By Silvana Longo
Italy’s most south-eastern region boasts 800 kilometres of coastline between two incredible seas—the Ionian and Adriatic—with steep cliffs overlooking golden beaches sloping into crystal-clear waters. It is no wonder that sun, sand and sea are the words that typically come to mind when we think of a holiday in Puglia. Add four UNESCO sites, spectacular cavernous caves that inhabit both the coast and inland, where luxuriant nature continues to astonish with verdant forests, rolling hills intertwined with fertile valleys covered with olive trees, vineyards as well as ravines, and you have all the makings for a spectacular vacation. Remember those?
Come December, this stunning backdrop is only a prelude to a
truly exceptional sojourn in Puglia—an idyllic setting for a storybook Christmas embodying all the particularities of the region such as artisanship, pastry and tradition. Here are some of the must-see places (once the tan lines start to fade) where you can uncover the wonders
of Puglia. From Christmas markets to live Nativity scenes, the spirit of the season offers a next-level sensorial experience that will nourish your soul and delight your tastebuds.
Bari, capital of Puglia
The Basilica di San Nicola is Bari’s signature basilica. It was one of the first Norman churches built in southern Italy in the 12th century and originally constructed to house the relics of Saint Nicholas, whose secret gift-giving to poor children is the early blueprint for the jolly old figure we know and love today. “Christmas celebrations begin on December 6 in Puglia with the festival of Saint Nicholas, the protector of the city of Bari, where you can find the tomb of the saint in a stunning-style Basilica, and it ends with the Fanove bonfires (also called focare, fanoje or fracchie),” says Michele Piva of Apulia Slow Travel in Ostuni.
Locals begin to gather in the town centre as early as 5 a.m. that morning with their cups of hot chocolate in hand as they await the mass to honour their city’s patron saint. The masses continue throughout the day and,
as daylight starts to wane, the festivities continue with the lighting of the Christmas tree in Piazza del Ferrarese and the Christmas markets open in Piazza Mercantile and children are given gifts to inaugurate the Christmas season. “There are celebrations in honour of Saint Nicholas in many churches dedicated to him not only in Bari but in various parts of Puglia and the world, as the cult of St. Nicholas is very strong both in the East and in the West. Surely, in Bari this religious moment is lived with more fervour by the local people. In other cities of Puglia, it is usually the feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) that marks the beginning of Christmas,” explains Enza Sgaramella of Turisti in Puglia, located in Andria.
Lecce, capital of Salento
There is no better place to kick off the opening of Christ- mas markets on December 8 than in the sublimely Baroque city of Lecce in Salento with their Fiera dei Pupi, an exhibition that showcases the best of local craftsmanship in Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Known for their expert use of papier- mâché (the poor man’s marble) highly elaborate nativity scenes are recreated that go beyond the primary characters of just Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the Three Kings. Entire villages are created around the manger, which are in essence only a prelude to the live Nativity scenes that are created in more than 30 locations throughout Puglia.
Live Nativity Scenes
Sgaramella touts the entire region as the perfect setting for this religious ritual. “The Apulian territory offers natural scenarios for the representation of the Nativity: little villages, caves and nature reserves, farms and trulli, churches, countryside and sea. Numerous characters in traditional clothes recreate the atmosphere of ancient Bethlehem, recaptu- ring the crafts, markets and peasant life of the time.”
All the characters, including the ox, the donkey, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus are cho- sen from local families. Although all live Na- tivity scenes are worth seeing, Sgaramella says among the most enchanting live Nativity scenes is the one that takes place in the UNESCO site, Alberobello, between the trulli in the ancient Aia Piccola district, as well as the live Nativity in the town of Pezze di Greco (province of Brindisi), which takes place in an evocative rocky village among the olive trees.
Piva’s favourite scenes take place in Tricase, on a small hill called Monte Orco, as well as in the village of Specchia, both in the province
Dressed up for Christmas
There are a multitude of villages, cities and hamlets that are coloured with a thousand lights skillfully handcrafted by artisans. “The luminarie are in fact an ancient tradition handed down from generation to generation and are now exported all over the world,” says Sgaramella.
While the piazzas come alive with local markets and Nativity scenes, even the small roads away from the main ones are dipped in Christmas cheer. They take their decorating quite seriously in the village of Locoro- tondo, in the Itria Valley, dotted with white trulli. According to the tourism office in Puglia (viaggiareinpuglia.it), it was the most Instragrammed spot in Puglia during the 2019 holidays.
Modugno’s Meraviglioso lives on
In honour of Domenico Modugno, the Polignano a Mare native, there is a three-metre bronze statue of the famous singer on the waterfront facing the village with open arms. A source of deep pride for locals, Domenico Modu- gno’s music continues to inspire. To pay tribute to his song “Meraviglioso” you must visit Polignano a Mare to experience Meraviglioso Natale, which runs from November 16 to January 1.
During this time, this small town transforms into an incredibly magical Christmas village complete with Santa Claus, an ice rink, “In the blue” painted lights and the tallest Christmas tree in Puglia (over 18 metres). The Christmas market takes place in Piazza Aldo Moro, with stands featuring typical Puglian products, while Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and in Piazza San Benedetto you will find artisanal handcrafted items.
Amidst all the Christmas festivities, there is no shortage of food re- presenting the region. With some variances between land and sea, there are a few dishes—savoury and sweet—that are common in all of Puglia. “On December 24 for example, Christmas Eve lunch is replaced with street food such as pettole, panzerotti, focaccia, rustico and sgagliozze,” says Sgaramella. This way, last-minute shoppers can dedicate the day to Christmas shopping.
When it comes to sweets, the Christmas baking begins at the end of November with typical ingredients like almonds, figs and cooked wine. The most representative Christmas sweets are the cartellate (sugared almonds), purcidduzzi (fried gnocchi with honey and almonds) and mostaccioli (typical biscotto covered with chocolate glaze).
There is more to do in Puglia once you’ve packed away your swimsuit. The holiday season in the land of sun and sea is described as authentic, traditional and magical. We may not be able to experience it first-hand this year, but we are definitely asking Saint Nick for a Pugliese Christ- mas next year.