The night sky sparkled with stars as we watched the massive electric entrance gates to Masseria Torre Coccaro swing open. A long drive, flanked by rows of flickering candles in terracotta dishes and lanterns, led us to a carpark containing at least a hundred cars. Having expected a small place with just 30 rooms, we walked timidly towards the warmly welcoming reception area. An open 17th-century chapel beamed out light and revealed crucifixes, while white-tuxedo-clad men and elegantly dressed Italian models crowded around the massive grand piano that dominated a fairy-lit courtyard.
The hotel was hosting a full-scale wedding. Couples whirled rapidly in a clockwise circle around the courtyard, accompanied by the hectic rhythms of tambourines and mandolins. Then they suddenly stopped and whirled anticlockwise for a while, before changing direction again. ‘That’s the dance they did in The Godfather,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘It must be a Mafia wedding. How exciting!’
There’s nothing like letting your imagination run a little wild to kick-start a Smith sojourn in Puglia. The wedding guests were dancing the tarantella, a dance that originated in the Middle Ages in nearby Taranto as a means of treating the sickness, melancholy and madness brought about by the venomous bite of the tarantula. The spiders were the scourge of the farm workers who spent their days labouring in the fields. Furious frenzied dancing was the only known successful cure.
In a terrace adorned with large wicker baskets and aluminium buckets of red, pink and orange flowers, a team of bustling waiters brought us menus, an amuse-bouche of mango-wrapped salmon mousse, and a dish of fresh organic vegetables served with a bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I ordered oysters (served with Parmigiano to enhance their taste) and spaghetti with black squid ink, while Mrs Smith settled for carpaccio with slices of deep-red wild strawberry and mango parcels of kiwi and lettuce. As we sat sipping grappa, while seven able-bodied men carried the grand piano back to its home in one of the several public lounges (all of which exhibit works of art from the local galleries and contain interesting libraries), we had a rare moment of total agreement: it was the best food we had ever eaten.
Our room (an old hayloft) was exquisitely furnished with linen bedding, silky sofas, large baroque mirrors and antique furniture from the local markets. Much to Mrs Smith’s delight, every current English and Italian magazine lay on the wooden desk. In the cave-like bathroom, a giant showerhead presided over a square stone bath surrounded by jars of blue bath salts, indulgent body and hair moisturising creams, lotions, shampoos and conditioners.
Torre Coccaro is a masseria fortificata, a family-run working farm and fortress, producing its own vegetables, fruits, olive oil and salami. The next morning saw us strolling for a sumptuous breakfast through the hotel’s formal gardens and orchards. Arched windows smiled among trailing plants and fragrant climbing honeysuckle; we were tempted to tarry by caved recesses with padded seating built into the thick whitewashed walls, and wooden benches in the garden. A lake-style pool, superbly integrated into the formal gardens, sloped down from the outdoor restaurant to a subterranean Aveda spa offering a vast selection of massages, and therapies in hot and cold pools. Not suffering from stress or tension, we drove off down the coast in search of Italy’s best seafood restaurant, instead.
Extending as far as the heel of the Italian boot (out on a limb, and at the end of the line), Puglia has a relieving lack of tourist-friendly features. The road signs are confusing, and it was proving impossible for either of us to tell if the arrow directing us was pointing down the road or to the right. Whichever option we took, we inevitably arrived at either a zona industriale or a forlorn housing project on the edge of town. We had to weave through a formidable number of one-way streets to get back on to yet another country lane. We got lost, but deliciously so.
Puglia is perplexing. Even the shabby and dishevelled look of the countryside’s unkempt olive groves, ruined walls, and scruffy caper and cacti fields is misleading: the region's volcanic soil, reliable sunshine and comfortable winter rain (supplemented by an irrigation system that includes the world’s longest aqueduct) produce two-thirds of Italy’s olive oil, one-tenth of Europe’s wine, and fruit and vegetables that taste as they did when we were children.
Polignano a Mare’s Ristorante da Tuccino rises abruptly from the coast. Old men in vests watched their families dive from the rocks or sunbathe like lazy lizards on the craggy promontories, while posh yachts and speedboats ploughed through the bright-blue mottled sea. A mixed clientele of peasants, yuppies and kids in shorts tucked into enormous platters of fishy and crustacean delights. Wisely, we left the ordering to the head waiter.
Hours later, satisfied, full, but surprisingly refreshed, we drove back along the coast to Torre Coccaro to drink and swim at the hotel’s private beach club before being swallowed by our bed. Unless one is a strict dieter, Torre Coccaro provides authentic hospitality at its very best. We left, swamped with reluctance and wishing we weren’t already married.