Travel Story A banquet among baroque treasures in Puglia

Photo of Steve McKenna

Villa Massari looks like something you might see, sketched as an illustration, in an old romantic novel.

Or perhaps in a TV costume drama, used as a filming location for a tale written by the Italian equivalent of Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy. 

Dating back to the 18th century, this fortified farm and family estate nestles in the countryside of Puglia near the city of Ostuni, in the sun-kissed corner of south-eastern Italy. We’re paying a private visit to Villa Massari as part of a cycling trip around the region.

The estate is so well hidden and tucked-away that we’d have pedalled right past it if it wasn’t for the audio directions coming from the electric tablets on our Bianchi bicycles. 

When we roll down the estate’s arched driveway, which is shaded with ivy and wisteria, we’re greeted by Silvia, who leads us into a gorgeous grand interior courtyard peppered with trees (including cacti and palms), colourful, butterfly attracting flowers and baroque buildings made with the distinctive yellow “Lecce” stone that is so typical of this part of Puglia. 

Silvia reveals that one of her ancestors built Villa Massari in the mid 1700s, complete with high perimeter walls, and deep cisterns, so it could be a self-sufficient rural village, sheltered from the brigands and robbers who used to prowl the Pugliese countryside. 

Fruit and vegetables still flourish on the family’s 100ha estate, including tomatoes, lemons, oranges, olives and wheat, and they’ve recently diversified by opening a zip-line adventure park nearby. 

Across the courtyard from the estate’s palatial main house, we peek inside the deconsecrated chapel, in which Silvia’s sister got married three years ago, then enter the former stables to peruse a magnificent collection of restored vintage carriages belonging to Silvia’s father, Vincenzo. 

The man himself appears on the scene to show us some of his favourites. 

There are glossily painted wooden carriages with cushioned seats, including the one that took Silvia to her first Holy Communion, and a rustic carriage from the late 17th century. 

Apparently brakes hadn’t been invented by then, and the driver would have had to physically get off the carriage to stop it moving.

Returning to the courtyard, there is something to gladden the heart: a picturesque buffet spread with vegetable skewers, cantaloupe and prosciutto, artichokes and cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, potatoes, mussels and risotto. 

Complemented by local wine, including a very good chilled Pilu Rose, we enjoy our picnic-style lunch at tree-shaded iron tables, where my fellow cyclists exchange superlatives about how lovely and charming Silvia and Vincenzo’s home is. 

Just when there’s a chance we might all descend into a collective postprandial slumber, the air tingles with the sound of bells coming from a decorative vintage gelato carriage. 

It’s being pushed from the old stables by our trusty guides, Roberto and Marella, who proceed to serve us cones filled with freshly made chocolate and stracciatella gelato. 

After savouring this dessert, and an espresso, we bid farewell to our gregarious hosts at Villa Massari and return to our saddles for another leisurely afternoon of cycling around Puglia, an utterly memorable, photogenic region with that catchy moniker: “The Heel of Italy’s Boot.”

Fact File

Disclaimer

Steve McKenna was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson. They have not seen or approved this story.

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