The heel of Italy has, until recently, been overlooked by most visitors to the country – but it's well worth considering as a more exotic and less gentrified alternative to Tuscany, Umbria or the Italian Lakes. You get the same wealth of history, spanning from the Romans (whose Via Egnazia ran down the Adriatic Coast to Brindisi) via the Saracens (whose labyrinthine whitewashed architecture is evident in the southerly hilltowns) and the Normans (who built splendid cathedrals in all the major cities) to wonderful Baroque and Renaissance gems (notably the exuberant town of Lecce). Sprinkled among them, and among endless groves of venerably chunky olive trees, are the distinctly Puglian trulli: simple dry-stone storage huts with conical roofs – a bit like miniature oast-houses or limestone igloos or outsized beehives, depending where you come from.
Puglia has the added bonus of some of Italy's finest beaches: the sandy horseshoe bays of the Torre Guaceto nature reserve, the rugged limestone cliffs of the Gargano peninsula and the azure shallows of the Salentine peninsula (at the southerly tip) stand out from the more crowded and trendy lidi (beach clubs with music, volleyball, watersports etc). Come in spring or autumn and you could get one of these secluded coves all to yourself – a true rarity in Italy. Come in July – August and you can hobnob with the Milanese jetset, who have made Puglia their new summer playground and tanning salon.
The cuisine ain't half bad either: refined but authentic farmers' recipes using tasty, local ingredients. Think fresh seafood (bream, mussels), organic veg (courgettes, onions, plump cherry tomatoes), aubergine involtini wrapped around molten cacciocavallo cheese, doughnuts stuffed with ricotta and flaked almonds, all manner of pasta (ear-shaped orechiette and wire-thin fricelli) and – in spring – the smoothest chick-pea purée imaginable. Add fresh fruit or gelati, wash down with pugliese red or rosé wines or limoncello liqueur (not forgetting the superb olive oil), and you're in gastro-heaven.
For British visitors, there are cheap direct flights from Stansted to Bari and Brindisi with Ryanair, making it every bit as accessible as the north. You could even pop over for a (long) weekend of spring or autumn sunshine – though, as always in Italy, we'd recommend you avoid August, when everyone flocks to the seaside resorts.