the size and scope of the vegetable garden – which is at least 50 metres by 20 metres across and laid out in neat rows of seasonal produce; when I was there there were tomatoes coming into flower, eggplant, zucchinis, capsicums, onions, lots of lettuce, as well as a thriving patch of herbs, stacked with rosemary, sage, thyme, mint and of course plenty of basil. On the breakfast buffet each morning (and straight into my bowl of muesli and yogurt) were freshly picked mulberries, peaches, plums and loquats.
With some thirty well-appointed individual rooms and two yoga shalas (one in the heritage main building, with gorgeous vaulted stone ceilings) and the other a dedicate stand alone studio that can hold up to sixty students, Yoga in Salento is the perfect place to bring your own students for a retreat, or to attend one of theirs. Throughout the year they host many visiting teachers from a range of yoga traditions, both Italian and international. As well as yoga, you can sort out any niggling health issues through an Ayurvedic consultation, or, if you are interested in going deeper into the path of Ayurveda, this is one of the few centres in Europe where you can do the Pancha Karma cleansing over a period of two months.
Just a short half hour train ride from Yoga in Salento, Lecce is yet another stunningly beautiful white stone town that is worth an afternoon visit for a gelati or a long Italian lunch. Here you can find fine food shops bursting with ever more spectacular and colourful varieties of pasta, little shops selling fine hand made lace typical of the region, as well as lots of bistros, and even bookshops stocking books about the region in various languages.
Have you spent any time in Puglia?