For a while now I’ve been hearing that Puglia, a sleepy, sun-baked province in the heel of Italy, is the new Tuscany. (Then again, I read something the other day that tried to peddle the Channel Islands as the new Caribbean – nice try.) The baroque jewel of Lecce has been rebranded the Florence of the South, and fashionisti from Milan have been snapping up the traditional, conical-roofed, white-washed trulli (limestone abodes) and masserie (fortified farmhouses) for a song and parading, Prada-clad, across deserted beaches, much to the bemusement of locals.
As we zoomed past gleaming, two-storey villas along the immaculate motorway from Bari airport to Ostuni, it dawned on me that regeneration and development happen quickly these days, and that the Italians are clearly as much of a dab hand with not-quite-dry concrete as the Spanish. La Sommità, luckily for us, is hidden well away from these new developments.
Despite my terrible map reading, we found our turn-off after an hour and wove through ancient olive groves before spotting the mediaeval hilltop town glowing golden against a clear night sky. Neat, provincial streets gave way to a warren which took us to the pretty, baroque centre, and after a couple of directions-begging calls to the chirpy hotel receptionist, we finally parked next to Ostuni’s 16th-century cathedral.
The designer of La Sommità, Alessandro Agrati, kindly helped us with our bags and led us down a tiny alley to the chic, discreet retreat we’d call home for the next two days. (He used to be a designer at Culti, the contemporary Italian lifestyle brand which has a stake in the hotel.) It was late and the kitchen was about to close, so we headed straight for the dining room and ordered from the mercifully short menu (rabbit for him, steak for me) before unwinding with a fragrant bottle of local wine and taking in our elegant surroundings.
La Sommità has all the elements that a contemporary hideaway needs. There are just ten rooms, and so the handful of guests have the potential to remind you of characters from an Agatha Christie novel. Except that most of them are chic young couples who have left urban stress and the kids at home; they don’t tend to suck seductively on cigarettes in holders plotting their next murder. Instead, they spend their precious hours of freedom flicking through glossy magazines in the sleek lounge or on the extensive patio overlooking the town, they canoodle in sunloungers on private balconies, or sneak off for a pummel and a preen in the little spa.
The architects of this exquisite place, a converted 16th-century palace, have been smart to keep the charm of the original structure. They’ve added slick stone interiors and low-slung, contemporary furnishings in off-whites and earth tones, which enhance the beauty of the ancient walls, centuries-old stone door lintels and vaulted, arched ceilings. Unlike the sterile, minimalist hotels that have reached epidemic levels around the world, La Sommità has a palpable sense of history and, thanks to subtle, sympathetic lighting and friendly service, it offers a relaxed sense of intimacy that allows you to unwind from the very moment you arrive.
Having said that, don’t think the hotel doesn’t celebrate some of the delights of modern hospitality. Dinner consisted of the kind of dishes that are set to become the new big fad in fine dining. I don’t mean any silly fusion-related gimmickry – simply healthy, beautifully presented, super-fresh, organic ingredients that still give a nod to traditional local cuisine.
After admiring the views from the massive terrace over post-prandial ciggies (smoking inside is illegal in Italy – although unlike so many other places, here you don’t feel like a social pariah when you nip out for your nicotine fix), we savoured a smooth Amaretto each and, inevitably, contented as can be, succumbed to travel fatigue. We staggered up the stairs to our room, passing elegant potted aloes and lavenders, to our generously sized, white-on-white junior suite.
The following morning, as we made our way to breakfast, after spending ages in the shower indulging in the organic products laid out for us, I was very pleased to see that you can snap up some of the discreetly packaged branded lotions and potions on sale. After pouncing on black plates of bacon and eggs, bowls of fresh fruit and creamy cappuccinos, we were most definitely set up for a quick tour of the sites of Ostuni.
Our €6 bilingual local guidebook turned out to be an admirable exercise in spin: the town’s tiny list of notable buildings (the main square, Piazza della Libertà, an 18th-century column, La Colonna di Sant’ Oronzo and a handful of churches) was stretched out to fill 144 pages. Ostuni is no Rome or Florence, but I confess this came as a relief, as we really weren’t up for a cultural steeplechase. Don’t fret, though, souvenir and second-home seekers: there’s still the usual dose of tourist shops and holiday-house estate agents.
We abandoned culture in favour of La Sommità’s recommended beach club, down the coast at Torre Canne. Unfortunately, it simply didn’t match the sophistication of the hotel, so I dragged my reluctant compadre back to base camp, as happy as he was ogling the Speedo-clad kite-surfers. As we lolled about on the terrace with a bottle of crisp white wine, I asked the smiley waiter why there was no pool at the hotel. Apparently the local bureaucrats wouldn’t let them build one, despite the fact that temperatures here soar to 50?C in August. I guess that just gives credence to the adage that nothing’s perfect. Still, when it comes to boutique boltholes, La Sommità comes pretty close.