By Leah Page, Bookings Consultant

Our Italy expert, Leah, spent a romantic few days in Italy’s heel, hopping between palazzi, sipping on spritzes, and mastering the art of pasta making. A perfect Italian break!

Stop 1: Don Totu Dimora Storica

Located in the sleepy village of San Cassiano, far off Puglia’s beaten path, is Don Totu. The original owner, Don Totu himself, built this hidden palace but he didn’t want to be seen as showing off, so he concealed its beauty. From the outside, it looks like someone’s home, yet as soon as you go behind the front door, you can see how mind-blowingly beautiful and intricate the building really is. There are just six elegant rooms (two suites; four deluxe double), and beyond, exquisite grounds that would make any jet-setter envious.

When we arrived, we were welcomed by manager Alessandra, who gave us a grand tour of the grounds. We felt privileged from the get-go, wandering past the swimming pool, a small but well-equipped gym, luscious gardens and a little gift shop where you can buy sunglasses, bags, pottery and the hotel’s personalised fragrance. Several narrow staircases lead to the roof, which has panoramic views and comfortable places to catch those all-important rays.

It became clear that relaxation was built in mind here. You can reserve hour-long sessions in their spa, which consists of a traditional Turkish bath, a steam room and an “emotional shower” (a shower in a cave with disco lights – cool!). You can also kick-start your day with an optional free yoga session in a gorgeous outhouse that captures the warmth of the morning sun. Or you can simply put your feet up in the lounge, which is decorated in elegant neutrals.

Each of the six bedrooms is delicately designed to strike a balance between minimalism and practicality. But it was our bathroom in the Don Totu Suite that stole the show for me. It was enormous, with a near wall-length mirror, his/her sinks, and a gorgeous free-standing bathtub as the centrepiece. We also had our own private terrace, which turned out to be the perfect suntrap.

The hospitality here is second to none, and the on-the-house aperitivi at sundown is the cherry on top. Davide made us seriously good drinks – our favourite was a rum cocktail with pomegranate plucked fresh from the garden. Keeping it local, breakfast is buffet-style with regional flavours and plenty to choose from, including fresh fruit, perfectly baked tarts and Salento treats, as well as more traditional options, from toast to omelettes or cereal with yoghurt. In the summer months, they also do weekly Italian cinema nights with pizza.

For entertainment, there are free electric bikes and push bikes for exploring the charming yet sleepy town of San Cassiano. For the more adventurous, you can hire a classic Vespa for the day to sightsee in true Italian fashion. My tip: make sure you visit Otranto, which is close to here. It has a beautiful old town, quaint cobbled streets, lovely little shops, and a pretty beach, too.

The only mild inconvenience is the bell that rings every 15 minutes outside the bedroom windows. In our opinion, this just added to the charm, but light sleepers might want earplugs. Otherwise, it was simply perfect – and one of my all-time favourites.

Rooms from GBP 300 per night

Stop 2: Palazzo Guglielmo

Next, we headed south to Palazzo Guglielmo in Vignacastrisi. When you pull up in this quaint town, Google Maps drops you beside an old church in the middle of a square. On some mornings there is a market here, so you are advised to move your car further down the road or to the property’s private car park (note: this is down a very tiny, narrow road).

We entered the palazzo through majestic, old wooden doors, where we were greeted by the sweetest cat, called Nebbia, who became our best friend and didn’t leave our sides for the whole of our stay. After checking in, we were given the grand tour. All accommodation is within the beautiful old building, which has very high ceilings and exposed stone walls. All rooms/apartments have their own little slice of outside space, or you can spend your time relaxing in the colourful gardens, where there are plenty of seating areas amongst the orange trees.

The palazzo has a lovely swimming pool, although not enough sunloungers for the number of guests. If you don’t manage to bag a spot, head upstairs to the solarium to enjoy the sunshine. There’s also a Jacuzzi and lots of calming places to chill out. Underground is a gym in a cave, and a wellness centre with a Turkish bath and hammam – be sure to reserve in advance. They also have a special room for massages. Kids get their own pool, plus a trampoline, swing, and even a table tennis table. Frankly, you don’t ever need to leave the palazzo!

Sociable BBQ nights are a regular occurrence, with either fish, meat or pizza on offer. Being non-meat eaters, we opted to dine at the hotel’s restaurant, Casa dell’Angelo, which is open to the public. We had the most delicious meal of three tuna steaks, all cooked differently and served with aubergine. And, of course, we had the obligatory spritz – an absolute must when in Italy!

The palazzo organises wine tasting and cookery classes. We had a go at making our own orecchiette (a typical pasta originally from Puglia) and macaroni with chef Rosa. She didn’t speak English so it was a great opportunity to try out my rusty Italian. Once our pasta was made, it was passed on to the restaurant and then cooked for us in a tasty sauce. Our homemade dinner was served!

If you feel like venturing out without the car, the palazzo has some push bikes to borrow or electric bikes to rent. We explored lots of gorgeous places nearby, including caves, coves and the sweet little town of Castro – if going here, use an electric bike as it’s a pretty hilly route. Most of the coast around here is rocky, making it difficult to access the beach, but try Cala dell’Acquaviva, where the locals go.

Rooms from GBP 141 per night

Stop 3: Palais Gentile

Our final stop was the wonderful Palais Gentile, set in the old town of Matino with its cobbled streets. Before we arrived, we had been in contact with the owner, Carolina, who advised us against parking in the old town (all those steep, narrow streets – yikes) and, instead, gave us the address of a nearby car park. This made it so much easier and was only a couple minutes’ walk away from the hotel – definitely recommended.

When we arrived, we were greeted by her French husband, Aurélien, who led us inside to a beautiful communal area set in a cave. This stunning space is used for aperitivi and breakfast when the weather isn’t good enough to be taken outside on the terrace.

We stayed in their newest room, the Terrasse Suite, located in an adjoining building. It had a lovely little lounge with its own bar stocked with local gin, and we appreciated all the fresh flowers everywhere. But the best bit was the private roof terrace with breathtaking views over Matino and towards the sea in the distance. It was a spectacular spot for watching the sunset.

After one too many Aperol spritzes, we headed out for dinner, and navigating Matino’s steep steps became like a ninja warrior challenge! We chose the restaurant next door, called Foscolo, where the food was delicious – I had garlic spaghetti with clams and mussels, cooked to perfection. There were lots of locals there: the sign of a good restaurant. Matino is usually a very quiet, peaceful town, but they were hosting a photo festival with a DJ, so we got to experience the whole town coming together for this special once-a-year occasion.

The next morning, we had a brilliant breakfast of avocado, meats, cheeses, yoghurt and fresh pastries, served alongside a creamy cappuccino. Then we headed off to the west side of Salento, dubbed the “Maldives of the South” – and we could see why! Stunning white-sand beaches and blue water as clear as glass. It’s so much better for swimming than the east coast of Salento, which is mainly rocky with difficult access to the water.

On our second night, we opted to stay on our own private terrace, sipping on a glass of bubbles and watching the sunset. The views you get from this property are mesmerising. They are hoping to acquire the property next door to make a rooftop pool, which would be the icing on the cake. But for now, it remains a wonderfully romantic place to stay for couples.

Rooms from GBP 143 per night