Take a tip from the Italians, and make a pilgrimage to Italy’s most Eastern region, known for its whitewashed hill towns, centuries-old farmland and hundreds of miles of unspoilt Mediterranean coastline.
Words by Liz Skone James
Lying on a bubbling bed submerged in the infinity pool, I watch two green butterflies skirt one another coquettishly. Their dance of courtship is accompanied by the song of thousands of cicadas that has been the soundtrack to our stay at Baglioni Masseria Muzza. The scent of pines hangs heavy in the air. It is a moment of pure bliss in a holiday that has been nothing short of magical.
In the stiletto point of the Italian boot, Puglia boasts 500 miles of stunning coastline, surrounded by the Ionian Sea on one side and the Adriatic on the other. Sitting at one of the great intersections of the Mediterranean, throughout history it has been colonised, invaded and conquered by just about every major power of the day – Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Venetians, North Africans, Turks, Dalmatians… Surprisingly, the international tourist tide has been slow to wash up on its pristine sandy shores, though Italians themselves have summered here for years, drawn to Puglia for its delicious food and wine, its beautiful beaches, its friendly people and its stylish simplicity.
Times are changing, with a number of exciting new hotels opening over the last few years, but this is still a great choice if you’re looking for an authentic Italian experience away from the crowds of Tuscany, the Amalfi coast and the Italian lakes. One such opening is the Baglioni Masseria Muzza, the latest addition to the luxury Baglioni Hotels & Resorts collection, which opened at the beginning of the summer season in 2022. Set in a 17th century fortified farmhouse, or masseria, in five acres of ancient olive groves overlooking the Alimini Piccolo lake, it offers a truly authentic taste of Italy. Minutes from Salento’s white sandy beaches and a stone’s throw from the UNESCO heritage town of Otranto, it is the perfect base from which to explore everything southern Puglia has to offer.
The hotel accommodation is located in old farm buildings dotted around the main masseria
Accommodation is offered in 40 luxurious rooms and suites, situated in the original low-built farm buildings around the main masseria, all boasting a secluded private terrace, balcony, or veranda. Ancient meets modern here, with the traditional architectural features, including thick stone walls and vast vaulted ceilings incorporated into the luxurious design. Local ceramics by Ceramiche Benegiamo are displayed in original nooks in the walls, and framed pages from old books written in the local Salento dialect adorn the walls, giving each space a real sense of place. Decorated with white-washed walls and soft furnishings in an elegant, neutral colour palette, the airy suites – which feature huge, indulgent day-beds – are the perfect respite when the afternoon heat gets too much poolside.
Traditional architectural details and local artwork give the suites a real sense of place
Over breakfast on the first morning – a groaning buffet of fresh fruit, meat, cheese, pastries and all manner of delicious treats served at Mirto, one of three restaurants on-site – I am introduced to the locals’ favourite coffee on the rocks, caffe Leccese. Freshly brewed espresso, poured over ice and sweetened with latte di mandorla, a sweet almond milk syrup, it is deliciously refreshing – a little taste of heaven. I vow to track down my own bottle of latte di mandorla to take home.
The sugary caffeine injection is suitable fuel for a morning of activity – we have booked a sea kayaking expedition from nearby La Castellana beach. Our guide Alessandro treats us to an alternative view of the coastline, revealing beautiful hidden coves where we snorkel in the crystal clear, azure water, marvelling at the myriad life below, and secret sea caves where we pull our canoes up and clamber over the rocks to explore. Colourful oleander bushes with pink, purple and white flowers grow by the shoreline, and low, white buildings dot the rugged landscape, which looks more Greek than Italian.
We return for a well-earned lunch at La Castellana’s beachside restaurant, tucking hungrily into fresh fritto misto and wickedly tasty rustico, local pastries filled with mozzarella, bechamel and tomato, all washed down with ice cold Aperol spritzers. Afterwards, we stroll into nearby Otranto. The pretty port town perches high above the sparkling sea behind its historic walls; we wander around the narrow lanes of the old town and wind our way up to the colossal 15th-century Aragonese castle, shopping for souvenirs on the way and discovering ice cream heaven at Gelateria Cavour.
Sunset is best viewed from the loungers by the infinity pool, looking out over Piccolo Alimini
Back at Masseria Muzza, we watch the sun setting over Alimini Piccolo while enjoying aperitivo at the Limonaia Bar, before heading down to enjoy a candlelit dinner under the stars at Le Site, which offers hotel guests an Apulian fine dining experience. Here, the standout dish is fresh oysters from Castro, served with malt beer ice cream. Service is attentive and both food and wines are delicious; it is a memorable evening.
The next morning, muscles aching from our kayak exertions, I head to the calm of the subterranean spa for a restorative massage. The therapist tailors the 75-minute treatment to my requirements, leaving me feeling utterly blissed out. So much so, that I’m reluctant to leave this little oasis of peace, deciding instead to spend time enjoying the other facilities here – a steam bath, covered pool, Finnish sauna, ice fountain, and sensory showers – before I emerge blinking into the bright, sunlit day.
Wanting to explore further, we take another excursion to nearby Lecce, known locally as the Florence of the South and famous for its papier-mâché statues and ornate buildings, carved from the soft, golden local limestone. We take a gourmet walking tour around the labyrinthine streets, exploring the exuberant Baroque architecture and stopping at various establishments to enjoy the many local delicacies.
At our first stop, Vico dei Bolognesi, a quirky café in the old Jewish neighbourhood, there is more caffe Leccese, this time enjoyed with moreish, sweet, cream-filled pastichotto. And later, as the sun sets, there is heavenly Burrata, served with capocollo di Martina Franca, a delicately smoked cured ham, washed down with Primitivo, an intense, full-bodied Puglian red wine at Libreria Liberrima, a bohemian bookstore with enoteca and restaurant set in a beautiful square. It is easy to see why food has become one of Puglia’s biggest pulls.
All too soon it is time to pack our cases, close the door on our beautiful white-washed suite for one last time, bid a sad farewell to the friendly team at Masseria Muzza and head for Brindisi airport. We’ve barely scratched the surface of all that’s on offer in Puglia – good reason to plan a return visit.
Rates at Masseria Muzza from €535 plus VAT, including breakfast (baglionihotels.com/branches/baglioni-masseria-muzza)