PUGLIA
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According to the experts, Puglia ('Apulia' in Italian) is the new Tuscany. With rolling vineyards, quiet beaches and unspoiled country towns, Puglia is all that Tuscany was twenty years ago. Combine that Italian charm with a reputation for awesome wining and dining, and you can see why Puglia is fast becoming Italy's most fashionable region.

If Italy is a boot, Puglia is its spiked heel. A long, narrow peninsula in the southernmost part of Italy, Puglia is a thin strip running between the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. Notably less crowded and more peaceful than other Italian regions, Puglia is a lovely area that offers pristine natural beauty alongside impressive historical monuments.

Puglia's capital, Bari, is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. For ages this city was the last stepping stone before jumping across to Greece and the Middle East, and both travelers and invaders were a constant presence. Trade flourished here in the middle ages, bringing much wealth and culture to Bari and making the city a gateway into Puglia. Ornate churches and palaces are the remnants of those days.

Leece, in the far tip of the Puglian heel, is another delightful city and is well-worth driving down to. Dubbed the "Florence of the south", it's famed for a unique style of baroque architecture, called 'Barocco Leccese' and characterized by abundant, ornate carvings.

Puglia's beaches stretch out along more than 700km of coastline and are renowned for their clean waters and attractive beaches. Though many people make their way to the coasts here in August, the crowds in Puglia are nothing compared to those you'll find in more developed coastal areas. You'll even find traditional Puglian fishing villages where the townspeople still live much as they did decades ago.

Inland Puglia is filled with rolling vineyards and wheat fields that are interrupted only occasionally by small villages and towns. The 11,000-acre Umbra Forest, one of Europe's largest forests, is another important feature of the interior. Home to a variety of plant and animal species, this is a great place to explore on foot or on bicycle.

Eating is a favourite pastime in Puglia. The area is fertile and largely rural, and a great many crops are raised here. Puglia produces huge quantities of wine (supposedly one-tenth of Europe's wine is made here!) and is known as one of the best olive-oil regions in Italy. Puglia is also known for delicious pastas, lamb meat, and the tasty Altamura bread, which is made with local wheat.

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In Puglia, you're never far from the coast and its sea breeze, which means that the weather here is exceptionally mild. Summer highs are in the upper 20s (?C) and winter lows rarely dip below 5?C, and then only at night. As with most Italian and coastal destinations, the months of July and August see the hottest weather and the largest crowds. Come in May, June or September for pleasant weather and fewer tourists. The rainiest month is October, with an average of 6.35cm of rain (still not much!)

The average high temperatures in Bari (by month) are: Jan: 12?C Feb: 13?C Mar: 15?C Apr: 18?C May: 22?C Jun: 26?C Jul: 28?C Aug: 28?C Sep: 25?C Oct: 21?C Nov: 17?C Dec: 14?C

Average water temperatures for the Adriatic coast (by month) are: Jan: 12.4?C Feb: 12.8?C May: 12.8?C Jun: 22.9?C Jul: 25.5?C Aug: 26?C Sep: 24.4?C Oct: 20.6?C Nov: 17.7?C Dec: 14.5?C

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Puglia's main airport is in Bari, and it's possible to fly here directly from London (flight time 2 hours 40 minutes), though you'll find that some airlines, like Alitalia and Air France, will require you to stop first in Rome or Milan. Puglia also has regional airports in Foggia and Brindisi; the latter is serviced by Ryan Air (from London) and several low-cost German airlines.

If you're arriving from another Italian port city, like Venice, you may also choose to travel by ferry. Bari has a large port and is well-connected to other Italian harbours.

Once in Puglia, there are decent train connections, though only among the larger towns and cities. Bari, Foggia. Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce all have rail stations. Yet to really see Puglia you'll need your own four wheels. Driving here is not problematic, and you'll rarely have problems with traffic on the highways.

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The fine weather and rural attitude of Puglia make it a great place to practice outdoor sports. Cycling on highways here is less dangerous than in other regions, and biking from small town to small town is an excellent way to soak in Puglia's landscape. There are good trails for mountain bikes as well.

Hikers and walking enthusiasts will also love Puglia. Trails with sea views or through the Umbra Forest are popular places to walk, but you'll find trails criss-crossing the entire region.

With so much coastline, water sports are a given in Puglia. Swimming and beach bathing are the most popular activities, but you can also go windsurfing or sailing. Note that only the larger towns and resorts offer quality rental options.

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