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Normally it would take a lot to persuade me to eat horse meat. But the food in Apulia -- the heel of Italy's boot -- hadn't let me down yet. So when the owner of the restaurant Gia Sotto L'Arco in the baroque town of Carovigno suggested it, I didn't flinch. It arrived, aromatic strips of grilled meat on a mound of arugula with a crisp baked potato and a drizzle of peppery olive oil. I took a bite and chewed as I gazed over the gleaming marble piazza. Sweet. Gamey. Divine.
That meal -- and nearly everything else in Apulia -- surpassed expectations. The region is known for its golden beaches, grand baroque churches, quirky beehive-shaped stone houses, vineyards, olive groves, and gastronomical delights. Yet it is not overrun with tourists, as are popular areas such as Tuscany. And real estate is still relatively affordable, which is why foreigners, especially the British, are starting to snap up run-down villas.
Warm between April and October, Apulia has a coastline that stretches hundreds of miles along a clear azure sea. Conveniently, the main tourist attractions are centered in the 65-mile stretch between the capital Bari and port city Brindisi. (Bari itself is 300 miles from Rome, a onehour flight.) Here, in the Valle D'Itria, you'll find the famous trulli, round houses with conical roofs built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Most have ancient symbols scrawled on the roof to ward off evil spirits, and each is topped with a pinnacle, the builder's signature.STONE WALLS
Legend says Apulians built trulli because the thick stone walls kept the buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. In reality, an unheated trullo is damp and chilly in the winter. The design did have one advantage: The French, who ruled southern Italy at the time, did not levy taxes on unfinished buildings. That meant people could dismantle the unmortared stone walls when tax collectors came to town, then immediately reconstruct them.
One of the best places to see trulli is Alberobello. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the village looks like a film set for The Flintstones Go to Italy. The narrow, winding streets are lined with more than 1,400 trulli. There's even a trullo church. Most of the trulli are still people's homes -- as evidenced by the women shelling peas on the front stoops.
Outside Alberobello, many trulli have been transformed into small hotels and holiday homes. A trullo with between one and three cones costs around $120,000 to purchase and modernize. I stayed at Acquarossa, a converted trullo about 10 miles from Alberobello. The hotel offers five suites, each with its own kitchen and sitting room. Prices, including a hearty breakfast of zucchini-and-mint frittata, fresh fruit, cheese, pastries, and homemade fig jam, are $65 a night in high season.
Farther south, visit Lecce, known as the "Florence of the Baroque." During the 17th century, when Lecce served as provincial capital, the city became a mini-Versailles, attracting nobility who competed to design the most ostentatious palazzi and chapels. The buildings were adorned with ornate carvings, made possible by Lecce's ultrasoft, honey-colored stone. Throughout the city, you'll find an excess of sumptuous cornices, decorative columns, grotesque cherubs, carved baskets of flowers and fruit, and fluttering ribbons. The whimsical carvings of animals, plants, and flowers at the recently restored Basilica of Santa Croce are the best example of the Lecce style.GRAND FARMHOUSE
There remain two key differences between Apulia and better-known Italian destinations. First, Apulians haven't become jaded by a crush of tourists, so they are the friendliest people I've met anywhere in the country. On two occasions when I asked driving directions, for example, a local jumped in his car and insisted I follow him there. Second, the prices, even with an unfavorable exchange rate for Americans, remain reasonable: A meal at La Taverna del Duca, a lovely trattoria in the whitewashed hilltown of Locorotondo, cost $15, while a feast of 22 local seafood specialties at Antichi Sapori in Montegrosso, north of Bari, came to just $41 a head.
If money is no object, indulge yourself at one of the half-dozen new resort hotels along the coast. I loved the two-year-old Masseria Torre Coccaro, a 17th farmhouse set in an olive grove which has 33 stylish rooms that start at $347 a night in summer. Guests can go horseback riding, play golf, take a cooking class with the chef, or relax at the Aveda spa (www.masseriatorrecoccaro.com).
The arrival of such grandeur is evidence that Apulia is well on its way to being discovered. But if you go soon, you'll still enjoy an authentic journey through one of Italy's most welcoming regions. By Jane Black