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Puglia is a region in the south of Italy that sits within the heel of the country’s boot.
Known for its beautiful beaches and hot weather, Puglia has been increasing in popularity as a summer destination over the last few years, but what about visiting Puglia during the winter?
Puglia in winter remains an undiscovered secret and real hidden gem, with its year-round sun, gorgeous countryside, elaborate Christmas decorations and many exciting winter festivities and events.
Below are a few of the best things to do in Puglia in winter…
Why visit Puglia in winter?
See Puglia without the crowds
Although not the most well-known international tourist destination in all of Italy (yet!), Puglia is a popular summer holiday spot, particularly with domestic travellers.
The region’s many small towns, quaint coastal cities and beautiful beaches can get pretty busy during the hot summer months.
Winter, on the other hand, is a far quieter time to visit Puglia.
Tourist shops close their doors for the season and locals go back to their everyday lives, meaning visiting Puglia in winter will let you see a far more authentic and local side to the region.
You’ll be able to wander the charming narrow streets in peace, eat at the best restaurants without having to queue, and while you might not be able to hit the summer beach clubs, you will get to enjoy Puglia’s beautiful beaches and stretches of coastline without the large crowds.
Enjoy the warm winter weather
One of the best things about visiting Puglia in winter is the southern Italian region’s Mediterranean climate with mild winter temperatures and year-round sunshine.
For the warmest winter weather in Puglia, November is a good time to visit, with temperatures upwards of 17°, while from December to February temperatures drop to 10°-16°. However, even with these slightly lower temperatures, you’ll still find Puglia has regular sunshine, blue skies and very little rainfall.
How ‘warm’ you consider the winter weather in Puglia to be really depends on your tolerance.
Being a classic Brit, I was still happily walking around in shorts and swimming in the sea in late November when it was around 17°-20° and sunny.
However, many of the locals were already wrapped up in jumpers, hats and scarfs – I guess that’s what you get when you’re used to living somewhere with year-round sun and 35°+ summers!
Stay in a Masseria and experience the olive harvest
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Being an agricultural region with a mild Mediterranean climate, winter is a great time to explore Puglia’s countryside. Winter is harvest time for a number of vegetable varieties and regional produce, the most important being the olive harvest which takes place from November to January each year.
Much of Puglia is characterised by its olive groves, with olives referred to as ‘green gold’ due to the region being the largest producer of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in all of Italy.
By staying at a Masseria – a historic farmhouse in the Apulian countryside, many of which have been converted into b&bs or agrotourism hotels – during winter, you’ll be able to not only experience the harvest in full swing but also learn how olive oil is prepared, from the groves to the mills and finally onto your plate as an ingredient in many delicious local Apulian dishes.
Make the most of the food
As well as olives, winter in Puglia is the harvest time for many of the region’s most popular vegetables and crops, including turnip tops (cima di rapa), artichokes (carciofi), cauliflower (cavolfiore), cabbage (cavolo), fennel (finocchio), beans (fagioli), lentils (lenticchie) and almonds (mandorle).
Plus, it’s also said that fish and seafood are even fresher and tastier during the winter in Puglia.
Even if you can’t make it out to a Masseria, winter is a great time to experience some of the freshest local produce and best of Apulian cuisine at restaurants, cafes and markets across the region.
Visit Puglia at Christmas
Puglia may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of Christmas, but it certainly isn’t somewhere that should be overlooked during the festive season.
Christmas is a great time to visit Puglia, and here’s why…
The Christmas decorations
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Over the Christmas period, towns and cities across Puglia get all dress up with dazzling lights, giant Christmas trees and elaborate displays, as well as plenty of special festive events such as artisan markets and live music.
Some spots not to miss are the impressive displays in the central squares of Piazza Ferrarese in Bari and Piazza Sant’Oronzo in Lecce, festive light projections at the port of Monopoli and beach of Polignano a Mare, and beautifully decorated streets of Locorotondo and Alberobello in the Valle d’Itria.
If you thought the quaint little towns of Puglia were magical the rest of the year, just wait until you see them at Christmas!
Puglia’s living nativities (presepe vivente)
A presepe is a typical Nativity scene depicting Jesus’ birth and an important Italian Christmas tradition.
In fact, the practice of displaying a Nativity scene at Christmas is said to have started in Italy in 1223 when St Francis of Assisi staged the first recreation of the scene of Jesus’ birth in the town of Greccio.
But unlike the static nativity scenes which have become common across the Christian world, living nativity scenes (presepe vivente) are the most popular type in southern Italy, particularly in Puglia.
During the Christmas period, the residents from towns and cities across Puglia get dressed up and reenact Nativity scenes in some of the region’s most beautiful locations, from hilltops to inside ancient caves.
Living Nativities are one of the region’s most beloved festive traditions and something you certainly shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting Puglia at Christmas.
Presepe Vivente di Tricase
Running for over 30 years now, Il Presepe Vivente di Tricase isn’t only the biggest living nativity in Puglia but also in the whole all of Italy, with around 250 local residents from the town of Tricase on the Salento peninsula dressing in traditional costumes and reenacting scenes from the nativity.
A 2 mile fairy-lit path leads visitors past Roman soldiers, shepherds and carpenters, in a recreation of the town of Bethlehem, until you reach the Grotto of the Nativity which sits atop the hill of Monte Orco.
The living nativity scene has become so iconic within the region that Tricase is often referred to as ‘The Bethlehem of Italy’.
The nativity in Tricase closes every year on the day of the Epiphany (6th January) with a parade through the streets accompanying the three Magi (wise men/kings) to deliver gifts to the baby Jesus in his manger.
The nativity is free to visit between 17:00-20:30 from 25th Dec to 6th Jan.
Other notable locations for living Nativities in Puglia include…
- The archaeological settlement of Madonna di Grottole in Polignano a Mare.
- The ancient amphitheater of Lecce.
- Among the trulli of Alberobello.
- In the Sassi (cave dwellings) of Matera.
- ‘Presepi in Grotta’ (Natitvity in the cave) at Castellana Grotte.
Attend a winter festival in Puglia
As well as the region’s beautiful Christmas decorations and elaborate festivities, there are a number of other religious, seasonal, art and culinary festivals and events that take place in Puglia during the winter.
Here are just a few you shouldn’t miss…
The Feast of Madonna della Madia in Monopoli
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The Feast of Madonna della Madia is a celebration that takes place in the coastal city of Monopoli in December each year to mark a miracle that occurred when a raft carrying an image of the Madonna (the Virgin Mary) washed up in the city’s harbor.
The story goes that when Monopoli’s Cathedral was first being built in the 12th century, work had to be stopped due to a lack of roof beams.
Not long after the work stopped, a raft washed up carrying the image of the Madonna.
The raft had 33 beams that were used to construct the cathedral’s roof. In dedication, the Roman Catholic cathedral was named Basilica of the Madonna della Madia (Madia meaning raft).
Now, each year on the night between the 15th and 16th of December, the city commemorates the miracle with a series of rituals and celebrations.
These include large feasts and all night-vigils with friends and families followed by everyone heading down to the water at dawn to witness a re-enactment of the image coming into the port and being blessed by the bishop.
Alba dei Popoli in Otranto
Alba dei Popoli, or the Dawn of the People, is an annual winter celebration held in the Apulian town of Otranto (close to Lecce) throughout the month of December.
The festival celebrates the fact that Otranto is the most eastern town in the whole of Italy, meaning that it’s the first to see the dawn of the new year.
Festivities run throughout December and include shows, live music, art exhibitions, cultural events and more, all ending on the 31st with a traditional concert.
Certainly the most unique and interesting place to bring in the new year in Puglia.
Fòcara Festival in Salento
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Fòcara Festival is an annual event held in the small town of Novoli on the Salento peninsula in honor of the Patron Saint Anthony the Abbot, the Saint of Fire (Fòcara meaning fire in Apulian dialect).
The focus of the celebrations is the huge bonfire which gets lit on January 16th (the eve of the day of Saint Anthony the Abbot) and is the biggest in the Mediterranean basin at 20m wide and 25m+ high.
The fire represents purification for the new year.
In the late afternoon on the 16th, a procession with torches is led through the town and offerings are made to a statue of Saint Anthony the Abbot.
The bonfire is then lit and a firework display begins. The fire remains lit for 3 days, with nightly concerts taking place at stages around the fire.
The festival attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors each year and is one of the most popular winter events in Puglia.
Carnival in Putnignano
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Another of the most famous events in Puglia during winter is the Putignano Carnival.
Dating all the way back to 1394, the carnival of Putignano, a town located in the Valle d’Itria, is the oldest of its kind in Europe and one of the longest-running carnivals in the whole world.
Starting with the ‘Propaggini’ (a poetry reading) on December 26th, the main Carnival festivities take place between late January and Shrove Tuesday in February.
Each Thursday of Carnival sees the whole town come alive with masked parties and celebrations, while on the last three Sundays of the Carnival, a procession of large satirical papier-mache floats parade through the city’s streets, accompanied by music, street entertainers, food stalls and more.
All of the festivities end on Shrove Tuesday with a ‘funeral’ procession in which a paper-mache sacrificial pig is lead to Putignano’s main Piazza by masked ‘priests’ where it is ritually burned.
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