By: Thomas Lyons
Explore Martina Franca – a lesser-known Puglian gem
This 'white city' is rich with culinary finds and cultural feasts
Words & photography Thomas Lyons
The Spaces’ contributing editor Thomas Lyons shares his four-part travelogue tour of southern Italy, starting in medieval città bianca, Martina Franca.
Puglia in the southeast forms the heel of the great Italian boot and is known as the 'Kingdom of drought and stones'.
But with the Ionian Sea to the west, the Adriatic Sea to the east, and untouched nature in between, it is more like an Italian rural idyll than a barren landscape – especially when you avoid the overheated summer crowds and enjoy its uniqueness through spring or autumn.
Head inland, away from the coast – including the Insta-famous Polignano a Mare – and Puglia's beautiful authenticity becomes even more apparent. Martina Franca, one of the città bianche (white cities) of the region, is a true find amongst the Valle d'Itria – an area of whitewashed towns anointing the hilltops, surrounded by the greenery of vineyards, orchards and olive groves. It's easily reached by car, but quicker by train from most cities and certainly seems an appropriate way to arrive in unison with the town's vibe.
Its old town has classic Italian sunbleached streets and cat-napping alleyways, backdropped by Barocco Martinese architecture and brought to life by swaying lines of drying laundry and the ever-present buzzing of Vespas on the streets. Family conversations rise above the noise of televisions, spilling out through the many open windows.
Since the lockdown, many reemerging inhabitants have brought new life into their town. Artists (many of whom were civil servants, until recently) have emerged from their houses and moved into the empty courtyards and shop spaces with their new talents.
Not only is the town beautiful to behold, but the inhabitants of Martina Franca are also certainly among the best-dressed Pugliesi since many of the famous fashion houses of Milan are made in this rarest of the valley's towns.
The town's piazzas, fringed by the remnants of the old city walls and elaborate churches, are host to numerous cafes and outdoor terraces, still acceptable in the mid-20s of the late October sun. One of the best to watch the world go by is Caffè Tripoli, in the heart of the old town, a few yards from Martina Franca Cathedral. It has been a meeting place of the locals for years, offering drinks, ice cream and biscotti, as well as grappa nightcaps for those who stay a little longer.
This is the time to be adventurous and give in to one of the fundamental parts of a trip to Puglia – its food. For the omnivores, Apulian culinary tradition offers the Macelleria: restaurant rooms attached to the town butcher’s that serve bombettes – little bombs of rolled meat stuffed with melted cheese; tasty gnomirelli, knots of liver; cingomme lung rolls; and charcoaled skewers of zampina – little sausages infused with their family's secret herbs.
To walk all that off, head out from the grander parts of town and into La Lama, originally the poorest part of the city but now a charming whitewashed neighbourhood to wander and get lost amongst the cul-de-sacs and alleys for an hour or two.
When done for the day, where better to relax than your own villa?
Drink: Caffè Tripoli, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, numero 10, 74015 Martina Franca TA, Italy
Eat: Macelleria Braceria Granaldi, Via Vincenzo Bellini, 108, 74015 Martina Franca TA, Italy
Stay: Palazzo Casavola, through Italy Segreta
Do: mid-November brings one of the autumn highlights for the town when it celebrates the harvest festival of San Martino Delle Sementi, celebrating local produce and the community.
Palazzo Casavola is a tranquil mid-19th century villa with modern tastes and a refined palette of colours recently renovated by Martino Casavola, his wife Lucia and their architect friend Mirko Ermenegildo Pozzi. The Casavola family occupy the neighbouring apartment and are on hand to offer recommendations for the town's best offerings.
Close the grand door to the street and head up through the palm-filled courtyard, where you enter an apartment filled with vintage prints, family portraits, local ceramics and antiques. These treasures are set against burgundy-and-white checkered tiles in the cerulean dining room and yellow living room, lit by floor-to-ceiling windows.
Palazzo Casavola is rented through the lifestyle brand Italy Segreta, initially founded by Marina Cacciapuoti in August 2020 as an editorial platform and now a bespoke travel service.
‘While working in NYC in the media industry, I realised how much I missed my country and its small nuances: the things that can’t be bought but can be experienced daily. We wanted to show the real Italy – not the stereotypical, easily digestible versions that are often circulated. We shed light on the little moments that make life in Italy life in Italy,’ explains Cacciapuoti.
Palazzo Casavola is a well-placed launchpad for exploring the town and further into Puglia – a grand home-on-a-hill with sunset views over the park.
‘I can tell you frankly that the best thing about hospitality is the happiness of those who leave,’ says owner Martino Casavola.